Ralph S Bacon

MicroControllers, Electronics and IOT

Right to Repair on the way?

I read an article on the BBC Website yesterday, called Right To Repair Gathers Force, which applies to the UK, Europe and the USA. It’s worth skimming it before continuing here, actually! That link opens in a new tab so you won’t lose your place here.

So much for my phone charger

In a nutshell, the common people are fed up with consumer items having a ridiculously short working life, coupled with a dearth of spare parts and most importantly, a missing repair manual.

I would imagine that anyone reading this post will be shouting a resounding “Yes!”, as we makers and tinkerers are well-positioned to repair items given a reasonable chance at deciphering the wiring of some esoteric electrical item. Well, that and not having the case welded together with some special glue.

Nobody wants a consumer item, whether it’s a washing machine, a TV, a smartphone or even a toaster to give up the ghost a week after the warranty runs out. So there is a strong movement to make manufacturers ensure that their appliances last longer than they currently do. This desire is not exactly flavour of the month with those responsible for business models but it did actually used to be like this.

Advertisement from the 1950s for a Hoover washing machine.
How it used to be

A Real World example. About 30 years ago my mum bought a front-loading washing machine. It was built like a tank and ran several times every week for years at home. When my mum and dad moved back to Germany many years ago the washing machine went with them. Yes, really. It currently sits in the communal washing room (Deutsch: Waschküche) in a block of flats, all plumbed in alongside about 8 other washers and dryers, each for a different occupant.

It’s seen all those years of service, has travelled hundreds of miles and is still going strong.

There’s more about early appliances (UK biased but probably applies everywhere).

In the meantime I bought a washer/dryer for my own house (in the UK) and had it regularly serviced (and repaired) over the years. It lasted 8 years before the repair guy threw up his hands and said, “The drum’s gone. It’s not repairable.” I count myself lucky it lasted that long, but the maintenance cost was probably about as much as the machine itself.

Too good to keep

But the opposite happened too. My brother did an apprenticeship in an engineering firm in his teenage years, probably 40+ years ago. He had to assist designing a gearbox (or something similar, it had a shaft attached, anyway). Once the design was completed he was told to modify the ball-bearing seal around the shaft as it was “too good” and would “last forever”. He literally had to downgrade the seal so that it had a limited lifespan, thus ensuring it would require replacement after a few years.

I want full access to repair manuals for everything in my home. If it turns out that I can’t repair something, then so be it. But I suspect, like a lot of Arduinites out there, we’ll probably get it fixed one way or the other (and without burning the house down in the process). I wonder if it will ever happen.

What do you think?

Categories:Uncategorized

27 replies

  1. Totally agree. Ralph I miss Hasberrys too ! Too many overpriced bubble packed nuts/bolts in the DIY ‘sheds’.
    I think the problem is that there is a throw away culture now. Can current, and future generations actually repair things? I hope so. Us old guys learned to do so because there was often no other option.

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    • Duplicated part of my previous post ~ apologies

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      • I’ll put that duplication down to enthusiasm (and old age, not that I know how old you are!).

        Youngsters (as my parents always used to call us) have little idea how to repair things. If something doesn’t work they will buy new (with their parents’ money, of course).

        However, not all younger people are like that, as the statistics for my own YouTube channel shows a serious amount of those viewers are keen to make (and hence repair, debug, make). Once you have that mindset you can apply it to anything.

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  2. Worst item I have come across for poor longevity and lack of support was the expensive Fitbit Aria bathroom scales.

    Google ‘step on thinking error’

    Company has no repair facilities, no parts, no documentation and a strict 1 year replacement warranty,
    They suggest you replace with the new model Aria2… (same poor support)

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    • I did Google that, Bob, and it seems they have found what seemed to be a solution too (involves glue):
      https://community.fitbit.com/t5/Aria/Step-off-Sensing-Thinking-Error/m-p/2371311#M23732

      But I agree that manufacturers should give better value – and one way would be to force them to give a 2-year guarantee – then they would HAVE TO make sure a product has a long(er) life or go bust trying to supply replacement items!

      That AND a full set of (repair) documents that they only need to release 2 years after the initial launch. I’m trying to fix a Raspberry Pi at the moment – almost impossible without the correct circuit schematics.

      That’s one reason I bought an HP PC – their website is very professional, they have drivers for all operating systems, they update drivers pretty regularly and they even send me update notifications (although I follow the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mantra).

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      • Hi Ralph, There is more than one common fault in the scales. The fix you found is for the “step off” problem where the scale stays powered up and depletes the batteries. There is actually a 3d printed part to replace the broken plastic spring on thingiverse.

        The problem that I mentioned is a “Sensing, Step Off then Thinking, Err” error that often occurs after battery change or firmware upgrade. There is no solution to it that i know of. You do know that fitbit marks problems ‘fixed’ on there site, Even if the fix is a replacement scale (only under warranty period) or a suggestion to buy another?

        The aria circuit is a ‘dogs breakfast’ with three microprocessors of different brands.
        Data on the main micro (Gainspan) is only available by NDA to eligible companies…
        I started to reverse engineer it but gave up when I realized the scales weren’t very accurate anyway.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with all the comments above and yes Ralph, Hasberrys was an Aladdin’s cave – I miss it too. Too many bubble packs with only a few (over priced) nuts/bolts/connectors in each are found in the usual DIY ‘sheds’.
    I am also mocked by the wife for being a hoarder of old ‘parts ‘and of course on the odd occasion that I throw something away, I find that would have been useful a few days later !
    Anyone want a motor and pump for a Philips washing machine, a motor from a Stannah stairlift, flame control board for a Johnson and Starley boiler ………………………

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    • I’m glad I found someone who knew Hasberry’s, David! Such a shame he couldn’t sell it as a going concern. Such is “progress”.

      My wife thinks this is definitely a “man thing”. She once gave me a tin box that said “Rusty screws, bits of string, old wire and other useful things”, or something very similar. Ha ha, so very funny, until you want me to fix the door/sink/hoover/car, darling!

      https://www.amazon.co.uk/Bright-Side-Man-Tin/dp/B01E7N4UV0/ref=pd_sbs_201_1

      I’ve had to curtail my squirrelling away of old items. I’m steeling myself at this moment to getting rid of an old, bent metal component drawer, complete with hand-written signs that has gone well past its sell by date. I now have much better ones but I’ve somehow not quite gathered the courage to get rid of the old one (yet). The day will come, I’m sure.

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  4. Hi Ralph, I’ve been repairing family & friends & my neighbours stuff for Years, it started off with Tv’s the trade I was taught in now it’s radio’s washing machines hair curlers recently, hair straighteners ,bikes , irons to name a few an anything I’ve missed. I’m sure I’m not alone, no need to take on any further work I’ve enough. It makes me sad to see a TV not 3 years old scrapped because it’s stopped working, I was given 3 of them, all turned out to be cheap Capacitors, in the power supply, virtually, running on the power rail voltage, no head room for spikes ,so they dried up, I put higher working voltage caps in bingo still running, anyone doing this remember the uF must stay the same but the working voltage can be raised,so a 250uF 15v, can be repaced with a 250uF 25/35 v .

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    • Ha! Look at my reply to Nick B below, Paul, it seems this is a common problem.

      I’ve often found an electrolytic capacitor “blown” and the cause of problems. Far better to use non-electrolytic if available at the µF required – sometimes not that easy over 10µF. Higher voltage caps are often physically bigger so might not fit in the original place but that can easily be overcome, of course. And your solution is spot on and so easy to do. Surely the failure in the product is very poor design in the first place? Deliberate design failure, as per my brother’s seal. Grrr.

      But I’m glad it’s keeping you gainfully employed and using your grey matter to good effect.

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  5. Hi there, Ralph and let me wish you a happy new year;
    I agree 100% with your gripes. It is true that very few consumers these days, give any thought to longevity when they purchase, even rather expensive, utilitarian items for the home. They focus on the design (which is really paying homage to the latest fashion) or the technology (which nowadays is a game of whack a mole. If you can afford it, its already missing the latest bells and whistles). My parents’ generation, who had never heard of the expression: disposable income, bought one bed, one cooker, one best suite of furniture and, eventually, one of each of, what we now consider essential white goods for the kitchen. On their eventual demise, it was left to my generation to dispose of this “ancient” evidence of their time on earth; usually in good condition and working order.

    It has to be admitted that my parents’ generation did little to sponsor the growth of the economy. However their carbon footprints were difficult to see.

    Our current employment of built-in obsolescence is not a universal state of affairs. I lived for sometime in the midwest of the USA (Northern Michigan). My neighbours were far less fashion conscience than the more metropolitan brethren living on the East and West coasts or in Europe. In addition, the sparsity of the population meant it is difficult for maintenance services to make a living. So, appliances have to last, and their perishable parts relatively easy to replace. Where do all those spare parts, filters and seals come from? Ace Hardware. Ace Hardware, is a franchised chain of “Mom and Pop” hardware stores and they are EVERYWHERE (we even had one in our city of 3000 souls))! You can buy anything from these places, from one (yes, just ONE) machine screw to replace the one with a worn thread on your top loading washing machine to a replacement worm gear for your snow blower (more essential than a lawn mower in a Northern Michigan home).. What is more they have a back room filled to the ceiling with shelves full of the maintenance manuals for every domestic mechanism produced since the Civil War.

    So if anybody asks you “What does this maintenance utopia you pine for, so passionately, look like? You can tell them: “its like the Mid-West of the USA, son”.

    Michael Keegan

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    • Happy New Year back to you, Michael! Can you arrange for Ace Hardware to start up in the UK, just the sort of place we need.

      Ironically, I used to work in a town called Aylesbury in the UK and there was a hardware shop there that sounded just like your description of your Ace Hardware. It had such esoteric items I spent many a happy lunchtime there just looking at all the left-handed widgets. I even bought stuff there because it looked like it might come in handy one day. I sometimes had to Google what they were used for!

      The irony is that the old chap who ran it decided to retire and tried to sell it (after a 30+ year tenure). No takers. It eventually just had a closing down sale and that was that. My lunchtimes were never the same again.

      It’s now an estate agents (realtor). What an ignominious change for such a fantastic hardware store.

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      • I would love to oblige you with the services of Ace Hardware but, alas, I am back in the UK, a victim of the falling value of stirling. So, like yourself, I am at the tender mercies of the orange big box store for my hardware needs. I could weep when I think of all the straight, yes straight, timber lying in Lowes and Home Depot, in the States. Sob!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve been wanting to buy a new hi-fi system but I have been hesitating. You can guess why.

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    • At least hi-fi is relatively low cost (well, I’m assuming that but maybe you’re thinking of spending $$$ on one).

      I had to ditch a perfectly good amplifier about 20 years ago because the electrolytic capacitors were failing, one by bleeping one. I couldn’t keep up with the repair cycle! These days, I notice electronics engineers are loathe to include electrolytics in their design for that very reason. I’m guessing that doesn’t apply to smartphones as they only seem to have an 18-month life span anyway!

      That amplifier had lasted 20 years or so, so I shouldn’t complain but it looked brand new as I took it to the local landfill site…

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      • As I am an audiophile it wasn’t going to be an “Argos” special. Yes, I was planning on spending a few quid on it. Needless to say, I am still hesitating.

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  7. In the US I would always buy SEARS products (Washers and Dryers) because they would also have parts available for the products they sold. They also used to have service manuals that would show you how to repair these items. The repair manuals disappeard and now SEARS is disapearing. Same was true with repair manuals for cars. The parts are still available but the manuals have disappeared. I think we also have to be careful about what we ask for. I don’t want to have them OVER DESIGN items that will last forever. The cost would be extreamly high. Like everything else, there usually are no black and white answers. The answers usually sit somewhere between the extreames.

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    • Agreed, William.

      Whilst we might think we’d like a Hoover washing machine that lasts for 30 years, I think 10 years would be a good trade off between cost of manufacture (and hence purchase price) and value for money. When I say “last for 10 years”, that includes a couple of belts, seals or hoses or whatever that might fail in that time.

      What we most certainly don’t want (but seem to be given these days) is a washing machine that lasts for 3 years and 1 day (just out of its extended warranty period) and for which you cannot get that broken soap dispenser for love not money! Been there. So annoying.

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  8. The same might be said about cars. Why oh why are the ODB2 codes so obscure?

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    • To prevent the common man working out what might be wrong, Brian. If you knew what error code DL81 meant then you could go to a local mechanic and get it fixed pretty easily, I guess. Or do it yourself. But by having manufacturer-specific codes then they force you to go to the dealer – at 4x the cost of the bloke down the road.

      These days you can get a reader (and re-setter) for most cars on the road if you know what you are doing. But the help you need is probably a YouTube video, not the manufacturer because they ain’t telling you anything. Grrr.

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  9. Computer printers, nowdays, are in particular designed with ‘programmed obsolescence’. When I purchased a ‘cheap’ printer last year, I was warned that when it will fail (and it will after a preset number of prints!) there’s no way it can be fixed. Apparently there is a counter of some type and when it reaches a certain limit all stops. There are YouTube videos that show how some printers can be reset.. and survive a little longer.
    The next item I’m going to try to repair is a SatTV decoder… but that might be trickier!!

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    • I’m thinking that a SatTV decoder would be beyond my skills, but you never know, it might just be a capacitor that’s failed, or a broken PCB track. If it’s an SMD chip then good luck, that would stop me in my tracks – evidenced by my broken Raspberry Pi that I blew up and requires (I believe) some SMD components replacing. One day, one day… maybe. Good luck with that repair, Daniel!

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  10. Hello Ralph! I’ve always been a ‘repairer’ and a keen ‘keeper’: my wife often describes me to friends as “he who keeps even broken needles, because they might come in handy some time”! Quite extreme, but truthful… I always give a go at repairing broken or not working things and – if I can’t mend them, I tend to keep the leftovers ‘just in case’. Fortunately, I’m not alone: just recently our tumble drier’s electronics suddently died. Cost of same model (new) approx 400 Euros. The repairs chap, however, was able to fix the electronics for a much more reasonable price.

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    • When I got my new workshop last year I was forced to clean out all those broken needles and similar items as there was not room for it all. The trouble is I still remember having a left-handed widget somewhere and keep looking for it before I remember (after quite a while) it got ditched last year!

      But like you I keep all sorts of spares; bolts, nuts, screws, fuses, cable… the list goes on. One day it will come in handy, I’m sure! And in the meantime I’ve saved myself loads of money by being able to repair stuff that would normally be thrown away.

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  11. Jep, to be Abel to repair would be nice, but some of the products Are just made to last two years as your brother mentioned..

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    • If it is a $10 item and it last two years we can consider that it was value for money. If it is a $800 TV and it fails after 2 years then that is most certainly not acceptable. You agree?

      I just hope the manufacturers are forced to make their appliances last longer, and are made to provide spares for the competent repairman, at a reasonable cost!

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