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How Does an Electric Iron Work?

Caroline Fritz

The electric iron was invented by Henry W. Seely of New York who received a patent in 1882 after developing a design for an “electric flat iron,” according to the website, OldandInteresting.com.

Today, all irons operate the same way, and models are differentiated by what type of features they have, such as automatic shutoff and removable water tanks.

The Parts

The parts of the iron are familiar and include the spray button, steam button, heat control, spray pump, spray nozzle and filling port on the top and front of the iron. On the bottom exterior of the iron is the soleplate, made of either aluminum, stainless steel or nonstick coating. Ports are embedded in the soleplate to allow steam to exit when the iron heats up. Inside the iron is a heating element set into the soleplate that heats up in accordance with the heat control mechanism. According to “How Things Work in Your Home” by Time-Life Books, a heat control lever rotates a cam that regulates the opening between the contacts located on the thermostat. A steam valve attached to a vapor chamber located above the heating element opens up when the correct temperature is reached and water enters the chamber and is converted into steam. From there, the water is converted to steam, which exits from the soleplate at the bottom of the iron through the ports. On the top of the iron, a pump draws water from the reservoir and sprays it through the nozzle.

Troubleshooting and Maintenance

Most problems occur when an iron is either dropped, the cord is frayed or mineral deposits from hard water clog the ports. Time-Life recommends that irons be rinsed after use and a small brush used to clean the ports. To clean the aluminum soleplate on the bottom of the iron, use a solution of one part baking soda to two parts water on a cloth. Use a soapy scouring pad to clean steel soleplates. Whichever type of cleaning method is used, dry the iron thoroughly. After heating it up over the lowest setting, run the iron over a piece of wax paper and then a dry cloth, according to Time-Life. Irons with nonstick soleplates should be cleaned with a damp sponge or cloth to avoid damage to the coating. Nicks can be buffed out with an emery board. Cords should be replaced if the iron does not heat. This can be a do-it-yourself project, according to Time-Life; however, professional expertise is recommended. The same can be said for faulty thermostats and heating elements.