The Right to Repair / The Ability to Repair

Recently there was a topic on the Radio about the so-called Right to Repair. This follows news calling for “a series of proposals from European environment ministers to force manufacturers to make goods that last longer and are easier to mend. The European proposals refer to lighting, televisions and large home appliances.”

I’m sure pretty much everyone reading this blog post will have encountered a situation where something breaks and you’re then faced with the prospect of either repairing that something, having it repaired by someone else, or going out and buying another. It could involve anything from your car to your kettle, your TV or your shoes, or a toaster.

In this post I talk about the following:

  • Mass Production
  • Computers
  • Cars vs. Bikes
  • Boilers/Heating
  • 3D Printing
  • The environment

Often the decision to repair something will be based on cost, especially if we’re employing someone else to fix something, or if replacement parts are required, but as I’ve included in the title, our own ability also plays a part.

To say that we have the right to repair something or not is not necessarily stipulated, unless it’s on grounds of health and safety, and it may be more about whether we have the ability, which in turn might hinge on the availability of parts as well as our own competence.

Mass Production

With advances in technology coupled with attempts to streamline manufacturing and bring down costs, many such things that break are mass-produced in the first place. It is argued that to keep costs down, things might be assembled in a way that makes assembly more efficient but disassembly, and thus repair, a problem; plastic casings might clip together and glues used rather than screws be employed (as my brother and I discovered when we attempted to repair his washing machine).

Many of us will be familiar with warning labels such as: “Warranty void if removed” or “No user serviceable parts inside”, and these often ward us off making any attempt. If an item is still under warranty then the supplier or manufacturer should be your first port of call, but beyond that what’s the harm in removing that back cover off that faulty appliance? Many times I have done just this to the point where I now have a rough idea, based on my own knowledge and competence, what is likely to be repairable (within reason) and how true the second claim of “No user serviceable parts inside” really is. A third warning might be “Hazard, high voltages inside” and these should not be taken lightly.

Computers

Being in the business of repairing computers and such things for other people, there will be a variety of things I can or cannot repair, and for this reason I prefer to offer solutions rather than a guaranteed fix. If someone’s printer is no longer functioning mechanically (as was an example on the Radio 2 show), I would expect to say a new one is required if the problem isn’t going to be resolved with some head-cleans/a change of cartridges or a reinstall; I’ve made enough attempts over the year to disassemble a broken printer to know that they’re rarely something that will go back together into a fully working machine again; either replacement parts aren’t available, they’re assembled in a way that doesn’t aid disassembly, and replacements are generally cheap compared to labour costs.

There is also the satisfaction in repairing something and getting it working again – it can be a very rewarding process. If I expect any attempt to repair something, after spending time to disassemble it, is not likely, then I’ll avoid putting an attempt in; it’s quite disheartening to not succeed in something, even if I’ve tried my best!

Break a screen on your device on the other hand and the screen itself will not typically be repaired but instead a replacement sought, then it’s down to swapping the part over. Here is where I’ve had a variety of experiences. If a replacement screen is available at a reasonable cost, and the coupled cost based on the time involved makes it cheaper than buying a new device then a repair is doable. However, increasingly this is where I’ve found “The right to repair” comes in, and generally involved a company called Apple. A recent case involved a MacBook where the replacement screen would have cost 10x than that of a typical laptop replacement screen and it was likely that the repair (similar to some iPhones and iPads) would have had to have been carried out by an Apple-certified repair centre, otherwise even with the replacement screen fitted it still wouldn’t work.

Cars vs. Bikes

Apple aren’t the only notable brand to employ such tactics. I’ve heard of the car maker’s Tesla putting similar barriers to repair in place; either not providing replacement parts, putting hefty price tags on parts, or disabling things from their end (because these are internet-connected devices after-all and they are able to do that).

Part of the reason I stopped owning and driving a car was because of my inability to maintain it myself. Certain things I could replace myself as and when they required it; “simple” bold-on things like wheels, batteries, starter motors, alternators, and thermostats. But give me a failed clutch and that’s a garage job, and the cost of labour. I also despise seized bolts and other things; I’ve had a wheel bolt snap on me, and being thwarted by an oil filter. I feel weak and defeated by these things and that’s not a nice feeling.

By owning and using a bike as my daily driver gives me the confidence to travel anywhere and not get stuck somewhere. I also know what tool I need, both on the bike for those occasional road-side repairs, to other more specific tools I keep at home. Routine maintenance, which can be a chore, is much more straightforward and because of this I can carry it out on my own and regularly – I’ve gradually accumulated a small set of tools that gave gradually enabled me to carry out any job that has arisen. And by keeping things maintained myself I know what condition things are in, and the very act of taking things apart every once in a while means they come apart much more easily. When my old bike’s bottom bracket (the part that connects the two pedal arms together and houses sets of bearings) wore out, because I’d never replaced it in 15 years, it was so well seized that I couldn’t remove it to replace it, and therefore I considered the bike was scrap (other parts were worn out by this stage too) – a lesson well learned.

Boilers/Heating

Just this past month the boiler in my house started playing up. I’d repaired it once before when the motor wore out (I didn’t even know it had a motor in it!) This time though it kept ‘giving up’ shortly after being started up. This is where the internet is a great source of information (as I’ve discovered with many things I’ve needed to repair), because you can often find people with the same or similar device, appliance, or thing with the same or similar problem, and a bunch of people offering solutions or explanations, along with what parts are required. The internet is also a great place for sourcing replacement parts, and the tools required for the job also. Google and other websites can provide useful pictures, and Youtube can provide videos of other people carrying out such a repair. Our ability to repair things has increased 10-fold. On this occasion I found the help and information I needed, and a replacement part too and set too dismantling things like I had done before. But my supposedly faulty part wouldn’t come off and in the end I replaced only half of what I needed to and put it all back together.

Then things got more frustrating. My boiler wouldn’t fire up at all. I retraced my steps and swapped parts around and still no. I left things as they were while I mulled things over for a day or so. In then end it was my sister who spurred me on to try again, because when I mentioned my boiled she enthusiastically told me that “you can fix anything!” reminding me of how I “always fix things”! Back at home I took the boiler apart again and retraced my procedure and found that I hadn’t been seating the oil pump properly onto the back of the motor and therefore it wasn’t spinning up when the boiler was switched on. After putting things all back together for the umpteenth-time the boiler worked again. But was it fixed?

The fault before was somewhat intermittent; sometimes it would work only for a short while before giving up, but other times it would run all day without a hiccup. In the end another, but somewhat similar fault appeared and when I looked online for an explanation the advice was that this time the fault seemed to be with a sticking relay. “Give them a tap with a screwdriver” was the advice, and this, along with some other fiddling around got my boiler working yet again, although not always. It still has occasional refusal to work, or the desire to give up syndrome, but it’s less persistent in this mentality. Plus, the weather has warmed up now so I’m less bothered – I don’t use my heating every day, and while the choice to have cold showers has been in hibernation for a while, as long as I can get hot water a couple of times a week then I’m happy enough – I’ll have another crack at that stubborn part when I can tolerate cold showers again (in case I completely bugger things up with the boiler).

3D Printing

As a final note on this topic of repairing things, one thing I don’t ‘buy’ into for repairing our own things is the use of a 3D printer. Early on these were promoted as that wonderful household gadget that can magically print off that replacement part that you just can’t get hold of, such as replacement cooker knobs, or plastic clips for things. The cost of these things back then, and still, makes this approach silly. Quite often there are other options available and at a much more reasonable cost when you consider the cost of a 3D printer and how much use it’s actually going to get (if you have a multitude of uses for it then perhaps you can get your monies-worth out of it).

The Environment

I can understand that things are designed and manufactured with cost in mind. Using less raw materials or energy to produce things helps to keep costs down but often this is at the expense of longevity or repairability. Even when things haven’t broken we’re still encouraged to replace things, whether it be a fridge, car, or light-bulb, just because it’s not as efficient as it’s modern equivalent. “It will pay for itself” we’re told. But I don’t agree with this mentality even if the maths holds true. We’re also forced to replace things when they still work physically; mobile phones and even TVs can have features that once worked disabled by the makers so that we have to upgrade. Companies like Microsoft stop supporting older tech, potentially leaving us open to security threats, and therefore force us, through fear, to ditch our old devices in favour of newer ones. Companies like this survive on our desire and route of regularly replacing things; it fuels their R&D departments and keeps people in jobs. The world is broken in this way, but we have the right, responsibility, and ability to repair it!

I think education in schools is lacking in this mentality – perhaps fuelled by the very economy its students “need” to one day be employed into. As a student I don’t recall anything about repairing things beyond having a lesson on how to replace a plug safely and correctly. There were classes about designing and making things, and marketing them, but these were to be new things; little about repairing and making-do with what we have. Anything about recycling was just a lesson on morality and good behaviour and looking after our environment, not actually a process of living from day-to-day. If something is made then what that thing replaces and what is to be done with that, needs to be taken into consideration. I think the very companies that manufacture things need to be responsible for what they replace, and the recycling of their things when they break.

5 comments

  1. I like the phrase ‘Right to Repair’ – very relevant I think. I’ve never been able to fix mechanical or electronic things but it’s good to have somewhere to go where people can

  2. There’s the other side of the coin too. If the Model T or A never rusted, never decayed, never broke down and was forever “new” who would buy a new car when the old one worked just fine? What company would innovate new features, safety or efficiency? Now, throwing all those broken or unused things in the trash is not the solution. That’s where a comprehensive recycling system is needed. Throw ANYTHING into the hopper and every bit of a TV, car, computer, yard trimmings, corpse, or plastic milk carton would get broken down and turned into feedstock for EVERYTHING else. That, to me, should be the goal. Don’t like your old bell-bottoms? Fully recycle them. Don’t like you old iPhone? Fully recycle it.
    The company that comes up with a molecular disassembler that can recycle every element from a used or discarded product will save the world.

    • Apparently (unless I’m miss-remembering something I heard once), Ford designed the Model T with ease of maintenance in mind, and other car makers of the time objected to this approach. I think the ongoing safety and efficiency “developments” of cars are ultimately nonsense, especially when considering the expense and energy costs involved. Make something simple, make it last, and let everyone enjoy their lives without having to constantly work in order to pay for the stuff that keeps breaking (especially if it’s a car that you’re still trying to pay for!)

      Obviously we do need stuff, and stuff will break, so I agree with the fully-recyclable approach also.

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