Improved to the Point of Useless

jarsI wish manufacturers would realize that some things are good enough as they are. I don’t mean to be so hard on those guys; I’m sure that it isn’t easy to keep a product competitive these days. I also realize that that some bad ideas are a step along the way to something truly remarkable, like the condiment jars that you can stand upside down in your fridge. Yeah, I am easily impressed. For today though, I’m sticking with my opening statement, some things are simply good enough and should be left alone.

A couple of months ago, for no apparent reason, the power unit of our central vacuum system started malfunctioning. The symptoms were pretty frustrating:

First, the power unit wouldn’t start when we inserted a hose into one of the outlets.

We checked the outlets, the visible wiring and the breaker but everything looked fine and tested correctly.

Finally, I pressed the reset button (everything should have a reset button). We re-inserted the hose and the vacuum system came to life, but when we removed the hose, it wouldn’t stop. In case you’re wondering, when a central vacuum power unit starts sucking against a system full of closed outlets, you should prepare to hear some otherworldly sounds of mechanical anguish.

We dug out the manual that came with the unit and performed the series of troubleshooting steps listed under “Unit fails to start” and “Unit fails to stop.” There are six different things to check when a unit doesn’t start. We checked all of them. All were fine. All systems go.

There is one step for a unit that fails to stop:


…and actually, that really wasn’t much help.

The next thing we did was to check to see if the unit was still under warranty. Of course, you know the answer to that question.

Despite the unit being almost a year beyond its protected lifespan, I called the number listed for Technical Support. I explained the situation and I added that I had already performed the troubleshooting steps. The process was much easier than most computer tech-support calls. The woman did not make me perform all the steps listed in the manual again. She simply said:

It sounds like there’s a problem with the motherboard.”

The motherboard?


Why on earth does a vacuum cleaner need a motherboard?

This vacuum runs ran at one speed and It is was turned on and off by a set of switches and a relay (invented in the 1830’s). The motor has to be protected from overheating, but that’s why they invented fuses – replaceable fuses (also invented in the 1800’s). The only function that might have had to be programmed onto the motherboard was the “logic” that powered the series of LEDs that indicate how full the dust bin is.

Note to vacuum designer: When you are close enough to see which bin-content-level LED is illuminated, you are close enough to look into the window of the dust bin…just sayin.

The LEDs were never accurate anyway. We have a dog, so the bin has to be emptied when there is about ¼” of dirt at the bottom and about 10” of fluffed-up dog hair floating around, a point at which none of the LEDs were ever on. Besides, by the time we make the trip into the burner room to check the bin, we’re going to empty it regardless. Nobody is going to go to all that trouble and then say, “Ooh, it’s good for a couple more days.” We just empty the thing every Thursday when we put out the trash.

We were told that the unit could be repaired. The diagnostic fee would be $75. A new motherboard would cost $140 and there would be the labor charges to install it. We would have to have used an authorized service company (about 45 minutes away). We couldn’t simply buy the board.

After purchasing and installing a new power unit, built by a different manufacturer and without a motherboard, I took the old one apart. Yes, I’m one of those guys.

I removed the motherboard, isolated the low-voltage wires and connected the wires carrying 120 volts from the fuse (overheating) to the switch (on/off) to the motor. The unit is now hanging in my garage and will soon be sucking stuff off the floor or out of a car.

I was going to talk about several other things that have been perfected beyond the point of being ridiculous, but I’ll save those for a future post.

By the way, the guide for interpreting “we” is as follows:

If it involves vacuuming, emptying the vacuum, being able to find the instruction manual for the vacuum or a receipt for anything purchased more than 20 minutes ago; “we” means my wife.

If it involves checking electrical things, pushing reset buttons and tinkering with something that when you plug it back into the wall could potentially cause an electrical shock and / or result in a fire, “we” means me.

Do you have things in your life that have been improved too much? Please share your thoughts below.

61 thoughts on “Improved to the Point of Useless

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  1. Well the coffee maker I guess. We used to buy one that we need to brew it first then it shall turns itself to coffee in the teapot given. Now, we bought another coffee maker. It brews itself and does everything itself. The only thing we family need to do is pour the water from the back and switch on the coffee maker. ;)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. A few years ago we had an early snow storm while trees still had leaves). So many trees and branches broke, bringing down power lines as they fell that we were without power for 10 days. My wife dug out the old coffee maker which worked fined. Thanks for the comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I might be the only person who misses having a cassette player in a car. Our old Odyssey had a CD player, headphone jack, and a cassette deck; we had to pay extra to get the cassette player even in 2003, but it was worth it. As a homeschooling mom who was looking for ways to “do school” on the go, I invested in many books on tape — mostly children’s classics. When we finally replaced the Odyssey, we discovered that the cassette deck was not an option any more. We’ve tried using a battery-powered boom box in the car with a headphone jack, but the sound quality is not as good as with the built-in cassette player. Now I have many books on tape that can’t be easily listened to in the car. . . .

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, it wasn’t all learning; we had some Harry Potter and Brian Jacques books. Aside from the HP, my youngest daughter was not fond of historical fiction, so she hasn’t missed the books on tape :) I misspoke: the 2003 Odyssey lacked a headphone jack. I do love the bluetooth connection in our new Odyssey.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I wasn’t a fan of the bluetooth in the car until it evolved to include the ability to play music. The last road trip with my daughter was the easiest one ever for music. I think some of our favorite times going mobile though were in an 1988 Red Dodge truck that had a cassette player and stashes of tapes in little cubbies throughout the cab.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. You had me at ‘condiments that stand upside down in the fridge.’ Ongoing ‘argument’ in my house.
    Me: Stand it upside down; that way you can read the label. He: You don’t stand something on its cap. What if it leaks? I dread when something breaks. Must be a guy thing–taking it apart. He practically salivates to find out what’s wrong. This was so spot on, Dan.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. We loved this. We being the “me” we. And we are sorry that you’ve had to deal with the insanity that is planned obsolescence. We, as in husband and wife we, have lived to tell the sad story about replacing the electronic circuit board on our built in range. A unit that came with the house, and if I (as in me) had my way, I’d have an old-fashioned electronic deal with no bells, no whistles, and a plain 35-cent light bulb, not the fancy-schmancy $25.00 jobs. Yes, that’s right. $25 EACH for the four light bulbs. Heck, if I had my way, I’d have a wood burning cook stove.

    Aren’t you (as in you) glad you asked?

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I always like the humor of your posts, especially on such topics which coud be boring.
    I don’t know if it counts as an answer but I don’t think that the seatbelt that tightens around you when you click it an improvement. I always wear my seatbelt. Always. But I don’t need this so-called improvement that squeezes around me. See you!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Definitely all the electronics such as the control panel for the washer or the computer for our cars. Give me and on and off switch and I am happy. Now you have to have your car’s computer read by the dealer to tell you what’s wrong. Our car was accelerating by itself after going down a grade. The dealer told me this was the computer telling the call to accelerate even if I did not have my foot on the gas. I thought the engine was going to explode and the tachometer was revving up, up ,up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some of the early car automation features were great but it is an area where it’s getting absurd. I think we are caught in what will ne remembered as “the time when people were still driving cars themselves” Thanks for the comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. sounds like you have a very high tech vac system – I mean your wife does – lol – and I agree that some things need to be left alone – but I also think some things are just built so cheaply that it is not about design – it is poor quality or sloppy craftsmanship.
    quick share – when we bought all new appliances a few years ago – I instead we go Maytag. And we spent a bit more because when I was goring up they were a good brand. However, most things are nice when they are brand new – cheap cars, cheap clothes, or appliances – and it is only after some wear that you see the quality – and so after a couple of years we were scratching our head about the quality – looked up some stuff and found that they were not a GE line. nothing against GE – but… well… some things are just not made very well and when we upgrade next time – I will research things better. :)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. More high tech thsn necessary. I agree that quality is sldo a problem. When you pay more for a top brand, you should get high quality. We had Maytag washer forever. We replaced it with another Maytag, only to discover whst you experienced. Research is required more than ever.


  8. Dan, this is so so funny! I enjoyed every single word. Those things in my life that are improved to the point of useless – telephony systems that guarantee every call answered within 5 seconds; too bad the caller doesn’t get to talk to an actual person, like ever!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Gone are the days when you checked the connections in the plug, the connections of the lead to the machine itself and then simply meggered the lead. Doing those three things you were bound to find the fault, unless of course the motor packed up. I agree Dan let’s get back to a bit of simplicity. :-)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Don. You would be shaking your head at this device. The reset button seems to be related to some function on the motherboard. The “fuse” is a soldered-in deal rather than something that could easily be replaced after it fails.


        1. Assuming that you are clever enough to check the continuity around the “fuse,” yes, you would have to solder a new one in (or jump around it). You can’t even get to the fuse without removing the housing, so I guess they assume that it’s beyond most homeowners. I am guessing that the reset button, in conjunction with the motherboard, catches most of the minor overloads. Now that I’ve eliminated that bit, I’m left to the safety of this fuse. Fortunately, the unit seems to bear up against a lot of strain. We’ve had socks and dog toys get sucked into it without it tripping off. It’s basically going to be living in retirement now, sucking dust out of a band saw and the periodic cleaning of my car.


        1. The new one that we replaced it with is a much less complicated design. Power cord, thermal reset button, low-voltage relay and motor. Like they were 30 years ago and it works fine. And, we bought it from a vacuum dealer where we were able to test it and compare it to a cheaper, less capable unit and ask questions of the owner. Personal attention, a better unit, a longer warranty (10 years vs 5), mostly steel construction AND we paid less than we would have at the big-box store for another one of these plastic computerized marvels.


  10. AAAARGH! See, this is how I found you! I like knobs! Everything has gotten so bleedin complicated and made to the point of planned obsolescence, that it only contributes to a disposable society! How infuriating! The motherboards on ranges and washing machines fuel my fear of digital appliances and if I might add, NOT EVERYTHING NEEDS TO BE DIGITAL! I like a nice watch with gears and cars with reachable parts, and furnaces without half a dozen safety switches! No one neeeeeds a digital toaster! Oh for the love!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I kinda thought you might agree. I work with computers every day but i would agree, not everything needs to be digital. I have an analog watch and i love it. I dont need to know that im going 68 mph. “Under 70” works. Thanks!


  11. Our (as in we; as in our) version of a central vacuum system is opening the east and west windows and letting the front range winds blow the old dust out and new dust in. No LED lights were used in writing this comment.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I’m continually amazed at learning about things I had no idea existed — a centralized vacuum system!?!?! Having grown up so far south, where the water table seems to be about 2 inches above grounds sometimes, “basements” were a totally foreign concept until I moved to DC for grad school. I remember my Meme and Pawpan’s vacuum cleaner — a huge metal pot on wheels. I’m sure they had it for a while before I can remember it, and I think it only went out when I was in my 30s. I think it even had a switch.

    In the 20ish years that I’ve had to care about such things — I think I’m on my 6th vacuum cleaner. It’s a Dyson now (at the insistence of my wife), so theoretically it’ll be around for at least another half decade. I hope.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This house had central vac when we bought it. The original unit lasted (the previous homeowner and us) about 30 years. The new and improved model lasted just under 6 years. The new one has a 10-yr warranty. My wife likes it, but she also likes having an upright vacuum cleaner. She can’t talk herself into a Dyson and I’m not trying to help. I remember the old metal pot on wheels style vacs, my grandmother had one too. It probably lasted her her entire married life. Progress! Thanks for the comment.


  13. I like Steve Weissman’s comment. People should have reset buttons! Ha, ha!
    I think manufacturers do not use what they make. Otherwise, they would know that there’s a point beyond which any more improvement is disadvantageous. Great post, Dan. I enjoyed the technical parts, especially. And I like that you took it apart by yourself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Peter. I couldn’t resist taking it apart sinc eI knew the motor worked. I hate throwing things away if I think I can use them. I agree with you and Steve about people needing a reset button. As we move more and more manufacturing and engineering out of this country, I wonder if the disconnect between designers and consumers will widen.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. This was great! I am impressed that you know enough to be able to look something over. I have to agree with the idea of “since when does a vacuum need a motherboard”??
    I also agree with Ellie, the first thought that came to mind was coffee maker. What’s wrong with just pour in water, put in coffee, push button. Sigh. It’s enough to make one consider embracing Luddite-ism, sometimes. :)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Can you imagine not being able to make coffee because you don’t have a K-Cup? Taking things apart doesn’t always help, but I usually feel better. The last washing machine we tried to fix cost us $75 to have a repairman say “this can’t be fixed” meaning – it can’t be fixed for less than the cost of a new machine. Thanks for the comment.


  15. Good piece, Dan. My hat’s off to you, doing all that rewiring. I can do some good, basic fixes around the house, but I would be wary of fooling with that stuff. And hey, don’t you think any post about things being “improved the point of uselessness” should include a reference to computer programs? They’re always updating them to the point where they actually *have* bugs and don’t work nearly as well they used to!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Paul. It’s getting harder and harder to even be able to take something apart, let alone fix it. So many things are in cases that, the only way to open them is to break them.

      I have to be careful about picking on computer programmers since that has been my career. I have heard the “the old version worked better” complain a few times. I might try a post on that but it might have to wait until I retire so I don’t offend anyone in my group.


  16. Most things have been “improve” and ruined, in my opinion Dan. Even our favorite food products! It’s so bad they have to have “throwback” products come out to appease us “oldsters” who really loved the original product. Hell I really miss the old original Taco flavored Doritos. I could eat a whole bag by myself. Now there is that over the top ranch flavored one focused on sour cream. uggg. And original barbecue flavored fritos. History. Yeah…..good thing I no longer eat much junk food. Maybe it’s for the best…….sigh.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I took some pictures today for a future post (I have to get off this path for a while after one more rant). I went to buy dental floss, which my wife usually buys. There had to be 50 choices! Waxed/unwaxed – how hard was that? Thanks for the comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Ha. And my husband….boy I thought I was going to have to tranquilize him when Vidal Sassoon stopped making his favorite shampoo. He does not like CHANGE when it comes to favorites. He just likes to change our lives again and again. haha. I agree with you about it all…..

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I just asked my husband if he knew that a vacuum cleaner has a motherboard! He didn’t. It never crossed my mind that a vacuum cleaner could be so high tech😄 About new and improved…I used to be able to get a rain check when an item on sale sold out at the store. Now, I have to order online. The online prices can differ from the local ad price. It can be a real hassle.

    When I don’t feel like cooking, I’ll say to my husband, what are “we” cooking for dinner? With that question, he knows he’ll be cooking! 😄

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Sorry for the late comment on this one. I read this the moment you uploaded it. I was almost about to sleep in my bed, browsing on my smartphone when I got an update on this post. I read it, but thought would comment it later in the morning but got busy with the work. Anyway, I am finally taking out my weekend time to cover up on that. Well, I have tons of old stuff and this year I am discarding a lot of it. I had these crockeries that date back to 1920s and 30s, some chipped and completely ruined. However, I am still keeping my very first Timex watch which is also a gift from my late mother. It dates back to 1994 when I was 14 and I wanted a watch and she told me to perform well at school and in return she would buy me that watch. I fulfilled my part of the bargain and she took me to the store to buy me that watch. I still wear a Timex, but a newer model.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. I hear you, I hear you!!! Drives me crazy! That was a great tale…I have an Aerus central vac system…I can totally relate the emptying of the tank. Have never had any (fingers crossed) trouble with it. I pray I never have to chase down a short in the wiring…or I at least hope it can just be found right at the inlet receptacles…not through the wall plumbing of it.
    I am always the “we” here in our place…after I caught my man using the weedwacker to trim a hedge, a tall OVERHEAD thing…w/o eye protection I laid down a law: he’s not to touch any power tools or electrical stuff lest he wants his fingers broken one knuckle at a time by the Boss (me! ) because he’s JUST DANGEROUS. :D Besides, I like having him around…would hate for him to hurt himself…
    Of course, the cordless screwdriver/drill thing I let him do… I am the auto mechanic/computer techie, and the electronics troubleshooter for the rest.
    Light bulbs are my pet peeve…I LIKED my edison-fashioned tungsten bulbs…and they weren’t hurting anybody that I know of…those curly, high-priced fluorescent things have NEVER lasted like they say they will and they are filled with poison (mercury, etc) and no one throws them away like they are told to….and I miss carburetors, muscle cars you can modify, …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh my, you and my wife may have to buy a warehouse for those Edison style bulbs. I get to use the power tools, but my wife supervises. When we were replacing our roof structure, she was the OSHA “representative” (that wasn’t the word we usually used). She made sure things were safe and load (on the ladder lift) were centered. Not 47 1/2″ center on a sheet of plywood, 48″ if you please or it’s not going up. I love comments that extend the story and prove that I’m not alone in the world. Thanks CJ, give that mouse a cracker.


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