Inside the Real Repair Shop 7

This month in Tales from the Workshop, I want to talk about three sensitive subjects that are not often discussed in repair circles, and readers of a nervous eco-disposition are advised to look away now!

Controversy Inside The Workshop

Repair Cafes and campaign groups such as Restart.org and Repair.eu are working hard to defend our repair rights and offer support to local communities, by providing empowering repair skills.  It’s all good stuff.  But I’m often asked to fix things which are not viable because the damage or wear is so great or the time required to do the fix will take many months, that I can’t offer.  And that’s all before we’ve discussed parts availability, cost and other materials.  So, this month, I thought I’d consider the case against repair. Have I gone quite mad?

One

Sometimes, it just isn’t worth repairing stuff, sometimes a broken thing should just be thrown out at the appropriate recycling facility, of course… or scavenged for usable spares in my case!

It’s no coincidence that popular TV series The Repair Shop majors on pre-1980 cherished items. Older items, made from quality materials, conceived before manufacturers built-in precise planned mechanical and electronic obsolescence, usually stand a chance of being repaired by crafts people, as that’s how they might have been made in the first place.

You see, a child’s toy or home printer manufactured today, on a sophisticated plastic moulding machine with sealed-in electronics will be almost impossible to repair without destroying the outer casing first. And even if you could get to the faulty battery or printed circuit board, it would be virtually impossible to repair at a reasonable cost, assuming the spares were available. Believe me, I’ve tried. When asked to take on certain repairs, I must be honest and frank with would-be customers about the chances of success and likely time a repair will take, which isn’t a conversation I like having, but it’s essential.  Those conversations are not TV friendly.

FixItWorkshop, Worthing, April 2022 – Matt with a washing machine.

Years ago, and I generalise here, people repaired things as it was usually cheaper to patch things up to get more wear out of the item.  Whether clothing, cars or kettles, repair kits and local engineers were always available and usually cheaper than buying new.

But take a modern washing machine, and parts prices are often not economic to buy, especially when you factor-in an engineer’s time for the repair Its often easier and cheaper to replace the whole thing anyway with next day delivery, just a click away on your phone with interest free credit. And that’s a mighty tempting prospect when the family’s washing is piling up on the floor.

Two

On to my second controversial point; repair is now the reserve of the reasonably well-heeled. As a general observation, most of my customers are reasonably affluent, women coincidentally, and have a historic connection with the faulty item which they want repaired.  It could be a favourite family toy or food mixer that needs a little TLC.  To bring it back to life, it will need care, parts, experience and (usually lots of) time. All things that must cost money.  The results will hopefully bring joy to the customer, which is all part of the experience.  It’s why The Repair Shop works so well.

FixItWorkshop, Worthing, April 2022, A classic Anglepoise lamp in the workshop for some ‘light’ restoration.

Repair is definitely a discretionary purchase now and if you’re a bit brassic, and your microwave oven goes kaput, are you going to spend £100 getting your old machine repaired?  No, you’ll do the sensible thing and buy a new one from Amazon for £40 delivered next day, as you need to feed your family.

Three

New appliances are sometimes more efficient and perform better. Take a domestic fridge.  Modern ones could use as much as half the energy than those made 30 years ago, and offer more features as standard.

FixItWorkshop, Worthing, April 2022, torches old and older – but one has a modern CREE LED bulb that will burn retinas.

Compare a modern household torch made recently with one made 15 years ago and it will be like comparing a tea light with the sun.  Technology never stops marching on, and we can all benefit from replacing some creaking appliances with something up to date sometimes. But all this comes with a big health warning.

You might be wondering if I’ve lost the plot, knocked the shed down and chucked out my screwdrivers.  Not a bit of it.  It’s usually more environmentally beneficial to keep something running as long as possible by spreading the manufacturing and shipping impact over a long functional life. And I don’t know about you, but I dislike the thought that someone else has already booked the death day for something I own!

I mean, just by looking at carbon-offsetting alone, consider this:  Replacing a domestic kettle every three years, which has been shipped from China, made with complicated materials and electronics with no hope of repair, is not as environmentally kind as a simpler one that lasts for 9 years.  Sadly, those kettles just don’t exist any more and if they did, I suspect that they would be far too expensive to be a mass-market product.

It’s such a complicated conundrum to solve, it’s just not possible to do in these hallowed pages alone. But I can leave you with a simple piece of advice; look after your things, buy quality items if you can and consider second-hand at all times to make the Pound (or insert your chosen currency here) in your pocket go further, all very sensible in these uncertain times.

*** Stop press! Feedback from FixIt Clinic in the U.S. ***

One of the great things about keeping a blog is the engagement with readers. Over the years, I’ve built up a network and contact base with fellow fixers, around the world; from all over the U.K., Europe, North America and Australia. We are certainly not alone!

Following my light article on reasons why one might not repair something, my friend Peter Mui from FixIt Clinic in the U.S. got in touch to share his thoughts. I liked his letter so much that I thought I’d share it. And since you’re here and obviously interested in this subject, why not check out their website? http://www.fixitclinic.org

Hi Matt:

I’m compelled to drop everything and to respond to your three cases against repair:

One:

Agreed: many things these days are overly complex relative to their core functionality (the KitchenAid kettle is a good example) and I would totally support a return to simpler designs generally.

Currently there’s a “race to the bottom” where the dominant factor in design for manufacturing (DFM) is to lower manufacturing cost in ways imperceptible to the [purchaser user owner] until the item is out-of-warranty. That’s why Fixit Clinic hosts through colleges and universities: to inform up and coming design and engineering practitioners to design for [durability maintainability serviceability repairability] from the very start using open source designs.

– Totally agreed, Peter. It IS a race to the bottom and agree wholeheartedly with your point – Matt.

How can we get (return?) to a situation where most things can be cost-effectively repaired?

There might be an alternative future where the design and engineering of durable goods discourages “manufacture on sophisticated plastic moulding (sic) machines with sealed-in electronics that are impossible to repair without destroying the outer casing first”, instead: spare parts are readily available at low cost from multiple sources and are easily interchangeable.

Two:

(First: I believe you intended to write “well-heeled” not “well-healed”)

– thanks for the spot Peter – Corrected! – Matt.

Agreed: there’s a component of economic privilege in repair at the moment: ironically it’s more expensive to repair than to buy a replacement.

If the end-consumer / owner is sufficiently motivated to be willing to assume (most of) the research and labor for an item that can often change the calculus in favor of repair; that’s why Fixit Clinic emphasizes conveying generalizable skills over “free” repair or repair as a service. But only the well-heeled have the precious time to undertake repair; your average consumer / average user, factoring in the time and uncertainty of the outcome, makes a reasonable economic calculation against repair and just buys a new item.

Additionally, there’s the perception and widely held assumption that “new” is always better than “used” or “repaired”.

I don’t have a good solution here either: the true full cost of modern durable goods is not reflected in the price paid at the moment of purchase; until the myriad of upstream and downstream costs of an item are added into the moment-of-purchase price this is going to be a hard nut to crack.

Three:

See “They Used To Last 50 Years” https://ryanfinlay.medium.com/they-used-to-last-50-years-c3383ff28a8e which makes the case that if you factor in the embodied energy in their manufacture and their shorter durability, new appliances may not be as ideal as keeping less efficient appliances in service for as long as possible. And I submit that the LED lighting vs. incandescent lighting example is cherry-picked: lighting technology is a category where the energy savings through technology advancement is particularly visible (wink.) The vast majority of new items or features marketed as “advancements” are incremental or even retrograde; my (admittedly also cherry-picked) counter example is 3D TV: do the people who upgraded to pricey 3D TVs feel they got good long-term value? Probably not.

Anyway, thanks for keeping me engaged into the wee hours of the morning.

-Thanks Peter, an engaging response and continuation of the issue. Thanks for sharing the link too. Here it is again for folk who wish to copy/go to the link: https://ryanfinlay.medium.com/they-used-to-last-50-years-c3383ff28a8e -Matt

Your comrade-in-fixing,

Peter Mui @ Fixit Clinic

Inside The Real Repair Shop 4

Free to take, but who bears the cost?

This time, I want to talk about something that’s seemingly become the norm for many streets up and down the land (in the UK for people reading this elsewhere).  The ‘free to take’ trend has arrived from somewhere, and I can’t quite put my finger on why it’s happened.

I have a few working theories, that I’d like to share with you.  Indulge me for a few minutes if you please.

With UK-wide social restrictions still in place and most of the high street closed at the moment, many of us are taking more walks locally to spend time, which isn’t only good for our health, it’s also much, much kinder on one’s wallet. Whilst out walking, have you noticed how many households leave small appliances and other domestic items out on the pavement on-offer to passers-by? I have. To be honest, I never know if the items are fair game, or if I should ask permission before taking something.  Whilst mulling this over, during the past few months, I’ve decided that it is OK to take discarded items, if it’s obvious that they’ve been abandoned and that I can do something useful with them. I suspect that there are many reasons why items are being abandoned like this, and I’d like to share my thinking with you.  If you’re still with me, I hope you’ll find it interesting.

FixItWorkshop, Worthing, March’21. An abandoned 4-slice toaster. It tested OK and looked in good condition after a wipe-down. Maybe it didn’t match the original owners’ colour scheme?

This year so far, I have acquired a cordless kettle, a 4 slice toaster, and two Dyson vacuum cleaners.  Why you ask? It’s a good question, but before I go in to why I think they were all left out for ‘Magpie Matt’, here’s another thing;  The kettle and the toaster worked perfectly, with a clean-up. The two Dysons needed thirty pounds’ worth of spare parts between them.  When new, the vacuum cleaners would have been worth about £300, each.

FixItWorkshop, Worthing, March’21. A Dyson vacuum cleaner left out by a bin, waiting for some love and a replacement (second hand) motor and upright chassis, all for under £20.

So, why do folk do it? Why leave items out, working or not, for others to take for free? Here is a list of possible reasons why.

FixItWorkshop, Worthing, March’21. The replacement motor required for the Dyson was under £10 and the plastic chassis required was £10. MUCH less than the price of a new machine and surely MUCH better to fix this otherwise working order machine and save it from the crusher.

1  Folk just get bored with an item, and see so little value in it any more that they want to get shot of it quickly but feel, possibly with some guilt, that they should give it away, rather than disposing of it. We’re bombarded with advertising that tells us to replace things often by retailers and manufacturers, so it’s hardly surprising that some people feel this way.

2  It won’t fit in the bin.  General waste bins should only ever contain non-recyclable plastics, polythene, some packaging, kitchen waste and a sprinkling of dust.  However, take a look at your street on bin day, and you’ll see other items poking out from under the lid. Vacuum cleaners don’t usually fit in a 140 litre bin, which could explain why we see them on the pavement, from time to time. The local amenity tip is an option for the responsible owner when looking for a place to offload items, but if you don’t own a car, the whole process can be a bit of a chore.

3  The value of the item, which may have broken is now low and not worth repairing or the expected cost of repair outweighs the cost of replacement.  This issue is as wide as it is long and could easily form the basis of a master’s degree.  I simply can’t do this point justice here.  What I can say here is that the value of a broken item, which might be repairable is often zero, many manufacturers don’t make enough effort to support products in-life and there are limited repair and knowledge opportunities for people locally.

Obviously, there’s more to it and these are only three examples of drivers that can influence what happens to an item, after it’s become useful or has broken.

However, there is hope. Repair Cafés have become very popular across the world, and we’re very lucky to have at least two well-run (Repair Cafés) in the Adur and Worthing area (UK). I believe that the BBC’s very popular The Repair Shop is changing attitudes too, and it’s theme of keeping things longer with repair and restoration is a winning formula. Indeed, my own waiting list for repairs grows longer by the day. The French Government recently implemented a scheme to appraise repairability on items sold there, and it was revealed recently that the UK Government plans to do similar.  I’m watching progress with a beady eye.

If you’ve been following my articles here, you’ll know that I advocate keeping things for longer, with good maintenance and the odd dose of repair. It’s usually kinder to our environment, our wallets and helps slow the march of discarded items going to landfill, which is better for us all.

What’s the strangest item that you’ve seen abandoned? Please get in touch- maybe this could be a new feature!

Old vs new, which is best?

Having repaired more than 100 Kenwood Chefs, I compare newish and older machines. Which is best?

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Believe it or not, people do ask me which is best: New or old machines?

There is of course, no right or wrong answer and the answer will vary, depending on the product and application.

But since the question comes up from time-to-time, I thought I’d give my opinion on the matter and have a bit of fun with the subject, a kind of shoot-out if you will.

My illustration focuses on an old favourite of mine; the Kenwood Chef. My chosen opponents are a model from the early 1980s, the ubiquitous A901 Chef, made in England, and the much later 2000s KMC010 Chef, made in China.

The Chef is a good example for the shoot-out as the machine’s purpose hasn’t changed since it’s introduction to kitchens in the 1950s. Many Chef accessories produced over the years are interchangeable, owning to the foresight of good design.

Some people think that new machines are best and more capable while other people think older machines are best as they were built to last. Since I’ve dismantled, used and admired 100s of these machines, here’s my take.

Round 1 – Performance

Older Chefs are less powerful than newer machines. For example, the A901 has a 450W motor, whereas the later KMC010 has a much more powerful 1400W motor. This means than the newer machine will be more capable to mix more stodgy mixtures for longer. Counter intuitively, the more powerful machine may be more efficient for some loads, compared to the lower power one, although I’ve never measured this.

A901 – 0 KMC010 – 1

Round 2 – Noise (from the machine)

Kenwood has tended to favour evolution rather than revolution with their product progression. Many models available over the years appeared not to change much on the surface, but under the skin, small tweaks and improvements were taking place. So, in general, the newer the machine, the quieter they tend to be. There are some model variant exceptions to this, but the KMC010 is much quieter than my own good condition A901.

A901 – 0 KMC010 – 2

Oh dear, new things might be better after all..?

Round 3 – Durability

Now this is where things get interesting. Many of the machines I receive in my workshop for repair are getting on a bit. Some of them are over 40 years old. The machines have served their families well with faithful service.

Faulty older machines can often be turned around within a few hours in the workshop, to be back with the customer, to make more cakes. The A901 Chef is a tough old beast. The materials and finish rarely give any problems and major components rarely fail it seems.

KMC010 Chefs (and all newer models) that I see in the workshop are obviously much younger than the A901s. While very capable and powerful, sadly, they seem to have failed, often only with occasional light use.

Seemingly, it’s true what they say, the older machines were built to last and I base that purely on customer enquiries and items I see to repair every week. The newer machines often have features and buttons that don’t serve any real advantage, but have associated circuits which can and do go wrong, rendering the whole machine useless, if they fail.

A901 – 1 KMC010 – 2

Round 4 – Repairability

Now obviously, I am ‘repairability-biased’, this is a blog about repair after all. However, the facts speak for themselves. Older Chefs can be repaired with basic tools, reasonably priced components and a little know-how.

Newer Chefs, like the KMC010 are more complicated and have less user-serviceable parts. This makes otherwise serviceable machines far more likely to end up in the scrapyard with seemingly minor faults, that were too hard to diagnose and repair. The A901 wins hands down in the repairability stakes.

A901 – 2 KMC010 – 2

The feeling is tense and there’s an air of excitement as I get to call the decider on this slightly odd dual.

Round 5 – Value for money (the decider)

A new KMC010 Titanium costs over £600 today and it should be said that all Chefs are great machines and a worthy addition to any kitchen. However, a decent second-hand Chef from the 1960s to the early 1990s is a worthy contender for a tenth of the cost.

Have a look on eBay and you’ll see A701s, A701a, A901, A901E, KM200 model Chefs, starting at £40, often with many accessories. They’re just as useful and capable to serve most home needs. Indeed, I have a customer who uses her standard A901 in an industrial kitchen, every day, with no problems.

A901 – 3 KMC010 -2

The non-scientific conclusion…

  • Buy an older machine and take satisfaction that it will last generations, can be easily repaired and work with most accessories available now. Buying an older machine is probably less environmentally damaging than the manufacture of a new machine.
  • Buy a new machine and take satisfaction with additional performance and a manufacturers’ guarantee for the first year…

You know which machine I would buy…

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Time to put the kettle on.

Alesis (DM Lite) Drum kit without kick

Alesis Drum Kit gets a cheap repair.

A neighbour of mine is a talented musician in a local band and also teaches school children various instruments.  Some of his students learn the drums, which is most parent’s nightmare as any notion of a peaceful evening is shattered.  Luckily, electronic drum kits are an excellent way to learn with headphones, while keeping happy parents and neighbours.

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FixItWorkshop, Worthing, November’18, Alesis DM Lite Electronic Drum Kit

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FixItWorkshop,  Worthing, November’18, Alexis DM Lite main drum module

This kit was missing several beats and was hampering learning, so time for a visit to the workshop.  I’m no musical instrument repair specialist, but I thought that the drum kit must use electrical contacts, switches and rudimentary electrical components and I was right.

Two faults were reported; The kick/ foot pedal was intermittently not working and one of the drum pads was hardly working at all, unless you hit it with a sledge-hammer.  Time to see what was going wrong.

First up was the faulty drum pad.  Opening up the back of the pad was simplicity itself, just a few screws held the back to the pad.  Sandwiched between two halves was a sensor, a bit like a piezo flat speaker, similar to the type found in many toys with sounds.  I guess the principle here is that vibration detected by the piezo sensor is converted to analogue variable voltages by the drum kit’s circuitry.  While apart, I noticed that some of the copper detail tracks on the printed circuit board which had a standard 3.5mm jack socket (to allow a connection back to the rest of the kit) had cracked.  Looking again through my magnifying glass revealed quite a bit of damage, probably as a result of many Keith Moon wannabes.  Testing these tracks with my meter confirmed an intermittent fault, so out with the soldering iron, to repair the connection.  Plugging the pad back in, it was ready once again for more drum solos.

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Next up was the dodgy kick/foot pedal.  As the with the drum pad, the pedal would cut out intermittently.  A few screws held the pedal together, so only basic tools required.  See the slide show below for an idea of the construction.

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The fault with the pedal was similar to the drum pad.  Some of the copper detailing around the 3.5mm jack socket had failed and required some careful soldering.  I say careful, as applying too much heat at once would, likely as not, melt the casing of the socket.  One had to take care.

Once soldered, the pedal was much better.  I didn’t get a full 10/10 repair with the pedal since I think there was wear on the kick sensor, but it was an improvement none the less.

Cost of replacement:  £lots.  Cost of repair, my time, two cups of tea and some solder.