Quick guide to home troubleshooting



Mon, Dec 25, 2017 (2 a.m.)

There’s water under my washing machine. What can I do?

Try turning off the hoses that connect the machine to your plumbing. They should be hooked to two spigots behind the washer. (Warning: Sometimes these spigot handles are a bit difficult to turn.)

What’s the “plate warmer” function on my dishwasher?

When food is served on a warm plate, it stays hotter longer. The plate warmer uses the dishwasher’s dryer function to make plates toasty.

You’re responsible for holiday dinner with your family this year, but in the midst of juggling turkey and mashed potato prep, the garbage disposal stops working. Or you blow a circuit breaker. Or the washing machine begins to leak. What do you do? Here’s a list of common household problems and a few quick methods that may save your plumber a trip.

My smoke detector is chirping.

1. There are three common causes: One, your battery (or backup battery for hard-wired detectors) is bad. Two, the unit is dusty. Three, it’s old and needs to be replaced.

2. For one and two, make sure the detector’s breaker is turned off if the unit is hard-wired.

3. To replace the battery, find the battery cover and remove it. You may need a screwdriver.

4. If the unit looks dusty, remove the cover and remove the dust using a vacuum cleaner.

5. Once the battery is replaced and/or the unit is dusted, put it back together and hit the “test” button. You should hear a beep, but the chirping should stop.

6. If the unit makes no noise or keeps chirping, call an electrician.

I have an outlet that stopped working, and I’m worried there might be a short in the wiring.

1. Go to your circuit breaker box, a gray rectangular panel on a wall somewhere in your home (In older homes, the box may be on the exterior of the house).

2. You’ll see columns of switches — these are circuits that control wiring to outlets, fixtures and appliances in your home. Ideally, one of the circuits will be in the “off” position, which means the breaker that controls the nonworking outlet has been tripped by an overload, and the power to the outlet has been shut off so there’s no chance the overloaded wire will catch fire. If that’s the case, call an electrician and don’t worry.

3. If none of the switches has been tripped, there’s probably not a short, but it’s a good idea to turn off the circuit manually and call an electrician. Finding the right circuit to switch off can be a challenge, but hopefully the circuits will be labeled.

I have a sink that won’t stop dripping.

1. Look under the sink. As with the toilet, you should see flexible tubing with football- or X-shaped handles.

2. Turn those off, and the sink should stop dripping. Call a plumber.

My sink is clogged.

Here are two methods to try before calling a plumber.


1. Fill the sink with enough hot water to cover the rubber part of a plunger. If it’s a double sink, stuff a wet rag into the drain that you’re not plunging.

2. With a plunger fully covering the drain opening, move the plunger up and down quickly.

3. After five or six pumps, check to see if the sink is clear. If not, try again.


1. Wearing rubber gloves, pour one cup of baking soda into the drain, then pour in the same amount of white vinegar.

2. Put the stopper in the sink so that the solution — which will foam up — is forced down the drain.

3. After five minutes, pour warm water down the drain and see if the clog is cleared. If not, try a pan full of boiling water.

4. If none of it works, try the whole process again.

My garbage disposal stopped working.

NOTE: If you can’t find the allen wrench that came with the disposal, consult your owner’s manual. Most disposals use 1/4-inch wrenches, but it’s smart to check the manual before you head to the store.

1. Flip the switch to make sure the disposal still has power. If it doesn’t, look under the sink and see if it’s plugged in. If everything is hooked up and the disposal doesn’t make noise, call an electrician.

2. If the disposal is making noise, unplug it. If you can’t unplug the unit and can’t find its breaker, call an electrician.

3. If the power is connected but the disposal isn’t working, it may be clogged.

4. Make sure the switch is turned off and the disposal is unplugged. Look on the bottom of the unit for a hexagon-shaped opening. Using the allen wrench that came with the disposal (and is ideally attached to it) twist clockwise and counterclockwise until you feel the motor spin freely.

5. Reconnect the power and run water down the drain. Flip the switch to see if the obstruction is gone. If not, call a plumber.

My garage door isn’t working.

A common culprit is a safety feature of modern doors. It’s a photoelectric beam that shoots between two small, rectangular boxes located near the bottom of the tracks on either side of the door. The beams stop the door if something crosses them, which keeps the door from closing on a pet, a child, your car, etc. However, the door won’t work properly if the beams aren’t aligned, and it’s not uncommon for the boxes to get knocked out of alignment or the lenses to become covered in grime or moisture.

1. Wipe off the lenses first. If that doesn’t work, adjust the beams as follows:

2. Notice that on the facing side of each rectangular box, there should be a tiny light glowing red or green. If the beams are out of alignment, one light will be red and one green.

3. One of the boxes will be fairly fixed, while the other one will have an adjustor screw that gives the box movement. Loosen that screw, and point the lens toward its counterpart. When the lenses are in alignment, the lights on the boxes will both turn green.

4. If the lights are out or the garage door still doesn’t work after they turn green, contact a service provider.

My toilet is running.

I’ve jiggled the handle but it won’t stop.

1. Look behind the toilet near the floor. You should see flexible metal tubing with a handle shaped like a football (or sometimes an ‘X’). That’s the toilet shut-off valve. Turn it counterclockwise to stop the flow of water to the toilet tank.

2. If it doesn’t stop, try turning it the other way. One caution: If the valve is hard to turn, don’t put too much pressure on it. It might snap off, and then you’ll have a bigger problem.

3. Once the water is off, you can call a plumber, or — don’t be intimidated — try to repair the toilet yourself. Standard repairs, such as replacing a floater valve or flapper valve, are simple and inexpensive.

4. The key is finding the right parts, which for many toilets are available at big-box home improvement stores or retailers. Follow the directions on the package.

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