Grokking My Dryer
By: Kelly McDonald
Some people think design means how it looks. But, of course, if you dig deeper, it’s how it really works. You have to grok what it is all about. Steve Jobs
I was sitting in my workroom at the end of August, hoping to make some progress on my latest essay before it was time for bed. I was trying to write more, now that we had been sequestered by our cautions to COVID-19. Beverly walked up the stairs to our upper floor, having finished off our laundry’s latest before the 10 p.m. news began. She stopped in to visit me before she entered our bedroom.
“What are you working on?” she inquired while resting her arm on my shoulder. We had a ritual of watching the nightly news together.
“Just trying to capture a few more sentences before I wrap it up for the night,” I replied.
She just stood there, watching what I was doing. Then she tapped me lightly on the shoulder and quietly responded, “I hate to say this, but the dryer is broken.”
I’m no stranger to appliance repairs. In our forty-seven years together, I’ve spent many hours performing one home mending after another. As Beverly knows, I’m the last homeowner to call a service technician when something in our house is amiss. I’ve filled a downstairs storage room with boxes of old equipment, mostly electronics, that once performed some household function. You never know when some of it might come in handy.
As for the dryer, I wasn’t about to pay several hundred dollars to entice a technician to come to the house and then add the additional repair costs, no doubt hundreds more. I’ve repaired clothes dryers before. In our forty-seven years of marriage, we’ve owned two dryers. The first lasted long past its prime, thanks to my many overhauls.
I won’t tackle a washer repair because there’s too much plumbing involved. I hate plumbing. But a clothes dryer is like a hairdryer that blows hot air through a rotating drum to the outside vent. There aren’t a lot of moving parts.
The next morning I gathered my tools and studied the front of the dryer. I was already estimating how quickly I’d find the problem. Two large screws and the top panel came off. Oh yes, flip off the circuit breaker to cut the power to the dryer. Then a little fumbling around, as this was my first time inside this appliance. I quickly discovered how to disconnect the front-panel controls and remove the next piece. Since the dryer drum had still turned, and the air flowed, I suspected a problem with the heater, usually located at the bottom of the dryer. I continued to remove the front panel until I could see into the depths of the device.
I observed a wire hanging loose, and below it, the melted remains of the thermal fuse, designed to cut off power to the heater if it gets too hot. No doubt, this was the source of the heating problem. In a few more minutes, I had removed the heater assembly. I quickly identified the suspected component, with the help of a googled service-and-repair manual, then ordered it on Amazon for $6.50 with free shipping. All this had taken only thirty minutes. I would need another fifteen minutes to replace the thermal fuse, retrace my dismantling, and reassemble the dryer. I was already estimating my repair savings by not calling the dryer technician. It must be hundreds of dollars.
The delivery took several days, and we reduced our washing activities to a minimum. We could immediately tell that towels hung up to dry weren’t as soft as what we liked. When the Amazon package finally arrived, I quickly returned to the dryer and replaced the thermal fuse. After reassembly, I was ready to switch on the electrical power. However, nagging thoughts rattled around in the back of my mind. Why would this dryer run without a problem for fifteen years and now have this failure? What am I missing? Something must have changed. But I pushed these thoughts aside and called Beverly to come and admire my work.
She punched in the proper controls, and an error message immediately showed up on the dryer display. It indicated that the dryer door was open, yet the door was firmly closed. It finally dawned on me that I had probably forgotten to reconnect the door switch. Another teardown and reassembly were necessary. More humbly, I pushed the appropriate buttons. The dryer worked.
We were cautious. We decided to start by running the dryer only on low heat.
“Let’s give it a chance to gradually come up to full heat after a few successful drying cycles at a lower temperature,” I admonished.
I retreated to my workroom, smug with the thoughts of my repair-call savings. But those other unsettling impressions wouldn’t leave my mind. Why did this happen now, after fifteen years?
About a week later, our dryer dialogue repeated itself. I could tell that Beverly wanted to tell me something but was reluctant to do so. Finally, she whispered, “I didn’t do anything differently, but it's broken again.”
The deficient dryer was a serious issue now. I was adamant that I could overcome the dryer’s problem, and I resisted the urge to call for dryer repair. No doubt the thermal fuse was defective because it was a cheap clone of the real thing. I visited the local appliance repair store where they presented me with the “real” replacement fuse, produced by the dryer manufacturer, priced at $50. After googling dryer problems and their solutions, I also decided to replace another sensor element lurking in the dryer’s venting pathway, another $25. My parts now tallied over $80 and another hour of my time added to the first hour, my arms and hands suffering a few cuts from the dryer’s sharp metallic edges. But I was getting faster at teardown and reassembly.
After this repair, the dryer lasted about twenty-four hours. Earlier that day, I heard the dryer running. But Beverly didn’t stop by my workroom on the way to the bedroom that evening. I finally turned off the light and retired to the bedroom myself.
“How’s the dryer doing?” I asked.
She turned toward me with that look I knew, “I couldn’t bring myself to tell you…”
Another dryer teardown. I wasn’t as careful in my disassembly this time, as I forced each screw from its designated location like a frustrated parent correcting their defiant child. How could the dryer get the best of me? This third failure was related to but somewhat different from the first. During my initial repair, it had been evident that the dryer had become very hot inside. Not only was the thermal fuse melted, but one of the wires attached to the fuse had suffered some heat damage. My repeated repair efforts had weakened it further, such that its breakage now interrupted the electrical power for the heater. The wire was hanging unattached from its intended connection location.
But I knew that something else must also be wrong. I could no longer ignore the thoughts floating around in the back of my mind. I had to do something. My reputation as an adept technologist was at stake. I turned to the only source of help that didn’t require calling the service technician: I googled “dryer repair” and all its variations.
After sufficient study, thanks to Google, I discovered an online support forum for service technicians, where they discussed among themselves their most difficult repair challenges. One technician had struggled with nearly the same issues that I had confronted with our dryer. He continually expressed his belief that all dryer thermal fuse problems came from a lint-clogged pathway or some other obstruction to the airflow. He also cautioned against the use of dryer sheets. He suggested that a residue from the sheets would build up in the lint filter, restricting the air’s proper flow.
I had already cleaned out all the lint and anything else that could obstruct air passing through the dryer. Beverly told me that she cleaned the lint filter every time she used the dryer. But the technician encouraged me to hold the lint filter underneath a stream of water in the kitchen sink to demonstrate the filter’s airflow restrictions.
I removed the lint filter, placed it under a kitchen stream, and observed the water deflected by some invisible obstruction. Upon close inspection, I could see a buildup in the screen’s tiny spaces from some residue that wouldn’t wash out. I realized this might be the answer to my nagging questions. Something had changed. The filter had increased its resistance to airflow. The technician gave some suggestions for cleaning the problematic obstructions from the screen, but I again decided to enlist Amazon to bail me out. I ordered a new lint filter for $45. With some electrical connectors to repair the broken wire, my bill had now climbed to $150 and about eight hours of my dedicated attention, mainly due to Google searching. But now, my unsettling thoughts were gone.
After another two days of air-dried bath towels, the lint filter finally arrived. I immediately held it under the stream of water in the kitchen sink. The water flowed through the filter unimpeded. I simply had to repair the broken wire, reassemble the dryer, and install the new lint filter. I could see the finish line.
I quickly reassembled the dryer. I was now getting very fast in its teardown and rebuild. As I was finishing the final assembly, and just before I replaced the top panel, one of the screws slipped from my hand and fell into the open top of the dryer. I heard the screw’s metallic clanking as gravity moved it to the bottom. I wasn’t about to tolerate the new unsettling thought of where that screw finally landed. When I had disassembled the dryer for the fourth time, there it was, sitting on top of the heater housing, just waiting to fall into an opening.
After a more thoughtful and deliberate reassembly, the pending screws waiting safely on the floor for their turn at tightening, I invited Beverly into the utility room for the formality of one more dryer test. I could tell by the hesitant look that she gave me that her confidence in my technical abilities was waning. However, she selected the appropriate settings and pushed the start button. The dryer rumbled into operation. After a few seconds, I opened the door and could feel the heat. Maybe this was it—the final repair.
Our dryer is now back to its old self. We stopped using dryer sheets and replaced them with several wool balls that bounce around in the clothes, promising to help them dry with more fluffiness. But the dryer makes more noise as the balls rotate in the turning drum. The clothes seem to dry a little faster, probably due to the increased airflow. My total cost to repair the dryer was $150 in parts, and about ten hours of my time expended on googling, disassembling, and reassembling. I probably still came out ahead of buying a new dryer. The education that I gained was perhaps well worth the trials and cut fingers, not that I want to become a dryer repair technician anytime soon.
What I relearned was a lesson taught to me many years before, during my technical career in information technology. I summarize it as simply, “Don’t treat just the symptom; look for and treat the cause.” It sounds like a medical maxim, and it probably is. It means that many visible technology failures often have deep underlying causes somewhere else in the system. We call this phenomenon “systems dynamics.” A change in one place will often manifest itself as a failure far from the change.
In his famous 1960s novel Stranger in a Strange Land, the science-fiction author Robert Heinlein introduced an interesting new word into the English language. Heinlein invented 'grok', meaning to understand something deeply, far beyond the superficial. When a person truly groks someone or something, inner peace prevails. Interestingly, early computer geeks adopted “grok” to describe their mental processes for seeking deeper, perhaps better, answers to their difficult technical questions or problems. Now, after this extended dryer-repair experience, I think I can say, “I truly grok my dryer.”
In the synergistic relationships we build with technologies, we must proactively design what our experiences will be. As Steve Jobs preached, the design is more than just how good something looks. We must grok how things work so we can find their proper place in our life’s experience. Otherwise, if left to an evolutionary adoption, a technology may go awry and no longer be a servant. That’s what it felt like with my rebellious dryer for those first few weeks of September.
But there is still an unsettling thought that rattles around in the back of my mind, now that the dryer has been returned to service. What’s next on my growing list of things to grok? Is it the refrigerator, that thirty-year-old beast which continues to hum along as if it were still a youngster? Or is it the furnace, no doubt plotting to stop functioning during the coldest night of the upcoming winter? I’m off to grok my next appliance showing signs of acting up. After all, what better way to fill the hours of isolation, as this pandemic continues to rage about us?
A few weeks after writing this essay, as I was making my final revisions, our elven furnace decided to execute its diabolical plan and quit functioning on the morning of a very cold day in November. Although I practiced my best attempts at resuscitation, it was obvious that my sincere efforts were not enough. After a six-hour service call from a technician and $1,100 later, it now quietly continues to heat our home. Perhaps another lesson, especially when dealing with technology, is to know when to call for help.