How to Repair Household Appliances

Oven won't heat? Clothes won't dry? Fix the oven and clothes dryer yourself and avoid expensive service calls.

Overview

If you're like most people, you expect to have to pay a repair professional when an appliance breaks down. After all, it's pretty tough to be without an oven or a clothes dryer for very long, and most of us don't have a clue where to start looking for the problem. But surprisingly, many common appliance breakdowns are easy to diagnose and fix. With little more than an inexpensive multimeter and nut drivers, you can do many repairs yourself and save hundreds of dollars. In this article, we'll show you how to find and fix some problems you're likely to have with ovens and dryers.

The parts for these repairs, none of which will take more than a few hours, are moderately priced. You'll need the model number and serial number of the appliance to buy parts. Look for the tag with this information under the lid of washers and dryers, or behind the door or bottom drawer of ovens. To find parts, check the Yellow Pages under “Appliance Parts,” go online to a parts service, or contact the manufacturer.

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Problem 1: Gas oven won't heat

Solutions
If your gas oven won't heat, first look for simple problems. Make sure the oven is plugged in and there's power to it. If the oven light won't come on, check the receptacle for power. Our repair pro tells us he often “repairs” an oven by plugging it in or flipping a circuit breaker. He still has to charge for the service call. Ouch! If you have an older oven with a mechanical rather than a digital clock, check to make sure you haven't bumped it off the manual setting. This will keep it from coming on immediately. If these solutions don't work, check the lighting mechanisms before calling a repair service.

There are three different mechanisms for lighting the burners in gas ovens:

1. Pilot lights. A pilot light oven has a small flame (pilot light) that must remain lit to ignite the burner. You can identify a pilot light oven by looking at the burner assembly, usually visible through the broiler drawer opening. You'll see a gas tube with a “thermocouple” mounted near its tip. The thermocouple is a small cylinder with a thin copper tube leading to it. If your pilot light is out, refer to your stove manual for lighting instructions, or call the local gas company. Few ovens now have pilot lights, and we won't cover repairs here.

2. Spark ignition. If you turn your oven on and normally hear clicking, you have a spark ignition pilot assembly. It's a pencil-shaped porcelain tube with a metal tip on one end and a wire running to the other end. Since it, too, is less common, we won't cover repairs here.

3. Glow coil igniters. If your oven has a glow coil igniter (the most common type), it will look similar to the ones shown in Photo 2. You can spot it at the rear of the burner (Figure A and Photo 1). When you turn on the oven, the igniter should glow brightly, signaling the gas valve to open and lighting the burner.

If the igniter is bad, it won't open the gas valve and your oven won't come on. If the igniter fails to glow, glows dimly or fails to light the burner after glowing for 30 to 45 seconds, replace it (Photos 1 and 2).

Start by removing the oven racks and lifting out the metal burner cover on the bottom of the oven compartment. Then follow the steps in Photos 1 and 2. Your oven may look a little different, but the procedure is the same. This is also a good time to clean out the little holes in the burner with a stiff-bristle brush.

Handle the new igniter carefully and avoid touching the dark gray element. Body oil will decrease the life of the igniter.

Figure A: Gas Oven Details

Look for the igniter at the back of the gas burner in the oven.

Note: You can download Figure A and enlarge it in the Additional Information below.

Igniter location in a gas oven
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Problem 2: Electric oven won't heat

Solutions
If your electric oven won't heat, there's a good chance the heating element has a bad connection or is burned out. But before you dive into this repair, check to make sure the circuit breaker (double pole for 240 volts) hasn't switched off. If your oven heats somewhat and the light still comes on, check the receptacle with a voltage tester (buy at home centers and hardware stores) capable of testing 240-volt circuits. Call in an electrician if it's not getting at least 200 volts.

If the circuit to the oven is good, unplug the oven, then unscrew the heating element and pull the connections into the oven compartment (Photo 1). Coax the wires through the holes carefully to avoid unplugging or damaging the connections. If the wires have tension on them, clamp them with a clothespin to keep them from being pulled back into the hole. (Don't worry if a wire disappears back into the hole; retrieve it by pulling out the stove and removing the back panel.) Inspect the connections and look for charred, frayed or broken wires. If the terminal connection is bad, replace it (Photos 1 and 2). Make sure to buy a special “high-temperature” terminal (available from appliance parts dealers).

If the connections are good, the heating element might be burned out. Test the element with a multimeter (buy at home centers and hardware stores) as shown in the bottom left photo or take the heating element to an appliance parts store for testing.

Installing a new element is straightforward. Simply connect the wires to it, slide them carefully back into the holes and screw the element to the back of the oven.

Figure B: Electric Oven Details

The electric heating element is fastened to the bottom of the oven.

Note: You can download Figure B and enlarge it in the Additional Information below.

Electric oven details
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Problem 3: Gas dryer won't heat—The igniter doesn't heat up

Solutions
If your gas dryer isn't heating enough to dry your clothes, first try the simple solutions. Clean the lint screen by washing it in hot soapy water to remove invisible fabric softener buildup. Clogged air passages may cause the dryer to shut down. Also check to make sure the vent isn't clogged with lint where it exits through the wall. Finally, clean out the vent pipe by running a plumber's snake through the outside vent to the dryer opening. Tie a rag on the snake and pull it back through the vent to remove lint buildup.

If your dryer still doesn’t heat, make sure the gas valve is open (handle parallel to pipe) and that the dryer is plugged in and getting power. Then follow the steps shown in the photos 1 - 6. In most cases, one of these repairs will solve the problem. All the repairs we show are simple. You remove a screw or two and plug in a new part. The trick is figuring out which part to replace.

Start by removing the round plug on the front of the dryer or front access panel. Pull out on the lower corners of the panel to remove it. Some panels are held on by screws. Then, with the dryer plugged in and turned on, observe the igniter for clues (Figure C and Photo 4). Normally the igniter heats up and glows, igniting the gas burner.

If the igniter doesn't heat up
First test for a burned-out thermofuse. The thermofuse is a safety device that shuts off power to the burner if the dryer overheats. When the thermofuse burns out, it must be replaced. With the dryer plugged in and turned on, test for power to the burner (Photo 1). If there's no power, unplug the dryer and pull it away from the wall and remove the back panel. If you have a flexible gas connection, you may be able to avoid disconnecting the gas. Otherwise shut off the gas valve and disconnect the gas line where it enters the dryer. Then directly test the thermofuse (Photo 2) and replace it if needed. Also look for a charred thermostat and burned connections at the thermostats and if you see any, replace the thermostats, too. Reassemble the dryer and test it. Replacing the thermofuse or bad thermostats should correct the no-power problem. If not, call a repair service.

Second, test for a bad igniter. If the test in Photo 1 shows there's power to the burner but the igniter isn't glowing, the problem could be a bad igniter. The igniter is easier to test and replace if you remove the entire burner assembly. If you don't feel confident working with gas, call a repair service for this repair. Turn off the gas to the dryer and shut off the gas valve located near the burner (see Photo 3). Make sure the dryer is unplugged. Then unscrew the large nut that connects the burner to the gas valve. Remove the two screws in front that hold the burner assembly in place. There's one additional screw under the burner that you may have to loosen or remove.

With the burner assembly removed, test the igniter with a multimeter (Photo 4). If you don't get any reading on the multimeter, the igniter is bad. Install a new igniter (Photo 5). If the multimeter test shows that the igniter is good, but it still won't glow, it could be a bad flame sensor. Test the flame sensor with a multimeter and replace it if you don't get a reading (Photo 6).

Figure C: Gas Dryer Details

You'll find the igniter and other parts under the drum.

Note: You can download Figure C and enlarge it in the Additional below.

Gas dryer details
CAUTION

You'll smell an initial whiff of gas when you disconnect the line. If the gas smell continues, or you smell gas after reconnecting your appliance, leave the house immediately. Do not use a cell phone or switch any lights on or off. Any spark could cause an explosion. Move away from the house and call the gas company or dial 911 for help.

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Problem 4: Gas oven doesn't heat—The igniter heats up

If the igniter comes on and stays on but the burner doesn't light, the flame sensor is probably stuck in the closed position, preventing any gas from getting to the burner. A multimeter test won't help here, so just replace the flame sensor (Photo 6 in section above). Unplug the dryer for this repair.

Finally, if the igniter comes on for about 30 seconds and then shuts off and there’s no flame, it could indicate bad coils. The coils are electromagnets that open the gas valves when the igniter heats the flame sensor. Usually you can hear the coils click when the igniter comes on. If the igniter comes on and glows but you don’t hear a click and the burner won’t light, then replace the coils (Photos 1 and 2). For all these fixes, when you find the problem part, remove it and take it with you to the appliance parts store to buy the correct replacement. Then, after making the necessary repairs, reinstall the burner assembly. Firmly tighten the nut connecting the burner to the gas valve. Then open both gas valves and test for leaks at the burner/valve joint by swabbing on a solution of 1/2 teaspoon of dishwashing liquid to 1 cup of water. Watch for bubbles, which indicate a leak. If you see bubbles or smell gas, tighten the connection and retest. If this doesn’t solve the problem, shut off both valves and call the gas company or an appliance repair service for help.

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Problem 5: Electric dryer won't heat

Solutions
First check to make sure the dryer circuit breaker isn't tripped and that you're getting power to the dryer. If resetting the circuit breaker doesn't solve the problem, the next step is to test the thermofuse. Unplug the dryer and pull it away from the wall. Unscrew the metal cover on the back and remove it. The thermofuse is located on the back of the dryer (see Figure D and Photo1). Test the thermofuse (as shown above) and replace it if it's bad. Also visually inspect the thermostats for signs of burning or bad connections and replace them if they look bad.

If you don't find any other problems, test the heating element (Photo 1). If you don’t get any reading, replace it (Photos 2 - 4). The Kenmore dryer shown requires you to lift the top to reach the bracket that holds the heating element cover on. Some newer models don't require this step. Most Kenmore and Whirlpool dryers look like the dryers shown, but if you have another brand, the heating element will be in a different location. Testing and these elements is similar.

Figure D: Electric Dryer Details

Access most electric dryer parts from the rear.

Note: You can download Figure D and enlarge it in the Additional Information below.

Electric dryer details
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