Fail of the Week – Steam Cleaner fix goes bad

[Sven337] was gifted a steam cleaner, and seemed pretty happy because it helped clean the floor better than a regular mop. Until it fell one day, and promptly stopped working. It would produce steam for a short while and then start spitting out cold water, flooding the floor.

Like any self-respecting hacker, he rolled up his sleeves and set about trying to fix it. The most-likely suspect looked like the thermostat — it would switch off and then wouldn’t switch on again until the water temperature fell way below the target, letting out liquid water instead of steam after the first switching cycle. A replacement thermostat was ordered out via eBay.

Meanwhile, he decided to try out his hypothesis by shorting out the thermostat contacts. That’s when things went south. The heater worked, and got over-heated due to the missing thermostat. The over-temperature fuse in the heater coil blew, so [Sven337] avoided burning down his house. But now, he had to replace the fuse as well as the thermostat.

[Sven337] bundled up all the parts and put them in cold storage. The thermostat arrived after almost 2 months. When it was time to put it all together, a piece of fibreglass tubing that slides over the heater coil was missing. Without the protective sleeve, the heater coil was shorting out with the grounded heater body, blowing out the fuses in his apartment.

That’s when [Sven337] called it a day and threw out the darn steam mop — a few dollars down the drain, a few hours lost, but at least he learnt a few things. Murphy’s Law being what it is, he found the missing insulation sleeve right after he’d thrown it away.

39 thoughts on “Fail of the Week – Steam Cleaner fix goes bad

  1. I’m glad you documented this to share with others…
    But to be brutally honest here… it does not sound as though you should have attempted the repair in the first place.
    Shorting a thermostat for a long enough period to overheat the device is issue number one.
    Shorting other components leading to blowing the breakers in your home is another issue.

    It does not sound like you should be attempting to do repairs on mains powered devices until you get more experience on low voltage devices.

    1. A rather dogmatic and patronizing comment. Not helpful at all!

      You seem to be from the old school of “don’t touch it”.
      That is NOT the way to learn new and unexplored territories.

      Are you an Australian electrician by any chance?
      Usually they sound like you do.

      1. I am with Gryd3 on this one. The article is clearly written by someone who does not respect the dangers of the mains power.

        > Without the protective sleeve, the heater coil was shorting out with the grounded heater body, blowing out the fuses in his apartment.

        A visual inspection would have told you this. Also what’s this with fuses, plural? How many times do you need to blow the fuse to realise you have a short.

        I am not the one to say don’t do something, but you really shouldn’t mess with mains power until you have some experience with lower energy circuits. And are able to measure circuits for common failure cases before powering them on after attempting repairs.

        1. > A visual inspection would have told you this. Also what’s this with fuses, plural? How many times do you need to blow the fuse to realise you have a short.

          I love how people on the Internet jump to the conclusion that they’re interacting with an idiot. :)
          Seriously, I apologize if the article is poorly written and didn’t cover that. The fuse was hidden behind many layers of glass wool that I didn’t remove because it didn’t appear necessary, is hard to put back together, and hurts the hands. So I didn’t see it the first time, and when I finally disassembled the glass wool it was already too late.

          As for blowing it multiple times, the purpose was to try and find a way to install the fuse that wouldn’t short to ground after some time due to the heating element melting whatever insulation material I used. Every new attempt was something different being tried (3 attempts in total).

          1. I get it man, you fix one thing only to blow up another. I’ve been there. Honestly, you were right to pitch it. It’s a terribly designed product. You would have burned your house down at some point had your repair held up, only for the insulation to finally melt it something. I’ve repaired a lot of things, there’s always the ones that got away because I just didn’t have the patience to screw with it anymore.

          2. Thanks for your own reply.
            The write-up didn’t really show this though. Sometimes skimping on details makes you seem a little more amateur than you really are.
            Glad you noticed, and also glad you tossed it in the bin.

      2. If it was a low-voltage device I would agree with you, but this thing is MAINS-powered. That means if you touch the wrong wire while working on it you DIE (potentially). Depending on how the electronics are powered even hours after you unplug it internal capacitors can hold dangerous charges.
        Overall a mains device is something you shouldn’t mess with without proper knowledge or guidance by a professional.

        1. Did you even check the site? He discovered for instance that the ‘ready’ light is just a damn dumb 555 timer and :states:
          “As far as I can tell as long as the cleaner is plugged in – even if not started – the heating element will be powered up. So don’t leave the cleaner plugged and not running”

          So if you don’t open the thing up you aren’t aware and might burn down your house, making me wonder how advisable it is to not check out such a device’s internals.
          Also he clearly identified that the fuse blew because a short between the heating element and the grounded part because of the missing sleeve, so he KNOWS, he just is ignoring things, but it’s not like he doesn’t understand what’s going on. He is just being stupidly reckless. And uncoordinated since he manages to lose that sleeve, which is rather sloppy.

        1. It’s more “what’s wrong with australia”, since they have that thing where a non-electrician isn’t even allowed to install a plug on a wire.
          And people growing up in such an environment and who then become electricians are likely to be rather… conservative too.

          1. That’s only Queensland where only electricians can work on plug-in appliances.
            In the rest of the country, it’s fair game for building and repairing personal electrical appliances.

            It’s the insurance companies that are to blame for it. So that if you burn a house down because of bad electrical practices, they don’t have to pay out.

        1. Same here, but that does not really matter if its 110V or 240V; Since heart failure can set in at as little as 50mA with AC power. Hence the decision that HPFI breakers has to cut power after maximum 0,3 seconds with a fault current of 30mA. (At least here).

          And general tissue damage depends on how much power (Watts) you as an involuntary household appliance dissipates.

    2. I have plenty of experience with mains and low voltage devices.

      My first hypothesis was that the heating element was dead, so it made sense to test it. 10 seconds sufficed to overheat it to the point where it blew the thermal fuse in the cleaner. That wasn’t too smart on my part, but definitely not dangerous.
      As for the breakers in the home, newsflash, residual current devices in France are present everywhere and work quite well (you’re even supposed to test them every so often, which is what my attempts did!). What I did wasn’t dangerous in any way (except for the computer that suddenly turned off when its power was cut)
      Really, the discovery here is that shrink tube does *not* withstand anywhere as much heat as fiberglass sleeves – and that yes, there was a fiberglass sleeve, but I managed to not recall that and lose it.

      As a commenter said below, you’re being patronizing and not helpful.You seem scared of mains power but that isn’t how you fix mains powered devices. :)
      Everybody makes mistakes – then there are people who admit them and talk about them, and people who pretend they don’t.

      The purpose here is to expose a few lessons:
      – when a project takes a long time, keep an inventory of the parts you’ve removed and store them all in the same place
      – steam cleaners suck (I didn’t go into the design but they do)
      – the heating element in a steam cleaner can go really hot really fast

      1. Do not make the mistake of confusing fear with respect. One is unhelpful, the other is mandatory unless you enjoy playing Russian Roulette. I’m quite aware from experience that getting an electric shock does not generally equal insta-kill death of doom (and I have a _very_ dim view of the loud-mouths who seem to think otherwise) but that doesn’t mean I’m not willing to go to great lengths trying to avoid it (or ever blowing any fuses, for that matter). Sure everyone makes mistakes, but then again there are mistakes and there are fails, and based on what we read so far this falls firmly in the latter category – arguably entertaining but pretty much as unprofessional as it can possibly get, justifying the general “tsk, tsk” attitude.

    1. Sorry, but that’s wrong.

      Think about the symptom again: “It would produce steam for a short while and then start spitting out cold water, flooding the floor.”

      Hopefully you’ll soon realize that stopping the instant the heating element got warm as you suggest, would NOT have been a useful test in any way.

      I’ve repaired a couple of steam-producing things. In both, there was a secondary thermostat with a higher trip point. So for them, shorting a single thermostat for diagnostic purposes wouldn’t normally result in a dangerous overheat condition, or destruction of the fuse; and I did so, without incident and resulting in successful diagnosis. It’s a different story if there’s only one thermostat. But you may not be able to determine that in advance without disassembling something that can’t be easily reassembled, like critical watertight seals. Given my prior experience, if I wasn’t sure I might assume there were two, or that water would prevent overheating for a reasonable period of time; and decide that it’s worth possibly further breaking a cheap device that’s already broken, to try to fix it without spending a lot of time or money.

      Testing with a voltmeter or lamp is a nice idea, but not always so easy to accomplish. Remember we’re talking about a device with a water reservoir, and several physical and electrical interlocks. Almost complete reassembly is usually required to test, at which point may no longer have access to the part under test. Unless you do something something more intrusive, like bypassing interlocks or drilling holes for test leads; both of which introduce more opportunity for error.

      [Sven337] gained practical experience from this, without damage to person or property, and I consider that a success rather than a failure. I’m glad he shared it.

  2. I think you need to re-read Murphy’s Law, because this is not what it says. Or perhaps an article on Murphy is in order — it’s quite an interesting store in itself! But please don’t use it to mean that things scheme against you. It’s a real rule and very useful in engineering.

  3. Never fire up a water heating device without water in it. Nor a nuclear reactor.
    It’s a wonder you didn’t stink the place up with plastics on a heating element, or did you?
    A soldering iron would make a quick test of questionable matter.

    Mops are crude, so are buckets full of dirty water or diluted detergent. Spray or slop concentrated liquid cleaner and scrub, let stand and scrub some more and suck it all up with a wet vac or 5 gallon bucket adapter for a dry vac. Go over with a rinsed and squeezed out cloth either underfoot or with a dry scrub brush. No crud buildup in cracks, edges, and corners.

  4. uh, hello… when a “journeyman” level tradesman (or woman), wants to confirm the presence of an electrical “short”, typically they would pull out a device called an “OHMMETER”…. vs… plugging in the device and wasting fuses…or if you really wanteed to get fancy, use a variac and monitor the current draw while you crank up the voltage.

  5. My wife recently brought almost similar steam cleaner home for me to fix it. I found out that pump was failing and replacement costs almost as same as the whole cleaner. :-( So I took other working parts out and save them for later.
    Anyone knows for what project I could use them? ;-)

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