Okay, I’ll admit that it’s been a slow week, repair-wise, because I somehow aggravated my fifteen-year-old back injury—either that or I injured it afresh. I can’t tell.
Maybe it was doing the double-inverted Lotus position last week, lying upside-down in the driver’s seat and sliding my head under the steering wheel and beneath the dash with my feet over the headrest. It’s not so much getting into this position that’s difficult, it’s getting out of it.
Whatever it was, my lower back suddenly went nuclear while Maire Anne and I were on a mini-vacation in Provincetown in the RV, making bending or twisting more painful than any time since the Great Back Wrenching Event of 2006, where in one weekend I moved an old-school Sony 34-inch cathode-ray-tube television that weighed as much as a cow—twice—then muscled the dead water heater out of the basement and the new one into place. Then I worked on the rear brakes on the 318ti and felt my back go sprooooiiiing like when you pull the cover off the side of a seat-belt retractor. An X-ray showed mostly normal age-related degeneration, so it’s likely just a muscle strain. But it’s prescription-strength Aleve twice daily and no Hack Mechanic heroics for a week for this guy.
So I’m left with just stories. Fortunately, there’s one that dovetails well with last week’s piece about chasing the rodent contamination in the Lotus.
As I’ve written, Maire Anne and I very much enjoy our beach getaways in our little Winnebago Rialta (which is a Volkswagen Eurovan with a Winnebago camper body on the back, sort of like a pumped-up Westfalia camper with a bed you don’t have to fold out, a toilet, and a shower too small to use comfortably). In addition to keeping the thing running, a few weeks ago I put some time into upgrading some of its creature comforts. I installed a 24-inch LCD TV that runs off 12V DC, so it’s usable even if there’s no 120 VAC shore power, and has a built-in DVD player, which is less anachronistic than you’d think, since the number of over-the-air television stations available in remote campgrounds can be very small, making that old stack of DVDs a godsend.
I mounted the television on an articulated arm so that we can swing it out and see it from the bed, and fold it out of the way when we’re not watching it. I also took the Cambridge Soundworks PC Works system—a small 12-volt-powered subwoofer and two satellite speakers—that I’ve moved around among the vintage cars and used on road trips, and installed it permanently in the RV so that we can use it as the vehicle’s sound system while driving or parked (the in-dash CD player has no aux port or Bluetooth connection), as well as play the television through it.
This was all very satisfying.
The other bit of electronic work involved the microwave oven. It worked when we bought the RV five years ago, but at some point it quit. Since this is a very small RV, it doesn’t have a rack of kitchen appliances, as the big rigs do—no dishwasher, washer, or dryer, just the microwave. It was handy when it worked, both for reheating leftovers as well as warming up the morning coffee if I didn’t drink it quickly enough, and while I joked at how far Maire Anne and I had fallen in terms of roughing it since our camping days. I missed having it.
RV appliances are funny things. They can be custom-configured pieces built specifically for that application and that bit of real estate. For example, “three-way” RV refrigerators—12V DC while you’re driving, 120 VAC while you’re plugged into shore power, and propane if you’re boondocking (camping away from shore power) are something you’d likely never use anywhere other than an RV, and the original model is often the only one that will fit perfectly. Or they can be completely commercial-off-the-shelf items.
The microwave is somewhere in between.
There’s nothing unusual about the guts of the original Magic Chef microwave itself. It runs off 120 VAC and only 120 VAC. However, care was applied at the Winnebago factory to heat-shield the cavity it’s in, to mount it incredibly securely (it’s not just slid onto a shelf; the outer case of the microwave has integral flanges that screw directly into a metal frame that’s supported on the sides and top), and it’s trimmed so it looks built-in, including using ventilation scoops that duct forward, not into a blind cavity in the back. I did a little reading and learned that there is no microwave other than the original that seamlessly satisfies all those requirements. For all those reasons, I thought that if I could fix it, it would be easier than replacing it.
So pulled it out, and then I did what I’ve been doing since I was a kid: I took it apart.
There’s a chapter in Nobel-prize-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman’s autobiography, Surely You Must Be Joking, Mr. Feynman, where he describes fixing radios when he was a kid in Brooklyn, and how a very high percentage of the needed repairs involved either fixing a broken wire or replacing an obviously burned electrical component such as a capacitor or a resistor. I’ve done this same thing since Nixon was in office, with the addition that in this wonderful web-enabled world, you can Google symptoms, find a hail of posts that say, “It’s usually this,” and replace whatever this is, even if it doesn’t look burned. So it was with joy that when I pulled the case off the microwave, I found a broken ground connector.
Unfortunately, I also immediately came face-to-face with a good-size mouse nest (nose-to-nest?). “Great,” I thought, “just great. First the mouse-infested truck, then the Lotus, now this. I can’t even give myself the ability to reheat coffee on vacation without dealing with freaking mice.”
What to do? If the microwave still wouldn’t work with the connector reattached, the presence of the mouse nest was irrelevant, so I crimped on a new connector, put a cup of water in the microwave, plugged it in, and turned it on.
Okay, then! I removed the nest, vacuumed every nook and cranny I could reach, blew out the space with compressed air, vacuumed again, sprayed the affected area with enzyme-based cleaner, as I do with automotive mouse contamination, wiped it down, put a quart-size plastic container with water in it inside, and ran the microwave until the water boiled. Then I did it again. Both the water and the microwave smelled okay to me (I’m a practical guy).
But then I was faced with the big question: Do I come clean to Maire Anne about this? Or do I simply crow, “Hey, I fixed the microwave! We can reheat the coffee again!”?
A good relationship is based on honesty, even when you know that the reaction is likely to differ from yours and cause you more work, so I told her. And as soon as I launched into the tail—I mean tale—she interrupted me and said, “You know, that microwave never smelled right to me.”
“Well,” I said, “Funny story….”
Once you know about something like this, you can’t un-know it. Well, I can, but I understand that she can’t, and there’s no universe in which I’d argue about it. So a new microwave it was, and that was fine.
However, this turned out to be surprisingly involved. As was the case with replacing the refrigerator years back, the only thing that would fit the original space perfectly was the original microwave; anything new that filled it up width- and height-wise was too big in the depth dimension, and thus would stick out too far.
After much searching, I found an Insignia microwave (a Best Buy brand) that was close enough that I didn’t think my eye would be drawn to the surrounding gaps, and I was right. The only problem was that I didn’t take into account the physical size of the 120 VAC plug; when I plugged it into the electrical outlet, it prevented the microwave from being slid all the way into the space. I solved this problem by relocating the outlet.
To secure the microwave, I marked the locations of the rubber feet in the metal frame very accurately, removed the short screws holding the feet, drilled holes through the frame, and replaced the screws with longer ones that went through the frame and into the bottom of the microwave.
But once it was done, it was clearly the right call: $90 delivered, and a few hours of my time. While we were in Provincetown, even though my back was causing me fits, I took a lot of pleasure in being able to reheat my coffee in what was no longer a mice-crowave.
Sorry. I said it was a slow week. I’ll blame it on the painkillers. Aleve can cause excruciatingly bad puns, right?—Rob Siegel
Rob’s new book, The Best of The Hack Mechanic, is available here on Amazon, as are his seven other books. Signed copies can be ordered directly from Rob here.