Wednesday, November 16, 2022



Modern electronics are less and less repairable.

Back in January of 2022, I bought an electronic doorbell for the house.  When we bought the house, the previous owner had installed a battery-operated doorbell which worked fine for a few years.  Prior to that, there was evidence of an "old school" doorbell which, for some reason, was disconnected.

However, the transformer was still extant in the attic, attached to a conduit box.  It converted 110V to 24V and thin wires ran to a doorbell button embedded in the frame of the front door.  A ringer was mounted on the wall in the hallway.  The ringer was a 24V solenoid that had a clapper attached to it and when the doorbell button was pushed, the bell rang.  That setup probably lasted 30 years or so with little or no maintenance.  Maybe the button might have broken, but a new one could be had at the hardware store for ninety-nine cents.

Those were the old days.

Whoever installed the new front door (great job, guys! I can see daylight through the edges!) removed the old doorbell button and apparently ripped out the 24V wiring.  It is nearly impossible to run new wires, without tearing out a lot of sheetrock.  So that is how we ended up with the battery operated doorbell.

And it worked for several years.  The big problem was the button, which was powered by a 12V tiny battery (the same kind used in garage door openers) and it would get corroded.  I was actually able to replace just the button once, and kept it going for a few years more.  I had to replace the "D" batteries in the bell unit at least once.

Other than sanding off corrosion in the battery contacts on the button (and applying silicone grease to prevent more) and changing batteries, there was little in "maintenance" you can do on these things.  And since they cost only a few tens of dollars at the Home Depot, when they break, you just buy a new one.

So when it broke, I removed it and plastered over the holes where the bell unit was mounted and relied on people knocking (which is free).  But eventually, I broke down and bought a new electronic doorbell on eBay for about $13 with taxes.

It was pretty cool.  You press the button and it lights up with LEDs.  The inside unit plugs into a wall outlet, so no need for drilling holes in the sheetrock or buying D-cell batteries.  And you could select from a 38 "songs" as well as set the volume.  It was one of those delightful little products they make in China that are very cheap and entertaining - like these programmable light strings you can buy for a few dollars.

Until a few days ago, it worked great.

But then something happened.  It could have been a power surge perhaps, but for some reason, the inside bell unit died (the surge protector on the hot tub tripped off, so a power surge is very likely). At first I thought it was the outside button and I removed it to inspect.  The 12V battery still was making juice, but was corroded.  So I sanded the contacts with an emery board and applied dielectric grease and installed a new battery.  No joy.

So I looked at the inside bell unit.  When I plugged it in, it "rang" to indicate it was active.  But the "song select" and volume buttons did nothing - whereas before, they would play the song to indicate which song was selected or to demonstrate the volume level.  I tried plugging it in again, and instead of ringing twice, it rang one-and-a-half times and then froze up, with the LED lights staying on.

Curious, I opened the case (three Phillips-head screws) and looked inside.  It was just a circuit board with some resistors and capacitors and two ICs.  I believe one was the RF end, which received the signal from the doorbell unit.  The other stored the various "songs" and played them back and probably had an A/D converter built in.  There was also a small speaker attached, as well as a coiled antenna.

I suppose I could have found the correct IC online (good luck) and soldered it in, but that would have cost more than the unit was worth.  Sometimes you get lucky with these things.  A friend had a cheap "pancake" compressor that died, and he told me I could keep it.   I opened it up and it was a 12V compressor - the kind you see with these cheap tire inflators that run from your cigarette lighter.  It had a single-chip full-wave rectifier to convert the AC to DC and when I put my trusty Volt-Ohm-Meter on it, it wasn't making any DC power.  I removed the chip (unsoldered from the wires) and examined it.  It had a part number on it and I typed that into Google.  I found an electronics wholesale company that sold it, for a few dollars.  I think the shipping and handling was more.

So a week later, the part arrives and I solder it in place and it works.  I tell my friend who gave me the compressor and now he wants it back.  Oh,well.  I should have told him the compressor was seized.  But I am too honest for that.  It was a good compressor for pumping up tires, but he was trying to use it to run a nailgun and it just didn't have the guts for that.  Lesson learned:  Just because Harbor Freight has things that look like generators or compressors or power tools, doesn't mean they are actually such things.  You remove the casing and find, inside, pathetic bits.

It is like these ersatz backup hard drives that are sold online.  The case is empty except for a memory card, which is formatted to make it appear to be 1TB of data, but is more like 4MB.  They put a piece of scrap metal in the case to make it feel heavy.   But it is all fake, of course.

Anyway, getting back to the doorbell, I realized there was nothing I could do to service this thing.  There was no way to "repair" it even if I had a "right to repair" and could find the parts cheaply enough to make it worthwhile.  The only alternative was to buy a new one or go back to knocking.

Things like this should last more than a year, right?  It may be that a power surge took it out, as we have had some power interruptions as of late.  Maybe plugging it into a surge protector would be a good idea.  The problem with cheap electronics is that they often skip things like built-in surge protection, which requires additional components to implement.

So the only option to "fix" this is to replace it.  And since it lasted less than a year, I suspect a new one would last as long.   I guess a lot of folks just buy a new one and figure that $14 a year for doorbell service is the norm.  Or they shell out far more for a "Ring" doorbell and associated Internet connection.

The point is, there wasn't anything here to "fix" and this idea of "right to repair" is a great one, but I suspect as we move forward, fewer and fewer things will be repairable.

The old laptops I have can be dissembled and individual components replaced.  A hard drive that is losing sectors can be reformatted and additional life gotten out of it, with bad sectors marked.  Hell, back in the day, that was something you did every six months - if not more often!

But these new computers?  A reader writes telling me that basically everything is on the motherboard now, surface-mounted.  The days of soldering in memory chips to a memory board are long gone. And even the days of inserting new memory "sticks" into a computer are gone.  Expansion slots are going away as people don't want to necessarily reconfigure their machine.  At best, you can plug in something to a USB port or maybe connect it with Bluetooth.  And in a way, this is progress, too.  The PC design has largely stagnated and settled, so there is no need to make it flexible or backward-compatible anymore.

When my new netbook breaks (as it already has) well, there ain't much you can do other than to file a warranty claim - and electonics warranties are darn short.

The same is true of other electronics, such as televisions.  Once you get lines in the screen, it is all over.  I recall reading about one fellow who "fixed" a television when it started to go wonky.  He pulled the back cover off (28 screws) and saw that the main processor was popped off the motherboard.  It was a surface mount, so he put a heat gun on it and it "settled" back onto the board - and the television worked again, at least for a while (apparently the heat from the television, along with poor soldering at the factory, caused the chip to fall off).  It is a tricky repair, as if you put too much heat to it, the solder will flow, shoring out adjacent connections.

But for the most part, these are disposable electronics, which is why I don't spend more than $400 on a television.  I fail to understand why people spend thousands on them, as the "cutting edge" big-screen $8000 television will become a "bargain basement" $450 unit at Walmart in a few short years.  Your bragging rights are limited!

Smart phones are the same way.  Used to be you could replace the battery - yourself - if it died, and get a few more years out of a phone.  Just remove the back cover and insert a new battery you bought on eBay for $10.  Today, the phones are glued shut and while it is possible to replace the battery, it may require special tools - and skills.  And in the case of iPhones, an "unauthorized" battery may brick the phone.  Why do people buy Apple stuff?  You are locked into a closed-loop ecosystem that really isn't any better than Android.  Apple is finally getting rid of its unique charging/data plug which, it turns out, has a far slower data rate than the "old school" USB-C.

But I digress.

In a way, it is nothing different than before.  The Weibull curve must be obeyed.   When a car depreciates to the point where the cost of repair exceeds resale value, it is time to cash it in.  But car makers can control this by controlling the supply of replacement parts and their prices.   This is why you can buy and older S-Class Mercedes or 7-Series BMW for under $10,000 when it is 15 years old and has 150,000 miles on it.  A $100,000 car, depreciated down to nothing because the cost of repairs would run into the tens of thousands of dollars, presuming you could even find the parts and tools.

Meanwhile, if you want to keep your old Camry on the road, well, they make parts for that as so many of the cars were sold that third parties will tool up to make replacements.

The only real way to get out of this loop, of course, is to consume less.  The electronic door bell was a nice toy, but in the 11 months we owned it, maybe 11 people have come to the house.  That works out to about $1 a ring, and knocking is always free, of course.  Most people call or text before they come over.  It is only the UPS or FedEx man who rings the bell.

The problem with this modern model of technology is that it turns us into passive consumers instead of owners and users.  I have railed against leasing on this blog for over a decade now (has it been that long?) as financially, it made little sense.  Traditionally, it made more sense to own things and maintain them, as you can nurse a product along and get good usage out of it at a lower cost.  Leasing forced you to trade-in at a time when the cost of ownership is just starting to taper off.

But maybe leasing makes more sense with high-tech products.  New EVs and Hybrids are fantastically complex, and even "traditional" IC engine vehicles are nearly impossible for the shadetree mechanic to work on.  The days of adjusting your "points" and gapping your spark plugs using a worn Roosevelt dime as a gauge are long gone.  Today it is all about plugging in your laptop to the OBD-II diagnostic port and reading the codes.  And if you need something like a transmission or engine overhaul, well, it pretty much is time to junk the car.  The old days of doing a valve job every 30,000 miles are behind us - and in a way, that is a good thing, too.

This represents a power-shift, of course.  The more complex our technology, the harder it is for the average consumer to repair it - if it can be repaired at all.  Even those in the skilled repair trades find themselves more and more specialized.  Thus, the general "handyman" may become a thing of the past, as no one can keep up with technology to be a "jack of all trades" as in the past.

When I took our truck to the dealer to have a new camera (one of several on the truck) installed, we had to wait for the "computer guy" to come around (he rotated between dealerships) and not only install the camera, but program the system to recognize it.  The warranty monkeys at the dealer could do oil changes and tire rotations and not much else - other than to follow, to the letter, procedures for recall notices.  The old days of a mechanic being able to diagnose and repair problems are quickly fading away.

Our only option, as consumers, will be to just throw money at things.  The vision of self-driving cars run by Uber is neat, in some regards.  But on the other hand, it means that a few corporations will control our transportation system, and those unable to afford the fares will simply have to walk.

And those who can't afford technology will simply have to do without.

I guess we go back to knocking.