The thrill of extending the life of an appliance

July 10, 2004|By ROB KASPER

JOHN PALUMBI had a fat appliance and a skinny doorway. But his is a story that has a happy ending. His venerable, if wide, clothes dryer ended up staying in his basement. The doorway to his basement remained intact. All because Palumbi had the persistence and pluck to give the old dryer a minor makeover. This tale of man mending machine, while familiar, has a few twists.

Palumbi, a 37-year-old South Baltimore homeowner, was trying to keep his 1985 Kenmore electric dryer. The dryer was in the basement back in 1994 when he and his wife, Danielle Sweeney, moved into the compact, 12-foot-wide row home on Belt Street in a neighborhood he describes as "lower, slower Federal Hill."

During its years in the basement the dryer's measurement had not changed, it consistently stayed 29 inches wide. But thanks to some renovations made by prior owners, the doorway connecting the first floor to the basement, the only entry, had slimmed down. It was now a mere 24 1/2 inches wide. Palumbi figured that even if he removed the wood trim around the doorway, a move that would add an inch to two, the dryer would still be too wide to squeeze through.

The contrast between the thick dryer and the thin doorway did not become an issue until about a month ago when the dryer began having problems. The timer, a device that basically turns the dryer off, stopped working.

As the household's chief recreational repairman, Palumbi tackled the problem. Armed with the model number of the dryer, he began calling appliance part shops, only to be told that they no longer carry timers for his timeworn machine.

He briefly contemplated buying a new dryer, but discarded that idea on philosophical and practical grounds

"It doesn't make any sense to replace the whole thing, when only one part is broken," he said. Moreover there was the genetic factor. He grew up in a household, the home of his parents, Bob and Eleanor Palumbi in Parkville, that preached fixing the old, not buying the new.

There was also the practical matter that getting the old dryer out of the basement would have involved taking it apart and perhaps, sawing it into pieces, a nasty task. Finally, he had grown attached to the machine. It had served his family well, and it could handle larger loads than the skinnier newer models.

So he set out on a quest to save the old dryer, to somehow, some way get a timer for it. As part of his hunt, he e-mailed me.

I sent him the names of few shops whose doorways I had darkened over the years searching for parts to heal ailing appliances. One of them was Appliance Parts at 2907 Greenmount Ave., a store that on Saturdays is open for a few hours in the morning - a time, experience tells me, when many appliance repairs are attempted.

Palumbi also checked out cyberspace, looking for dryer timers being sold at auction on eBay, the Internet auction site. This is something that never would have crossed my mind, but Palumbi is Internet savvy. He designs advertising campaigns for Advertising.com, the Baltimore-based company that was recently sold for $435 million to America Online Inc. Palumbi found a timer on eBay that looked like it would work. But it turned out that the $20 he offered for the part was lower than the "reserve bid" that the seller had placed on the item. The deal never came to fruition.

Meanwhile the dryer, like a faithful family servant, was doing its best to please, coping with the steady supply of laundry that Palumbi, his wife and their 2 1/2 -year-old daughter, Christabella, sent its way. Even with the faulty timer, the dryer would start, but it would not always turn itself off. The only sure way to stop it was for Palumbi or his wife to unplug it. Sometimes they remembered to unplug it, sometimes not.

His quest for a timer took a turn for the better when he contacted the folks at the appliance shop on Greenmount Avenue. The shop had a pipeline to an outfit in Michigan that rebuilt dryer timers. For about $55 he would get a rebuilt timer - and a 90-day guarantee

So Palumbi removed the timer from the dryer. He also saved all the screws, made a sketch of which wires went where, and had the faulty timer shipped out to Michigan.

It was gone for about 10 days, during which the laundry was dried the old-fashioned way, on a clothesline.

When the timer returned home, Palumbi installed it, working carefully, making sure he did not leave any screws or wires on the basement floor.

He plugged the dryer in, punched the start button and the machine began its resonant, familiar hum. More importantly, at the end of the cycle, it now came to a planned stop.

It was a great feeling, Palumbi told me later when I visited his basement. And so today, in a narrow Baltimore rowhouse, a fat old dryer spins with new life, a young family has its laundry under control, and a weekend repair guy walks with a fresh spring in his step.

"I get a lot of satisfaction from fixing the one broken part instead of just replacing the whole item," Palumbi told me yesterday in an e-mail message. "I don't have a good explanation as to why, but it just feels right."

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