Appliances are built to perform. They work hard, year after year, usually without too many problems. They're easy to take for granted. The result is that when an appliance breaks down, you may be completely at a loss -- you don't know how it works, you have no idea why it stopped working, and you certainly don't know how to fix it.

What can you do? You can pay a professional to fix it, or you can fix it yourself and save money. This article will provide you with all the information you need to know to pull your major appliances apart and then put them back together in working order. But before you attack the refrigerator with a screwdriver, let's get some background information on major appliances.

Most appliances operate on your home's electrical system: They use AC current from the circuit wiring in your home. Small appliances work on 110-120-volt circuits, and the plugs on their cords have two blades. Large or major appliances, such as air conditioners, dryers, and ranges, usually require 220-240-volt wiring and cannot be operated on 110-120-volt circuits. Large appliances are wired with a grounding wire; their plugs have two blades and a prong. This type of appliance must be plugged into a grounded outlet -- one with openings to accept both blades and grounding prong -- or grounded with a special adapter plug. All appliances are labeled -- either on a metal plate or on the appliance casing -- with their power requirements in watts and volts, and sometimes in amps.

Small appliances are usually fairly simple machines. They may consist of a simple heating element, a fan, a set of blades, or rotating beaters attached to a drive shaft; or they may have two or three simple mechanical linkages. Repairs to these appliances are usually correspondingly simple. Large appliances are more complex -- one major appliance, such as a washing machine, may have a motor, a timer, and a pump, as well as various valves, switches, and solenoids. With this type of appliance, problems can occur in either the control devices or the mechanical/power components. Failure of a control device may affect one operation or the entire appliance; failure of a mechanical/power device usually affects only the functions that depend on that device. When a major appliance breaks down, knowing how to diagnose the problem is as important as knowing how to fix it.

Because major appliances are so complex, it usually isn't obvious where a malfunction is. (Many newer appliances include electronic diagnostics that can be interpreted from the owner's manual.) The first step is to decide whether the problem is in a control device or a mechanical device. In a dryer, for example, the control devices govern the heat, and the mechanical components turn the drum. Which system is affected? If the drum turns, but the dryer doesn't heat, the problem is in the control system. If the dryer heats, but the drum doesn't turn, the problem is mechanical. This kind of analysis can be used to pinpoint the type of failure -- control system or mechanical system -- in all large appliances.

To find out exactly what the problem is, you must check each part of the affected system to find the malfunctioning part. This isn't as difficult as it sounds, because appliance components work together in a logical sequence. Starting with the simplest possibilities, you can test the components one by one to isolate the cause of the failure.

Repairing Major Appliances

There are three very important rules you must follow when you attempt to make any type of appliance repair. Don't ever try to save time or money by ignoring these rules. You won't save anything at all, and you could end up hurting yourself or ruining the appliance.

Appliance parts are available from appliance service centers, appliance-repair dealers, and appliance-parts stores. You don't always have to go to a specific brand-name appliance parts center to obtain the parts and service you need for brand-name appliances, so you do have some shopping/service choices. If you can't locate a parts service center in your area, order the part you need directly from the manufacturer. The name and address of the appliance manufacturer are usually printed on the appliance. Be sure to give the manufacturer all the model and parts data possible for the appliance. If available, search on the Internet for replacement parts.Before you make any appliance repair, make sure the appliance is receiving power. Lack of power is the most common cause of appliance failure. Before you start the testing and diagnosis process, take these preliminary steps:

Dan Ramsey is the best-selling author of numerous popular home how-to books, explaining complex topics in simple terms. His titles include eight successful Complete Idiot's guides. Dan has a professional digital photo studio for clearly illustrating how-to books and step-by-step procedures. Dan is a licensed general building and home remodeling contractor, as well as the current president of the National Association of Home & Workshop Writers (NAHWW). He also has been a Non-Fiction Writing Instructor for Writer's Digest Schools and contributed to The Writer's Digest Guide to Writing Non-Fiction. Visit Dan's Web site at