Fixing the unfixable

That radio above is the Cambridge Soundworks HD Radio 820HD, a high-end clock-radio from 2007. Today, I got an email from James Grimmer, a reader who responded to my column on the fixer movement with a great story of fixing his 820HD. The manufacturer had abandoned the device, it hadn’t been designed to be disassembled in the first place — but when Grimmer got the radio open, all it needed were some a few cheap fixes.

If devices like this were designed to be easily opened, it’d be a lot easier to fix them. Forthwith:

Amen to your article on The Fixer’s Movement. When I was a kid, my dad taught me how to fix just about anything. His motto was, “It’s already broken, so you have nothing to lose because a repair shop will charge you more than it’s worth to fix it.” I’ve been fixing my friends’ and our electronics, appliances, plumbing, wiring, (to be fair, I should admit I apprenticed as a plumber and worked with skilled electricians and carpenters who taught me a lot) for a long time now, and have rarely been stymied, although I had one experience that sums up much of what you said in the article. A few years ago, I bought the highly touted Cambridge HD820 radio. It had great sound for such a small box, and HD radio doubled the kind of programming I liked. After two years, it failed—weak signal and constant buzzing regardless of volume level. I guessed power supply and possibly antenna, but was completely stymied on how to get the radio disassembled—it was entirely sealed with no discernible entry points. I called Cambridge, and they answered that they had no repair service nor any service manual, and that they had discontinued the model (that had been jobbed out to a Korean manufacturer). They simply offered no help or advice at all. I found the manufacturer and got nearly the same story there, but the operator who answered remembered that the disassembly bolts were concealed underneath the metal grills (that were glued to the face of the speakers.) She said I’d have to destroy the grills to get inside the cabinet. It turned out I didn’t have to—I took my long Rapala filet knife and carefully sliced underneath the grills’ covers. Got to what turned out to be 18 disassembly bolts and screws. Once I could see the boards, it was obvious that everything had been hot-glued into place, so it took another hour to free up the boards without cracking them. Then I could see the bad connection on the antenna—easy fix. I could also see where the buzz came from—two visibly expanding capacitors in the power supply—another easy fix. Now it works great, and it has been assembled far more sensibly for repair. Why couldn’t they have designed it that way in the first place? How much do I desire to deal with Cambridge again (no hope for service two years after purchase)?

I’d add that those capacitors have been a haunting feature of about half the items I’ve repaired for people lately, especially in cheap DVD players and boom boxes. More than a few of those blown capacitors were 16 volt in circuits that called for 35 volt capacitors. I can’t believe an EE would mistakenly do that, so either the marketing people OK’d the slightly cheaper 16 volters to increase profits by 5 cents, or the EE’s were instructed to use capacitors that would kill the player within two years.

Another bugaboo is cheap switches and relays on appliances. Our dryer failed, and a repair shop quoted over $100 for a fix. I just took my VOM and ran through the circuit, found a faulty microswitch, learned that the manufacturer wanted $40 for it on its website, and then found the same switch in an online parts bin for $7. They had also, interestingly, installed the switch with machine screws from the back side of the drum, so it took a small offset Phillips screwdriver to get them out. When I reinstalled the switch, I drilled the threads out of the hole and installed small bolts and nuts to make further replacements easy. Was someone at the manufacturer deliberately making that switch so hard to get at (unless one happens to have small offset screwdriver) that most people would think a repairman was necessary?

On a larger, older scale, our house was built in 1957. The main plumbing stack cleanout in the basement was done with a straight Tee facing a wall that was very near the wall. Opening that cleanout and getting a big snake through it was a real knuckle-busting, acrobatic act. That design made sense in no way whatsoever. Not even our sewer guy liked dealing with that location. First, why not locate it facing out? Second, why not a sanitary Tee? Third, how did inspectors let that pass? (This was the same crew, I should add, who allowed cast iron to be connected to clay pipe with mortar. Guess how long it took for roots to break through that mortar? Our whole neighborhood has been dug up to correct that deficiency. I took out the stack, replaced it with ABS, and installed a sanitary Tee cleanout—not an easy fix.

Would legislation help? I don’t know. It may be that consumer magazines like yours and consumer websites and rating services have more influence without the time, expense, and corruption of a set of laws that manufacturers would figure out how to avoid. These companies do, however, have a terrible time finding their way around criticisms in popular media.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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