A few days ago, my wife told me she had killed the dryer. I recently killed her laptop, so now we’re even. She managed to resurrect her computer by opening it partway and blowing in it (it’s a long story). I managed to fix the dryer by similarly unorthodox means.
The dryer’s symptoms were cartoonish. With no warning, there was a loud bang followed by sproingy sounds. My wife shut it off immediately. Whenever the drum rotated, even if we just pushed it a little bit by hand, it sounded like somebody was dragging a Slinky over a sawblade.
It took me a long time to figure out how to disassemble the dryer. The key was when I found out that you have to push in two clips like this one:
This dryer — a stackable Kenmore 417.83142300, in case you’re curious — has a heating element that runs in a big circle around the back of the drum. Our heating element broke in two places and somehow got wrapped around the bearing that the drum turns on.
I noticed some burnt spots where the heating element had grounded and sparked as it flailed around. I suspect that the element first broke in one place, then grounded and got so hot that it melted in a second place, at which point the current stopped flowing. In other words, it acted as its own fuse.
If this were a do-it-yourself blog, at this point I would tell you to buy a new heating element and turn the old one into a percussion instrument. A heating element isn’t the kind of thing you can fix, or at least it’s not the sort of thing that any self-respecting appliance repair technician would fix. But this is the Do-It-Myself blog, and I didn’t want to spend a hundred bucks or wait for a new heating element to get shipped from who-knows where. I started thinking about how one might fix a heating element, which of course you, Dear Reader, shouldn’t try at home.
Soldering was out of the question, because solder would just melt as soon as I turned the dryer on. I wondered if I could rig a mechanical connection somehow. I looked online to see if anyone else was crazy enough to fix a heating element. I saw plenty of Web pages about replacing a heating element, but that’s just not the same thing at all. Then I saw an interesting eHow.com page about fixing a toaster oven by welding the heating element back together. This guy basically just put some flux on the element, plugged it in, and let it weld itself. Brilliant!
Of course, plugging in a dryer element, which runs on 220 volts in the US, is more complicated than plugging in a toaster oven. Since I have actual welding equipment lying around, it would be easier to take a more conventional approach to welding my dryer. I thought about clamping an arc welder to the element, but I wasn’t sure I could pull that off. I decided to use an oxyacetylene torch.
Just like the guy on eHow, I looped two of the broken ends together and coated them with borax. I don’t normally use borax when I’m welding steel, but it seemed like it might be a good idea. Then I got out my torch and, um, blasted the looped ends into oblivion.
Clearly, the torch was too big. This was a job for the Little Torch.
Since I wasn’t using the toaster oven method, I decided it would make more sense to hold the broken ends parallel to each other, rather than looping them around each other. I tried welding them again, this time with the Little Torch, and voila! The first joint was done.
Before I could weld the second joint, I had to turn the misshapen heating element — i.e. the little sculpture I found inside my dryer — back into something resembling a helix. To do this, I wrapped it around a piece of electrical conduit and bent it a bit with my everpresent multitool.
I was careful to make sure the coil wouldn’t touch itself or the pan behind it, because that would cause it to short. Shorting to itself probably wouldn’t matter, but shorting to the pan would cause a repeat of the whole fiasco.
The second joint was closer to the sheet metal than the first, and I was afraid I’d burn a hole through the sheet metal if I tried to weld it. I needed to separate the end of the heating element from the pan so I could move things around a bit. I saw little tabs on the connector, so I bent the tabs back and pulled the connector out through the back.
After separating the connector from the pan, I held it up so the broken bits were together. Now I was ready to weld again.
I put some new grease on the bearing and reassembled everything. I checked the fire extinguisher, since I wasn’t totally convinced that this would work.
I pulled out the damp, stinky towels and cloth diapers that had been festering in the washing machine for three days while my wife waited for me to fix the dryer. I turned the dryer on, and it didn’t make horrible sproingy sounds. Whew!
I warned my wife that since there had been bearing grease on the heating element, it might smell like smoke at first. My wife informed me that the damp, stinky towels and cloth diapers hadn’t been washed, and they were damp because they had urine in them. Sure enough, there was an odd smell in the laundry room, but it wasn’t smoke. I was heating the urine. It was heating! The dryer worked!
We washed the towels and put them in the dryer again, and soon they were gloriously dry.