Repair-Off: 10 Month Old Fitness Tracker vs. 55 Year-Old Radio
My experience of repairing a 60 year old radio and a 10 month-old FitBit tells us a lot about the e-waste problem and the need for a right to repair.
One morning earlier this summer our golden retriever, Bruno, chomped through the power cord to a ca. 1965 KLH Model 21 radio. Let me be clear: this isn’t a precious object, exactly. But it is a prized possession. For one thing: I really love radios - they’re cool devices and the 20th century’s Ur consumer electronic. By the early 1930s, 60% of American homes had one. And, for more than a century now, radios have reflected and embodied changes in technology, aesthetics and consumers’ taste. They range from the cabinet-sized vacuum tube powered monstrosities of the 20s to the D-battery powered, shoulder mounted boom boxes of the 1980s, to today’s sleek Bose countertop radios.
The KLH Model 21, introduced in the early 1960s, was the Bose of its day - a small, stylish, countertop radio with a big sound. (Also like Bose: it was manufactured in Massachusetts.) So, when a friend was putting a Model 21 up for sale - a single owner unit purchased half-century before - I snapped it up. And then, a few months after that, Bruno decided to lunch on its power cord.
Long and short: that “decision” on Bruno’s part rendered my Model 21 useless and set me on a path to fix the radio. In the process, I got a very useful object lesson in how much has changed in the last half century when it comes to our ability to service and repair our stuff. That’s what this post is about.
Got Power Cord?
My first task in fixing my radio was, of course, to find a replacement cord. Despite the advanced age of the Model 21, it’s really not hard to find parts. Sites like audiokarma.org have forums for all different kinds of radio models. Got a dog who chewed through the power cord on a 50 year-old tabletop radio? There are plenty of experts on these forums who can help you navigate the repair and get your hardware working again. Then there’s eBay, which is paradise for anyone looking to buy an obscure replacement part, and where I found a white power cord harvested from another KLH unit that was nearly identical cord to the one Bruno chewed through. (Thanks jmaudioshop!)
Repairs made easy
Replacement power cord in hand, the next thing I needed to do was figure out how to replace the cord on this particular model. Fortunately, KLH made that job really easy: publishing a detailed Service Manual for the Model 21 that accompanied each new device. The service manual contains detailed schematics and other documentation of the radio’s inner workings - basically anything that owner would need to keep the tabletop radio working.
That included detailed diagrams and schematics that explained the different components of the Model 21 and its inner workings. With the information in the Service Manual, I could glean the layout of the Model 21 and its workings without even removing the chassis!
Amazingly, the service manual even included a diagram documenting the voltage and resistance for each connection to the audio amplifier board. Much more information than I needed but…wow.
I’ll also note the perfunctory language on the schematic about the absence of “user serviceable parts,” refraining from opening the device and getting “qualified” (note: not “authorized”) service personnel to fix it. What’s ironic is that, even while including that legalese, KLH provided owners - or those “qualified personnel” with all the information needed to repair the device themselves.
Name That Fuse!
Of course, once I had the chassis off, figuring out where the cord went was straight forward. I removed the remnant of the previous cord and soldered on its replacement. Still, the Service Manual proved useful to me. The space around where the power cord attached was pretty cramped and, while I was threading it through and soldering it into place, a small fuse that was an original part detached and needed to be replaced.
What exactly was this 50 year old part? A 1/4 AMP Slow Blow fuse, according to the Service Manual. With that handy information, I was able to order a replacement fuse, solder it in to replace the fuse that broke and get my Model 21 working again.
Ta da! Mission accomplished!
FitBit: Repair = Replace
Now let me contrast that with another recent “repair” that fell into my lap - this one much more straightforward but, as it turned out, much less so: my daughter’s 10 month old FitBit Charge 4 watch and fitness tracker. She received this for her birthday and, as she’s an athlete, it gets a lot of use.
Around the same time as Bruno was chomping his way through the power cord of my KLH, Ruby was complaining that her FitBit watchband kept detaching from the watch. Upon closer inspection, I discovered the culprit: a plastic clasp that screwed into the body of the fitness tracker and secured the watchband had failed under the strain of use. I tried some SuperGlue to reaffix the watchband, to no effect. The clasp needed to be replaced.
Now, this should have been a straight-forward fix. The brains of this FitBit worked great. There was no need for schematics or micro soldering here. This was a mechanical part that failed on the exterior of the device and that attached to the FitBit body via two small screws. If FitBit sold a replacement clasp, I could order one, remove the cracked clasp, screw in its replacement and call it a day.
As I did with the KLH Model 21, I looked online for the information I needed. However, my experience was quite different. Yes: I found a detailed User Manual for the FitBit and plenty of posts from other Charge 4 owners who encountered this problem and were looking for help. I also learned some interesting history: FitBit switched from sturdier metal clasps in previous Charge models to a cheaper, plastic clasp with the Charge 4. However, there was nothing in the way of a Service Manual that would have identified this part, let alone information about replacing it. Nor was there the kind of vibrant community of FitBit fixers that exists for vintage radios. Absent the information they need to maintain, service and modify their devices, how is a community of fixers supposed to survive?
Frustrated, I followed the advice in the customer forums, I contacted FitBit Support via Twitter. Let me say: they were super responsive and helpful. Alas: their solution was simply to send my daughter a brand new FitBit 4 and to return the old watch to them to be recycled. Alternatively, they would have given us a discount on an upgrade to a fancier FitBit.
Repair starts with the manufacturers
That was perfectly fine with my daughter - she got a brand new FitBit. But it left me cold. Replacing a device is not repairing it. As US PIRG has noted, the U.S. is generating “an alarming amount of electronic waste.” In all, 59 million tons of used electronics -- equivalent to the weight of 161 Empire State Buildings -- head to the landfill in the U.S. each year, with expectations that it will continue growing by 3 to 4 percent annually.
Recycling can help stem that flood, but it is “nowhere near capable of preventing the vast majority of devices from ending up in landfills,” PIRG notes. There are lots of reasons for this. Among them: business models based around “disposable” tech products and the absence of simple repair options for consumers that would prolong the useful lives of all kinds of devices.
And let’s be clear: this isn’t about consumers “interest” in repair or any “natural preference” to dispose of, rather than fix their stuff. As the comparison between the FitBit Charge and the KLH illustrate, the ability to repair a product doesn’t come from nowhere. It needs to be part of the picture, from product conception through delivery. Manufacturers are the key participants in this. Like KLH, they can take simple steps to promote longevity in their products- or discourage it.
Publishing detailed service manuals and making them available to customers is a big step. But repair also extends to the design of products: the use of resilient parts'; the availability of replacement parts; and a support infrastructure that preferences fixes vs. swaps and upgrades.
Beyond the right to repair
A right to repair - either at the Federal level or in the states - would help. Depending on the version of the law that is passes, right to repair laws would require manufacturers that maintain schematics and diagnostic software for their products to make those available to owners and independent repair shops. It would end the tyranny and monopoly enjoyed by “authorized repair” providers.
That will help -but it won’t solve all our problems with e-waste. For products like the FitBit Charge, a right to repair might not change much, at least insofar as FitBit doesn’t engage in repairs of its fitness trackers, but simply switches broken devices out with new ones. Bringing products like the Charge under the repair umbrella will require a cultural shift at companies like FitBit: a concerted effort to design enduring and service-able products that can be opened and fixed. OEMs will also need to take steps to support device owners and independent repair professionals alike.
We’re not there - not by a long shot. But the more pressure we can put on companies like FitBit to change their wasteful ways, the sooner we’ll get there.