Need a repair? The Fixit Clinic will guide you to get things working again

Energy & Sustainability
Need a repair? The Fixit Clinic will guide you to get things working again

This article appeared in Make: Magazine Volume 80. Subscribe today to see more!

I often describe Fixit Clinic as “a hobby that’s gotten way out of control.” We held the first Fixit Clinic in 2009 as a modest experiment to make basic tools and specialty tools available so attendees could disassemble, troubleshoot and — hopefully — repair common consumer items: to take apart appliances and electronics, mend fabric and textile items like clothing and luggage, fix furniture; to work on and work with any and all sorts of durable goods.

Now through our Global Fixers Server and Intergalactic Zoom Fixit Clinics, we have expanded and transformed Fixit Clinic into a global phenomenon with participants and repairers from around the world working together to fix things. We’re able to support underserved and remote areas that don’t have the resources or population density to support holding local community repair events. We can also consider large things that would be too unwieldy to bring to an in-person event.

COMMON FAULTS

The Fixit Clinic has a historical repair success rate of about 70%, and that’s mostly without access to repair manuals, engineering diagrams, schematics, or diagnostic tools. Based on our experience of seeing tens of thousands of items, here are some of the top issues we encounter on a regular basis:

NO POWER: The item’s often not working because it’s just not getting power, whether from batteries or through the power cord.

• Battery-powered devices: Confirm that replacement batteries are indeed good, and that the battery contacts are free of corrosion. If batteries have leaked inside the battery compartment (i.e. you see a white powder of potassium carbonate) you can usually get the device working again by cleaning out the battery compartment and using an eraser, a piece of steel wool, and/or some 91% isopropyl alcohol to make the contacts shiny again.

• Wall-powered devices: Appliances frequently plugged and unplugged often stop working because people tend to yank hard on their cords, stressing the point where it is molded together with the plug. Where the cord goes into the appliance is the other common stress point. Wiggling or applying pressure at those points can often confirm that’s the problem. If you can get the item to work intermittently this way, simply change out the plug or whole cord.

Also, before tearing a device apart, ensure your source of AC power is good and switched on, including any outlet strips used.

BAD PORTS: Power connections, USB ports, HDMI ports, etc. can collect dust, dirt, and debris that can impair their function. Careful inspection and cleaning with 91% isopropyl alcohol and an old toothbrush can often restore function. Apple’s MagSafe connectors are magnetic and can
attract all sorts of little pieces of metallic debris so take extra care to remove any small metal shards or flakes.

• When cleaning doesn’t work: There’s often physical damage to the port, or the port has separated from the circuit board. If you’re lucky the port can be replaced or resoldered. We see many items where failure of the port could’ve been avoided by reinforcing the area around the port better. As a design and manufacturing rule of thumb we believe all ports — anywhere a user might connect two things together — should be heavily reinforced. Ideally, ports should also be designed to be modular so that replacement of the port alone is possible.

IF YOU SPILL LIQUID ON YOUR LAPTOP, PHONE, OR OTHER ELECTRONICS: Immediately power it off and turn it upside down; try to get as much liquid to drain out as quickly as possible, ideally from the same direction it came in (i.e. keep the liquid from spreading). Time is of the essence here so don’t dilly-dally.

Then disassemble it as much as possible/practical to get air circulation inside, encouraging any remaining liquid to evaporate as quickly as possible. If you open it, observe where the liquid is or was, scrub those areas gently with a toothbrush and that handy 91% isopropyl alcohol. Depending on the level of liquid intrusion, leave it open for up to several days before attempting to power it on again. Be patient. If you’ve led a good clean life, your item might power on again successfully with no lingering issues.

As a general rule, liquid and electronics don’t mix. Even if your device claims to be waterproof, don’t tempt fate unnecessarily; keep it far away from liquid hazards. And note that the idea of putting your water-damaged item in a bag of rice has been debunked.

VACUUM CLEANERS: The root cause of weak suction in a vacuum cleaner is almost always a rigid or semi-rigid item wedged in a hose that accumulates fluff around it until it clogs the hose. Run a plumbing snake through all the hoses to find and free up the clog: you will invariably find

that a foreign object like a pen, coin, cigarette lighter, or cat toy is lodged in the hose; you need to get that out too or the clog will re-occur (see this).

ITEMS THAT HEAT: I refer to all these items as “resistive element heating devices” because they all have an electrically resistive element inside that produces heat: electric kettles, space heaters, rice cookers, coffee makers, griddles, waffle makers, hair dryers, etc. These often stop working because their thermal fuse fails. It’s a one-use component designed to stop electricity going to the heating elements or the whole device if a predetermined temperature is reached. Once you can locate the thermal fuse it’s easy to test and replace. Our how-to.

Appliance motors, such as those in blenders, food processors, fans, and coffee grinders, also have lower-temperature thermal fuses designed to fail if the motor is overstressed and gets too warm. (So don’t try to make nut butter with your coffee grinder.)

Fixit Clinic sees so many items with bad thermal fuses we’re suspicious that the quality control in their manufacturing may just be poor. There was a well-documented capacitor plague between 1999 and 2007 (see this); what if we are living through a comparable thermal fuse plague?

Another common problem with resistive element heating devices is when the activation switch won’t stay down, or stays down and won’t release. This often happens with hot water kettles and rice cookers. In this case there’s a contact inside that is slightly misaligned and has been arcing electrically for a long time, sparking internally and creating carbon build-up on the switch. Cleaning off the carbon build-up with sandpaper or an emery board solves the problem.

INCESSANT PAPER JAMS OR MISFEEDS WITH YOUR PRINTER? There might be a small piece of torn paper wedged deep inside, or a foreign object like a paper clip or wayward staple. Vacuum the printer carefully, then clean the entire paper path and rollers with rags and cotton swabs moistened with 91% isopropyl alcohol.

SEIZED SEWING MACHINE: It’s OK to use WD-40 to free up a gummed-up sewing machine but note that WD-40 is primarily a cleaner and is not the ideal long-term lubricant. Once the sewing machine is working smoothly again, lubricate immediately and frequently thereafter with sewing machine oil.

CRACKED PHONE SCREEN: Avoid getting nasty glass shards in your fingers and moisture and dirt in the cracks by applying clear packing tape over the full, broken screen.

We’ve found there is weak correlation between purchase price and ultimate long-term quality and durability. Don’t rely too much on paying extra for what you assume is a higher-quality product because you think it comes from a “reputable” brand. Whether the blender is from a discount drug store or a high-end kitchen shop, they share many of the same failure modes and may have even been manufactured in the same factory.

Challenge: Designing for Sustainability

The choice is ours. Our future may depend on it.

Fixing is the on-ramp to making. Every maker I know started as a fixer; they were somehow dissatisfied with what was pre-existing, what was available to them to fulfill a need, and were compelled to embark on a journey to create the thing they truly wanted instead.

Repairing and maintaining our broken electronics and appliances, repairing and maintaining our furniture and fabrics, repairing and maintaining our industrial equipment and infrastructure, repairing and maintaining our built environment overall — it’s all a proxy for how we are interacting with our world today and what it means to repair and maintain the planet, the precious and singular ecosystem that sustains us. In our current consumptive behavior mode we’re extracting and exhausting resources to make far too many items that are of poor quality and poor utility that are not serving us as well as they might (“consumer trifles”). It bodes poorly for the future of the planet if we don’t figure out how to quickly get to a sustainable, closed-loop system for our consumption.

Right now that’s being framed as deprivation: that we’ll get less of what we say we want and less of what we think we want, and that we’ll pay more for it; that we’ll have to submit to individual and shared sacrifice if we’re going to get through numerous environmental and economic crises.

But what if it doesn’t have to be so dire? What if there’s a more positive, more hopeful alternative future? What if we’ve succumbed to the marketing hype and are thus distracted the true value of the items that we choose to bring into our lives, and the way they affect our quality of life? What if our future relationship with durable goods includes more digital fabrication, more on-demand manufacturing, and more local manufacturing?

What if, as an alternative to our durable goods coming to us from remote, overseas factories through a global supply chain, instead most things that we consume are designed, built, serviced, and maintained, in a local service area using locally available tools, materials, processes, and services?

Here’s an example of how that might work: you order a toaster unique to your requirements; when you click “Purchase,” digital files propagate to local micro-factories that manufacture constituent parts of your toaster. Those parts are assembled and delivered to you (or you assemble them yourself). If, at some point a part of the toaster fails, you resend the digital file that describes that part to a microfactory to have the new part manufactured (adding in improvements from ongoing re-assessment of the part’s durability). When it arrives you snap it into place and keep making toast.

What if not only our consumer durable goods, but our commercial and industrial goods and the rest of the built environment was conceived this way? What if local farm equipment was optimized to local growing conditions? And it doesn’t have to be high-tech: what if local farm straw was used to make locally consumed brooms? How would that impact local skilled and semi-skilled labor and fortify resilience?

HOW DO WE FIX THIS?

In concert with holding Fixit Clinics through colleges and universities we’re promoting the idea of a higher-education design challenge that leverages both user-centric design and design for manufacturing to ask: Can we create open-source, digitally documented designs for many popular common household appliances and electronic devices? Starting from current mass-manufacturing designs, how much of the item can we source locally at the moment? How can we nudge the design over time so that more and more of it can be sourced locally?

It’s a hopeful vision for a future we want to craft along with you, one broken toaster at a time. 

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Peter Mui

founder of Fixit Clinic, which conveys critical thinking and troubleshooting skills through both in-person community repair events around the U.S. and globally online. Over 600 Fixit Clinic events have been hosted through libraries, colleges and universities, and science and research institutions. He is based in Berkeley, California.

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