Appliance Triage

How to complete fast fixes for common kitchen ailments.

It’s your worst holiday nightmare: You’re cooking for a houseful of guests and one of your major kitchen appliances goes haywire. An oven that won’t heat, stove burners that won’t light or a garbage disposer that won’t drain can turn a celebration into a disaster -- unless you know how to diagnose and fix the problem.

To help you rest easy the night before your next dinner party, here’s a primer describing five of the most common kitchen-appliance breakdowns and their solutions. Keep this issue handy and your only worry will be getting the turkey in the oven on time.

Temperamental Electric Burners
Symptom: My electric-coil stove burner won’t heat unless I wiggle it.

Diagnosis: All coil burner elements on electric ranges connect to the power source through a receptacle of some kind. Most have a pressure-fit connection that works similarly to a wall-plug receptacle and allows you to easily remove the burner. Over time, this connection can become loose and fail. Fortunately, most manufacturers sell a repair kit that contains a new receptacle, wires and wire nuts. To replace the connection, follow these steps:

  1. Disconnect the appliance from the power source; then lift up the burner element and pull it out of the receptacle.
  2. Remove the drip pan and trim ring.
  3. Remove the screw that holds the receptacle in place, and pull the receptacle out a bit so you have access to the wires. (You may be able to lift the stove top for easier access.)
  4. Cut and strip both wires close to the old receptacle.
  5. Cut and strip the wires to the length needed for the new receptacle, and slide any shrink tubing (if provided) onto the wires.
  6. Tightly twist the wire nuts onto the wires; then fold the wire nut over, slide the shrink tubing over it and heat the tubing to tighten it against the wire nut.
  7. Reinstall the new receptacle, drip pan, trim ring and burner.
  8. Turn the power back on and test the burner.

Electric Oven Problems
Symptom: My oven seems to get hot, but food doesn’t cook properly.

Diagnosis: Most electric ovens, whether built-in or freestanding, have two heating elements: one for baking and one for broiling. During preheating, both elements turn on until the oven is close to the proper temperature. If the baking element is burned out, the broil element will still activate to preheat the oven, which can make it seem as if the oven is working. To test the baking element, turn the oven to its highest baking temperature. Within a couple of minutes the lower baking element should be glowing red. If it’s not, it may be burned out. Follow these steps:

  1. Disconnect the appliance from the power source.
  2. Remove the screws where the element attaches to the back wall of the oven.
  3. Carefully pull the element away from the back wall. Work slowly to be certain the wires attached to the element are also pulled into the oven.
  4. Remove the wires from the element. They may have screws or push-on fittings.
  5. Test the element with an Ohm meter or a continuity checker. If the element has continuity or a very low Ohm reading, it’s probably OK and the problem lies elsewhere. If it has no continuity or a very high Ohm reading, replace it.

Troublesome Gas Burners
Symptom: Two of the burners on my gas range don’t light, even though I hear a sparking sound.

Diagnosis: Spark modules usually have only one source of incoming power but can have several outputs. The spark module typically will click whenever it receives power, but it may not be sending the voltage to all of the burners.

To test the module, turn on one of the problematic burners and use a fireplace match or butane lighting wand to light it manually. Turn the burner to the “lihgt” position so that you hear the clicking sound, and visually inspect the small electrode near the burner to see whether there is a small spark coming from the electrode. If there is, the problem may be that the gas is not getting to the electrode, which may need to be cleaned.

If you can’t see a spark at that burner but you can see it at other burners, you may have a bad spark module. Spark modules are usually located in one of three places: inside the back control panel, under the cooking surface or near the bottom of the appliance behind the accessory drawer. Ask a parts dealer where the module on your stove is located. The module is usually white or blue and about the size of two decks of cards. Once you’ve found it and bought a replacement, follow these steps:

  1. Place the new igniter alongside the old one and make sure they are either identical or compatible (and that the new one comes with good instructions).
  2. Label all of the wires going to the module, and remove them one at a time. (They should easily pull off.)
  3. Install the new module and reattach the wires. Be sure the wires are attached correctly.
  4. Reassemble the range, restore the power and test the burner.

Gas Oven Problems
Symptom: My gas oven takes forever to heat up, and sometimes I can even smell gas.

Diagnosis: This problem is often caused by a weak igniter. When the igniter is working properly, the flame should ignite within a couple of minutes. If the flame doesn’t ignite after several minutes, replace the igniter. There are many different types of igniters; these are the general replacement steps:

  1. Disconnect the appliance from the power source.
  2. Turn off the gas to the oven and remove the oven racks.
  3. Remove the base plate of the oven (if it has one) and the flame-spreading metal plate above the igniter and burner tube.
  4. Remove the old igniter. The screws are often rusted in place, so you may need a few drops of lubricant (such as WD-40) to loosen them.
  5. If the new igniter requires the wires to be spliced, cut the wires from the old igniter and splice the new wires to the old wires in the oven.
  6. Reinstall the igniter exactly as the old one was installed. The alignment between the igniter and the burner tube is critical to ensure proper ignition of the gas.
  7. Reassemble the oven, turn on the gas and power and test the igniter.

Jammed Garbage Disposer
Symptom: When I turn on my garbage disposer, it just hums — or does nothing at all.

Diagnosis: All garbage disposers have a built-in circuit breaker that shuts off if they become jammed. Look underneath the disposer for a small square button, usually red or black, and push it in. Try turning on the switch to the disposer for two or three seconds and see whether it runs or makes any noise. If not, power may not be reaching the disposer. Check household breakers or fuses, and if the disposer is plugged into an outlet under the sink, check the outlet for power. If the unit hums or is very noisy when it runs, follow these steps:

  1. Disconnect the appliance from the power source.
  2. If possible, use a 1/4-in. Allen wrench underneath the bottom of the disposer to rotate the disposer. This will often free a jam.
  3. Use a flashlight to look for an obstruction between the inside wall of the disposer and the round bottom plate. Use needle-nose pliers or another tool to dislodge and remove any obstruction.
  4. If no obstruction is visible and it is very difficult to rotate the disposer, you may have to replace the unit.

Erratic Ice Maker
Symptom: My ice maker barely works, and when it does, the cubes are very small

Diagnosis: If an ice maker is not making any cubes, check to see if it is switched off. Most ice makers have a thin wire, about the size of a coat hanger, along one side. The wire rests on top of the ice cubes in the bin, as the bin becomes full, the wire rests higher and higher until it eventually shuts off the ice maker. If you manually raise the wire to the highest position, it will stay in that position indefinitely and prevent the ice maker from running.

First thing to check is whether that wire is stuck in the up position. If so, use the little red lever (if equipped) to lower the wire, or just push the wire down with your hand. Check to see if you have any cubes in a few hours. If not, the next thing to check is the water fill tube. There is a small tube about 1/2-in. in diameter that feeds water to the ice maker. If that tube is full of ice you may need a hair dryer to melt the ice and get the water flowing again. A steady drip of water from a defective water inlet valve can cause this problem. If the tube is OK, check the water supply from the household plumbing.

There will be a small-diameter water line attached to the household plumbing; at the end of that line is usually a small valve. Turn off the valve, remove the water line and see if there is sufficient water volume coming from the valve. If all of those things are working you may have a defective water inlet valve. The valve is usually located on the back of the refrigerator near the bottom. Here are some typical replacement instructions:

  1. Disconnect the appliance from the power source.
  2. Shut off the water supply to the refrigerator.
  3. Pull the refrigerator away from the wall.
  4. Remove the lower access cover plate from the refrigerator.
  5. Remove the water supply line and fill line(s) from the valve.
  6. Label the wires to the valve and disconnect them.
  7. Remove the valve and reinstall the new valve.
  8. Reconnect the water line and turn on the water supply so you can check for leaks. If no leaks are found, restore power.

It may take more than an hour for the ice maker to start its first batch and then several more hours before it dumps the first load of ice.