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Why aren't more products easy to repair?

Uploaded: Feb 13, 2022
A few years ago my Dad got really annoyed when his patio umbrella stopped opening and closing easily. He wasn’t annoyed because it stopped working. He was annoyed because he couldn’t fix it. He is one to fix things, but despite his best efforts (and that of his family) he couldn’t figure it out. He had to throw away the whole patio umbrella even though the umbrella was otherwise in great shape. Furthermore, it was a nuisance to dispose of since it didn’t exactly fit in a trash bin. Why couldn’t it be designed to be more repairable?

A week ago I ordered a bunch of smoke detectors to replace some faulty ones. The electrician informed me that the batteries in this newer design can’t be replaced and after ten years I will have to replace all the detectors. (1) That is progress? These days, even when a battery in a device can be replaced, you may have to ship the device to an authorized dealer and wait one or two weeks.

There has been a lot of pushback on this lack of repairability in the past few years. The Federal Trade Commission hosted a workshop on repair restrictions in 2019, and then the pandemic hit, with supply chain and labor force issues making access to repairs even more difficult. President Biden signed an executive order this past July that emphasized the importance of people’s ability to repair their own equipment. Various “right to repair” bills have been proposed, focusing on farmers or cars. This past Friday, California State Senator Susan Eggman of Stockton introduced a bill (link TBD) strengthening the “right to repair” for electronic devices in California.

This type of bill has broad bipartisan support according to a survey by bill sponsor CALPIRG.


Source: CALPIRG

Senator Eggman says: “The ability to fix the things that we own, through our own hands or those of a trusted independent repair shop, should not be a controversial or partisan issue.” CALPIRG advocate Sander Kushen is passionate about this: “California creates 1.1 million tons of electronic waste every single year. Our survey of Californians showed that people feel like they're pressured into making their devices e-waste: 95% of Californians agree that manufacturers push us to buy new products instead of fixing our old ones.”

It’s not just we suburbanites that are frustrated with our inability to repair things. Authorized repair shops are few and far between in rural areas. When farming equipment is broken, especially during planting season or harvest season, the downtime directly impacts farmers’ incomes. If military vehicles cannot be quickly repaired, it can harm the resilience of a fighting force. Phones and laptops can be critical for small businesses. Vermont State Senator Christopher Pearson, speaking at the 2019 workshop on repair restrictions, stated that when his iPhone’s camera broke, “according to Apple, nobody in Vermont could fix it. They wanted me to send it to them.” But mailing it away for repair would have been tantamount to closing his business for a week.

Repair advocates argue that manufacturers are stifling competition and raising prices by requiring customers to go to authorized repair facilities and restricting access to original parts or service manuals. Electronic access or diagnostic codes may be proprietary, effectively preventing repair, or a product might require special tools to fix if it’s built with glue instead of screws, or with integrated lithium “pouch” batteries instead of easier-to-replace cylindrical formats. A repair might just be so expensive that buying new is cheaper. I was told it would cost over $200 to replace the light bulb in my microwave, so I heat things up in the dark now. The Executive Director of The Repair Assocation, Gay Gordon-Byrne, testified that he bought a new $189 microwave to avoid paying $600 for a new circuit board. “I’ve now contributed to both the solid waste problem and the e-waste problem. Every consumer does this with every broken gadget.” (2)


Image source: Alan Levine

Products can be designed to make common repairs easier. Apple recently took a step in that direction. Soon their store will offer parts and tools to handle common repairs with the iPhone 12 and 13, such as the display, battery, and camera. Moreover, customers who return their used part for recycling will receive credit toward their purchase. This is great news.

But the industry is pushing back as well. In congressional testimony on this topic in 2019, Microsoft explained that there are design tradeoffs between repairability and other properties that consumers value, including weight, aesthetics, robustness, and battery life. For example, they say they use a harder-to-replace lithium-ion “pouch-style” battery because it maximizes battery life: “We estimate that use of a rigid battery design would result in a reduction of battery life of up to 1.4 hours for the average user – a reduction that would be unacceptable to most Microsoft customers who highly value long run time.” They also explain why they use adhesives instead of screws, even though it makes repairs more difficult. “The use of adhesives to affix batteries or display panels increases the structural integrity of devices, improving damage resistance and enhancing product durability…. Adhesives also meet consumer demand for a high-quality, tactile, and “solid” product feel by preventing internal components from rattling within the casing.” Microsoft worries about the privacy and security implications of making their systems more accessible, testifying for example that pirates will be better able to hack gaming platforms. “Experience has proven that unfettered access to diagnostic and proprietary hardware tools increases the potential for malicious actors to circumvent anti-piracy controls.” Networked devices can also propagate security issues to other products.

A bill proposed in California to ensure the right of repair for medical devices such as ventilators faced strong opposition because of concerns about the reliability of the repaired equipment, the liability the hospital might have to take on, and the weakening of intellectual property rights. A bill in Massachusetts giving auto repair shops more access to data is being litigated, and in the meantime Subaru and Kia have disabled some features for vehicles being sold there, saying that it is too risky to comply. The “right to repair” legislation is very appealing but not easy to write when the technology and risks are hard to understand.

Electronic devices are getting more complex, and more products are becoming electronic devices. Cars, smoke alarms, laptops, and ovens can all be interconnected electronic devices. Who can make which repairs on these, what training do they need, and who is liable if something goes wrong? We want to make repairs more accessible without damaging the integrity of the device or prohibitively increasing costs. Apple’s approach of starting with the most common repairs makes sense to me. Even if it costs more for Apple it can translate into more sales. Although customers rarely know how repairable a product is when they buy it, I expect word will get around pretty quickly when it is easy to replace a broken screen or battery. Consumer-focused organizations like iFixit and Consumer Reports also try to share this information with consumers. (3) But in my mind there are limits to how repairable these products can be, especially by untrained third parties, and there are real risks. I don’t want hacked Teslas driving around the neighborhood.

CALPIRG advocate Kushen says: “We know that Californians want to fix their stuff—6.8 million unique users from California went to www.iFixit.com to look up how to repair something in 2020.” He adds that “when things are repairable and refurbishable, they retain value over time. It's not crazy to think that we could see an aftermarket for electronics where selling your used laptop is as common as selling your used car. At the end of the day, repair is as good for our pocketbooks as it is for the planet.”



One thing that we all can do now is to consider buying refurbished products. In our house we typically buy used phones. A few have been lemons but they were easily exchanged. The phones work just fine, look just fine, and are cheaper than buying new. The main downside I find is that it can be a pita to do the series of software updates needed on factory-reset phones. You can buy refurbished phones from vendors like Apple or Samsung, or through Amazon, or eBay, or various smaller third parties. I’d love to hear your experience with this if you have any.

Since many of you work in tech, I’d also like to hear your perspective on whether we need to balance the repairability of a device with the security, product integrity, liability, or intellectual property risks.

Notes and References
1. Happily it turns out that on the even newer model, you can replace the batteries.

2. I once repaired an oven using a third-party circuit board. It worked for a while, but then it didn’t, and I was out the significant cost of labor.

3. iFixit publishes repairability scores for smartphones, laptops, and tablets.

Current Climate Data (December 2021 / January 2022)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard


My gardener referred to this winter heatwave as a “delightmare”.

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Comments

Posted by Loren Peters, a resident of St. Francis Acres,
on Feb 13, 2022 at 9:41 am

Loren Peters is a registered user.

(1) Planned obsolescence on the part of the manufacturer ensures future sales.

(2) Countless customers are blinded by lower-priced & poorly-made overseas manufactured consumer goods which don't last long & need to be replaced more frequently.

(3) On the subject of cellular phones...Apple provides 6 years of OS + security updates while Android models offer only 3 years.

Buying a used smartphone that no longer receives the manufacturer's security updates can be risky in terms of ensuring personal privacy & avoiding personal information hacking.

Given the choice, it is probably wiser to purchase a used Apple smartphone than an Android (Google, Samsung etc ) because of its longer support system + Apple phone apps are better screened for potential malware and optimum security.
Apple is a closed operating system (OS) while Android is an open system which allows for developer tinkering with its OS and various apps.

And as far as repairing one's own cellphone, the concept is easier said than done & could also void any remaining manufacturer's warranty coverage if applicable.

(4) Getting back to #1...remember when many folks (mostly men) used to work on their own cars?

One cannot do that anymore because modern-day gas-powered vehicles are
far more complex (both mechanically & electronically) than those of yesteryear and often require factory computer diagnostics equipment.

The engine compartment components are
also more crammed nowadays & even something as basic as a simple oil change or valve cover gasket replacement can be very time consuming unless one has a hoist, specialized hand tools, and the extra time handy...not to mention complying with the proper environmental disposal protocols for motor fluids (antifreeze, motor oil, transmission fluid et al).

What we are discussing here is simply the sign of the times & there is no going back to the simpler days of do-it-yourself (DIY) home, auto & electronic projects.


Posted by Loren Peters, a resident of St. Francis Acres,
on Feb 13, 2022 at 9:57 am

Loren Peters is a registered user.

Footnote...I grew up in Palo Alto during the 1950s and Werry Electric on University used to repair home appliances like toasters and television sets.

Zacks Electronics on High Street and U-Do Electronics on Castro Street in Mountain View catered to home DIY electronic enthusiasts and repairers.

I recall going with my father to use the tube tester whenever our TV was on the blink and replacement parts were readily available.

Professional television repairmen are also long gone as people nowadays simply buy a new flat screen TV and dispose of the older or malfunctioning ones.

It is no longer feasible in terms of labor costs or procuring obscure components to repair any modern electronic device these days.


Posted by Neal, a resident of Community Center,
on Feb 13, 2022 at 10:42 am

Neal is a registered user.

It's not just electronic devices that are a problem. Often the parts needed for repair are outrageously expensive. I bought a pair of shoes at Costco for $12. A new pair of shoe laces cost me $2.50. I had to replace a specialized washer on my outboard motor and it cost $32. I replaced the gasket on my refrigerator door for $100 an it didn't work as well as the old gasket. I could give you many other examples because I'm a dedicated DIYer. In addition, when I've tried to repair other devices I found that many replacement parts are no longer available. Any yes, specialized tools and their cost are another deterrent.


Posted by Jennifer, a resident of another community,
on Feb 13, 2022 at 12:21 pm

Jennifer is a registered user.

"Why aren't more products easier to repair?" Because businesses are in business to make money, and they err on the side of greed. And consumers are in the business of saving money. It really is that simple.


Posted by Mondoman, a resident of Green Acres,
on Feb 13, 2022 at 3:36 pm

Mondoman is a registered user.

I believe it's still the case that typical car dealerships make much more of their money selling parts and service than in selling new cars.

That said, repairability depends on the skill of the repairer. Many years ago, I had a cracked screen replaced on my Samsung phone by a local independent shop, and the result was nowhere near "like new". More recently, I had an iphone battery replaced by the Stanford Apple Store and a few weeks after the 30-day repair warranty had expired, so did the battery, bricking the phone.

Conversely, quality factory-refurbished phones, such as those from Apple, look and work like new. 3rd party "refurbishers," though, often just clean up the outsides of used phones to resell them as "refurbished".

Legislation on this issue should take notice of the complexities.


Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 13, 2022 at 3:41 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

Often clothes come with a spare button. But how many know how to sew on a button? Even without a spare button, trying to replace a button is hard as fewer places sell buttons and quite often you will have to replace all buttons on the item so that they match.

Same logic as the shoelaces mentioned above, buying a set of buttons to replace a missing button might cost the same as a new shirt.

Now think of bigger and more expensive items than a simple button and the problem is magnified.


Posted by Randi Kayne, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Feb 14, 2022 at 11:56 am

Randi Kayne is a registered user.

Too many consumer products are being manufactured with cheaply manufactured, readily disposable, and difficult to recycle toxic plastic materials.

Start using steel again as products made from metal usually last longer and can be remanded towards re-usable scrap metal.

When was the last time you saw an all- metal vacuum cleaner or chromed steel bumpers on a car?

Plastic longevity is a chronic enemy of the environment.


Posted by KOhlson, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Feb 14, 2022 at 12:38 pm

KOhlson is a registered user.

Except for the more exotic cars, I think most cars can be serviced by their owners. I do so on my family's 4 vehicles, 2 of which are just 3 years old. I regularly repaired our old Bosch dishwasher - the same control board component kept failing - finally replacing it after 18 years. I replaced 3 failed (and glued in) batteries in MacBook pros. The web is often a great source of information for those inclined. But I agree with your post - business do not like one-and-done business models and are trying everything they can to ensure lock-in. And in most businesses Service is a leading source of profit. Thanks for highlighting RTR.


Posted by MyFeelz, a resident of another community,
on Feb 14, 2022 at 2:05 pm

MyFeelz is a registered user.

Bystander, my mother had a big wicker basket full of buttons. In her day, store-bought clothing that had buttons on it, included a button card attached to it with extras sewn on it. More modernly, the extra buttons are sewn onto the piece somewhere out-of-the-way. My mom always cut the buttons off and put them in her basket. Now, you are lucky if your clothing item has all of its buttons on securely, let alone provide an extra when one of them falls off. Now Mom's gone and her basket with 85 years worth of buttons disappeared, but I wish I had it because I would be selling buttons for $1 each on Ebay.


Posted by MyFeelz, a resident of another community,
on Feb 14, 2022 at 2:19 pm

MyFeelz is a registered user.

Sherry, as a card-carrying DIY car fixer upper, I bemoan the new cars with all of their hard to get sensors and electronic doodads that, if meddled with, void the warranty on the product. We used to be able to be trusted to know what was wrong with our cars and know when to seek a professional for a repair job. Whenever I bought a car, I bought the Chilton repair manual. It didn't make sense to have one without the other. I've purchased two new cars since the beginning of COVID and they both have owner's manuals that have "will void the warranty" scattered in nearly every category from changing a belt to inflating a tire. The first car was blowing a hole in my wallet because of all of the things only a dealer was allowed to touch, but also somehow magically escaped what was covered under the warranty. (Car make won't be mentioned because I am still in negotiations with that company, for their failure to provide a warranty for parts that should have been covered) The second car provides a comprehensive warranty and 2 years worth of free maintenance. I'm getting too old and too feeble to fix my cars alone, and not sure if a Bill is going to change anything on that front for me, but it would be nice to have the option.

As for the refurbished phones, I also buy them and use them with google phone numbers. As long as the device has enough room to download google play and activate the google voice app, I don't care if the device never updates. Google doesn't make me have to do it to use their service.


Posted by SallyVP, a resident of Blossom Valley,
on Feb 15, 2022 at 2:25 pm

SallyVP is a registered user.

On the low tech side, I recommend Freecycle.org. It allows you to post and find free items. I posted my broken patio umbrella and someone had the same kind of umbrella but the fabric was torn. So they took my umbrella and moved the fabric on to their working frame. A similar thing happened with my super-duper blender. The motor was getting unreliable, but I had the entire original set of attachments. Someone who had the same blender with a working motor but had lost the attachments was happy to get mine. I think of it as a lazy person's way to give broken things a new life.


Posted by Steven Nelson, a resident of Cuesta Park,
on Feb 15, 2022 at 7:17 pm

Steven Nelson is a registered user.

on the tail side-
I cannot get more than 40 much less more than 50 MPG in a non hybrid / non plastic panel or bumpered vehicle. SO, I take my 21st century Prius to the manufacture for service / repair.

How much (in tons) of atmospheric carbon dioxide will that save over the life of this car?

With a metal case, with a battery door, I think my slim iPhone (7 BTW) would be less sturdy. I like a previous poster advice - by a USED iPhone after 3 years and keep it till it's "service life" (6 years) runs out.

My 3G flip-phone still boots up / and has a replacable battery [OH, no bars why is that. : -]


Posted by Consider Your Options. , a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Feb 16, 2022 at 11:36 am

Consider Your Options. is a registered user.

Revealing myself as an old fart here. I really don't want or need my fridge to be able to talk with my cellphone. I don't need to be able to operate home lights remotely. I don't want or need car windows that operate electronically. It's just not that hard to roll down a window.

As a woman who is perfectly capable of making repairs, it irritates me to throw out a fifty pound manufactured object because a chip buried in the works has stopped operating. To manufacturers, this changes my view of your brand and its quality for future purchases. It is getting harder and harder to buy anything new that is well built. So I buy older things. I drive a 25-year old car that runs just fine. The Revere Ware pots and pans I use were purchased in the fifties when my mom was setting up her home. My husband bought a digital clock about six years ago that he recently had to throw out and replace because opening it to attempt repair destroyed it. I have a clock that has been in my family for over 200 years that still works, but my 3-yr. old patio umbrella just stopped working in exactly the same way Sherry describes. Annoying.

This is one of the areas where capitalism (and the corporate leaders who are making decisions) is really broken and needs regulation. The scale of our landfills, the junk we will leave behind for our kids to deal with, should be an embarrassment to our society. Companies should not be allowed to profit by wasting and junking resources of future generations.

Planned obsolescence is an obscene abuse of future generations in the corporate sprint for profit and the consumer sprint for cheap stuff. We all have a role to play in this. Your vintage blender is probably better quality and more fixable that that flashy new one at Walmart. Go online. Fix it. You can save loads. Write a letter to the company that sold you cheap junk to register your irritation. They do listen when enough customers write. And just buy less stuff. Waste not. Want not.


Posted by Fr0hickey, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Feb 16, 2022 at 12:53 pm

Fr0hickey is a registered user.

Lots of electronics with internal batteries that cannot be replaced by the user are thrown away because the batteries are at the end of their life. No one wants to make a product that has a door for a battery port. And mfgrs are always cost-cutting to the point where glue is cheaper than screws.
The person that invented those snap-together plastic cases with internal latches that break when you pry them open should be made to use that for their laptop case.


Posted by Matt, a resident of Woodside: Skywood/Skylonda,
on Feb 16, 2022 at 1:31 pm

Matt is a registered user.

I used to replace s teens in all the iPhones the neighborhood kids dropped. I've done 40+ over the years. Two things got me to stop: the replacement screens became crappy and water residence of phones made doing the seals close to impossible.

I don't blame the greedy companies as much as others. We want advanced features, better cameras, faster speeds for our phones. We speak with our purchases.

I also made consumer electronics. Fixing a cable is one thing. Replacing a surface mount microcontroller is an entirely different task.

I got rid of my smart watch because they were obsolete in two years. My great grandfather's pocket watch still runs! No, I don't use it, but I do have a mechanical watch.

I work on some of my own cars. Yes, even some of the newer ones filled with computers. But there is a limit to what I'll spend on specialized tools to talk to them.

The best we can do? Purchase carefully. Look not just at product design and features, but at durability. Speak with your wallet and the market will listen. If you just buy the cheapest disposable widget off Amazon and complain about the world in comments, it'll ignore you.


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