It was late Friday afternoon. The phone rang, and I looked at my watch. It said about five minutes before five. That was back when work days were supposed to be eight to five, and the concept of 24/7 had yet to be discovered. What the heck, I thought, there can't be much going on this time of day. I'll take this one last quick call. Wrong-o.
The voice was big and rough.
“This is Jack up in Casper. Wyoming. I've been workin' on this boiler all week, and I gotta get it goin' before the weekend. Think you can help me?”
“Well, I'll try,” I replied. “What's the problem?”
“Bad module,” he declared. “You know, ignition module. The gray box. I've replaced it twice already and they're all junk. You think you can find me a good one?”
“Well, you know, the problem may not be the module. Manufacturers say that 80 percent of the modules they get back on warranty have nothing wrong with them. Usually the problem is wiring -”
Jack jumped in. “I said I got some junk here and I need you to help me.”
I could see there was nothing to do but flow with the bad module theory.
“Jack, let's check it out. What voltage do you have going into the module?”
“The what in the what?”
“What voltage do you have -”
“Enuf!” he interrupted. “I got enough.”
Enough? I thought to myself. I said, “OK, you have enough. But humor me for a moment. How much is it?”
“Now, how would I know something like that?” he cackled.
“Do you have a meter?” I asked.
“Shur, I got a meter.”
“Could you take a voltage reading?”
I was a bit stunned by his directness. Then I recovered.
“Well, why not?” I asked.
“'Sin the truck.”
What? I wondered. Oh, he said it's in the truck.
“Could you go and get it?” I asked.
“Jack, just in case you can't find your meter when you do go look for it, may I suggest a couple things about buying one?”
“Sure, can't hurt.”
“You can get a cheap meter for about 10 bucks.”
“That's all? I thought they were expensive.”
“Not like they used to be. Of course, depending on how fancy you get, you can pay a lot. But you need just a simple one.”
“Well,” he said. “They're really hard to use, anyway, aren't they, readin' where that itty bitty needle is on all those itty bitty numbers?”
“That's how it used to be. Those old ones were a challenge. But that's not what we use these days. Those old ones were analog, and that's not the kind you want to buy. Now we use digital. They're easy.”
“Hold your horses, there,” Jack broke in. “I thought digital was always more complicated?”
“Not so with meters. Digital is easy because it gives you the reading in nice big numbers right there on the meter.”
“Well, is digital more expensive?”
“A little, but worth it. You can get a nice digital meter with everything you need for under $50.”
“Well, 50 bucks is a fair amount of change!” Jack exclaimed.
“How much you going to be spending on beer this weekend?” I kidded.
“OK. Ya got me on that one,” Jack conceded.
I continued. “The other reason to spend the 50 bucks is that they don't break so easily as the $10 analog model. So it's going to last longer.”
“Where do I get this thing and what do I ask for?” Jack asked.
“Ask your plumbing and heating supplier for a simple digital meter with volts AC and continuity. That's all you need.”
“And then what do I do with the thing?” Jack asked.
“For now, ignore everything except for AC voltage setting. On the meter there will be a letter 'V,' for voltage. And it'll probably have either the letters 'AC' beside it or a squiggle above it. Either way, that's for alternating current. If there are two Vs, pick the one with the squiggle above it. Or instead of that, if there's a V-A-C, you know, like the first three letters of 'vacation,' pick that setting.”
“OK,” Jack agreed. “What's that mean?”
“Both of those mean AC voltage, or Voltage, AC. AC stands for 'alternating current.' That just means it's house current, the same stuff that comes into any house or building.”
“OK, I got it - Sparky's stuff,” Jack commented.
I looked at my watch. “Yeah, electrician stuff. There might be a couple different number settings for volts on the meter. You just pick the biggest number there. That'll protect the meter.”
I continued. “Now, you said you already replaced the module a couple times this week. Those modules came in boxes, right?”
“Do you still have one of the boxes?”
“'Sin the truck.”
“Right,” I said, thinking the chances of there actually being a box in the truck were a little better than there being a meter.
I went on anyway. “Inside the box is a set of instructions. Did you see them?”
“You mean all that paper in there?”
“Exactly. Inside those instructions, there's a chart called a troubleshooting chart. It tells you what to do with the meter to find out what's wrong with your ignition system.”
“Uh, OK, I guess.”
“No kidding. This will work. But Jack, this is really, really important. You have to start at the very top of the chart and go step-by-step. You can't start in the middle, even if that looks right to you.”
“Why not?” Jack asked.
“Because you can get the wrong answer that way. And Jack?”
“You can't skip steps.”
“Even if I know that's not the problem?”
“Right. Because what you know isn't the problem might actually be the problem. Sometimes it's different than you think.”
“What's this chart look like again?”
“Jack, do you have a fax machine in your office?”
“Uh, I don't exactly have what you could call an office. But my daughter-in-law's got a fax back at the house.”
“Perfect. I'm going to fax you a troubleshooting chart, just in case you can't find it in that box in your truck.”
“Yeah, that's a good idea,” said Jack. “I was wondering about that.”
“And Jack, I know the weekend's about to start.” (And none too soon, I was thinking.) “One more thing - if you drink a couple beers before you start working with the meter -”
“Don't do that. That'll kill the meter.”
Coming in future columns: Troubleshooting with a multimeter and using a troubleshooting chart.