Waite: We need to think ‘repair,’ not ‘replace’

In 2011, Dave West fell asleep while driving to work.

It was about 6:30 a.m. and West’s Dodge Caravan veered into the oncoming traffic as West drove the usual route to the Shenendehowa Central School District, where he worked in maintenance and repair for nearly 30 years. 

In a head-on collision, West cracked six ribs, and his heart was sent into atrial fibrillation.  

He was rushed to Ellis Hospital and eventually referred to various specialists, including a sleep expert after doctors discovered West fell asleep at the wheel as a result of sleep apnea, a condition in which breathing stops and starts during sleep. 

During the most troubling minute of a sleep study, West’s breathing was interrupted 60 times – once every second.  

After the accident, West, now 72, began using a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, which delivers constant air pressure to ensure steady breathing during sleep.   

The machines tend to sputter out after about five years, West said. As a professional handyman adept at fixing everything from electronics to locks to fire alarms and security systems, that’s incredibly frustrating to West, because he’s skilled enough to fix just about anything if he has the right tools. 

The hangup in fixing CPAP machines is that they, like so much of what we use in modern life, are controlled by a microchip, and manufacturers don’t always release information about how to build or repair them. You can’t order parts, West says. 

With insurance, West was able to get a new CPAP machine last summer after the device’s humidifier stopped working. But having to replace rather than repair the device irks West, because it creates unnecessary waste and contributes to higher insurance premiums – all to replace a device that he believes he could have easily fixed.  

“It was just a heating element that makes the water chamber warm up the water so the air is not so dry,” West said of the needed repair. “It’s nothing real fancy.” 

If New York’s Digital Fair Repair Act, which was signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul last year, had been more comprehensive, West may have been able to repair his old CPAP instead of getting a new one. He and other advocates are hoping that the law, which even in its narrower version is revolutionary, can be tweaked and repaired like the devices they want to be able to fix. 

As it stands, the law is a first of its kind. It requires manufacturers of digital electronic devices make manuals, parts, tools and software available so people can fix devices rather than throw them away. The law cuts into manufacturers’ monopoly over repairing digital products like phones, tablets and laptops and will hopefully prevent us from having to buy new gadgets every few years, which is costly and produces a lot of waste. 

A 2019 United Nations Environment Programme report found the world produces as much as 50 million tons of electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) a year, weighing more than all of the commercial airliners ever made. Only 20% of this waste is formally recycled, and it exposes people to hazardous and carcinogenic substances such as mercury, lead and cadmium, according to the report. 

In New York, the law is expected to reduce 655,000 tons of toxic e-waste discarded each year, 85% of which goes straight to the landfill. 

The problem is that New York’s law does not go far enough. For one, it excludes many items, such as medical devices, large appliances and farm equipment. It also only applies to devices made as of July 1, meaning it doesn’t apply to any device currently in your pocket. 

Another serious glitch is the law allows manufacturers to sell replacement parts in larger kits rather than individually. So, say you only need a “whosit” to make your smartphone work. A manufacturer may also make you buy a “whatsit” and a “thingamabob.” What’s to stop manufacturers from saying the kit of parts basically adds up to an entirely new phone?  

“There is still some work to be done, and we’re not done with it yet,” West said of the law. “I don’t want anybody to think it’s a cure-all. It’s not an instant fix.”

A true handyman is always tinkering, never satisfied. 

But even if the law were perfectly written and comprehensive, would it be enough? If the law – as it hopefully continues to evolve – is going to have its biggest impact, we’re going to have to alter our collective thinking. 

Many of us may be handy around the house, able to seal up a leaky drain or spackle drywall, but when it comes to our electronics, we’ve been largely conditioned by manufacturers to buy the latest and greatest device every few years. 

This is what manufacturers want. They are continually pushing us to buy their newest product. It’s not just the flashy presentations accompanying the latest launch that tell us this. Companies want their older products to be rendered obsolete. For instance, in 2020, Apple agreed to pay $113 million after allegations the company intentionally slowed down old iPhones.

As everything from cars to kitchen appliances essentially become computers run more by microchips than mechanical parts, we’re more and more at the mercy of manufacturers. 

They don’t make ’em like they used to.

Indeed not, and because of that, devices are much harder to fix, requiring a toolkit not universally available. New York’s law should start to change this culture by making repairs possible. 

But in addition to expanding the reach of the law, we also have to change our own thinking. I wouldn’t know the first thing about how to fix my phone, we say. It’s easier to throw things out, we often think.

We need to think “repair” before we think “replace.” 

Fortunately there are avenues for those of us who, shall we say, have two left hands when it comes to mechanical inclination. In 2018, West founded Repair Cafe Schenectady, which is part of a global network that started in 2009 in the Netherlands. There are more than 2,550 Repair Cafes located in 35 countries on six continents. New York was one of the first states in the United States to have a Repair Cafe in 2013, and we now have more than 40 currently operating with 50 expected by the end of the year, according to West. 

At repair cafes, which in Schenectady are held quarterly at the Electric City Barn in Hamilton Hill, members of the community can bring in up to two items – from wobbly chairs and watches to wooden objects and electric appliances – to work with experienced volunteer repair coaches like West. Items may get fixed, and community members learn some of the skills needed to make future repairs themselves. The next Schenectady cafe is slated for Saturday, Feb. 4, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

As a venue, the Electric City Barn, which is a collaborative maker space in the former Craig Street Boys & Girls Club, brings the benefit of multiple amenities including 3-D printing, a woodshop, a metal shop, and a fiber arts studio. It embodies the can-do spirit we must all embrace.   

West said the new repair law will expand the capabilities of Repair Cafes by arming the volunteer coaches with tools and parts to fix high-tech devices.  

But, interestingly, it’s a lower-tech repair that, to me, points out the power of the DIY attitude.

West recalls a gorgeous wooden liquor cabinet believed to have been crafted in France in the mid 1800s. It was locked, and the owner, who brought it to a Repair Cafe, didn’t have a key. West was able to manipulate the lock to open the cabinet and reveal two cut crystal decanters and six delicate hand-blown goblets inside. He also crafted a new lock and worked with a local locksmith to cut new skeleton keys, all in time for the woman to be able to share the cabinet and its hidden treasures with her mother at Thanksgiving. 

So much can be unlocked with a little knowhow and the right tools. So much can be saved. 

Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.

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