On the mend
When getting a broken appliance fixed is often more expensive than replacing it, it's not surprising that repair is a dying art. Tim Dowling tries to buck the trend by fixing things himself, and three other Guardian writers try to find someone - anyone - to put their gadgets together again
Monday January 15, 2007
The disposable culture started small. In 1892 William Painter, founder of the Baltimore Bottle Seal Company, patented the crown cork, which would soon become more widely known as the bottle cap. The bottles were returned and refilled, but the bottle caps got thrown away. They only worked once. Painter's chief salesman at the time was King Camp Gillette, who went on to apply the principle to his own invention, the disposable razor blade. Today almost everything has its disposable version - cameras, nappies, barbecues - but the concept has been taken a step further. Economic imperatives have made most of our consumer durables effectively disposable. In short, they are often cheaper to replace than they are to mend. This applies not just to radios and toasters, but to fridges, televisions and dishwashers. We now live in a disposable culture.
We no longer revel in it, however. We know we should be reducing the amount of waste we produce, although for all our efforts to compost or recycle, landfill continues to increase. It's hard to slip a CD player into the bottom of the rubbish these days without feeling a pang of conscience, especially if you suspect that all it needs is a bit of mending. But who fixes that sort of thing any more? And how much would they charge you?
As if we weren't throwing enough away already, modern life has given us dozens of bewildering new appliances - set-top boxes, modem-routers - whose very purpose is almost as mysterious as their workings. To the untrained eye, they appear to be nothing more than plastic boxes that get a bit hot when you plug them in. Every new gadget seems to come with its own remote control or charging station, without which it is inoperable, and which is destined to go missing. In some cases the stuff is literally irreparable; either the spare parts are not supplied or there is nothing to fix - the appliance itself is considered a "complete replacement unit". What do you do, for example, with a broken electric toothbrush? If you're like me, you go out and buy a new one, and then another new one, and then another, until eventually you learn that electric toothbrushes are a sort of con: you're lucky if the base outlives two replacement heads.
Mimi Spencer, Hove
The DVD player
My chunky Toshiba DVD player, bought in 2003, threw in the towel a few weeks back. Needless to say, I didn't have extended warranty cover for my dead appliance. But, still, I took it back to my local branch of Currys to see what could be done. As I carried it in from the car, nursing the plug, lead and remote control unit to my chest, I felt oddly fond of it. We'd had good nights together, that DVD and I.
The Currys boy happened to be immensely tall, with large hands and eyes like a switched-off telly.
"Would it be possible ... ?" I started.
"Can't fix it. Not worth it," he uttered, twiddling something fascinating in his trouser pocket.
"But it's only three years old," I said, as if pleading for the life of a sick puppy. "Surely there must be something ... "
"Customer services," he said, sending me off with a shove of his head.
Adrian at customer services was a bored man, but he did have a gadget on his computer which allowed him to pull up my entire electronic history with the company. The DVD player was uncovered and thus unmendable and wholly uninteresting to Adrian. "It's not on the screen," he sniffed. "There's nothing I can do."
"Have you tried a lens cleaner?" he inquired, rather benevolently, I thought. Yes, I had tried a lens cleaner. "Well," he said, in a conspiratorially low whisper, as if being overheard might be a sackable offence, "you could try the, erm, shop on Sackville Road. Might do it. Depends what's wrong with it. But" - his voice rose perceptibly - "you'd be better off getting a new one. They cost less than 30 quid."
It was tempting. There was something provocative about the slimline DVD players lined up like dancing girls on the shelf. One model cost just £19.99, about the same price as a DVD of The Constant Gardener; this seemed all wrong, like paying more for the coffee than the cup.
"Um, Adrian," I asked gingerly, "could you recycle it if I can't fix it?" The answer was an inevitable no.
Robert Smith Video Repair Centre, dumped on the corner of a residential street in Hove, is one of those places, like Mr Benn's shop, that might not be there next time you look. Inside, the rectangular video recorders and cuboid cathode-ray TVs are stacked in neat ranks, each with a label indicating its medical history. "Dead," said some. Others said, "Done." It was like a geriatric ward for entertainment systems, but there was hope in this room. Here, tinkering with a screwdriver clearly yielded results.
A man with a moustache emerged from a back room and accepted my DVD player, bidding me to await his call with the prognosis. How much would it cost? That would depend, he said, leaving the mystery hanging in the mote-filled air. I left hoping for the best, willing that the fix would cost less than £19.99.
Robert Smith called. The laser was faulty. He had rung a couple of wholesalers, but they didn't have one in stock. "Lasers," admitted Robert, "can be pretty expensive." How expensive exactly? More than £19.99? My heart wanted him to say no, but my brain already knew the DVD was a DNR. "Anything from £20 to £100," replied Robert, like a surgeon breaking the news gently. "You may want to think about writing it off," he continued, getting as close to holding my hand as you can over the phone.
There was nothing for it. The old Toshiba is, alas, off to Guangdong, to be strip-searched for a morsel of metal and dumped in a lake. The slinky new silver DVD player sits under the TV and looks adorable, like a kitten. It's working beautifully. I give it a week.
Yes to everything folks have said so far in the comments. It is disgusting how little one can do to preserve any investment in anything for want of a simple fix. FWIW, I had a $5 part--the wave diffuser--go on a very good mircowave that I have. I was able to slide the old one out with a screwdriver--and put a new one in with said implement. The whole operation took $12 and 5 minutes. Where did I get the part? Take note of this:
Circuit City Part Search
When I first posted up the microwave story, lots of people said I was being cheap for not just getting a new one. WTF? $12 part for a microwave that works great, versus a cheap piece of new shit for $100?
You know what I went and got from the hardware store yesterday? New rubber rings for my Osterizer blender. My ugly almond-color Osterizer blender. Not the avocado one that my Mom got as an engagement gift in 1963, which she still has, but the one that she got as a housewarming gift for the one year that we lived in NJ in 1971. Its motor is stronger than anything commercially available today and it really, really works. Mom replaced the blades (a $15 part) once around 15 years ago before she gave it to me to take to DC when I was in law school. This is what it looks like, sort of (mine's older):
True story: A few years ago a couple I know had a chili potluck party. One of their wedding gifts was a Cuisinart blender--a few years old. They tried to crush ice in it for margaritas and the motor burned out. Luckilly, they had a secondhand Osterizer from her Mom in the storage area. They washed it off, fired it up, and soon it was margaritas for all.
When I went to get the replacement rings, the guy asked me how long I'd had my machine. When I told him, he a) initially asked if I was going to sell it and then b) told me to never sell it. Apparently, those in the know scour yard sales for these.
I've also fixed my old VCR once (I keep it around for my legacy 80's music videos that I taped off of Night Flight and MTV before it started to suck) as well as other old TV shows. When it goes, I may loose access to them unless I get them converted to DVD. Shame, really.
posted by Steve @ 12:30:00 PM