Appreciate motor expertise when you find it

July 10, 2008
Editor in Chief Paul Studebaker, CMRP, says you have to appreciate expertise where you find it.

On the south side of Valparaiso, Ind., just north of Route 30, behind Duffy’s Bar on Axe Avenue, there’s a group of tin-roofed, cinder-block buildings roughly gathered around a weedy, potholed gravel parking lot. The simple, well-used structures house a set of businesses every town needs, but fewer have as time goes by. There’s Lucht Blacksmith & Welding, On-Site Services’ fix-it and small engines, L&S Auto Repair, Northern Indiana Door Service and the subject of this month’s column, Tholen Motor Service.

What do you do when, at the onset of a long, hot Chicago summer, your 83-year-old mom’s 40-year-old General Electric through-the-wall air-conditioner blows fuses and won’t run? Of course, you replace it with a new, modern, efficient unit. But what if your long-deceased dad had adapted it into a window seat, using his own hands to make unique and clever control extensions and custom air ducts, so no new unit would fit without major revisions? Maybe you’d do what I did — try to find out what’s wrong with the old one and get it fixed.

Dad made it easy to pop the chassis out, so I did that and took it home, plugged it into a 240-volt supply protected by a 20-amp circuit breaker and switched it momentarily to “Low Fan.” The blower motor lurched, threw sparks and made a large puff of smoke. Rotors and stators mystify me, but nuts and bolts don’t, so I took some pictures of how it goes together, excavated the motor, and carried it (along with its capacitor) to Mr. William Tholen, proprietor of the above-mentioned Motor Service.

Tholen’s one-man shop is about 14 feet wide and 30 feet deep. Enough space for a small, well-worn counter for one or two standing customers is given over to folks like me; the balance is filled with benches, instruments, machine tools and work in progress. On a warm day, open front and rear doors provide cross-ventilation.

At this point I must mention that this isn’t the original fan motor — that was replaced two years ago by trained HVAC professionals. My intention was to find out what went wrong with it after only two years so I could decide whether to repair or replace it, or deal with the great unknowns of finding and putting in a whole new air conditioner. Of course, I hoped to avoid the cost of another motor and the HVAC shop’s labor charge.

Tholen isn’t as old as my mom, but he’s definitely my senior and speaks with the heavy Dutch or German accent I’ve often found associated with an appreciation of fine old machinery and the desire to keep it working properly. “Sparks and smoke, you say?” he exclaimed as he peered at the motor with obvious enthusiasm. “Write your name and number on this piece of paper, I’ll call you when I’ve looked at it tomorrow morning!”

Right on time, Tholen called to tell me the motor couldn’t be repaired, and offered a replacement at (“Are you sitting down now?”) about $220 with tax and shipping. I asked him if he could tell me why it failed, because it wouldn’t be worth replacing the motor for just another two years of service. He said it had been fitted with the wrong capacitor. “It should be 4 microfarads, and it’s a 10, so the motor was drawing 1.5 amps instead of 1.1. That might be the reason,” he said. “The new motor will come with the right capacitor.”

Wow, I thought, $220 is a lot to spend on this old air conditioner, especially since it probably uses twice as much electricity as a new, Energy Star-rated unit. But on talking it over, we decided some things are worth keeping even if they’re not the most efficient option. At least we wouldn’t be scrapping it.

I had already found a new motor on the Web. I could have thanked him for the bad news, ordered the motor myself, and had it and the capacitor delivered to my door for about $160. Instead, of course, I asked him to get it for me.

Because every town needs a Tholen Motor Service, and fewer have one as time goes by.

E-mail Editor in Chief Paul Studebaker, CMRP, at [email protected].

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