It’s All Fun and Games Until Your DIY Project Goes Up in Smoke

If your AC could talk, it would say, ‘Call the expert now!’

I was about to leave for a dental appointment when I smelled something burning. Plastic? Electrical? I wasn’t sure. But the dishwasher was running and I thought maybe it was the source of the threatening scent. I canceled the wash, turned off the air conditioner, and called my husband as I headed out the door.

“Hi, honey! It’s me,” I said to his voicemail. “Just wanted to let you know that I smelled something electrical burning before I left the house. I shut off the dishwasher, just in case that is the source of the problem.”

When I returned home three hours later, numb and happy to see my house still standing, I checked inside the dishwasher to see if something plastic had fallen against the heat element. Not only was nothing there but in addition the dishwasher — interior, at least — had no plastic, burning smell at all. I told Steve.

“I’ll probably have to pull out the dishwasher and check the electrical wires,” he said. “I switched off the breaker earlier. Look under the sink and see if you can locate an electrical box.”

“Looking,” of course, meant pulling everything — empty jars, dishwasher and dish detergents, cleaners, various brushes, vegetable wash — out of the cabinet and clean the area. Then keep all of those items strewn across the kitchen until that given moment when Steve would yank the dishwasher out of its alcove to check the wires.

Did I need to remove all the dishes from the dishwasher? Wash them by hand?

I decided to wait. I’m glad I did.

Have you ever wondered what God uses instead of Old Testament prophets to send you a message? This day it was household appliances.

Where there’s smoke…

Steve and I are frugal. Our large ranch-style home (which had housed us and five children in its prime) has two HVAC systems. It also has two dehumidifiers reducing the load on the air conditioning and our wallet. So between ceiling fans and low humidity inside — and, as I recall now, my inability in getting the AC to start when I tried — we didn’t run the AC until dinner time.

“Maybe the breaker tripped,” Steve said, when I had him try and fail to get the AC started, too. It didn’t seem to be tripped, but we flipped it off and then on again, and he managed to get the air running.

Whew.

We sat down to dinner. Shortly after we started, I went out to the kitchen and noticed that the plastic or electrical burning smell had returned. And with it, smoke. Coming from the vents.

“It’s the AC!” I ran to tell Steve. “There’s smoke!”

Moments later, the smoke detectors amplified my alert. My husband leapt into action, shutting off the breaker. He grabbed the fire extinguisher, opened the attic access to look for smoke or fire.

“Go outside and look for smoke coming from the vents,” he commanded.

I went outside, relieved when I saw nothing. Steve also found no evidence of fire.

The DIY dilemma

With the AC unit off, the smoke stopped. The alarms silenced. We calmed. Steve transferred his firefighting energy to the computer, where he researched to determine the cause of the problem.

He is stubbornly do-it-yourself. He attempts to save a buck however he can. When he discovered that the likely culprit of our AC fail was a bad capacitor — an easily accessible part he could purchase for less than $10 — he ordered it.

A capacitor stabilizes the voltage and provides the necessary jolt to start a motor. In an air conditioner, capacitors are connected to the three main motors: the compressor motor, the blower motor, and the outdoor fan motor. Each has a separate capacitor to start it up (the start capacitor) and to keep it running (the run capacitor).

Our faulty capacitor seemed connected to the blower motor. The replacement capacitor my husband ordered would arrive three days later.

That morning of the third day, as I did my morning sprint with my two colleagues at work, I told them about our AC saga.

“What happens if the capacitor isn’t the problem?” Rachel asked.

I had no idea. What does a DIY guy do if at first he doesn’t succeed?

The saga continues

A dental checkup that day landed me back at home early, where I planned to finish work. Plus I hoped to be there should Steve need help installing the part he was to receive that day. But the part beat me to my doorstep, and when I exited my car I heard the outside AC humming.

Success?

Steve didn’t seem convinced. He was hovering near the AC vents when I entered the kitchen.

“Do you smell anything?” he asked. The air was blowing clear and cold. No smoke. But, sniff, sniff, yes, I did smell a hint of the electrical burning scent from earlier in the week.

“Maybe it’s residual?” I asked. “Has it been running long?”

“Just a few minutes.”

He kept the AC running and, instead of dissipating, the smell compounded.

“I did some more research,” Steve said. “A bad capacitor can make a motor go bad. The smell doesn’t come from the capacitor; it comes from the motor burning up.”

My friends, this didn’t sound good. Rachel’s question from earlier in the day came to mind, edited.

“What happens if the capacitor isn’t the only problem?”

It wasn’t. Since the AC ran cold, Steve kept it running. But the motor sounded weak, the smell built, and smoke followed it.

“It finally gave a couple of kicks and was burnt up,” I wrote my assistant in our Microsoft Teams chat, where we communicated often. “So… no AC. We need a new motor. My home office is in the room where the unit is — and it’s all smoky in here! I’ve turned on three fans to blow out the smoke, but my eyes are starting to water.

“Of course, Steve plans to look online for a new motor — once this one is cool enough to remove and get the part number! Sigh.”

Life with a stubborn DIYer can be hot — and smoky — sometimes. (Although, since he had run the AC for 15 minutes before the unit’s sudden death, it was down to 82 degrees inside.)

Surrender to the experts

Five minutes later I was able to write this to my colleague:

“He just came to tell me — well, other than, ‘Wow, it’s really smoky in here’ — that he’s going to call a repairman.”

“Shew!” I wrote in a follow-up message.

Then I typed the intended “Whew!”

And then, finally, “(Shew is whew when it’s smoky.)” with a laughing face.

Real relief came later — not with cooler indoor temperatures but with the arrival of a professional. He removed the burnt motor — admired the age of our unit (original to the house, built in 1974) — and promised to return the following day with his son to install a new motor.

(Like AC repairmen who have come before him — one per decade by my calculations — he did NOT recommend replacing our 47-year-old machine with a new one. The phrase “they don’t make ’em like they used to” applies to HVAC units. Maintain them. Repair when necessary. Keep them as long as you can. It’s a good rule of thumb for your teeth, too.)

The next day when I arrived home from work, the AC was running. Cold air — no smoke, no scent — blew from the vents as I’d never noticed it before. The system was working better than ever.

Whew. (No “Shew” this time.)

When DIY is not ideal

I appreciate my husband’s DIY tendencies. I, too, hesitate to pay someone to do something I could do with the help of detailed instructions. (Thank you, Google.) But the relief I found — even while standing in smoking, warm air — when the expert came to handle the problem reminds me of the relief I feel when I’ve put my problems squarely in the hands of God.

When an expert is there to save me.

This week, I’ve been reading in the book of Isaiah and these verses reminded me that God wants less DIY, more DOH (depend on Him) as I face daily struggles. (And they are daily, it seems.)

God, the Master, The Holy of Israel,
    has this solemn counsel:
“Your salvation requires you to turn back to me
    and stop your silly efforts to save yourselves.
Your strength will come from settling down
    in complete dependence on me—
The very thing
    you’ve been unwilling to do.

Isaiah 30:15-17, MSG

I had so wanted to find an analogy for my life using the capacitor and the motor. Surely, something that has a capacity of energy to spark a motor to life and keep it running must have a parallel to our lives, yes? And a faulty capacitor that causes a motor to burn out must, too?

But as I drove to the health club this morning, I realized the point wasn’t that marvelous physical science analogy. (Today, at least!) It is my tendency to DIY. Or, more accurately, DIM. Do it myself — instead of recognizing my need for The Expert and calling Him for help.

God, help.

That chapter in Isaiah continues with this:

But God’s not finished. He’s waiting around to be gracious to you.
    He’s gathering strength to show mercy to you.
God takes the time to do everything right—everything.
    Those who wait around for him are the lucky ones.

Isaiah 30:18, MSG

He’s waiting for us to recognize we need to depend on Him. Completely. And he’s gathering strength to show mercy to us. (By the way, a capacitor builds energy so that it can spark a motor into action. God, not our own capacity, is what we need to start each day and keep running.)

Tada! It’s as simple as that.

God, help.

And they all said, “Whew.”


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