By David Pescovitz at 1:55 pm Tue, Mar 3, 2009
A couple of years ago I was trying to figure out how to fix an old stand-up floor lamp. For fun, I looked up one of the patent numbers and was surprised to learn that its irrepairability was the subject of the patent! The thing was designed not to be field-disassemblable. I looked around a bit more, and found that that “feature” was a common subject of patents. The patent I started with was from the ’40s, I think.
Now, there’s a manifesto I can get behind! I hate ‘giving up’ on things when they are broken, and they do come to mean much more, on a personal level, when I’ve brought them back to useful life.
Obviously it’s a good idea, but you run into trouble with several issues:
-regulatory. Before everyone complains about regulations, this is why your house is still a house, not a flooded and/or burnt out mess. Some things, particularly fuse or wire ratings are of critical importance.
-cost of experts. Physical repairs are normally accessible to most users, but at some point you’re going to need an expert. Most geeks sympathize with the “no I will not fix your computer” T-shirts, so who’s going to step up for free/low cost highly technical repairs?
I recently repaired two identical colour laser printers that had suffered power surges (thank you BC-Hydro). Both units had fuses intact, one would not boot, and one would not turn off the toner heater (fire risk!). The 400V rated Triacs had blow , one open, one closed. Replaced with 600V rated Triacs with same current handling… (ironically power supply PCB was labeled “big-bang”!)
Samsung had already said it wasn’t worth it to fix them ($500 printers), and this would be true except it was a fix for the family.
I guess their point #11 applies here, but who would know until a power surge!
Now this is a sustainability scheme I can get behind.
The obvious problem is that there is no financial motivation for most manufacturers to make their products repairable. It often costs more to make something that can come apart, and the “payoff” is that they get to sell fewer products.
I like the idea of tying an estimated “cost of disposal” to the cost of manufacture. Companies that use a bunch of unnecessary packaging or sell things that are more likely to end up in a landfill than get recycled should have to build that into their business plan.
Damn, ninja’d. I’m going to have to be quicker with my unoriginal “me too”isms.
Anyway, a thought occurred to me. This design philosophy is entirely at odds with the current greenie movement, whose general pitch is “everything you use or own kills the earth and eats puppies. Trash it and buy new stuff with friendly green stickers.” Apple would not approve of this manifesto. Now, I am at best an armchair fashion mogul, so I’ll defer to those of you who spend your time in the mean streets and Goodwill. How warm of a reception might this thing get?
Hanover Principles. This is an excellent extension of the ideas therein…
@6 on that thought, lead free solder is a total bear to repair and rework… instead of collecting and properly recycling lead based PCBs we now manufacture them “green” so that they can sit in a landfill without anyone complaining about lead poisoning.
Of course the PCB recycling that does go on has caused unimaginable pollution in China and India. The movie “manufactured landscapes” has some amazing footage.
The table saw buzzed briefly and lazy curls of smoke began to rise from the large exposed motor. The blade did not turn. I toggled it off again and yanked the plug from the wall as fast as I could.
I was flying about, fixing things for people with money, and when I had moments I tried to look up a replacement motor… and I could not find one. Anywhere!
I found a scan of the manual, though, from 1965 when the saw was built.
The manual showed that the motor was not considered to be a part. The armature, the brushes, the bolts, and other pieces of the motor were all parts. The motor was not.
Apparently in 1959, when the motor was designed, a table saw motor was intended to be repaired – rewound, if necessary, but not ever replaced. The motor design was so successful they were still using it throughout the 1960s.
So I took the motor apart late one night. Mud dauber wasps had flown into the ventilation slots, and in a matter of a week or so had filled all the empty spaces in the motor with mud, wasp grubs, and paralyzed spiders.
I gave the spiders and grubs to little fish in the stream behind the house, and carefully washed out the mud, and reassembled the motor. The saw works fine now.
Good night everyone!
@ #6 posted by Beelzebuddy:
…This design philosophy is entirely at odds with the current greenie movement, whose general pitch is “everything you use or own kills the earth and eats puppies. Trash it and buy new stuff with friendly green stickers.”
Even if we accept that definition of the “green movement” this manifesto would hardly be at odds with it. If anything, it says “make sure that new bestickered stuff you buy lasts a long time and is repairable so it doesn’t end up a landfill by next spring.”
I agree that Apple would probably rather sell you an iPod every 6 months than adopt such a manifesto, but who said Apple speaks for the green movement?
ever whittled a carbon brush from a hunk of graphite?
Line #2 puts the onus on product designers to make things come apart. Well, that would be just great if that were our decision. Huge corporations don’t usually give us that much control. We’re usually designing with whatever specs they give us.
Maybe I’m a bit obtuse today but why not throw away the broken bit? What else am I supposed to do with it?
For example this week someone broke my hammer handle. Not really their fault, the hammer was/is older than I am. I replaced it with a new hammer handle. I could have cut off the broken part and kept the resulting old bit of stick to stir porridge with, but I didn’t.
Even if I had, I’d have generated a shorter broken bit.
@Piers W: Obviously, there is going to be some scale at which “repair” means “throw that bit away and put in something else”, the universe is ultimately granular in any case, and most things are a good bit more granular than that. I doubt, for instance, that it will become even remotely economic to replace the bad half of a silicon chip in the forseeable future.
That said, an object’s design can have a strong influence on the boundary between repairable and merely replaceable parts(particularly in more complex devices). Circuit boards that are potted, for instance, pretty much have to be replaced whole, same goes for board whose components have had their labels ground off.. Ones that are reworkable(and, ideally, labelled or documented) can have just the dead component replaced.
Some things can’t be repaired. Our house still has fixtures from the early 70s. Recently our bathroom decided to go on the fritz. After our plumber tried to replace the wax seal under the toilet and failed (but still charged us $200 for the service call), I decided to do it myself. While trying to remove the blob of putty the plumber had left, I shattered the fixture. I defy anyone to reassemble a broken toilet for its intended use!
Here’s an idea: learn to do basic sewing. By which I mean hem a pair of pants, mend a ripped seam, and sew on a button or a patch. Takes nothing but a spool of thread, a needle, and a small pair of scissors, maybe a little scrap of fabric or a button, and you can learn all that in and hour or two.
Clothing is already made repairable- it comes with spare buttons all the time. And unlike many of these other things people are talking about, it doesn’t take a workshop or tons of skill to do the repair. I don’t care if a lamp is repairable if it takes an electrician’s certificate and a soldering tool and a ventilated workshop space to do the repair – it might as well be one solid piece to me and most other people, too.
Well I’d like to add, make replacement parts available and properly priced.
Example: Lowes hardware carries a cast iron closet flange for the toilet, no problem. (I own an old house with some cast iron plumbing…) The also have a plastic/steel closet flange designed to work on cast iron plumbing as well. Now both units use a rubber compression fitting to seal, so that’s equal. The solid cast iron is like $32, while the plastic/steel unit is like $8. Really. That’s just ripping the customer off.
I think regulatory things like you describe are good. If more products were built around those ideas, more common place parts could be used, which makes repair easier and cheaper. Safety should always be the first priority.
Manufacturers wouldn’t make junk if so many people didn’t buy it.
in the future everything will just work
RE:”Manufacturers wouldn’t make junk if so many people didn’t buy it.”
When the first TV, first VCR, first DVD players came out they were expensive. If they broke, they were fixed.
Today with mass production they are cheap to buy and made as cheap as possible.
It’s junk because the manufacturer needs to makes as much profit as possible.
A lot of this “green” movement is a form of planned obsolences. Buy a new fridge to save energy! Buy a new washer-dryer to save energy!
The new has just as much planned obsolences as the old.
I have two fridges working, one from the 1940’s one from the 1960’s.
Whats wrong with them is the compressor motor consumes more electricity than todays more effient motors, that I can’t fix, and the gasket seal on the door opening goes bad over time, fixed with bathroom silicon caulking.
Mark_P_S2 well spotted.
can you make my remote control work again.
i am not sure which button i pressed.
sorry, i know that is glib, but that is what we do around here at this this moment in history.
you will be paid with a carton of beer for full restoration of function.
I really like the idea of repairing and reusing things as much as possible, but as many of the comments pointed out, out stuff is just designed not to be repairable. See The Story of Stuff as a quick primer on why this is true. Essentially, companies that manufacture things have as their business model a plan to make all things breakable and had to repair, forcing you to go out and buy new ones every six months or so.
Plus, everything I try to fix just gets borked more because of my tiny sausage fingers.
It’s junk because people shop for the lowest up-front price, and pass up more durable -and expensive- offerings. Ask any hardware store owner.
The also have a plastic/steel closet flange designed to work on cast iron plumbing as well. Now both units use a rubber compression fitting to seal, so that’s equal. The solid cast iron is like $32, while the plastic/steel unit is like $8. Really. That’s just ripping the customer off.
Cheaper materials like plastic are how manufacturers and retailers counteract the effects of inflation. $32 for the solid cast iron is more a problem with the debasement of the dollar than Lowes or the steel parts company ripping you off.
Also, some people would rather spend the $24 difference on other things, vis-a-vis opportunity cost. Or, some people only have $8 to spend to fix their toilet, and a $32 part would result in simply not fixing it.
I gave my broken toilet to a local recycler, who ground it up and mixed it with asphaultum to make tar-macadam, which he then sold for road surfacing. Porcelain makes excellent aggregate and recyling a toilet is cheaper than quarrying gravel.
I kept the tank lid as a tray for orchid-pots.
Ur-Shrew, you made me laugh! Thank you.
Thanks, unfortunately, what makes you laugh makes the tiny plastic bits cry and the electronics who they were previously attached to, cry.
Clue me in, what’s wrong with buying the cheaper flange? Both parts would count as repairing the toilet, so they both sit fine with this manifesto. So long as both parts are interchangeable, it’s just a durability per cost analysis. If the cast iron part is going to last you 4x more flushes, go with that. Otherwise, use the plastic one.
Toilet flanges come in iron, brass, steel, and several different kinds of plastic. They come in full flange, clamping, clamshell, glue-on, and several other configurations.
Plastics can bend and distort over time and leak poo gas. The water trap in a toilet is above the wax ring, so you are creating a hazardous and potentially lethal situation if you let this happen.
Plumbers can avoid the problem by cutting the floor so that the flange bolts (ALWAYS use brass, never steel) pass through the subfloor as well as the flange. In that case, plastic is OK. Hard to retrofit, though, so older houses should use metal.
I agree. Nothing is more satisfying than defeating planned obsolecence, but it would be nice if one didn’t have to.
Reminds me of another photog, my buddy who was shooting with several fancy new digital cameras in South America when they said in the little viewfinder the word “sorry” with a ID code number.
Yes! both cameras of course would not work fortunately he had film and an old Nikon F camera
which performed great whereas the
digital cameras were not only un fixable but could
not function in the immense jungle humidity ,the old
analog spring camera did just fine and of course
saved his documentary assignment.
Most items – yes even the cheap ones – are usually user-repairable. Plastic is difficult to repair, since it’s brittle and doesn’t paint or glue easily, but with epoxy and properly clamped you can at least make an item usable again until you can find a suitable replacement. The problem with user repairable items is that typically you need to find a version that is made of metal or wood, or both – repairable and paintable materials. These tend to cost 10x as much and aren’t easily found at walmart.
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