Over the years, I've developed a few skills as a troubleshooter. When friends or family have problems with computers, I can often solve them. If a light or appliance won't turn on, I know how to make sure there's power in the outlet - and even rewire a lamp or wall switch in a pinch. I also spent two decades nursing a variety of small engines on lawnmowers, weed-whackers, snow blowers and the like.
So I was pretty confident of my ability to solve common household technology problems - until I was bushwhacked by a garage door opener.
First, I will agree that garage door openers hardly classify as high-tech devices. In fact, most garage door openers appear to use boring, tried-and-true technology.
Until you have to fix one.
Which happened recently when my wife announced that our opener no longer opened.
Since I have never had the luxury of parking my car in our garage, I could only imagine the hardship this created - but given my beloved's aversion to cold and rainy weather, I sensed a serious household emergency.
I quickly ruled out a tripped circuit breaker or ground fault interceptor. That would have been too easy. The real problem: Since the garage door opener in our last house had worked well for 15 years, followed by 2 1/2 years of flawless operation by the door in our new home, I had absolutely no experience fixing these gadgets.
So I swallowed my pride and did what no self-respecting male would otherwise do: I asked my wife where the manual was. And of course, she knew.
I soon realized that compared with a garage door opener, the average computer is a walk in the park.
You have to contend with a wired wall switch, a radio-controller for the keypad and remotes, an electric motor, two sets of contact switches to limit opening and closing, an electric eye to keep the door from closing on your cat, and a mysterious screw-drive with a rope release that actually does the work of opening and closing. Any of which could be the problem.
After removing the wall switch to make sure the wires were still connected (they were), I worked my way through the manual's trouble-shooting guide, which meant climbing up and down a ladder 50 or 60 times while I tweaked each and every one of the aforementioned components. The net result: I got the door to open, but once it closed, it wouldn't open again unless I disconnected the screw-drive, climbed up on a ladder, and re-engaged it. I knew this would not satisfy she-who-actually-parks-in the garage.
Since it was Sunday, and the garage door opener company took the day off, I waited until the next morning to call the help line. After a mere 15 minutes on hold, I got a cheerful lady whose job had not been outsourced to Bangalore and spoke good old Midwestern English. She talked me though most of the rituals I had already performed on my own (with the same amount of ladder climbing) and finally concluded that the garage door opener's controller board was faulty.
I had bought the top-of-the-line model precisely because it had a lifetime guarantee, and she immediately offered to mail a new controller board. I could either install it myself or wait a few more days for a repairman.
No problem, said the Mike-the-troubleshooter. I'll install it myself and save a couple of days.
What I didn't count on was a cold snap that sent the temperature in the garage down to 20 degrees - and a set of instructions that required me to disassemble the motor housing, disconnect 15 wires (whose colors did not match the instructions) and reconnect them in exactly the right order. When I couldn't even remove the first set of frozen screws and my hands were too numb to hold a screwdriver, I cried uncle and called back to ask for an installer.
He showed up, as promised, at the crack of dawn two days later. I gave him the new controller board, stepped outside for about 90 seconds and noticed that the garage door was suddenly going up and down. And up and down. And up and down. He couldn't possibly have had time to swap the controller board.
"Oh bleep," I said, feeling that acute sense of embarrassment that comes with making a fool of yourself in front of someone-who-knows.
The installer was actually very polite. "Did you know there was a lock on the wall switch?" he asked.
My first thought: "If I knew that, would I have called you in the first place?"
My second thought: Keep your cool. Sure enough, there at the top of the black wall switch box, was a small black slider that was virtually invisible in the gloom of the garage, but was discernible if I shined a flashlight directly at it.
The lock was apparently designed to keep the garage door from opening inadvertently or through keypad-hacking when the owners are away for an extended period. My wife or I must have brushed it accidentally the last time we closed it - without even knowing it was there.
I apologized profusely, of course, and called myself three kinds of dummy. But I realized that during our 20-minute troubleshooting session, the company tech never once suggested that there might be a lock on the wall switch. If she had, the problem would have been solved a week earlier.
"I didn't see it in the manual, either," I told the repairman.
He suggested that I look again. And sure enough, it was there - not very clearly and at the very end of the last of three full pages of troubleshooting tips.
And so, I learned two lessons in humility. First, read the manual - two or three times if necessary. Second, next time someone asks for help, don't assume he's a dolt - he may have tried as hard as I did, and missed something just as obvious.