Friday, October 28, 2022

Mr. Fix-It?

It is virtually impossible to repair something forever.

I recently saw a posting online from a clueless individual.  "Our local library hosts a fix-it day, where people can bring in broken things, and volunteers fix those things for them!  Re-use, recycle, save the planet!"


It is clueless because, first of all, who in their right mind volunteers to fix things for people?  Suppose you "fix" someone's toaster and they get electrocuted by it?  Gee, that was a great deal - you didn't even get paid for taking that risk!  Or the toaster just breaks again (which it will, as it is near the end of its design life) and the hapless owner comes back and says, "you didn't fix it right!"

I say this from experience.  You try to help people and they throw it right back at you.  Working on someone's car or house may be "helpful" but chances are, the people are so cheap they don't want to pay money for parts, and without parts you can't fix anything.  That's just the way things work.  You can't make a new microprocessor by whittling it out of wood.

Things wear out over time, and eventually, every part wears out.  You could try to replace all those parts, if they are available.  In most cases, they aren't - either the manufacturer doesn't sell them, or they are NLA because the product is so old.  There is only so much you can do with superglue and bailing twine.  Sure, you could cannibalize used parts from a broken machine (why not repair that?) but they are worn as well, and will eventually fail in short order.

You see these antique and "classic" cars at car shows and you notice the owners hardly ever drive them except at parade speeds around the parking lot.  The reason is simple - while they have been "restored" to look good, the restoration is skin-deep.  There are a host of parts that you simply cannot find for many cars - particularly trim pieces.  Yes, they make replacement door panels for a '66 Chevelle, but not for more offbeat makes and models.  You can find Mustang parts all over the place - for a 1968 Mustang.  Good Luck finding them for a Mustang II - no one covets or restores those.

Even if  you can find all the parts you need, eventually the item becomes a Ship of Theseus - you replace every single part and is it really the same ship?  The staggering cost of parts makes this uneconomical - the resultant machine would cost ten times as much as a new one.

Back in 2002, BMW made a big deal about building, from scratch, a 1972 BMW 2002 car, using parts from their inventory.  Two guys, working in a glass box on display, slowly assembled the car from parts.  Even assuming the labor was free, we are talking tens of thousands of dollars in parts - maybe over a hundred thousand - easily.  You could have bought a new BMW 3-series for far less - or a well-maintained or restored 2002 for even far, far less.  There reaches a point where restoration is uneconomical.

Recently, I had a few things break, and I am in the middle of fixing them.  First, one of my Toshiba C655 laptops broke - the "F" key doesn't work.  Not a big problem, as you can buy brand-new keyboards all day long on eBay for $12 including shipping, and they take 10 minutes to replace - you just snap off the trim piece, remove a few screws, and plug in the new keyboard.

Of course, you hope the plastic trim piece you snap off doesn't just snap, as plastic gets brittle with age.  That is one reason why modern cars will be so hard to restore in 30-40 years - all that plastic on the interior will crack and fade, and unlike the vinyl-and-steel interiors of the 1950's and 1960's, it will be very hard to make replacements - and the carmakers will not be keen on stocking those parts.

So for $12, maybe it worth fixing.  Of course, I have already replaced the motherboard, the hard drive, and the memory on that machine.  I "repaired" the broken plastic (brittle, again) that supported the hinge, using the "Marty's Matchbox Makeover" technique of superglue and baking soda (it sets right away and you can fill in missing pieces of plastic).  So maybe the new keyboard will keep it going - for a while longer.

My other laptop (identical model) has a line through the screen.  Either the screen is shot, or the built-in graphics card is going South.  Do I live with a line in the screen?  Or will the display get worse and worse over time?

Some folks sell junked laptops on eBay and sometimes they are cheap - but no word on what is working and what isn't, in some cases.  And in others, people want astronomical prices for laptops where virtually nothing is workingThere reaches a point where maybe putting that cash, as trivial as it is, toward a new machine, is a better bet.

Again, you are putting used parts into a used machine - you might extend the life a bit further, but not forever.  That is why, for a used car, if the motor blows up, it makes sense to find a low-mileage engine from a wrecked car, rather than pay top dollar for a new one.  The car is already halfway worn out, why bother putting a brand-new engine in it?  It will outlast the carThe same is true for EV batteries - if they fail, look to a junkyard, not a dealer! (Note, why did that article have the title, "Families shocked at cost of EV replacement batteries"?  I'll  bet Villagers are shocked, too!)

Speaking of new machines - the Chromebook went nuts after a "Chrome Update" - it refused to recognize the Internet or load any webpages.  I did a "Powerwash" to reset the machine to factory settings (good thing nothing of importance was stored on it!) and it rebooted and works fine, now.   Of course, this meant re-installing the apps and reconfiguring it with my user data.  It is an interesting toy, but I am not sure it is ready for prime-time.  The theory is, I guess, everything is stored in the cloud (which you pay for) and all your media is streams (which you pay for) and nothing is really yours.  The machine is just an interface - a dumb terminal or "thin client" as we used to call it.  I am not a big fan of that - I would rather own things than lease them.  But maybe that is the brave new world we are moving to, as technology becomes so complicated that no one wants to actually keep it around.

So, this shit comes in threes, and our beloved Bissell 1984 Air Ram vacuum - the best vacuum cleaner in the world, in my opinion, broke.  Well, the power switch broke, which is not surprising.  If you are a fan of MIL-SPEC 217D (I guess they are up to F now) you know that the highest failure rate for electrical components are switches, light bulbs, and power supplies.

The power switch is a membrane switch, mounted behind a hinged cover, like a giant keyboard key.  It gets mashed a lot with feet and has a hard life.  Still, it should have lasted longer than three-and-a-half years.  It is an intermittent push-button switch, connected to some sort of motherboard.  It senses a press and turns on, senses a press and turns off.  I learned this by testing it with a jumper wire. I also realized the switch was broken after putting my Volt-Ohm meter on it - no continuity when pressed.

I found some guy in England selling just the switch for $16 plus shipping from the UK.  Maybe they sell it there because of "right to repair" laws.  Still, $20 is a lot of dough for a tiny switch!  I would have to solder it into place, of course.  Or, I could just mount a push-button (like the one shown above) on the outer casing for $10 and call it a day.  Not pretty, but it would work.

It is a standing joke between Mark and I about these buttons.  I put one on our golf cart for the FIAMMA air horns (you have to have those on your golf cart, right?  And why not on the Hamster as well?).  You see, back in the day, his Grandmother Betty-D's purple Cadillac Coupe DeVille had a "rim-blow" horn.  It sounds dirty, I know, but it was a 1970's thing - you squeezed the rim of the steering wheel and the horn would blow.  It resulted in a lot of accidental horn-blowing, as you might imagine.  It also broke, and the Cadillac people wanted a lot of money for a whole new steering wheel to fix it.  So grandpa screwed a button like the one above, to the dashboard and Betty-D would drive around with one hand near this button, ready to honk at a moment's notice.

It was a repair job that would do Red Green proud. So maybe I will continue the tradition, at least for the vacuum cleaner.

Bissell does not sell replacement switches, at least in the US.  They sell the power head, the battery pack, the removable filter canister, the handle, and the charging cord.  And the price of these is, well, pretty reasonable.  We paid $200 for the original unit.  Today it is $266, but you can get 15% off by Halloween, so that brings it down to $226, which isn't bad, considering inflation. Or, I could just buy the powerhead for $144 ($122 on sale) and re-use the battery ($150 new!) and filter canister(s) (I have two) and handle.  As you can see, at these prices,spending more than $50 on "repairs" makes no sense.

And if I had to hire someone to repair it, well, it would be over $100 with parts and labor. Most shops charge at least $75 for just one shop hour of labor.  This makes fixing things too expensive, versus replacement.

Vacuum cleaners have a rough life.  While we studiously try to keep dirt and dust out of our electronics (you fail at this at your own peril!  Have you cleaned your computer lately?) with vacuum cleaners the whole point is to cram them with dirt.  Not only that, they get dragged across the floor, slammed into furniture, and generally abused.  Inspecting the power head on this unit reveals a lot of wear and tear, and I wonder how long it will be before a motor fails or some other part breaks.

Sure, Mother's Electrolux lasted a lifetime.  Then again, it was made of steel, mostly, and she took it to the "Vacuum Cleaner Repair Man" every other year to be rebuilt - and he could get parts for it, cheaply.  Not so much, today.  The vacuum cleaner repair man went the way of the small engine repair guy - it is just cheaper, even with inflation, to buy a new lawnmower at Lowe's.

So my battle plan is to put an aftermarket switch on the case (which will be more durable than the original switch) and keep using it to failure, at which point, I will investigate buying a new powerhead.  I still love the vacuum cleaner (and my hoary old Toshiba laptops) but I realize that nothing lasts forever in this world, or at least, there is a cost/benefit analysis that has to be performed on any product, if you have to make the decision whether to repair or replace.

UPDATE: I ordered the switch from the UK.  Also, I discovered online that Bissell replaced some folk's powerheads for free, when they contacted Bissell.  So I did that as well.  Can't hurt to ask!!