Book Review: “Important Safety Instructions”

With yesterday’s high temperature outside my home hitting a record 98 degrees, I thought it would be wise to supplement our air conditioning with a small fan. The local CVS store had an inexpensive model so I bought it.

As soon as I got home, I was afraid I’d made a mistake. True, there was a picture of what looked like a simple electric fan on the cover of the package and, because it was in color, I made the purchase. On closer inspection, though, what I bought turned out to be an “air circulator,” not a fan. I examined the appliance carefully trying to discern the difference. Like a fan, this gadget had blades that spun, a cord and an on/off switch. I took a chance and plugged it in and, sure enough, the blades began turning rapidly and a cooling breeze came humming out the front. All in all, very fan-like behavior.

Just to be on the safe side, I figured I’d better read the accompanying owner’s manual, and it revealed itself to be quite the page-turner. Who would’ve guessed there would be so much to know about how to operate a fan, or air circulator, or jet engine, or whatever this thing was. Unless I’m investing in something complicated like a blimp or a tactical nuclear weapon, I usually tend to intuit my way through the operating instructions. But once I started leafing through this tightly plotted 16-page volume, I was gripped by a narrative far more nuanced than the plug-and-play experience I anticipated.

After introducing its main character, the Honeywell Model HT-900 Turbo Force High Velocity Circulator, the story opens with a long list of do’s and don’ts. These are important guidelines to follow if you’re interested in your story having a happy ending in which your body temperature is slightly reduced without having a finger cut off. I don’t want to offer up too many spoilers in this review, but I think you’ll get a better feel for the arc of the story if I hit a few highlights.

Point one urges you to “use this fan only as described in this manual.” (Yes! Confirmation that it is indeed a fan!) Other uses are not recommended and can result in fire, electric shock or “injury to persons.” The only unprescribed use I could think of was hooking it up to a small generator and dangling it out the back of your rowboat so it might act as a makeshift outboard motor. This isn’t specifically covered, but you get the sense as you continue reading that it’s not a good idea.

Point four explains the reason for a “polarized plug,” which features one prong slightly wider than the other so you’re not faced with the debilitating question of how to plug it in. “If the plug does not fit fully in the outlet, reverse the plug,” advises the writer. “If it still does not fit, contact a qualified electrician.” This is the first of several occasions throughout the manual where the user is foolishly advised to spend more money than the $22.95 you forked over for your original purchase, so I’d recommend you also have some other electrical work standing by to fill the electrician’s minimum one-hour charge. Maybe you can have that cat rewired that is constantly shocking you.

DO NOT,” the author warns of the polarized plug, “attempt to defeat this safety feature.” If you manage to force the plug into your outlet by banging it with a hammer, your victory will be a hollow and short-lived one.

Most of the other opening 16 points are relatively common sense stuff. Supervise any children who attempt to fan themselves. Unplug the fan when moving it from one location to another. Do not operate the device in the presence of explosives or flammable fumes. (In fact, I’d probably expand on that point to advise against doing anything in the presence of explosives or flammable fumes except perhaps run.) Do not use the fan near an open flame or while cooking. Avoid contact with moving fan parts. Don’t hang the fan from a rope attached to your ceiling.

It’s only when you get to page 2 of this book that you start hearing the brighter side of fan ownership. One of the HT-900’s proudest features is its ability to provide an endless variety of angular options. Rather than oscillate from side to side, this design allows you to aim the fan upward in any number of directions. Prefer a precise 47-degree angle? Go for it. Change your mind and want to try a 71-degree slant? It’s a simple adjustment. You can even go the full 90 degrees to cool the ceiling above your head if such is your need.

“Upon using this fan, you will feel a strong and powerful air stream that will quickly move air in order to cool an area rapidly and efficiently,” says the introduction. Why, that’s just what I had in mind.

Page 3 serves to restate some of the main themes encountered earlier in the manual. Before you start your self-cooling, make sure the fan is in the OFF position, and only then should you plug it in. The control knob offers a choice of three speeds if you don’t count OFF as a speed: there’s “high” (or “III” as it’s called on the switch), there’s “medium” (or “II”); and there’s “low” (predictably, “I”). Some of the higher-end models have a child-resistant switch that you have to depress before turning, but that’s only in the more-expensive HF-series. If you sprung for the top-of-the-line HFT, you get left-right movement as well as the angular positioning, so you’ll be blessed with a machine that’s accelerating air all over the place.

Another feature proudly touted is the “concealed handle,” a small ridge of plastic along the back that allows you to easily grip and pick up the fan. Without this brilliant piece of industrial design, you’d probably have to kick the machine from one location to another.

There’s a whole chapter devoted to cleaning and maintenance, as if anyone ever bothers with that on a $23 purchase. You’re told to use “only a soft cloth or cotton swab” to gently wipe the fan clean, and either a pipe cleaner, vacuum cleaner, flexible dustwand or compressed air to clean between the grilles. Don’t immerse the fan in water to clean it, nor should you rub it with gasoline or paint thinner, though why someone would consider that is not stated. You can remove the grille for a more thorough cleaning if you want to, by following a six-step regimen of instructions, or you can throw it away and go buy a new one.

A small Consumer Relations segment gives you an address to mail any comments or questions. “If you experience a problem, please contact consumer relations first or see your warranty,” advises this section. “Do not return to the original place of purchase for repair.” That would be fun to try, though — walking up to the high-school student working part-time as a CVS cashier and asking him for advice on how to manipulate the capacitor to maximize the voltage while minimizing the capacitance.

The final chapter details the one-year limited warranty that comes with all Honeywell fans, with “limited” being the key word. Not covered is damage from “unreasonable use” nor is “normal wear and tear” nor is any “incidental or consequential damages” caused by the occasional rogue fan. And if you try to fix something yourself and fail, that also voids the warranty, as does not being the original purchaser. After all this, if you think you still might qualify for coverage, you can return the defective product along with $10 to cover handling and repackaging. You also have to prepay shipping charges, so now you’re looking at fees upwards of 75% of the original cost and hopefully wondering what kind of racket this is.

There’s another ten pages or so of basically the same story, but this time told once in French and once in Spanish. This exotic denouement does serve to carry you magically away from your pedestrian cooling concerns, to imagine instead what it would be like to “ne jamais tirer sur le cordon electrique” while sipping a fine Merlot at a trendy Left Bank cafe, the saucy waitress flirting as she takes the escargot order of a cosmopolitan fan-owner like you.

Such is the magic of great literature, to transport the reader from his slightly uncomfortable spare bedroom to a world filled with the promise of cool breezes angled in virtually any direction you might imagine. I highly recommend “Important Safety Instructions” — it’s not a heavy tract of abstract philosophy and moralizing that will challenge where you see yourself living in the universe, though it will make a quick and entertaining beach read. Especially when that summer sun gets a little too hot.

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