Today, most garages feature electronic openers that allow you to enter at the touch of a button, but that wasn’t always the case. From the early part of the 20th century, when the first overhead garage door and first electronic door opener were created, until openers invaded the average home in the middle of the 20th century, someone had to get out, no matter what the weather, and open the garage door to let the car enter.
Not only do today’s garage door openers free drivers from dealing with heavy and awkward garage doors, they are also specifically tuned to your house, so no one else can accidentally or intentionally enter without your permission. The units are small and include safety features to prevent harming children caught under the door. Modern garage door openers are great – until they quit working. When they do, don’t resign yourself to costly repair bills or stumbling out in frigid temperatures or the dark of night to open the garage door. The fix might be something simple that you can troubleshoot yourself. Problems commonly occur with the safety system, the user adjustment controls or the power supply.
How a Garage Door Opener Works
Like everything, your garage door opener wasn’t meant to last forever. The typical garage door in the U.S. opens and closes about 1,500 times a year, according to Popular Mechanics magazine, and most openers are rated to operate 10,000 times before experiencing mechanical failure. The weakest link, mechanically, is generally the torsion spring.
The torsion spring is the long, coiled piece that runs horizontally just above the door. This spring – not the motor or armature attaching the door to the mechanical unit – does the heavy lifting. A note of caution: This spring is under an enormous amount of tension and the average DIYer should not attempt to remove it. Garage doors aren’t light – steel doors can weigh 300 pounds easily.
When you push a button on the remote unit corresponding to your opener, a radio code transmits, telling the opener’s motor to activate. This motor, generally a very small horsepower unit, starts the drive system. The spring tension either pulls the door up the tracks or controls its descent. Of course there are complicated internal parts as with any motor, but most internal part replacement or repairs are advanced jobs best suited for a professional.
Garage door drive systems vary slightly. While the torsion spring helps lift the door, the drive system provides the extra power and guidance. There are three types: chain, belt and screw drives. The chain drive system is the oldest. Metal chains control the garage door movement, which is guided by overhead track present in all systems. Considered the noisiest, it has largely been replaced with belt drives, which use rubber belts to lift and lower the door, and screw drives, which employ a long steel rod that pulls or pushes the door into position as it turns.
Fortunately, many of the problems the average homeowner encounters will concern squeaking noises, irregular door opening and remote issues – none of which require entering the mechanical unit itself. If, after troubleshooting the symptoms, you are unable to fix the door opener, call a qualified professional or consider replacing the unit.
Where to Start Troubleshooting
It’s pretty obvious when the opener isn’t working: you push the button and nothing happens. Don’t panic; pay attention to little clues instead. If, for instance, a control pad fails to light up or the motor makes an unusual sound, your best bet is to check that specific component. When there isn’t a visible clue to track, consider the symptoms to suggest a cause and possibly a cure.
- Does the car remote work? Check to see if either the car remote or wall unit will activate the garage door opener first. As simple as it seems, in many cases that first panicked, “Oh my goodness it isn’t working!” is followed by the realization that the remote batteries are simply weak or dead. Incidentally, many remotes feature a blinking LED light that may actually flash to display a code which diagnoses operational problems. Consult your owner’s manual for more information.
- Check the batteries. If the remote works fine but the wall unit fails to engage the opener, first consider the power source. Some opener wall control units are battery operated while others tie into your home’s electrical wiring or simply plug into the wall. Test the batteries, if applicable, to see if that fixes the problem. Otherwise, quickly examine the plug or wiring to see if you can locate visible damage such as scorched, exposed or broken wires.
- Rule out electrical issues. Finally, move to the house breaker or fuse box and check the circuit controlling the door opener. Reset a tripped breaker – which will be out of line with the other breakers, looking half on and half off – or replace the fuse. Even if the breaker looks fine, try turning it off, waiting about 60 seconds, then turning it on again to reset the connection. Consult an electrician for damaged wiring in the breaker, fuse box, or in the home’s wiring.
- Are the sensors blocked? In newer openers, safety sensors may also be the culprit. Safety sensors work in pairs, mounted on either side of the garage door at about 10 to 12 inches in height. Each beams a light – one red, one green – across the opening. When the beam is obstructed or when the sensors cannot catch the other sensor’s light, the garage door opener will fail to engage or, sometimes, stop during operation. The fix is simple: Check for anything obstructing the sensors. Remove obstacles, position the sensors directly across from each other, or clean the sensor’s surface to remove moisture, dirt or other impediments. Afterwards, attempt to open the garage door again. If you’re successful, you know that the problem is resolved.
The Garage Door Fails to Completely Open or Close
When the door refuses to lift or lower completely, the culprit might again be the safety sensors. If the sensors are operating properly – looking again to see if the lights shine red and green and are facing each other and aligned – a likely cause is one of the limit switches.
The exact placement and appearance of the limit switch depends on the specific garage door opener. Typically, you can find limit switches on the back of the garage door opener unit, the box attached to the door track overhead. Use a stepladder to reach the switches, small plastic screws marked up and down, and turn to adjust. On some brands, the switches are instead mounted on the rail extending between the door and opener unit. Loosen the switch and move either closer to or farther from the unit, then tighten with a screwdriver. Test the garage door opener after adjustment of either to see if this solves the problem.
The Garage Door Reverses Before or After Closing
If the garage door hits the floor and reverses to open again, check the close limit switch and adjust accordingly. When it reverses before even hitting the floor, a possible cause is another adjustment feature on the opener unit called the “close force adjustment.”
As your garage door gets older, the springs wear out. The result is irregular opening and closing. The solution is to increase the force setting on your opener.
Climb a stepladder to reach the garage door opener and look for the knobs on the rear of the unit. Turn the desired control clockwise slightly to adjust and retest the door. Continue turning, one at a time and in small increments, until the door opens and closes properly and stays in position.
The Garage Door Motor Fails to Stop Running
It probably comes as no surprise: If the door opens or closes but the motor continues to run, the limit switch is probably to blame. Adjust the switch, either on the rear of the opener unit or on the track, and try the opener again to confirm the solution.
The Garage Door Opener Hums but Doesn’t Operate
Humming may be a good sign – you know it has power. The unit may simply be bound up. Check the moving parts to ensure the rails aren’t blocked and the armature is connected to the garage door. Ensure the unit is engaged, not in manual mode.
Another possibility is, again, the force adjustment. Old, weak springs may shift much of the burden for lifting and lowering the door to the opener motor and drive system. While the unit may be able to handle the weight, then again, it may not. The result will be a straining motor that fails to open or close the door. Tweak the force adjustment to solve this problem.
A handy way to determine if the fault lies in the opener or the door is to eliminate the opener. Pull the emergency release handle hanging from the overhead unit to disengage it and allow the door to open and close manually. Lift and lower the door, testing the spring and rail systems. Your door should stay at any point of travel, when released, on its own. If it doesn’t and previous steps fail to fix the problem, the springs are too worn and need replacement.
If, however, the door stays where it’s left and moves up and down smoothly, the problem is likely an internal component in the garage door opener unit itself. Keep the setting on manual, so you can continue to use your garage, and consult a qualified professional.
The Garage Door Opener is Noisy or the Door Vibrates
Some openers are louder than others. Chains rattle, springs creak and doors chatter as they move. As long as the door operates properly, barring alarming noises such as shrieks that suddenly arise or smoke billowing from the unit, there’s probably nothing to cause concern.
New noises or movements can result from loose nuts and bolts or failure in the track system. Examine every part of the door, rails, drive and springs. Tighten or adjust components as needed. Lubricate the travel mechanism with a little oil or as recommended by the manufacturer.
You can actually pop the cover off the opener unit and observe how it works when activated. Just don’t touch anything to prevent electrical shock or injury.
The Garage Door Light Fails to Operate
If your garage door opener is leaving you in the dark, check the lightbulb first; it’s the most common cause of light failure. More complex issues involve a dead socket or problems inside the motor’s circuit board.
Unplug your garage door opener or remove the batteries for 30 seconds or more. Plug it in again. In many cases this will reset the circuit board as well as fix other mechanical problems. If the light still fails to work, have a professional assess and solve the problem for you.
Annual Garage Door Opener Maintenance
Perform an annual inspection and maintenance procedure on your garage door and opener to keep it working for years. Clean all tracks and lubricate moving parts. Change batteries and check all bolts and fasteners. Inspect belts, chains and pulleys, replacing worn parts as necessary. Test the lift and close force and adjust accordingly. Look at the garage door seal and repair the weather stripping if needed.