Thursday, January 14, 2010

Dishwasher Man


For complicated reasons, my kitchen will only accommodate a dishwasher that’s less than 18 inches wide. The first one I bought, an unknown brand nobody will service, broke down after just a year or two. I orderded a new one online, and when it arrived I faced the classic homeowner’s dilemma: do I try to install it myself, or hire somebody who knows what he’s doing? Not a simple question, especially when my masculine dignity hangs in the balance. (“Masculine dignity” is a phrase I’ve borrowed from a pamphlet I got years ago from a couple of door-to-door Jehovah’s Witness types. It has become a handy buzz-phrase around our place.)

Here is the tale of my dishwasher struggle.

Why I should install it myself

Most of our house projects have been done by others: that is, by other men. This has been both a relief and an affront: relief that I didn’t have to exert myself and/or screw anything up, and an affront to my can-do male sensibility. Time and time again, as able-bodied men have carried out our home repairs, I would cross paths with them, invariably while I was carrying a load of laundry or the cat box and a little feces spatula. Or, I'd be doing a load of dishes, watching out the window as the men did some brutal landscaping job like digging a four-foot-deep trench through my backyard for a new drainage system. For socioeconomic reasons, these workers are usually Chicano, and if there’s any truth to the notion that they’re a macho bunch, they must think I’m a real sissy. They’ve all been far too professional to say anything, but I’ve self-applied the sting. I might as well be wearing an apron as they man the rotary saw, cutting the wood for my fence without need of a tape measure, a level, blueprints, or a liberal arts degree.

I doubt these workers admire my ability to bankroll the operation; that’s just as symptom of an unjust world where the bigger earners pilot a desk forty hours a week. In some cases, I wonder if the workmen actually have contempt for me. For example, when had our first dishwasher installed, the guy we hired pulled a fast one on us. There’s this anti-siphon device (the little plug that sticks out of the top of the sink and occasionally spews water), and though he put it in place atop the sink, he didn’t connect it to anything. I guess he figured we’d hassle him if he didn’t install all the accessories that came with the dishwasher, but that I’d never peek under there and notice the ruse. Either that or he just plain forgot to hook it up, which challenges the idea that it’s worth paying an “expert” to do the job.

Besides, how hard could it be to swap out one dishwasher for another very similar one? Why should I wait around while we find somebody to do it, schedule a time, go without a dishwasher until he can come do it, and pay a bunch of money on top of it? Looming over all these considerations is my male pride: I ought to be able to do this kind of thing myself.

Why I should hire an expert

I hate working on house stuff. I’m no slouch with tools, having worked for many years as a bike mechanic, but oddly enough, my experience with bikes makes home repairs particularly unpleasant for me. Bikes are predictable, well-designed, well-machined, and solid. There is generally one right way to install or repair a component, and it’s not hard to figure out what that is. When you screw in a bolt, it goes in smoothly and stops dead when it’s tight. Surfaces of things match, and when you’re done they’re flush. Everything is beautifully made; bearings are silky smooth. Bikes are a true pleasure to work on, especially the high-end racing bikes I deal with.

Homes, meanwhile, are a crazy mishmash of materials, techniques, and eras. They’re built on lumpy and/or hilly terrain that is only more or less solid. At least in my neighborhood, almost no two houses are alike. They’re worked on, over the decades, by a variety of crews with highly variable abilities and ethics. My house particularly is a kludge; built in 1929, it’s been the recipient of an unholy combination of neglect and really shoddy so-called upgrades. When I try to do the simplest thing to it, I frequently run into annoying problems. Like, I try to put a nail into the wall to hang a picture, and a crack runs across the painted plaster wall. Or I’ve missed the stud and the nail just makes a useless hole in the plaster. Or the nail goes in a quarter inch and hits some incredibly hard thing and will go no farther. And hanging a picture is probably the simplest home improvement task there is!

I also have great respect for professionals, and pity for the hapless amateur who boogers things up completely. So many times as a bike mechanic I’d inherit what could have been a simple repair had the bike’s owner not tried to do it himself. You get a partially disassembled bike and a big bag of parts, not all of which have any place on the bike to even go. (One time there was a spark plug among the detritus, as though the guy had just scooped up everything from the garage floor.) It’s bad enough to screw up a bike, but what if I made a plumbing or electrical error? I could burn my house down, or cause a massive unseen water leak that could dissolve a wall or, unbeknownst to me, soak my mudsill and attract termites.

What men do for inspiration

When I’m on the fence about whether or not to take something on, I get some advice—not from an expert, who would of course tell me to hire an expert, such as himself—but from any friend or family member who surpasses me in do-it-yourself capability. There’s a small chance this person will tell me, “Dude, you really don’t want to try that yourself,” but more likely he’ll give me encouragement and pointers. Make no mistake about it, though: you don’t ask for help unless you’re pretty sure you’ll take on the challenge. Otherwise, you’re setting yourself up to lose face in front of another male. Not a pretty sight.

I started with my brother Bryan. Fortunately for posterity, I hit him up on instant messaging, so the transcript is available for your delectation. (I’ve edited it here to weed out the side diversions that, while amusing to me, are beside the point. Also, instant messages have a way of getting out of phase, like ships crossing in the night, so I’ve rearranged things a bit.)

DA: Have you ever installed a dishwasher?
BA: No, I have not. I have worked one over pretty good, though. I reckon it’s not that hard, especially if you've already got one installed. It’s like heart surgery, only easier. Plug-n-play, baby.
DA: What if the hoses aren’t the same diameter or something?
BA: [It’s] just tubing, you know. You hook one end from the dishwasher to the thingy, and the other end of the thingy to the drain hose. You might need couplings and things, too. You can get all that junk at McGuckins the next time you're in Boulder. Maybe it even comes with your new machine.
DA: I figure if it’s an hour project with no trips to the hardware store, I'm as sound as a pound. But other than that, I'm feeling like a wuss.
BA: Like a wuss—because you're sick, or scared, or what?

This is where the conversation gets interesting. Male support is, I think, a lot different from female support. Women listen, uphold, and empathize. Men apply subtle, but powerful, pressure. By questioning your manhood, they bring out your stronger self, just like the Army. Witness:

DA: I’m scared.
BA: Just think of how impressed Erin will be with your manhood should you succeed.
DA: Right, but think of how much face I could lose if I fail!
BA: True story, I'm scared, too. Sometimes I'm scared to go home, for fear of what damage awaits me.
DA: [provides web link to 28-page installation instructions for the dishwasher in question]
BA: Man, with instructions like those, you can't go wrong! Just don't let the wife see them, or she’ll figure she can do it!
DA: Funny you should say that. I was just showing her the instructions as Exhibit A in my defense should I elect not to try this at home. “Cripes, woman, it’s 28 pages and you need a 90-degree elbow with 3/8” N.P.T. external threads, and copper tubing, and it has stuff like toekick and leveling legs!”
BA: Are you kidding? If you give up now, she'll know you're a wuss! Just hand those instructions to Alexa [my eight-year-old daughter] and she could do it!
DA: You're not making it any easier for me to wuss out, you know. “Do not solder within 6 inches (15.2 cm) from water inlet valve.” Like I know how to solder! Like I have a soldering iron!
BA: You don't have to solder! You’d use a torch, anyway. Now there’s a man’s tool. (I haven’t actually done it, but Dad has.)

With that last bit you can really appreciate Bryan’s masterful skill in applying pressure. His phrase “a man’s tool,” drawing an implicit contrast between me and a man (subtext: I am not a man!) flows perfectly into his invocation of our dad. Dad … now there’s a guy who would never, never shy away from a project like this. Check it out: even as a teenager he would boldly tear apart the engine of his VW beetle.

My dad is capable of fixing any household appliance in existence (whether or not he gets around to it promptly). One time he suspected that a hot water heater was on its last legs, and engineered a solution whereby a puddle on the floor would be detected and would trigger a solenoid that would drop some weight attached to a cord or cable that would crank closed the water supply, preventing the house from flooding. I’m not sure I’m describing this correctly, or that I have ever even understood the thing correctly, but you get the idea. My dad is a man’s man, who has tools and knows how to use them. Bryan’s simple words here meet the legal definition of entrapment, I think.

BA: But you've already got the water supply and the drain hose, so you're golden.
DA: IF they're compatible. WHICH I doubt. Our old one was a complete and total pile. A steaming load.
BA: Dude, I'm confident that you can do it. [Subtext: don’t let me down!] It’s just a couple of pipes.
DA: Come on! It's got a Waste Tee and these curvy drain traps....
BA: All that stuff's already there! Alls you have to do is unhook the old drain hose and hook the new one in its place. (Of course, you should be a man about it and hook up the air gap while you’re in there.) Just don’t electrocute yourself. I always give the kids a refresher course on what to do if you see someone being electrocuted before I do a project. More for shock value, and so that they’re duly impressed with my manhood, than anything else.

At this point, the phone rang. It was a colleague, with whom I’d separately been having a brief chat on the same topic. Guys are great. If you ask them about their health or their families you may get a few words, a cursory response. But throw out any sentence beginning with “Ever installed a…” and you’re almost guaranteed a passionate and detailed discussion. Throw in actual hardware, especially a car, and you enjoy practically unlimited use of their time and energy.

My colleague asked a number of questions about the plumbing, the old dishwasher, the new one, and so forth. We talked for about fifteen minutes, and eventually he concluded that I could probably do the job myself, though he advised me to have at least three inches of butt crack showing above my jeans.

At this point, two men—both more capable than I—had expressed confidence in me, and had thus applied the proper motivation. I was now determined to take on the project. I returned to my chat with Bryan, to give him the news.

DA: I’m goin’ in!
BA: Dude, good luck! We’re all counting on you! [An allusion to the disaster movie “Airplane,” of course.]
DA: What about “You fool! You’ll be killed!” [Bryan has missed an opportunity to play out a standard Albert set piece.]
BA: D’oh.
BA: Don’t do it, you fool!

DA: I must do this … alone!
BA: (What was I thinking?)
DA: (Yeah, no kidding.)
BA: You might want to put on some baggy jeans for full effect. (So they’re... shoot, what do the kids call it? Ah, “sagging.”) You'll be The Man if you pull this one off. [This comment, of course, shows the disingenuous nature of Bryan’s earlier assertions that this job would be really easy.]
BA: Let me know how that turns out!

DA: We shall see!
BA: Go get ‘em, tiger! Woot woot! OH, and don't forget to disconnect the power first! Worse case it doesn't have a plug, just wires, but you can just skin them and shove them in the holes. Huh huh, no. You'd have to buy a plug.
DA: Surely they would provide a plug…
BA: Man, if that’s your nightmare, you're doing okay.

How women inspire their men

Erin was astounded that I’d decided to install the dishwasher myself. Earlier she’d made a pretty airtight case for outsourcing: “Look, you don’t have all the parts on that list, and you don’t have all the tools, and you’ve never dealt with plumbing. We could call Galvin Appliance—they’ve got a guy we could hire to do it, even though we didn’t buy it there. In this economy he’d probably really appreciate the work.” This argument was convincing, even glib—an underhanded attack, perhaps, on my masculine dignity? And now, her disbelief that I was up to the challenge—bordering on prohibiting me outright from taking it on—further steeled my resolve. She had upped the ante. Failing in the task and then having to admit I was wrong … that would just be adding insult to injury. Besides, her lack of faith had slightly wounded my male ego. I had to turn that around.

How children inspire their dads

My kids had by this point spotted the huge box the dishwasher came in, and I think Erin had told them they’d have to wait before playing with it. But once they caught wind that I was installing the dishwasher right now, they cheered and danced around. They shadowed Erin and me closely as, almost tripping over them, we dragged the dishwasher into the kitchen. Alexa even said, “I’m so excited you’re going to do it, so we can watch!” If I turned back now, I’d have two very disappointed daughters. Fortunately, the box was more interesting than my struggles, so they weren’t in my way as I tackled the task.

The job itself

Before I began work, Erin urged me to print out the directions I’d found on the web. I refused. After all, many of the pages were describing how to prep the area under the counter; how to make sure the dishwasher would fit; how to move it without throwing out my back (fortunately, my back was already out, so I didn’t have to worry about that); how to splice wires together (I was sure this was for some nonstandard implementation, like if your house didn’t have a nearby electrical outlet), etc. There really were soldering guidelines, which I was certain wouldn’t apply. It just seemed like a waste of paper and ink to print that whole thing out; I would have it on the PC for reference. (At the end of the job I realized that—duh!—a paper copy of the instructions was provided with the dishwasher. In the event, I never did look at them, being, after all, a guy.)

I set about methodically photographing the existing setup before dismantling it. That part was pretty easy. I even thought to put a tub down to catch the spills.

From there it seemed a simple matter of finding the corresponding hoses and parts supplied with the new dishwasher. But wherever I looked, I found nothing. No supply line. No obvious place to hook up a supply line. No cord. It was crazy. Finally I unscrewed and removed the toekick plate, to see if the missing components were hiding underneath, like the bag of small organs the butcher puts inside a chicken or turkey. Still nothing … except a little stub were you would attach, say, a 90-degree elbow with 3/8” N.P.T. external threads. If you had one.

I looked into the old dishwasher to see what I could scavenge. I found a corresponding stub, connected via (eureka!) a 90-degree elbow to the supply line. So far, so good in avoiding a trip to the hardware store.

Next to this elbow on the old dishwasher was a little metal box that looked like it might have something to do with power. I removed a screw or two and took off the box, and found three wires coming out. Bryan hadn’t just been trying to scare me: these damn dishwashers don’t come with a cord!

How much money do you suppose the manufacturers save by not bothering to provide a cord? That is, how much would the Chinese kid or the robot get for doing a little assembly-line wiring? I couldn’t imagine, at first, why they’d skimp on this, and then it dawned on me: they can save fifty cents here and their customers will never know or care, because the cost of overcoming this hurdle will be buried in the price charged by whoever installs the dishwasher. Even if the consumer chafes at the expense of this labor, the manufacturer has already gotten their money and couldn’t care less. In a way, though, I felt reassured by this: for the company to nickel-and-dime me like this, their margins must be pretty slim; in other words, I probably got a pretty good deal.

I wasn’t happy about the idea of doing any wiring myself. After all, these wires would be near water, so there’s an electrocution risk, and any time you have live wires there’s a fire risk, and then there’s the less glamorous but equally dreadful prospect that no power would go to the thing at all, after all my work. But I was encouraged by an e-mail I’d gotten from a friend in response to my 2009 Holiday Newsletter, about my retail experience in London. She commiserated, citing a trip to London she took in 1980. She hadn’t realized her hair dryer wouldn’t work over there, and had to go out and buy a UK-compatible one. She got it home only to find it had no plug. Her British husband sheepishly told her that you had to buy that separately, at a hardware store, and wire it yourself. Now, if an entire nation had managed to put up with such nonsense, I thought, surely I can adopt the same chin-up attitude and push on with my task. Keep calm and carry on.

I phoned Bryan and consulted with him. “There’s a green wire,” I said, “which I guess is the ground, and a black, and a white. The cord from the old dishwasher has a green wire and two white. I guess the two white are interchangeable, right?”

“Oh, no!” Bryan replied. “Only one of those is live. You need to figure out which one it is.” I looked more closely. One of the cord wires had a ribbed plastic casing; the other was smoother. I looked at the photo I’d taken of the old wiring; ribbed plastic was evidently the equivalent of black. Glad I asked! Here is my handiwork:

Other than that, it really wasn’t that hard a job. Messing with the wires, and moving the elbow joint and supply line from the old dishwasher to the new one, were hassles because they’re all just inches from the floor, so I was sprawled out there a good while, my face occasionally bumping into a screwdriver. It also wasn’t pleasant having the old dishwasher drool on me periodically, or rolling over on a puddle or wet towel. I had to cut off part of the drain hose, which had a triple-diameter aperture to fit different junctions. (I confess, I’m trying to make this sound as complicated as possible.)

Getting the dishwasher to fit in the cavern below the counter was straightforward but really tedious. Lest I fall prey to what we English majors call the imitative fallacy, I’ll spare you the details. When I was done I was delighted to find wood beneath the counter to screw the dishwasher’s frame into. And then I was pretty much done!

At least, it appeared I was done. I was really wondering whether the thing would actually work. Would it get any juice from my home-wired cord? Would a hose burst and flood my kitchen? Would the dishwasher prove defective, now that my kids had dismantled the box and all the packing materials? Would some dire plumbing mistake cause raw sewage to spew up from the sink? Would some combination of problems cause the floor of my home to become electrified and kill us all?

Before I could test the new dishwasher, of course, I had to load it, and that meant generating dishes. Here’s where my family could help: we’re all great at this. In fact, my must-act-now project had delayed dinner significantly, and I was more than ready to chow down on some good blue-collar food:

Then I loaded up the new dishwasher and ran it. It seemed to take forever, only (I’m sure) because I was on pins and needles. It made the normal mild groaning and moaning noises that dishwashers make, accompanied by light swishing sounds and occasionally punctuated by a slurping gurgle in the sink. It was still toiling away when, exhausted, I went to bed. The next morning, I was greeted by a full load of sparkly clean dishes. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! I chortled in my joy.


  1. Congratulations! Now doesn't that feel good? Wasn't Erin impressed? There is one side benefit, too, and that's that if anything ever goes wrong with your installation, you know you can figure it out and fix it all by your self. I know the innards of my dishwasher so well that I feel as if I could keep it running indefinitely. (So far, I kind of already have!)

    So Dana, did you do the right thing and hook up the air gap? I couldn't tell by the pictures...

  2. Alas, when I discovered that the old air gap wasn't connected, I removed it from the sink (not wishing to be reminded that I'd either been taken for a sucker, or hired an absentminded handyman). I don't know what happened to it after that, and the new dishwasher didn't come with an air gap (since it didn't come with fricking ANYTHING). So we shall see how the dishwasher does without it. So far, so good!

  3. Well, this was a post I couldn't ignore. Dana, you should keep in mind that you have a friend who actually does this kind of thing for a living (sorta). At the very least, I know what a 3/8" N.P.T. fitting is, and I've done my share of sweating copper joints (don't say "soldering" -- people will know you're not "down"). I must say, I'm impressed with your gumption and impressed with the results. The best part of any home repair is seeing the thing you repaired do its job. This is easy in the case of a replaced dishwasher; less so in the case of a re-caulked tub. One note: all dishwashers are hard-wired (no plug). I think it's a code thing (they have rules for everything!). Another note: I've installed several dishwashers and I've never had one that needed that air gap thingy. Hmmm... I should investigate that further.

    As for doing home repairs vs. repairing bicycles, you and I should be neighbors. I never have the right tool for doing bike repairs and I'm always afraid I'll screw something up (e.g., misadjusting a "rear mech," causing my chain to jump into my spokes, seizing the rear wheel at the most inopportune time, and killing me). Thus, I leave everything beyond flat tires to my local bike shop. But the layers upon layers of good and bad work done to your average 50 yr old house is my comfort zone. I got tools, and I've got no end of un-earned confidence for fixing anything that happens under the shingles. Except the foundation. If you foundation goes bad, don't call me.

  4. Hey Dana,
    I was rapt, reading your blog. Congrats on the project! especially since yesterday I had my handyman, Jasper, here to install 20 knobs on my cabinet doors, something I could have done, and not nearly as well in maybe 6 hours (it took him minutes). He also caulked some windows and fixed the cat door, all for little money and I'm so glad I don't have a masculine ego to deal with. But I understand how it is--and Bravo! You tackled it and it works and that has to make you feel good; besides you saved an enormous sum--even here plumbers are $100/hour. My dishwasher doesn't have any air-gap thing either. The other thing that puzzles me is that it's so quiet it's hard to know if it is indeed running, a departure from any machine I've owned. Well now, what's next: a refrigerator? At least those come with a plug.

  5. And here we are, almost exactly fourteen years later, and I hear your dishwasher has washed its final load. Having become incontinent, it is unable to keep itself from emptying its soiled liquid on your floor. It was a good run.

    But now the question arises... will you install a new dishwasher, or will you and Erin romantically wash dishes by hand from here on out? (Obviously, the question that does not arise is, will you hire a man to install a new one?) A third question also arises... if you do install a new dishwasher, will you install an air gap thingy? It's also known as a siphon breaker or something like that...