Fix it, keep it

Reviving the notion of repairing things, not tossing them

In the mantra of the green movement -- Reduce, Reuse, Recycle -- recycling gets all the attention. It's simple to do, it can create virtuous feelings and it's become big business.

Reuse is not a problem if it's a grocery bag or a bottle, but in a throw-away era, it can be a puzzle to fix and reuse a broken mechanical device such as a kitchen appliance or electronic device. We donate them or consign them to special bins, their fates unknown.

It doesn't have to be that way. One hundred people, more or less, brought about 50 broken devices to a free fix-it clinic in San Carlos on July 19. By the end of the day, most of them departed with their devices repaired, said Monica Devincenzi, the recycling outreach sustainability manager for the South Bayside Waste Management Authority.

The fix-it clinic, hosted by RecycleWorks, was the first held in San Mateo County, said founder Peter Mui. Mr. Mui, educated in computer science and engineering, said he's held clinics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and in Tennessee, Oregon and Colorado, as well as Berkeley and Oakland. His inaugural clinic took place in Albany in Alameda County in December 2009.

How it works

The clinic is designed to help the owners help themselves in fixing their devices. Volunteer coaches are on hand with tools and analysis, and will usually begin by asking questions and starting disassembly. At some point, the coach may head off to help someone else, leaving the owner to continue with simple tasks. More analysis and further disassembly follows. Eventually, it's either fixed or it's not.

There are no guarantees and there's a chance, sometimes a good chance, that the device was not meant to be taken apart and will be worse off after having tried.

Roy B. Heinrichs is a regular at fix-it clinics. He's been with San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit for 17 years as a professional engineer. As for his experiences as a fix-it coach, "We might often wreck something in the process of getting it open," he told the Almanac. "It's amazing that we can do this at all."

But coaching is fun, he said. "I have no idea what's going to land on my desk, so to speak. Basically, you're continually shifting gears without the benefit of a manual or anything else."

"I genuflect to him," Mr. Mui told the Almanac. "This is like improv. You never know what the general public is going to bring in."

He kicked off the San Carlos clinic by asking each visitor to describe the broken device brought for repair. He then followed up with the coaches on possible resolutions. Among the broken devices brought that day, and what might be done:

■ A KitchenAid mixer suddenly stopped mixing. Suggested solution: "KitchenAid mixers are designed to be reparable," Mr. Mui said. A coach added: "This is going to be an interesting take-apart."

■ A laptop keyboard displays incorrect characters. The cause may be a liquid spilled on the keyboard. Suggested solution: an independent keyboard connected by a USB port.

■ A cellphone won't charge. Suggested solution: Check the charger to see if it's working.

■ A hand-held mixer has a broken attachment. Suggested solution: "This is one of those cheap manufactured things," Mr. Mui said. "It may be hopeless."

There will be more clinics on the Peninsula, but it is uncertain as to when. "We received great feedback from those that attended so it's definitely an event that we'd like to hold again," Ms. Devincenzi of RecycleWorks said.

Global dominance

Fixing is related to the maker movement, in which things not intended to be disassembled are disassembled and new uses are found for them.

"Fixing is the on-ramp to making," Mr. Mui said. "Everybody I know who's a maker started out as a fixer."

What is "It's just me and my merry band of fixers," Mr. Mui said. "We have grand visions for global dominance of fixer clinics. ... My surreptitious goal is to demystify science and technology for the general public (and) to get them thinking about making better choices on buying things that are aren't reparable."

For the San Carlos clinic, he said, he sought coaches from TechShop, the do-it-yourself outfit that moved from Menlo Park to its new location next to the recycling center in San Carlos.

"The constraint is finding fix-it coaches," Mr. Heinrichs of BART said.

Amy Rakley, who helps with clinic organizing, is a former city planner. She said she came in six months earlier with a broken toaster and never really left. "This has been the focus of my retirement career," she said. "It's part of my ethic not to throw things away because there's no such thing as away."

For the clients, she added, "even if their thing doesn't get fixed, they have a lot of fun." The point, she said, is "to give people the ability to go on with their lives and fix other stuff, too. That's really the DNA of the clinics."

German engineering

Pauline and Gregory Fong of El Granada brought in a Bosch bread maker/mixer/blender/grinder/food processor/ice-cream maker received as a gift in the mid-1980s. With its one-horsepower motor, "it's a very powerful machine," Mr. Fong said.

It stopped running in May and its diverse capabilities and German engineering led them to try to get it fixed, Mr. Fong said.

Coach and electrical engineer Bill DeVore of Haywood arrived at the table. "My name's Bill," he said. "Tell me about your problem." The mixer was running and then it stopped, the Fongs said. No smells, no smoke.

Mr. DeVore pried off covers of assembly screws amid a gathering sense of excitement. "I love German engineering," he said, looking up as he unscrewed a nut.

Thirty animated minutes later, with comments from occasional onlookers and after swabbing the motor parts with alcohol, they plugged it in and it ran, briefly. There was a lot of arcing. The copper areas just swabbed were once again black with carbon.

Over time, a bearing may have gotten loose and wobbled, which may have reshaped a brass housing that is now preventing the motor from its proper function, Mr. DeVore said. It needed a whole new assembly from the manufacturer.

"At least we learned a lot about motors," Mr. DeVore said.

"We tried, we tried," Mr. Fong said, his smile slightly dimmed.


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