April 16, 2010
[Warning: This post uses vulgar language because it involves the manly activity of assembling mechanical devices.]
The other day I tried to assemble two outdoor heaters that Shelly and I bought online. This is exactly the sort of project I would pay someone else to do, if such a person existed. Specifically, what I need is a man with four testicles so that when we team up we have, on average, enough to get a job like this done.
Did I mention that the heaters use liquid propane? Or that they come with angry warnings guaranteeing you will die in a giant fireball? Maybe the manufacturer has to say that sort of thing for legal purposes, but I took it as a death threat. My fight-or-flight response went straight into overdrive. I picked up a screwdriver and started going all knife fight in every direction in case the heaters had accomplices.
So, now imagine my complete lack of mechanical skill applied to a situation in which a mistake will catch my shirt on fire, but I won’t care because by then the rest of me will be scattered among the neighbors’ burning trees. That’s the image running through my head as the beads of my sweat smeared the ink on the barely helpful heater assemble instructions.
At some point in a project like this, inevitably, I run out of patience with a screw that should go straight into a hole but insists on going all squirrelly. I suppose the proper method involves continuous trying until you are sure the screw is properly straight before tightening. My method involves getting pissed off on the 27th attempt and then tightening the shit out of the screw until it is halfway in, like the Tower of Pisa, and the Phillips head is so stripped it looks like a tiny bowl. On most projects I have the option of simply living with my poor craftsmanship. With these heaters, one bad screw might be the difference between dying in a giant fireball and dying in an even gianter fireball.
The assembly directions estimated it would take 30 minutes. That’s about how much time it took me to get everything out of the box, and to vacuum up the shitstorm of Styrofoam debris. I carefully arranged all of the pieces on the ping pong table and hoped something was missing so I could give up. But no luck, it was all there.
I have noticed that the people who write assembly directions often assume too much of the buyer. Those direction-makers have a lofty idea of my powers of deduction, assumption, and anticipation. But let me say to you direction-makers as clearly as I can: If you don’t put it in the directions, I’m not going to fucking do it.
The gap between my literal interpretation of the directions and the proper assembly process soon became a problem. One component had an ever-so-slight bend, but seemed to fit no matter how you screwed it in. To my credit, I noticed after the sixth try that something wasn’t quite right. But before I noticed, I stripped one screw in an attempt to make brute force a perfect substitute for proper assembly. That’s when I noticed that the vendor shipped two extra screws for just that one part of the heater. In other words, I assume enough people had made the same mistake I did that some engineer decided to throw in a few spares. I guess that was cheaper than fixing the directions. Still, you can never be totally comfortable with leftover parts. No one wants his last words to be “I wonder why I have these two extra screws. OH GOD, NO! SHUT OFF THE VALVE! SHUT OFF THE…”
Amazingly, three hours into the project, I had assembled both heaters. Now I had to figure out how and where to buy the fuel tanks. Someone suggested Walmart, but I think you can see where this is headed. Walmart did indeed have some liquid propane fuel tanks, but I needed confirmation that they were suitable for my heaters.
Yeah, I tried to ask a technical question at Walmart.
Now, I don’t want to say unkind things about the fine folks who work at Walmart. But I wouldn’t object if you use your imagination to fill in the blanks. You might even want to get out of your chair and mime the expression and posture of the person to whom I asked my question. I’ll bet your impression won’t be far off. Anyway, since I didn’t want to die because of something I learned at Walmart, I decided to try Home Depot.
You can ask a Home Depot employee just about anything and get a satisfying answer. I might ask, for example, “How many times would I need to pound this particular nail with a 3-pound hammer to get it in?” The Home Depot guy would look me in the eye and ask, “What kind of wood?” And then I might say, “There are different kinds of wood?” Then the Home Depot guy would put a tape measure around my forearm, shake his head, and say, “For you, about 435 hits.” And he’d be right! So it was no surprise that he pointed me to exactly the right liquid propane tanks. As far as I know.
On the way home, I noticed that the minivan needed gas. I filled the tank and realized that along with the liquid propane bumping around in the back, I had enough explosives to take out a strip mall. All I needed was a spark. And the town was full of sparks. Sparks are pretty much everywhere. When a police car rolled by, all sparky, I tried to look as un-terrorist as possible, which is hard to do when you’re sitting on a weapon of mass destruction and a turtle is trying to burrow out of your ass.
Back home, I carefully connected the tanks to the heaters, and followed the directions to use soapy water to test for gas leaks. The directions didn’t say how much soapy water I was supposed to use, and I didn’t want to err on the side of too little. I’m nervous that way. I just kept adding soap and checking for leaks. Shelly finally sent our dog into the giant soap mountain to find me and lead me to freedom.
The hardest part was trying to turn on the heaters. The process involves turning a knob several thousand times while absolutely nothing fucking happens. Except that maybe you are forming a giant invisible gas cloud around your general vicinity that will ignite if and when a spark is ever generated by all of your knob-turning. It’s not a good place to be.
The directions even predict the product won’t work. They include a workaround that involves sticking a lighter into a hole when all else fails. Finally, Shelly came out and offered to help. She had a theory about hearing some sort of hissing sound and guessing it meant something good was happening. While I could accept that hypothesis as being potentially correct, the competing hypothesis involved a giant fireball. So I split the difference and told her to explore that hypothesis while I positioned myself between the heater and the pool. I figured the explosion would propel me into the water and, with any luck, extinguish my flames.
But in the end, Shelly got the heaters started. Now I worry that the connections will come loose before we use them next time. I’ll need to buy more soap.