Can You Fix It Yourself?
“FIFTY dollars! The man was here only about a half hour and all he did was replace some washers!” exclaimed an angry homeowner about a plumbing bill.
Yes, the cost of home repairs can be very high. When you call a repairman, you pay for his time and toward his overhead expenses (truck, advertising, and so forth). Add to that the frustration of often waiting days for someone to come, and the poor workmanship of some repairmen, and you begin to wonder: “Could I fix it myself?”
While at times a professional is needed, there is often only one barrier to your fixing many things yourself: your lack of confidence. How do you overcome this fear of tackling what you have not done before? Home experts Webb and Houseman state: “The only difference between a repairman and you is that somebody showed him how.” As in any other area of endeavor, you must learn and then do, that is, get experience.
There are many ways to learn about home repairs—some governments print booklets on the subject. Bookstores and public libraries have many useful books. Also, you undoubtedly know a friend who can give you a few pointers.
In some circumstances, women may be called upon to make repairs and many are as capable in using their hands as men are. Unfortunately, some repairmen take advantage of a woman’s lack of training in the area of home repair and deal fraudulently with her. She is wise to learn something about fixing things, doing some repairs herself and knowing what is involved in repairs that she hires someone else to do.
An amazing number of repairs can be made with a few basic tools. It is better to buy a few quality hand tools than elaborate equipment that you are not sure you will need or use. What might such a basic tool kit contain? Your needs will vary according to the type of material used in home construction in your area, but many in the box below will prove useful.
Which Jobs to Tackle Yourself
It is best to start with small jobs—jobs that mostly require your time and do not involve expensive materials or appliances (furnace, refrigerator, airconditioner) that you could damage. However, you can easily learn to repair a lamp, unclog a drain, loosen a stuck window or fill in a hole in the wall. And with the cost of labor today, the money you can save by fixing these things yourself is certainly not minor!
In considering which jobs to tackle, you must first think in terms of SAFETY. Never make electrical repairs with your feet in water. Do not pick up any electrical appliance out of water while it is still plugged in. Generally it is best to avoid attempting to repair electrical systems that involve high voltage such as 230-volt power. An important principle to remember is: If something is part of a system, such as electrical or water, shut down the part you are working on or even turn off the whole system.
Usually, fixing things is a matter of replacing. If you can take something apart, remove the offending part and put in a new one just like it, you have often fixed it. This raises two problems: how to get it apart, and how to know what needs replacing. Here is where reading and doing are required.
Plumbing Problems You Can Remedy
“Problems with sinks, drains, faucets, and other parts of the household plumbing circuits” are a major cause of household repair bills, says one authority. So, let’s start with that persistent “drip, drip, drip” from a leaky faucet. Most faucet leaks are caused by a worn-out washer (rubber or synthetic ring inside the faucet). Besides the irritation, a worn-out washer is a source of wasted water and higher water bills. What to do?
First, you must find a way to shut off the water flow to the sink. Usually there is a valve underneath the sink that will do this. If not, there is a main water valve into the house, and temporarily you can shut the whole water supply off.
Then remove the screw that holds the faucet handle in place and lift it off. Underneath this is a “bonnet” or cap nut on which you will have to use a wrench to remove it. (Wrap a cloth or tape around chrome fittings to prevent damage from wrenches.) Now you can lift out the “spindle” (shaft going down into the faucet). Looking at the end of the spindle, you will see a rubber or fiber washer held in place by a screw. Remove this washer and replace it with a new one. They are cheap at hardware stores; it is best to buy them several at a time and have them in the house.
After putting it back together, what if it still drips? Go to a hardware store and get what is called a cutter or seating tool. (It usually costs less than $2.00.) Again remove the spindle. Looking into the body of the valve—at the bottom—you will see its base or “seat.” Using the directions you get with the seating tool, grind away the nicks in the “seat” so that it is smooth. Those nicks let water through, causing the drip. Now that the washer and seat can fit tight against each other, your problem should be solved.
To repair the modern single-lever faucets, you will probably need to purchase a repair kit for that particular brand.
Another frequent plumbing problem is clogged drains or a clogged toilet. These are caused by hair, animal fat from food, bits of vegetable peel, combs, bobby pins, and so forth. Frequently you are very near the problem, for the clogging is usually in the “trap,” the curved portion of the pipe below the sink, or in the body of the toilet itself.
There are many chemicals marketed to unclog drains, and some persons feel that the convenience of using them makes them worth while. However, many contain concentrated caustic dangerous to the skin. Most authorities feel that, in the long run, mechanical means of unclogging are better for you and for your pipes. They advise you first to try your “plumber’s friend”—the rubber plunger. Simply put it over the drain, covering the plunger with water for best results. (Also close the overflow vent in the sink if it has one.) Work the tool vigorously and deliberately. Give it about ten strokes, then allow the water to run off. Try this approach several times.
If this does not unclog the drain, you will have to resort to using a “snake” or drain auger. This is simply a long, flexible, twisted steel wire. Push the steel in as far as it will go, and usually with a little persistence you can unblock the drain or toilet.
Electrical Repairs You Can Make
Did you know that you could easily fix about half of your electrical appliance problems? “Nearly half of all appliance problems involve a break in the electric cord” or a defective plug. Especially where the cord enters the appliance is it easily broken. How do you proceed if an appliance will not work? Remember the need to be careful when working with any electrical equipment.
Now, plug in something else there, say a lamp. Does it work? Then you know it is not a fuse or a defect in the wall outlet itself.
Next, plug in the appliance that will not work. Do you have it turned on? Does the plug of the appliance wiggle around or seem loose in the wall outlet? If so, pull it out and bend each of the metal prongs outward a little. This will make it fit tight. Or, depending on the type of plug, you may be able to slip the fiber or plastic insulator off the ends of the prongs and look inside the plug. There you may find that the wires coming into the plug need to be rehooked around the screws inside the plug and the screws tightened.
If the appliance still does not work, then it is time to unplug the appliance again and unscrew its casing or cover (sometimes hard to remove; the manufacturer’s booklet often helps). Now study where the cord attaches to the appliance. Have any of the cord wires become disconnected? If not, it is most likely that a wire or wires within the cord are broken. This is often true even if the outside covering of the cord does not show a break. Since electrical cord is so inexpensive, you may well feel at this point that it is worth while to put a new cord on. How is that done?
There are two (sometimes three) wires running through an electric cord. Using wire strippers, make some of each wire on the new cord bare (about a half inch). Connect these to the appliance where you took off the old ones. Normally this is done by wrapping the wire clockwise around the screw under a screwhead and then tightening the screw down. With a three-wire cord it is important to connect up the new one exactly as the old one was. Usually each wire has a different colored covering, as black, white and green. Just be sure to attach the new green wire, for example, to where the old green one was.
Then put the other end of the new cord through a plug, making the ends of the wires bare and attaching one to each of the terminals or screws inside the plug, as the old ones were attached.
When an electrical wall outlet will not work, though all the others do (thus indicating the problem is not a blown fuse or open circuit breaker), the problem could be in the wall outlet itself. What might you do then?
Remembering the safety rule of shutting down the system, go to the home’s power box and either pull out the fuse for that outlet or shut off all the power by throwing the main switch. Then remove the screw from the outlet cover and take the cover off. Inside there is a whole unit with wires attached. Make notes of what wire goes where and then disconnect the whole unit and buy another one just like it. Then carefully reconnect the wires to the same places on the new one as they were on the old. If it still does not work, it is time to get help from someone more experienced.
These same steps can be applied to fixing a light socket or a wall light switch. In fixing some things, however, it is not a matter of replacing, but restoring or adjusting.
Fixing Things That Stick
Much in our homes is made of wood and most woods are greatly affected by humidity. This often creates problems. The wood swells and the drawer sticks; it will not slide anymore. Some paraffin or beeswax or silicone spray may help. (Silicone is very good on any surface where things rub against each other, such as metal, wood, or plastic.) But sometimes we need to take a plane or sanding block and remove a little of the wood along one surface of the drawer bottom, whichever side seems to be doing the sticking.
Another frequent problem is a door that sticks. What has happened? Often the screws in the top hinge, which gets the most stress as the door opens and closes, have worked loose, allowing the door to fall over against the other side of the frame.
First, try to tighten the screws without taking the door off. If in a day or two it still sticks, take the door down and take out those screws that hold the top hinge to the door. Pack slivers of wood into the holes—such as wooden matchsticks with the heads removed. Now when you rescrew, the screws have something to bite into. If that does not work, try longer screws.
The door still sticks? Then study the door and see where there seems to be more gap and where it seems tight. Can you shift the door a little bit so that it does not rub on the one side? Often a piece of cardboard slipped under one of the door hinges where it attaches to the door will shift or cock the door enough to solve the problem. As a last resort, if possible, shave away or sand one edge or another of the door. And while you are there, why not use some silicone spray or oil on the hinges? It eliminates the squeaks.
It is good to take the few minutes more to fix something correctly. Hammering a nail is fast, but often, while it takes more time to drill a hole and put in a screw—or glue something—the screw or glue is the more permanent repair.
We have described just a few of the home repairs you can make, but there are many others that can be approached in the same way. Of course, some persons may be in a position to have others repair their homes, feeling they can better spend their time at other things. Yet while there are situations where a professional repairman is needed, often, if you want to, you can fix it yourself. You save money and irritation and gain the satisfaction of knowing that each time you fix you learn. The next time that particular problem arises, you know you can fix it.
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2. pliers, one regular, one needle-nosed
3. electric or hand drill with bits
4. tape measure or folding rule
6. sander or sanding block
7. saws, hacksaw and crosscut
8. screwdrivers, standard tip, cabinet tip, Phillips
9. combination square
10. wire strippers
12. wrenches, adjustable, pipe and set of hex keys (Allen wrenches)
13. rubber plunger
14. drain auger