A few years ago, I got tired of a toaster that didn’t bother popping up before the toast was charcoal, so I got on-line and ordered a commercial-grade toaster from some restaurant supply store. Based on the presumption that restaurants couldn’t afford to have a toaster that didn’t work right, I hoped to have a reliable appliance well into the future. Unfortunately, that hope was unfounded. Within two years, the toaster quit working. You could hold the handle down and the heating elements would do their thing, but it wouldn’t stay down.
Isaac, being one of the bigger fans of toast in this house, rigged up an elastic band that would hold the handle down, but it wasn’t long until this arrangement produced it’s share of carbonized bread. Unfortunately for Isaac, I don’t eat a lot of toast anymore, so I didn’t really have much of a motivation to replace it. However, a few weeks ago I got a bug in my ear, went out to the garage for some tools, and tore down the toaster to see if I could figure out what was wrong.
The toasters I’d taken apart in the past (yes, I’ve disassembled one of almost everything at this point in my life) all used a bi-metalic strip in a mechanical assembly to hold the toast down until it heated up enough and bent far enough to release the mechanism. All in all, it’s a pretty simple setup, if a little unpredictable when trying to set the toaster for the perfect toast. I figured something had been bent or broken in this kind of an arrangement, and that I could probably adjust or repair it. If not, what difference did it make? The worst I could do was to ruin an already broken toaster. However, when I got it apart I realized my original assumptions were wrong.
This high-falutin’ hoity-toity commercial toaster used a digital timer circuit to control how long to leave the toaster on. This, as luck would have it, was a good thing. I’m reasonably good with mechanical stuff, but my bread-and-butter has for years been electronics. I pulled out my well-worn but still functioning test equipment from the days when I actually got paid for fixing things and went to work. Within a few minutes I’d reverse-engineered the simple circuit and identified the bad part. Easy, I thought to myself, I’ll just add this part to my next Digikey order for one of my other geek projects.
As it turned out, Digikey doesn’t carry the integrated circuit I needed. Neither do Mouser or any of the other parts-houses I’ve used before. The defective part was made by a Chinese semiconductor company and only available from China. In fact, the only place I could find to order it from without having to read Mandarin (or whatever language it was) was aliexpress.com, and it would take 2-10 weeks to arrive. The good part was that it would only cost me about $5.00 for 5 of the things including shipping it over on the slow-boat. I placed my order and sat back to anticipate the part’s arrival. What I’ll do with 4 extra “toaster timer” IC’s I’m not sure.
The parts arrived yesterday. Compared with Amazon, the shipping times leave a little to be desired, but I had the part in-hand so I went out to the garage and went to work without grumbling too much. I soldered in the new component, tested the toaster, and put it all back together pleased with a job well done. However, no sooner had I assembled it than I realized it wasn’t working. While it had been working on the bench while disassembled, it seemed to have a different opinion about proper behavior when fully assembled and on the kitchen counter.
I spent the next three hours disassembling, testing, tweaking, reassembling, testing disassembling, etc… Any time I put it all back together it wouldn’t latch the handle down. As it turned out, somewhere along the line, someone pushed a little too hard on the handle, and it bent the assembly, almost imperceptibly, but significantly. Any time the whole toaster was assembled, the case would interfere with the handle and prevent it from fully engaging the locking mechanism. It took forever to get everything straightened out and working reliably.
So, this gets down to my problem… I was seriously considering tearing out the electronics and programing one of my Arduinos to control the toaster. What kind of an idiot would do that? The alternative wasn’t much better. Instead of re-engineering a solution, I spent an inordinate amount of time fixing something that, in the end, is worth no more than half an hour of my time if I were to bill out at an hourly rate. I should have stopped before I even took it apart the first time, little lone the time and energy spent actually fixing it. The fact that I was actually cogitating re-engineering the thing to work with a custom-programmed micro-controller speaks volumes. Normal people would have just thrown the dumb thing in the trash and gone to WalMart for a new one.