Things to do before you call a pro - helpful hints

I’d like to think we all do the obvious - like checking to make sure something is plugged in when it won’t turn on. But I’m sure there are equally simple troubleshooting tips that may not occur to some of us. This is as good a place as any to share them.

Inspired by my daughter yesterday: When I fetched my granddaughter (I’m her daycare 3 days a week) my daughter was stressed almost to the point of tears. They’d just bought a house a couple of weeks ago, so cash was tight, and that morning, she noticed her freezer wasn’t freezing.

I’ll skip ahead a few hours to when my SIL texted me and I asked about the fridge. He said it just seemed to be the freezer that wasn’t working. So I asked if he’d checked the temperature setting for the freezer - turned out it was on the lowest (warmest?) setting. Once he set it back to the recommended point, crisis was averted.

This isn’t a dig at my SIL - his parents never really taught him what I think are basic facts of home ownership and the associated problem-solving. All it took was a quick question from me, and he got the freezer back in business. With luck, this will help him work thru any future appliance issues. And that inspired this thread.

What sorts of things have you learned or figured out that saved a call to a repair shop?

I just remembered one from 45 years ago when I had my first car - you need to put the gearshift in Park in order to start it. I was all in a panic because turning the key did nothing, but as soon as a friend got behind the wheel, he knew what I’d done. And, yeah, I’ve done it a couple of times since, but I figured it out.

Any and all fridge/freezer problems, always unplug and let sit 24hrs, plug back in see if that fixes the issue. Because a shocking number of times, it actually will!

If you’re making appointments to show an apartment say, or a motorcycle you have for sale, etc. ALWAYS take a phone number. Otherwise you’ll spend a lot of time waiting for people who don’t turn up. (The ability for you to call them and say, ‘What the hell?’, will cause most people to actually cancel, rather than just not turn up!)

We bought an item and it wouldn’t fit in the back of the car…we had to leave the tailgate open. Wife goes to start the car and says damn, it must lock up when the tailgate’s not closed. I reached over, jiggled the steering wheel, and it released the lock. Turn of the key, car roars to life. “Don’t say a word,” she said.

We had a network issue last week and our best troubleshooting wasn’t good enough. I had internet access at my desk, but spousal unit had nothing in his office. After restarting everything, we narrowed it down to the 8-port switch, so we replaced it.


Since his business needed access, he called in our computer guys. Turned out it was a bad port in our router. Never occurred to either of us to consider that, since wireless was working, so the router was good, right?

So now we know. The tech plugged us into a different port and all works fine. We’ll eventually replace the router. Sometimes what you do is not quite enough…

Back to cars, some years back, my FIL borrowed my car. He couldn’t figure out how to start it - the key did nothing. He didn’t realize it was a standard shift, so he didn’t depress the clutch. His most recent vehicle was an automatic, so his brain was in automatic, I guess.

A similar car story: A friend was visiting and I needed to make a quick trip to the grocery. I took his car because it was behind mine in the driveway. When I got back to the car with my purchases, the car wouldn’t start. That is, the key went in, but the ignition wouldn’t turn. I checked everything there was to check, and no luck. I didn’t have my cell phone with me and eventually had to give up, and decided to get my bag of groceries and walk home – it was just a few blocks. After I got the groceries, I pressed the “lock” button on the keyfob.

It was when the “lock” button did nothing that it suddenly dawned on me, with horror at my own absent-minded stupidity, that out of deeply ingrained habit I had been trying to start the car with MY keys instead of his keys, which had a similar-looking keyfob!

Unrelated helpful hint: Most cars made after about 2000 have an embedded transponder chip in the key. Even if the car starts with an ordinary-looking key and ignition switch, you cannot just get an ordinary key cut anywhere. Well, you can, but it won’t work. Many newer cars of course take that even further, and start with a pushbutton if the transponder is anywhere within range.

Is your computer broken? Have you tried turning it off and back on again?

If you have an in-sink garbage disposal, sometimes a bit of bone with cause it to jam up. Once you get the offending object out, you’ll notice that the machine still doesn’t turn on. There is a small button on the underside of the unit that resets it… Press and hold this button in place for a few seconds then release. The disposal should now work.

Years ago, I took my parents’ car to the supermarket to get stuff for them and when I got back in the car after shopping, it wouldn’t start. Took me a long time to figure out that the problem was that it wasn’t in park.

From decades of experience of working in IT:

In the case of computer and other electronics connection problems , always first check the cable(s). First check if it’s plugged in properly at both ends, and if that doesn’t help, try a different cable if possible. I know that sounds obvious, but you won’t believe how often I was called to somebody’s desk because the printer/monitor/network didn’t work, I told them to check the cables, they allegedly did to no avail, but when I arrived at their place, I simply had to properly plug in the power chord or patch cable in case of network problems.

Now for software problems, there’s no better self help tip than this famous xkcd chart:

That’s the first thing I was going to mention. However, it should be noted that when that fixes the problem, it’s almost always because the coils are totally iced over (make sure you have towels ready, it’s going to drip all over the floor). Iced over coils are a symptom of a number of other problems. If it happens again in the near future, plan on getting it repaired or replaced.

In all my years being the ‘computer guy’, I’ve twice run across problems where the internet on one computer would be intermittent. In both instances it was a bad ethernet cable. It just takes a kink in the wire or a chair rolling over it to cause problems that can be really difficult to track down.

Thanks for putting that up. I show it to people and they say “But you know stuff!”, and I say “That chart is what I know”. But they won’t believe me, they give up when the first thing they try doesn’t work.

Furthermore, to help with that part, if the object is well and truly jammed so that you can’t pull it free, the bottom of the motor shaft extends all the way through so you can back off the blades a bit. Mine has a six-sided socket that fits a half-inch hex key.

There’s also the use of a broom handle to get the garbage disposal to move.

I’ve had my Check Engine light come on twice because my gas cap wasn’t screwed on completely. I’m definitely glad I Googled it before taking the car to a mechanic. And the second time, I’m glad I already knew it was a possibility, so the panic was reduced significantly from the start.

Both times, someone else had pumped my gas, so I couldn’t independently confirm that the cap had been screwed on well enough. I’ve also learned that if someone else pumps your gas, you should, at some point, double-check the cap even if you trust them.

If you want to get a little more sophisticated, you can get OBD2 (On-Board Diagnostics) readers pretty cheap these days. I got mine when I still had my old Dodge Caravan that liked throwing OBD codes more or less at random, and this was at a time when the stupid and now-canceled emissions program was still in effect, requiring OBD codes to be clear for inspections every two years. It was and remains a useful tool, telling me if something is urgent or if it can be ignored for a long time. As with the loose gas cap and many computer problems, Google is your friend with respect to what the codes mean in English, and what needs to be done about it in practical terms.

And you may need to have your foot on the brake in order to get it out of Park once it’s started.

That one took me a short panic and a check of the owner’s manual to figure out.

I’d try first making sure it’s got power and making sure, as has been mentioned, that the temperature control’s set right – oh, yes, and that the door is closing properly.

No sense in letting everything warm up for a day (and possibly having to throw some of it out) if something had rubbed against the temperature control and turned it to low, or something was in the way and preventing the door from closing.

– if anything electric won’t work in the house/apartment, check whether the outlet’s functional (try using a lamp that’s working somewhere else in the house.) If it’s not, check whether the outlet’s switched and if so whether the switch is off (some USA houses have an occasional outlet that’s controlled by a switch somewhere else in the room entirely, possibly even controlling an overhead light.) If that doesn’t work, check the breaker box. If the breaker’s tripped, try resetting it – once. If it blows again, stop trying to use whatever you’ve got plugged into it that seems to be causing the problem. If it blows again anyway, or when you’ve only got something plugged in that you really have to use on that circuit, unless you really know what you’re doing, call an electrician.

If water’s not filling into a washing machine, turn the water off to the hoses and disconnect the hoses to check that there isn’t a clogged filter at one end or the other. (You may need a small plumbers’ wrench or something similar to get them off, or to get them back on tight enough so the connections don’t leak.)

If your toilet’s leaking, open the tank and look to see whether the flapper’s sealed at the bottom of the tank. If not, you can probably fix it temporarily by jiggling the handle – the flapper setup may eventually need replacement, but you can put that off for quite a while. (You can also replace it yourself if you’re minimally handy.)

If a garden hose is leaking at a connection, it probably needs a new washer.

In addition to letting a fridge/freezer sit for 24 hours before replugging, I recommend vacuuming the undercarriage as well - a surprising amount of dust can accumulate on the various parts down there that is probably contributing to the initial problem.

We have a freezer in the garage that occasionally would not be as cold as needed (bread was not frozen). I would unplug and ice would melt and it would dry out, only to have the same problem a few months later. I realized it was set to too cold, and ice was forming over the little drain (yes, there is a little drain to remove moisture) so meltage had nowhere to go so more ice would form. After the last defrost I simply turned the setting down from high to medium and no problems, while everything stays frozen.

The other basic advice I have is: If it should move and doesn’t: WD40. If it moves and should not: Duct tape.

In our case, the disposal wasn’t jammed. Instead, one of our cats managed to hit the switch that turned it on while we were away from home. Since there was no water running and it ran for a long time, the motor overheated and tripped the button. Fortunately, my spousal unit was more familiar with disposals than I was, and he knew how to reset it.

I’m the office fix-it person, and trust me, I don’t know nothin’. People bring me their problems, “The copier won’t work!” I go over and look at the screen, which helpfully tells you exactly what to do and even has a picture with an arrow pointing to the source of the problem. I follow instructions…ta da, copier fixed!

A good thing to remember is, “If it’s already broken, don’t be afraid of breaking it.” This I say before pushing, pulling, opening, closing, and finally giving a machine a good whack. It helps a surprising amount of the time.

Another common problem, “This package was delivered and I don’t know who it belongs to!” I look at the label, call the recipient’s phone number, and tell them we have their package.

Also the sump pump. I keep a broom handle next to mine in case it stops. Even if it’s permanently broken and you need a new one, you can probably get it to pump water by poking it with a broom handle. How long you need to stand there and do that is up to Mother Nature.