too many words by laura lemay

the death of an appliance parts salesman, or, how to fix a furnace

Last week, our furnace stopped working. Or, or be more precise, it stopped actually producing any heat. It came on just fine. The blower worked. The pilot light went on. It just didn’t actually fire up. There are few things more horrifying than a furnace furiously blowing cold air on you in the middle of December.

Contrary to the various stories of electrical and plumbing disasters I often post, I am actually really good at DIY home repair. I only tell the bad stories because, well, those are the funny ones. (digression: I heard a theory recently that there are people who tell stories about themselves in which they are the triumphant hero who can do no wrong, and people who tell stories in which they are the bumbling idiot who is the butt of all the jokes. I tend to tell the latter kind of stories. I don’t know what that says about me, philosophically, nor do I have an actual point here.)

This is a story about appliance repair and appliance repair people.

For most people when something goes wrong with a major appliance in their house they call a repair person, write a big check, and the problem (sometimes) gets solved. As with many service professionals we have had bad luck with repair persons in the past. They never call us back; they don’t show up for appointments; they get lost on the way to our house; when they finally do show up weeks later the repair suddenly costs way more than the initial estimate, often for various dubious reasons (“well, you have unusual joists…”) It is for these reasons and because I am, frankly, stubborn, that I started doing appliance repair myself. It’s just a machine. I’m a smart person. How hard can it be? Most of the time, its not. I only sometimes blow something up or injure myself.

With google and a big box of tools I can usually figure out what’s wrong with an appliance and narrow it down to a specific part that’s gone wrong. has a great set of troubleshooting guides (and will sell you the parts). Repair people hang out on web forums these days, and web forums are indexed. It usually only takes me an hour or so to narrow down the problem. And then I go down to my local applicance parts guy.

The appliance parts guy is in a strip mall in San Jose. It’s in a completely anonymous, boring part of town, and the strip mall is like any other strip mall in the area, just off the freeway exit. I occasionally forget which exit on the freeway it is off of, take the wrong one, and end up in the wrong strip mall. What the….. oh right.

In this particular strip mall there is a lamp store, a laundromat, and a taqueria that advertises !!menudo on saturdays!! The applicance parts store is in the corner, with a sign in the window that says Appliance Parts. That is the only name of the store. The store itself is poorly lit, with oven heating elements hung on the walls like trophies, black antlers from steel deer. An advertisement for Westinghouse refrigerators hangs on the wall, browned with age and curling at the edges. There are cobwebs.

My applicance guy is not as old as his store would indicate; he is a second-generation applicance guy, perhaps, in his forties, or fifties, with greying hair that always needs a cut. He wears jeans that have been worn grey on the thighs from a dirty hands being wiped on them over and over, and faded button-down shirts with a pack of marlboros in the pocket. When I come into the store he is usually on the phone and I usually have to wait for him to finish his conversation. The conversation is never about appliance parts, or appliance repair. Usually it is about handling relationships with women. My appliance guy apparently has a side job doling out lonelyhearts advice. My appliance guy is a pocketful of mysteries.

Nonetheless, every time I bring my bad part into the store my appliance guy knows exactly what it is, where it came from, and what was wrong with it. My dishwasher water regulator has plugged up with sediment. Bad water. My oven heating element blew up. They do that. My furnace power supply (three years ago, the furnace has issues) — those go bad on that model, you must have dirty power. And my appliance guy always has a new part for me in stock, in the old cardboard boxes on the dusty shelves that line the store behind the counter. Always. My appliance guy does think it its kind of funny that I am there fixing my oven, or my furnace, or my washing machine, but he is never mean or condescending. He’s kind of a flirt, actually.

And so this time when I found out through google troubleshooting that the problem with the furnace was a bad ignition module. An ignition module is a bit of circuit board and wiring that tells the furnace to spark the pilot light then to actually turn on the gas. Apparently the ignition module in my furnace was known to fail (“piece of crap,” opined an HVAC engineer in a forum I read), and what I needed was just to replace the entire thing with a newer model ignition module. I got in the car and trooped down to my appliance parts guy.

Only he wasn’t there.

The lamp store was there, as was !!menudo on saturdays!!. I was in the right strip mall off of the right exit. But in the place of the appliance parts store and the laundromat next to it was a new liquor store.

My appliance guy was gone. I can only assume that there just isn’t a big enough market for appliance parts and advice to the lovelorn in San Jose these days.

I sat in my car for a while, unsure of what I was supposed to do. All of my skill in appliance repair relied on this store, and on the helpful appliance guy.

I ended up first at Sears, with a vague memory from an ad in a magazine that they sold appliance parts. Sears sent me to their service center downtown behind the hockey stadium, where the service center people did not seem to comprehend anything I was saying.

“This is a lawn mower?”

“No, its a furnace.”

“What’s the model number?”

“Its a Lennox G16, but the part number of the thing I need is right there on the paper I gave you.”

(typing) “G…16….Its not in the computer. This is a lawn mower?”

“No. Its a furnace.”

“You mean, like…heat?”

“Yeah. Um. Heat.”

“Oh. We don’t sell parts for that.”

“Oh. OK.”

Two other appliance repair places told me they didn’t do furnaces. Another one cheerfully told me they could give me the number of the Lennox regional sales office in Sacramento, who might be able to order my part for delivery sometime in the next few weeks. I declined, drove sadly back home and ordered the part online.

Two day shipping and a featureless cardboard box didn’t make up for the loss of my appliance guy. For one thing, I didn’t have the reassurance that this was, indeed, the right part; that my google troubleshooting was accurate and that after three dead furnace days we would once again have heat. If the furnace didn’t work after this we would be forced to actually (ugh) call an actual repair person.

The part required some retrofitting to go into the furnace; since this was an electrical job, and I’m not so great with electricity (I blow stuff up), Eric did most of the work this time.

We flipped the switch. The igniter clicked. Nothing happened. It was even worse than before — no pilot light, no blower. Eric got nervous and thought that maybe something bad was happening and unplugged the furnace again.

I felt anxious and sick. Was it the wrong part? Had I messed up? Was it all wrong? We reread the directions, rechecked the connections, and everything seemed to be right. We plugged in the furnace again. Click. Click.



Whoosh! Ignition! Liftoff!

The new module had different circuitry; it behaved differently. It just took longer to light up the furnace. My appliance troubleshooting skills vindicated, we set the thermostat to “Charbroil” and settled down with some hot chocolate and a good book in front of the heater vent. All is right with the world once again.

Online appllicance parts are OK, but I will miss my appliance guy. I like to imagine that my appliance guy sold his store in San Jose, retired to some small town in the mountains, and is now spending his time fixing stoves and washing machines for pretty young women. I think that would suit him.