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All is revealed: So that's what's inside my garbage disposal

How Your House Works A Visual Guide to Understanding & Maintaining Your Home Charlie Wing RSMeans: 152 pp., $21.95

April 27, 2008|Kathy Price-Robinson | Special to The Times

About a month or so ago, my favorite table lamp began making a crackling sound near the base. So I unplugged it and pondered my options.

I considered taking it to a nearby electric shop. Then I considered taking it to the tool shop that recently replaced the cord on my power sander. That cost $46, nearly one-third the price of a new sander.

But the lamp would be well worth a fee like that. It only cost $15 at a swap meet, but it's an unusually pleasing blend of red enamel and brass with a mod metal shade and definitely not something to set out with the garbage.

About that time, I picked up a copy of "How Your House Works," a book written by home improvement expert Charlie Wing, and my thinking started to shift away from being rescued by a shop and toward taking charge of my own repair.

There are scads of home fix-it books in print, maybe thousands of them.

What raises this one to the top of the heap are the large, clear color illustrations of what the insides of things in a house look like.

And when you see what's inside a garbage disposal, for instance, you might be able to fix it -- or at least unclog it.

Clearing up mysteries

The book is separated into chapters on plumbing, wiring, heating, cooling, air quality, appliances, windows and doors, and foundations and frame.

In all these areas, the mysteries of a house are revealed. Ever wonder how a reverse-osmosis filter works? It's all so clear in this book.

And how about faucets? Why are they so confounding? That could be because there are four types: ball, cartridge, disc and compression. Each has its own reasons for dripping, and each can be disassembled and perhaps repaired.

Not everything can be fixed by a novice, of course.

You're not likely to take apart your microwave unless "magnetron" and "waveguide channels" are part of your everyday lingo.

But with sidebars titled "Before You Call for Help" and "Before You Call a Plumber," the book guides readers toward taking a look at things first, just in case the fix is simple.

The author tells the story of a friend who heard a noise in the bottom of his dishwasher and called a repairman, who charged $150 just to come out. The homeowner told the repairman it sounded like the bearings were gone in the motor. The repairman removed the dishwasher's perforated drain cover, plucked out a pistachio shell, replaced the cover and pocketed his fee.

Do the math. You could buy seven copies of this book, at $21.95 each, for the cost of that call. If you had an illustration of a dishwasher, and knew there was a removable drain cover, it would not be too difficult or skill-intensive to remove it and check under there.

These ideas started to work on me as I read the book and recalled my lamp. I studied the illustration of a table lamp on Page 66, from the finial at the top to the socket cap in the middle and the felt pad and power cord at the bottom.

According to the author, the most common table lamp repair is cord replacement. Still, I worried about getting in over my head. I've heard it said that nobody can explain exactly how electricity works. So who am I to fix a lamp?

But the author suggested I take a look. So I picked up the unplugged lamp, turned it over and saw that the cord was not one continuous piece. Rather, it was in two parts, one hard-wired into the lamp and the other containing an in-line switch and the plug, with two sets of wires twisted together and covered with electrical tape. I realized that it was the in-line switch that was crackling, and that that portion of the cord needed to be replaced.

Gee, that was easy

It was so simple, I laughed out loud. At the hardware store, I paid $4 for a new cord with an in-line switch, and I used electrical tape I found in the kitchen drawer to wrap the wires I twisted together. The lamp works perfectly.

My next goal is replacing the old faucet in my bathroom sink. I'm studying the photos in the book, and I can feel myself getting close to opening the cabinet doors under the sink to take a look at what's there. And that's how all repairs start, with a look. This book makes that look a lot less baffling.

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