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