Ask Hackaday: Repair Café Or Not?

A huge part of the work our community does, aside from making things and doing a lot of talking about the things we’d like to make, involves repair. We have the skills to fix our own stuff when it breaks, we can fix broken stuff that other people throw out when it breaks, and we can fix broken stuff belonging to other people. As our consumer society has evolved around products designed to frustrate repairs and facilitate instead the sale of new replacements for broken items this is an essential skill to keep alive; both to escape having to incessantly replace our possessions at the whim of corporate overlords, and to fight the never-ending tide of waste.

Repair Cafés: A Good Thing

A German repair cafe
A German repair café. , Redaktion NdW, CC BY 2.0

So we repair things that are broken, for example on my bench in front of me is a formerly-broken camera I’ve given a new life, on the wall in one of my hackerspaces is a large screen TV saved from a dumpster where it lay with a broken PSU, and in another hackerspace a capsule coffee machine serves drinks through a plastic manifold held together with cable ties.

We do it for ourselves, we do it within our communities, and increasingly, we do it for the wider community at large. The Repair Café movement is one of local groups who host sessions at which they repair broken items brought in by members of the public, for free. Their work encompasses almost anything you’d find in a home, from textiles and furniture to electronics, and they are an extremely good cause that should be encouraged at all costs.

For all my admiration for the Repair Café movement though, I have chosen not to involve myself in my local one. Not because they aren’t a fine bunch of people or because they don’t do an exceptionally good job, but for a different reason. And it symbolically comes back to an afternoon over thirty years ago, when sitting in a university lab in Hull, I was taught how to wire a British mains plug.

It Starts With A Mains Plug

Astoundingly, there are installations in which this plug would work.
This is probably the worst-wired mains plug I could muster when I wrote about appliance testing.

Of course I already knew how to wire a mains plug as I’d been doing it when repairing broken electrical appliances for years at that point, but the point was that as an electronic engineering student I was being taught to do it properly. In fact during those three years training I learned a lot more about electrical safety than just how to wire a plug, I came away with plenty of high-voltage experience as well as a lot of electrical safety testing under my belt outside the realm of my course as I and my friends tried to ensure that the early-90s ravers we were setting up equipment for wouldn’t be electrocuted. If you can remember the rave era, you weren’t really there, man!

So I can do high-voltage electrical work, and I’ve been trained to do it safely. As I write this I’m surrounded by equipment on which I’ve done just that. But here’s the crux of my problem, as someone who’s been trained to do it I have a responsibility on my shoulders to get it right.

In other words, should someone later electrocute themselves on something that I repaired, I bear a greater liability than someone with no training, because I’m supposed to know how to do things safely. And since I may not know what else lurks in a piece of older mains electrical gear, I’ve reluctantly decided that it probably presents a risk and thus I’d better not participate in a Repair Café. It goes against a lot of what I personally stand for, but it’s my butt on the line if something goes wrong.

Ilvy Njiokiktjien, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Among Hackaday’s readership will be people who participate in Repair Cafés, run them, or are involved in the wider Repair Café movement. I’d like to ask them whether my concerns above are valid or whether I’m worried about nothing, and indeed about the wider question of repair and liability. Repair Café or not, that’s the question!


82 thoughts on “Ask Hackaday: Repair Café Or Not?

  1. From my experience with the Toronto repair cafe, there are LOTS of fixes that you can do or help with that are firmly in the SELV category, not to mention those that aren’t in the electrical/electronic category at all. These can range from battery-powered to wall-wart or desk-wart powered, to mechanical items that anyone with good manual skills, experience, and tools can repair. And the community I’ve experienced is quite respectful and tolerant, so if you choose not to repair something for the reasons you stated it likely won’t be an issue. Additionally, what if your knowledge and experience were to PREVENT a potential disaster that might occur in your absence?

    Repair Cafes are a chance to help, teach, mentor, and learn, and when I was able to attend I found them very rewarding. I urge you to reconsider your position – it sounds as though you have a lot to offer.

    1. I replied before I looked at who wrote the article. Now I have to amend what I said – you’re perhaps my fave Hackaday contributor, and I KNOW you have a HUGE amount to offer at Repair Cafe. PS, I love the ‘Starhacks’ cup!

    2. Nowadays electrocution is very rare, and you have to mess up quite badly for that to happen to the user. It is more of a risk during the repair itself. But things catching on fire is a real risk and can happen with any device, not just mains powered ones.

    3. I think that participating on a Repair Cafe would be a lot of fun. And having your AC Mains Knowledge at the Cafe would be a great help. I agree that not everyone should be repairing 220V and 120V circuits. But if you were there you could make certain that any AC repair made would be done correctly. Or you might decide that it was safer to recycle rather than make a repair.

      I once loaned a Snow Blower to a neighbor who should not have been running a Snow Blower. When it sounded funny, I walked over and found it in gear, with the auger engaged, and the clutch disengaged. The neighbor was inside on the phone. I finished blowing their driveway. Now when a neighbor asks for help I run the tools myself. Unless I’ve worked with them before and know their capabilities.

      1. The problem with the “safer to recycle than repair” reasoning is that it does a number of negative things.

        It makes ignorant folks unduly afraid of fatal consequences, misses an opportunity to teach people about how things work, doesn’t show them how to make their own determination on whether they can work on it safely, encourages companies to skip on safer designs since only official technicians will be doing repairs, etc.

  2. “our consumer society has evolved around products designed to frustrate repairs and facilitate instead the sale of new replacements for broken items”

    I don´t agree. There is -most of the time- no evil intention to “frustrate repairs” and “programmed obsolescence” is largely a myth.
    What makes things hard to repair is that they are designed to cut production costs:
    – raw materials
    – assembly costs
    and also the engineering costs to design products to be serviceable are -most of the time- spared.

    It IS possible to also design products that are highly serviceable while sparing raw materials and assembly costs. But one then cannot spare these supplementary engineering costs.

    1. You are completely correct. I’ve been in the business 40 years now and I’ve never seen any hardware intentionally engineered to fail. I have, as mentioned above, seen a lot of items that are engineered for fast and economical production, and even then the manufacturer has to know what their failure rate will be and estimate what their warranty costs will be or they will not make money.

      Manufacturing 100% perfect and reliable products is not feasible and has never been. No manufacturer can compete in a cost driven market when they try to do so, and so there is a tolerated failure rate for which warranty costs are included in the selling price. Apple (as much as I dislike their business model) comes closest to shipping a defect free product, supported by their higher prices, but you don’t have to ask too many people to find some that had products that died before their time.

      1. I bought a computer once that failed under warranty. But things generally keep working until I want something better. Even used equipment, if it’s working when I buy or find it, it keeps on working.

        A lot of this right to repair is replacing screens because a phone has been dropped. Or putting a new battery in it. It’s certainly not about troubleshooting, and changing a bad resistor or IC.

        1. I have to disagree here: Being able to replace a screen or a battery is great. It’s something that should be easy enough so that everyone can do it. But there are other components that typically fail. For example I can’t really count the number of aluminum electrolytic capacitors that I have replaced in switching power supplies. That’s a typical weak point because these parts are short lived compared to most other electronic components. It would be great if “right to repair” would also mean that someone who has the necessary knowledge to replace the parts is able to reach them without destroying the device.

      2. I’ll second this, having consulted dozens of companies about finding the sweet spot between design investments and user needs. When my clients’ products disappointed their users, it was almost always a combination of misunderstanding user needs, poor design, poor engineering, or simple inertia. When I asked clients “why do you do X this way and not some other way,” a surprisingly common answer was “because that’s how we’ve always done it, and no one remembers why.”

        It’s also important to say that bad engineering cuts several different directions. One client had product life requirements that specified about a half-dozen extreme conditions (e.g., temperature, pressure, pH, etc.) that could cause failure. To their credit, they set a very high bar on product live — about 100 years — and identified test conditions for each of these factors that correlated with 100-year product life. But their protocol required products to survive testing at the 100-year threshold level of ALL of these variables SIMULTANEOUSLY — a confluence of extremes that approaches statistical impossibility. A gifted engineer on my team analyzed their data and concluded this company was overdelivering on its 100-year product life target by about 100,000 years. To the extent that human civilization itself is unlikely to survive 100,000 years, I’m pretty confident saying that this company was over-investing in quality at the expense of other things that matter (materials, energy, design, features, employee wages, product price — take your pick).

      3. Design life…engineered to fail.

        TomAto, Tomato.

        Everything is engineered to fail. When they use pre-lubed bushings vs grease fittings, cheapness rules. Pennies were saved.

        How do you explain Benz and VW telling their customers never to change the fluid in ZF automatic transmissions? ZF says every 100,000 km. BMW (who owns ZF) says every 100,000 km.

        That is absolutely intentionally ‘engineering’ the life of the car by deliberately sabotaging the maintenance schedule.

        But as I’ve said before, it’s a mistake to change the trans fluid on modern German cars. If the transmission doesn’t fail on schedule, you might be tempted to spend money on futile efforts to keep those cars alive. Endless money pits.

        Also: Chinese caps in the 90s. Granted that was the Japanese engineering the caps to fail by letting the Chinese steel bad data.

        1. Agree with the top 3 paragraphs – but on the 4th? Wow. Just wow. I can only imagine that’s due to personal experience. Here’s mine: I have two of those modern German cars – and they’re at 276K and 413K respectively. My friends and family’s experience is the same. You either got one of the worst teutonic lemons in history or you simply didn’t maintain it realistically. That would be half of any recommendation. Cost? Average. Maintenance, well – we do it ourselves so there is that.
          Tthere were two transmissions that were a problem made by BMW IIRC. At the end of the day? The fluid was in the unit for too long for both cases and they would “grenade”.

          1. If they’ve got that many miles on them, they were before the Germans perfected their warranty timer.
            Don’t buy another or you will regret it. Those companies are running 100% on reputation. Which used to be: ‘Expensive but good’…now only half true.

            My extended family are all Germans.
            Even they agree the VW (including Porsche and Audi…just VWs) is on the NEVER AGAIN list.
            If you know any Germans, you know how many times they had to get burned for that opinion to form.
            They will come around on Benz and BMW too. But stubborn.

            How do you explain the ‘no maintenance required, sealed slushbox’ instructions? Sounds like you were victim of that.
            ‘Everybody’ knows, change the trans fluid every 100,000 km. Ignore maintenance schedule. They are punking you.

            There is _no_such_thing_ as a 10 year old Benz without any problems. They break faster than they CAN be fixed. 3rd owners of German cars are fools.

            First step in replacing a brake master cylinder in a new ‘bug’…’remove front bumper’…seriously.
            Old bad (but true) joke about English cars. First step to replace headlight, ‘remove rear bumper’. But nobody but morons has ever bought brit cars.

      4. Apple, defect free? Louis Rossmann might like to have a word with you. He makes a very good living repairing defective Apple products and doesn’t shy from pointing out *in great detail* all the various bad design and engineering that causes their stuff to fail.

      5. One thing that has been done often in computing is when a product is End Of Lifed by its manufacturer, the company will remove all or most of their information on it from their website and even destroy all physical and digital copies they have.

        Thus should you obtain one of those devices minus the software and documentation, it’s useless unless you can find someone else who has that stuff to get a copy.

        A few years ago I was given some device that would have been quite neat, but *that very day* it had been made EOL. The only information I could find about it anywhere was on the manufacturer’s website, a notice that it was EOL on that date and software and documentation had been removed. I searched for hours and found no copies anywhere else. Most links just went to the manufacturer site. Any that had been copies held elsewhere, the manufacturer had managed to get deleted. They’d even contacted the Web Archive to get them to delete all archived copies of that product’s information.

        So whatever that gadget was, went into the dumpster. I was so PO’ed I quickly forgot what it was. I wish I could remember what it was so I could look and see if the company is out of business, as they deserve to be.

        A similar one was a thin client, one of the earlier ones before cheap x86 SOC boxes came along. I had a chance to buy a stack of them dirt cheap, at the time they would’ve been ideal for an internet cafe. The manufacturer had deleted everything for the model from their site, except for a product info page. The page was HTML except for the list of options with their part numbers was in an image, which they’d deleted. They’d also had the Web Archive delete all their copies of that image so nobody could try to find items like the internal hard drive kit, RAM expansions etc. The company had also ferreted out all copies of the server software that had been on other sites. I offered to pay for a copy of the software. Nope. They wouldn’t sell it.

        But they did offer to sell me as many of their newest model thin client as I wanted to buy. I told them I’d buy ZERO and would recommend against buying from them to anyone who asked my opinion on thin clients. Why? Because since they decided to actively un-support and make useless their recently discontinued product, it was a given they’d do exactly the same to their current products.

        A company that actively attempts to make it impossible for anyone to use their recently discontinued products is not a company anyone should do business with. A company that simply provides all the software and documentation on an as-is basis, no guarantees, no support aside from the information and software provided, is a company that deserves patronage. Why? Because you know that you’ll be able to use and maintain their products for as long as practical, possibly even well beyond the manufacturer’s stated support for things like newer Operating System versions.

        I have a colorimiter the manufacturer insists does not work with any Windows newer than (IIRC) Vista yet their driver and calibration software works fine with every newer version I’ve tried. Though it may not work past Windows 10 build 1607 due to deprecation of older driver signing methods – unless the driver is installed in 1607 then Windows is updated to build 1909, then any newer build. I should see if it’ll work in 21H2.

      6. Ah, not in the hardware. But enforced obsolescence through software is how it’s done. Your Android phone gets maybe two or three updates then it’s time to toss it in landfill and buy another.

        You could keep using it *without* any security updates. And of course the advertising engine will happily keep itself up-to-the-minute current.

        Microsoft seems desperate to achieve the same model for the personal computer at the moment.

    2. I admire your optimism; but my experience with security fasteners, unavailability of documentation that clearly exists, and unavailability of repair parts outside of closely-guarded official distribution channels, begs to differ. I’ve been an electronics technologist all my life, and now I repair sewing machines for a living and have factory training on a couple of brands. In my experience, much obsolescence and a huge amount of repair frustration are in fact planned and executed purposefully by manufacturers and zealously maintained in distribution and dealership channels.

      The factors you mention are certainly at work in making repairs more difficult, but If there was no “evil intention” then I think the right-to-repair movement would never have gained the momentum it has, and the corporate sector wouldn’t be fighting it so hard.

    3. It is way more complicated than people want to portray it. In 1971, a home had a tv set, a radio, maybe a stereo, sometimes duplicates. They were importantdecisions when bought, and the cost often made repair important.They also were so much simpler, so easier to repair.

      Five years later there were digital watches, digital clocks,digital calculators, the start of VCRs, computers, etc.It all happened because of ICs, mostly digital. They were instantly more complicated because they were doing new things.

      In the fall of 1982, forty years ago, I spent $500 on a printer. It was awful, but about as cheap as I could get. A decade before, they wouldn’t be in homes. It never broke, I moved to something way better before that happened. But it was well built, and I assume most parts were recognizable.

      But few people would spend that much on a printer, or a vcr. So they cost cut, making things lighter by taking out the metal. Higher integration devices, designed for one purpose. Streamline manufacturing. But that makes repair harder.

      At the same time as prices went down, labor costs, always a significant part of repair, went up. I wwsn’t going to buy another $500 printer if it broke, but as prices went down, repair costs became more significant relative to buying new.

      Fifty years ago, few would envision the future we live in. It’s not just a computer, it’s a printer and maybe a scanner, and a phone, a GPS, and all the other electronics. It’s affordable, often each cheaper than a tv set fifty years ago.

      Things can be repairable, but we won’t ve able to afford much of it.

      How many inkjet printers get tossed “because the cartridges are more expensive than a new printer”?

      1. Have you ever looked inside a vcr before ICs were a thing in home products? It’s an insane mix of mechanical and electronic wizardry that created a whole industry of vcr repairmen. Hackaday had an article about it not too long ago. But no they were not simple

        1. And they were heavy and big and expensive. You would pay for repair rather than spending another $1000 for a new one.

          And most people would not buy one at $1000, or couldn’t afford it. So cost came down, by streamlining, by moving from metal to plastic, by higher integration. It wasn’t to “make things that broke” , but to give people what they want. VCRs were down under $100 by the time nobody wanted them.

          Everything came down in price. VCRs or their current equivalent, computers, printers, cellphones, whatever. And everyone has one of each. These wonders wouldn’t be everywhere if they’d stayed at $1000 for a VCR or $500 for a printer, or $500 for an 8K 1MHz computer. At best, you’d have to choose.

          All this talk of “planned obsolescence” ignores how the cost has made things available, and that lower cost comes from making things easy to manufacture, which happens to make things harder to repair.

          I’d argue that fewer parts, especially, makes things more reliable.

    4. You are completely wrong (just to start with the opposite of pmichaelh’s comment, even if you’re not 100% wrong).

      – Intentionally trying to save so much on “raw materials” and assembly costs so the product gets cheaper while at the same time breaks earlier and is virtually irreparable ISN’T dividable from “evil intentions to frustrate repairs and planned obsolescence”.
      – It’s the definition of undercutting your competition in price only by sacrificing repairability and so on.
      – And it’s impossible to separate the “logical arguments” (saving costs) from the business argument of repeating consumers.
      – “saving raw materials” in this case is joke in itself. Raw materials aren’t “saved” by designing your products to turn into e-waste. Yes, the producer may save some materials in production but overall I’m sure it’s the other way around.
      – Up to maybe 30 years ago it was the default that eg. your radio contained it’s own circuit diagram in itself (battery compartment or case itself). Haven’t seen that in a long time (exceptions do exist with eg. wood working tools from Festool and other manufacturers where diagrams etc. and replacement parts are available from the manufacturer).

      RE: “planned obsolescence” is largely a myth.
      How did you come to that statement? How many electronic devices have you repaired and how many of those repairs are not attributable to planned obsolescence?

      In a time span of ~5 years (~2008-2015) I’ve repaired somewhere between 30 to 60 TFT/LCD displays alone and I attribute at least 80% of those repairs to planned obsolescence.
      When a company like DELL plans three elkos on one power rail but leaves one place empty in the shipped product and it’s exactly those two remaining elkos that break after ~3-5 years…. how is that NOT supposed to be planned obsolescence? And this is just one albeit obvious example with ~5 of those displays.

      Don’t you think no “burn in test” revealed this problem? Why was the number of elkos used reduced from 3 to 2?

      I’m pretty sure planned obsolescence “is largely a fact” but it’s almost impossible to proof because no manufacturer admits to it even if there’s damning evidence.

      My washing machine is >15 years old (I think it’s at least 20 but I don’t know for sure; the type label still has 220V instead of 230 written on it….). This machine is highly repairable and the materials NOT saved during manufacturing were saved 2-3 times over by not forcing me to by a new one after only 5-10 years.

      My Logitech webcam is ~20 years old and only continues to work in windows because of some driver fuckery.
      My Kensington USB2 docking station with DisplayLink chips inside works flawlessly with a more recent driver after some ini/inf/driver modification – but the helper tool still displays a warning that this device isn’t supported anymore ;-)
      Same with some Profilic USB-2-rs232 cables – the manufacturer arbitrarily decided their older devices won’t work with current Windows versions any more. The owner needs to find specific older driver versions that still work (or edit ini/inf files).
      How is that not planned or in this case even programmed obsolescence?

      1. Yes let’s take one particular case of windows driver stupidity ( out of many hundreds ) and use it to justify a universal argument.

        Those cheap laptops wont run windows 11, will they? So they are dead anyway and the manufacturer was right to make them that way.

        Maybe you should blame Microsoft for this, they are the ones who are turning your old hardware into garbage. Put away your broad brush and get some focus.

        1. Re: “So they are dead anyway and the manufacturer was right to make them that way.” Yea, NO.
          NO ONE has the RIGHT to knowingly produce what ultimately ends up in a 3rd world burn pit b/c of what is empirically the *entitlement* to profit and the expectation of year over year increases in shareholder dividends. Talk about lack of focus. That statement just defined it.

      2. UMAX attempted to unsupport several of their older SCSI flatbed scanners in Windows XP. One issue was they’d be detected seven times, then all seven instances would get the ! as not working.

        A company in Australia solved that and published the hack. There was still the issue of the software not supporting the old models, and the software that did support them not working in Windows XP.

        The software that was the newest for Windows 98, which did support the older scanners, wasn’t available from any UMAX website, but I found it by poking around the German UMAX FTP server. I was able to copy parts of the INF from that software and edit the INF for the Windows XP software. The XP software actually did support almost all previous UMAX SCSI scanners, it just had to be told *how* to talk to them via the INF.

        I wrote up a how-to and sent that to the company in AU that had done the 7x detection fix. They were very happy to get my fix for using “unsupported” UMAX SCSI scanners with Windows XP. They added my hack info to their 7x hack, and I assume many people were very happy to be able to keep using their very high quality scanners with Windows XP.

        UMAX was also one of the companies insisting it was “impossible” to use any parallel port scanner with Windows XP. Meanwhile Mustek produced driver software enabling most of their parallel port scanners to work with XP, even ones they’d discontinued a while prior to the release of XP.

        So UMAX was the company of the EOL and impossibility while Mustek went above and beyond on support to gain customer goodwill and loyalty.

    5. There’s no obvious planned obsolescence, but there certainly are choices being made that make for a shorter lifespan and uneconomical repair.

      Let’s get most small and/or inexpensive stuff out of the way – just about everything like that is unique and with few interchangeable parts,… repair is not seriously expected. And something like a cell phone or a tablet: it’s all so small and specialized, that few consumers have the skill to undertake them.

      NOW, appliances – expensive and not small. Repairable…? Maybe…. if you’re willing to replace one or two mega-circuit boards that together equal 90% of the cost of a new unit. Some horrible choices being made, like a dryer control board that is susceptible to humidity. (and even the factory applied puddle of epoxy won’t mitigate.). Or lets use an inexpensive printed membrane switch and a mechanical connector in a dishwasher that -surprise- corrodes abd fails in warm wet environments? And it’s only available attached to the yellowing hunk of white plastic front panel, for $200+? We replaced 5 appliances as part of a reno in 2006, and out of the 5: washer replaced last year, dryer just works as a dumb timed device (eg med temp for 60 min), dishwasher had the above control failure, as well as the springs sunding like a haunted house, fridge works well but the handle has broken twice, stove works but the ceramic is flaking away from the top…

      In appliances and other things, sure there are many small repairs that can be done with assistance, like belts, lubrication, tightening connectors etc, but otherwise it’s down to replacing full assemblies that cost a third or more of the origina purchase price.

      1. Kitchen appliances up into the 1970’s were built to last darn near for infinity, and to be repaired should they somehow fail. My stove (inherited from my grandfather) with dual ovens was built by Nash-Kelvinator circa 1965. It’s all stainless steel and fully functional. My maternal grandparents had an Amana freezer in their basement for over 50 years and it was still working good as new by the time they died. Built like a vault with insulated walls and door several inches thick.

        The old Sunbeam automatic toasters are nearly impossible to kill, and if they don’t work right there’s one screw in the bottom to tweak a little to fix them, and the thermostat might need a little adjustment if the bread comes out over or under toasted.

        An aunt-in-law had a collection of about a dozen West Bend electric skillets. All working. For some reason every time she saw one at a yard sale or thrift store she had to buy it.

        1. “Kitchen appliances up into the 1970’s were built to last darn near for infinity, and to be repaired should they somehow fail.”

          I do confirm. Our Krups hand mixer from the 70s still works perfectly fine (all its parts!), even though it’s regularly in use!
          Why can’t this be normal anymore ? What on earth is wrong with the industry ?
          Even in the extremely poor East Germany, behind the iron curtain, they had the RG-28 which was on par with the Krups in terms of build quality.

          The whole industry seems so childish and shortsighted.
          Especially that nonsense with with the cost reduction in conjunction with production.
          If you produce murks, you’ll not only loose your reputation but also have a lot of products that come back for repairs! At the end, it’s a loose-loose situation for both the customer and and the producer.

        2. “Kitchen appliances up into the 1970’s were built to last darn near for infinity”

          How many companies still thriving based around our products “last darn near for infinity”? That’s partially why we are where we are. Same as “unlimited storage for free forever”.

          1. There is a booming demand for supply of the accessories for such products, as well for new ones when something like the motor does die, which will happen to them all eventually – sure it could be repaired but folks don’t – they go “the one Gran bought me for my first house worked for 30 years, lets get a new one, that doesn’t look like its been in a kitchen getting abused for 30 years”.

            You don’t sell as many units, but if you keep the quality up to the multi decade lifespan you can charge a decent premium for them, and the design work was basically already done in the 60’s, upgrade/update a little here and there peharps… Works out as a profitable enough company and not millions of tonnes of waste.

        3. Just be careful with those old ovens. Any fibrous insulation (electrical or heat insulation) probably contains asbestos. I’m not saying don’t keep your old oven, just be careful with the crumbly fibrous bits :-)

      2. “they don’t make ‘m like they used to do” a know saying, but honestly… for every good old product we can come up with there is most certainly a bad old product too.

        All the good stuff of the past remains and keeps visible for a long time (it’s mostly the good stuff that ends up in a museum). But the crappy stuff that “easily” breaks is thrown away and quickly forgotten… never to be seen or remembered. So when something new breaks down, the good old stuff is always mentioned, but the crappy old stuff never.

        1. The problem is that these days finding anything that isn’t crappy is nearly impossible – the ‘premium’ brand / pricetag objects are generally slightly better quality control or prettier design low grade tat still, but with the pretty shiny look and/or designer logo…

          I’m sure some things made today still are good, though anything designed in recent decades perhaps not – for instance I got a brand new clockmakers lathe designed something like 1880 if memory serves, other than a new motor/controller its all superbly overbuilt, the mini lathe that really can do anything you can fit on it, rather than the normal mini lathe that is dead in a year, twisted to buggery so you need a 1″ of steel plate to bolt it too for it to actually work right anyway etc. The challenge is finding that stuff that is built and designed right, when lots of the old reliable brands are now just owned by big consortium trading in on the heritage and shipping low grade tat in a pretty shell.

          From what I’ve seen of the prices and adverts of the past when you bought cheap shit you knew it was cheaper shit and wouldn’t last you decades, or even years – it was just the stuff at the price you can afford. Now price is a terrible indicator of quality!

    6. Incandescent light bulbs where specifically made to last 5000 hours. When engineers from the eastern block found a way to make them last longer and use less tungsten in the filament, they where asked to get lost.
      And what about the expire date on unopened printer cartridge’s – is that also largely a myth?

  3. It is difficult.

    I can only say some layperson views about the German law. As far as I see, it seems that at the end of the day the same rules apply that do for commercial repairs. Members of the public that do work on not their own devices have to be trained and have a appropriate education. They have to follow standard procedures, work has to be verified and documented, results have to be tested and documented. A third party liability insurance is needed (or not, in case you are adventurous).

    I, as a layperson, don’t see a big difference whether I do the job myself or I instruct someone how to do it.

    But contrary to your opinion I think that with proper training you are in a lower liability situation. Because you might argue that you know what you are doing, have the needed qualification, looked into all the details… like in “keep calm and trust me i’m an engineer”. Or say it the other way round: If something happened and you are clueless, there is the assumption of “idiot at work” and you have to show the opposite is true. If you are trained, they have to show that you did something wrong with (gross) negligence or intent.

    1. hmmm…
      My laypersons view about the situation in Germany differ quite a bit:
      AFAIK as long as you aren’t payed for the repair work (in a repair café) and the actual owner of the device you’re repairing knows that all certificates, CE & TÜV markings and so one are practically null and void afterwards there’s no liability problem.

      And it’s my understanding that in repair cafés the motto is sth. like “help to self-help”.
      So the owner of any device you repair should be doing the repair under your guidance or at least look over your shoulder to see whats going on and learn.

    2. If you can prove you are properly trained it will improve your odds of defending yourself. So would properly documenting the repair and using OEM parts. Of course, being a “factory authorized service center” would help as well.

      However you still have to pay an attorney to help defend you in the US. Even if you prove you are right it is going to cost you a lot of money. With business insurance, they would have to pay to defend you and your business in the case. That is how it works here in the US. It is almost impossible to recover your legal expenses unless you can absolutely prove that the case was completely without merit. Of course, you would need an attorney to make that legal case.

  4. I learned the correct way to do wiring at a young age but do not hold a Journeyman’s certificate so I understand the burden of doing it correctly and safely. Also I am not a lawyer (but I stayed in a Holiday Inn once :) ) – – – this is really a question for the lawyers.

    In my mind I’m good to participate provided that the organizer has appropriate legal protections in place for myself as well as their event to prevent issues of lawsuits / liability from affecting me. I check this detail before I agree to participate, and put my trust in the organizer that they’ve done it fully and correctly.

  5. I used to do a lot of work testing and repairing electrical items for a charity shop to sell and this was always in my mind.

    For mains items, a PAT machine is useful, checks things like resistance of earth connection between plug pin and metal body of item (for class I items), and a high-voltage insulation test between live/neutral and earth, but they are not cheap. But most faults are physical – I always ran mains cables through my hands feeling for nicks and cuts in the insulation, and always undid plugs that weren’t moulded on to check for loose wiring and to make sure they had the correctly-rated fuse in (UK).

    One day someone nearly burnt their house down using a lamp I had “passed”, but it was because they put a much higher wattage bulb in than the lampshade was designed for. I always put a sticker on lamps saying max 40W for that very reason; they ignored it.

    1. yes, and you could have been taken to court to prove they messed up and not you. Unfortunately you would have had to pay an attorney to prove you were not at fault. I am not saying don’t fix something for someone but you are definitely taking some chances without business insurance.

      1. If they are exceeding the rated wattage bulb for the original design, I doubt any reasonable court would do much beside dismiss it. Unless something which can actually be traced to the repair cause the fault, even the charity shop would probably be safe.

        Criminal court and civil court are different though.

  6. I personally would only do a repair for a family member or close friend who I was reasonably sure would not sue me. Even if your repair is perfect, if someone’s house burns down you are going to be in the crosshairs of some insurance company that will be looking for a possible cause. If you are the unauthorized, uninsured DIY repair guy, I am afraid you are going to be the first suspect.

    It is unfortunate but we live in a very litigious society.

    1. Also we need to keep on mind things are designed to fail safely. That means the designer choses what fails to prevent unsafe situations. When repairing the failure point, the next weak-point could be something less safe.

    2. Most of our household items could potentially kill us if they are designed or constructed improperly. What do you think prevents this from happening? Are you saying we can rely on each other’s good intentions, we don’t need laws and rules here, but unfortunately we have them. You do know where that road of good intentions leads, right?

      1. That ship has sailed.

        In China it is normal to try to cut costs by simply removing a component and doing a very basic function test.

        That’s how you get USB chargers with mains voltage on the ground shield (it charged the device so ships). How people die from phones in baths. Has happened more than once.

        Laws don’t help. All they do is add costs to the responsible people.

      2. Manufacturers take into account the costs of liability in their design and engineering. For someone like LG or GE, that is an accepted cost of doing business. They are calculating product cost vs passing safety standards so there is no perfectly safe product during all circumstances. As a DIY repair person you do not have the resources to defend yourself from a case in which very expensive property or heavens forbid a personal injury case.

        It does not even matter if your repair was perfect and did not cause the accident. It is about your costs to defend that point.

        1. Just follow the Ford Pinto memo (made infamous in Fight Club).

          If the cost to do it right is greater then the settlement cost, do it wrong, and laugh all the way to the bank.

          Don’t help the schlubs for free though. They don’t appreciate it, will just think they’re entitled the next time. Nothing good can come of it (tits and ass exceptions noted).

          People value your advice in proportion to how much they pay for it.
          Which is why you have your clients best interests at heart when you extort TOP dollar from them.
          If you hadn’t, they wouldn’t have listened to you, then they would be truly screwed. All because they were paying some pinhead MBA more than you. Don’t let that happen to your clients!

  7. I personally don’t fix/make anything for anyone else aside from my own purposes, unless they repair method is done as if I were a ‘repair person’. As example, I would fix a washer/dryer (within reason)/ dishwasher/ microwave or similar small appliance for a friend for no charge as I can diagnose the problem, find the proper parts to replace. I’m not going to make or fudge parts to do the job, no reason to as I’m saving them money already, which is what it is really about. I could easily change someone’s oil, but will not, waterpump, no problem, but I won’t do that either. A fender, bumper cover, door handles and the like, all day. Change a tire? In emergency only, but with a stern warning to get to a ‘shop’ asap. Even in these cases you have to be very careful, there is a lot to think about, where there is a higher chance of someone getting injured as a * potential* outcome of my actions is an immediate no, with recommendation’s of how to get whatever fixed in a better way. Fudging stuff together is in some cases ok until harmful potential is possible. All it takes is 1 mishap out of a 100 ‘fixes’ to cause problems. I personally think you made a good decision.

    1. Additionally, even if you properly installed a factory replacement part, that part could fail and burn the place down. Then it would be you vs the manufacturer to prove who was at fault. 1. you have to pay to defend that suit 2. is the court likely to believe mr handyman or the industrial behemoth that manufactured the equipment? They have product liability lawyers on staff for just such cases.

      One problem with our system is that win or lose, when you defend yourself in court you lose. Good luck recovering your legal expenses to prove your case. That is why insurance is mandatory when you do work for other people. Even if your friend does not sue you, their insurance company will not be so nice when they try to recover the expense for the burned down house.

      1. Greed is inescapable, has always been and will always be. I think you are correct about the insurance part, I have no doubts. I think there is a line to be crossed somewhere, where it is I’m not entirely sure, but if we worry about being sued for Every possibility nobody would do anything nice for anyone other than themselves. I read one can indict a ham sandwich, I don’t doubt that. Lot’s to think about I supposed.

        1. I’m not sure I’d agree Greed in entirely inescapable – there are lots of very generous folks, and even family business (not beholden to shareholders) that seem to prove that wrong, at least round here – nowhere near as common as I’d like, probably because they end up costing a bit more.

          Though from what I hear of US law it sounds so much worse than over here, and UK court type crap often seems like a deliberately bloated money grab for the folks that can afford the law degree…

          1. Shysters never change…

            The only solution is to take away lawyers ability to run for public office. Until that happens the system will be built by and for the benefit of god damn lawyers.

            I’d be in favor of _required_ Russian roulette for sitting the bar exam. # of bullets in revolver would be a function number of lawsuits in last year.

  8. Ha I have a story. I was volunteering at a Fixit Clinic and trying to fix a simple lamp. The problem was easily diagnosed to being a bad switch using continuity checks. The switch was the type that had sharp pins that punctured the power cable from pressure.

    Since the switch itself was OK, we all suspected that it was simply a bad contact at that sharp pin. Old dude wanted to verify… by pressing on it with his fingers and asking me to plug in the lamp lol

    And on that day. there were several cases where we had to or wanted to say “don’t ever let your home insurance know this was fixed here”. Many cables that needed a “don’t pull on this too hard” warning too.

    There’s a few coming up in May in Redwood City

    1. If you had repaired that cheaply built lamp and it malfunctioned due to its faulty engineering causing a fire later on down the road, that manufacturer would definitely hide behind the “unauthorized repair” defense. You cannot put yourself in that position. Even if you proved it was not your fault, you would be out thousands in legal expenses for the attorney you would have hired.

  9. I have education and a full career in electrical and electronic systems. I planned to get into marine electrical work as a fun retirement gig, got certified, and last year tried it out. But there seemed to be only two options: either be somebody’s employee, or go whole hog into business – incorporate, truck, insurance, more tools and inventory. All that just to work one or two days a week?

    There’s a third option – work under the table for friends and acquaintances – but I came up with the same concern as Jenny: liability. If I’m the last person to touch someone’s electrical system, and that boat later burns to the waterline, I would immediately, personally be in the crosshairs. It’s such a concern that even fully-set up pros will turn down work if they see or suspect that a boat has serious issues.

    So… reluctantly… I’m doing zero boat electrical work for others this year. No good deed goes unpunished…

  10. Exactly, it does not matter if you do the repair perfectly and according to all the proper standards (which I can do). It is whether you have the resources to defend yourself in court to prove it. Even if you prove yourself correct, the legal expenses will bankrupt you without insurance.

  11. For funzies I tried to find any court cases that have involved a repaircafe.. nothing I could discover. Thus it looks like there has been little to no legal testing of the validity of both the ‘house rules’ here: and if any insurance (eg: actually works.

    That said, refusing to repair mains equipment that is marked ‘no user serviceable parts inside’ is within the house rules.

    I’m also wondering what the Repair Shop TV production company do about liability?

  12. Makes me wonder if there’s a workaround… Back in the days where I was a Scouting group leader, we sometimes built structures for the kids to play on from rope and round wooden beams… swings, buildings, whatever. The skill to do that is something that (at least in my country) you were taught from when you were a small whelp, including how to do it safely. However, if we built it all by ourselves and let the kids play on it, it would technically be in the same category as any random playground equipment, and we’d have to have it officially tested and inspected for safety. Not worth it given it’d only be up for a day or so, even if we could afford the cost.

    The solution? Before we opened it, we would ask the kids to add a beam or two to the structure. That ‘degraded’ it to something that was built by the kids (and we helped) requiring no inspection.

    (Do note that insurance-wise there was no issue. I never had it happen, but from what I’m aware, insurances would generally cover if a kid fell off of the structure or if something else happened. If not, the country-wide scouting organization had an insurance to cover exactly those circumstances.)

    1. Which is why you have to have balls of steal to sue anybody with deep pockets in the UK.

      You lose, they bankrupt you.

      Applies to defending a lawsuit too.

      Please spay or neuter you solicitors and barristers.

  13. Ever since I found duct tape used instead of marettes (wire nuts) by a previous homeowner on wiring to a mains electrical outlet – I’ve had much less concern about my own work. I sincerely hope that that type of thing is less common than I fear it might be.

  14. I fixed a friend’s toaster once. After the jubilation that it worked had worn off, I wouldn’t give it back to them. It’s not that I think my friend would sue, but if they got hurt then I’d always think that it was my fault. So I pulled out all the nichrome wire and made foam cutters instead, and advised my friend to use breathing PPE when using it.

  15. So your answer to people not knowing how to repair things is to never teach them to repair things because they might do it wrong at first?

    This does not seem like a good answer, nothing would ever get done if that approach was used on anything.

    1. Born, not taught.

      My mom has stories (that must be exaggerations).
      Then there is the one story she doesn’t tell, but her sister ratted her out on (pre memory for me)…Still mortified. Involves a tool of course, my favorite.

      Engineering really is born out of a child’s desire to cause trouble. Tools are tools of mayhem.

      It’s harsh, but if a kid hasn’t learned which end of wrench to hold by middle school, it’s over. Get him the extended warranty and the blinker fluid subscription. There are broken piston return springs in his future.
      In grade school don’t replace the toys they break, Show them welding, do setup, hand them a MIG, gloves, hat, grinder. Standby with extinguisher, MIG is easy.

      Would you represent yourself after attending a ‘Law Cafe’?
      Life and death happen every day, know what you suck at.

  16. The crux of your question seems to be liability, specifically, are you liable for any ill effects from your repair work. That is a legal question, not a moral one. Repair shops have insurance, do the repair cafes have any, or even some kind of disclaimer? That seems like something you should get clarity on with the organizer before deciding to work with them.

  17. An interesting question! My background has some similarities to yours, Jenny. I was in Radiation Metrology, with high voltages all around (Geiger counters, photomultipliers and Ge(Li) and intrinsic germanium detectors), then moved into Radiation Safety (public and corporate Liability) and when I retired from that I passed my time discovering Arduinos, ESP32 and Hackaday, then joined my local Repair Cafe.

    There is a liability aspect of course, but most of what I do is nowhere near that. Today’s job was to ‘repair’ a hoover – the cable had been tripped over, ripping the cable out of the mains plug. Previously, I ‘repaired’ a clock by putting the battery in the right way round. Another hoover needed 5 layers of tape added to the top of the ‘Click – on, click – off’ switch because the casing (holding the ‘stamp-on-it’ on-off button) had distorted and the button no longer reached the

    Then there was the 25+ year old string of 5 snowmen – almost a heirloom, with a PIR that triggered them into dancing and singing! The internal lights of the micro-incandescent variety had all blown but were fed from a 12V ac wall wart. The AC was rectified and smoothed to feed the singing and the motors so I tried a modern 12V dc version, which worked fine, and that meant that I could use some LED tape to replace the lights.

    Each of these jobs delights the recipients and that’s what makes it worthwhile. None of the mains electrical work that I’ve done is beyond ‘wiring a plug’ in complexity (although I quite frequently replace a complete cable when a hedge trimmer or lawn mower has severed its own cable). We have a PAT tester with one trained operater plans to get the rest of us trained. Also, we have an educational brief. We are completely at liberty to refuse a repair on the grounds of electrical safety if we can show the recipient why we are not comfortable with the repair (eg – splicing the afore mentioned hedge trimmer cable with a choc-block and a bit of insulating tape.)

  18. So if you would participate in a repair cafe, the chances that a client might suffer an electric shock after repair would decrease, but since you’re afraid to be held liable you don’t do it? I don’t think that’s a very probable scenario here in west Europe and it wouldn’t stop me from joining a repair cafe.

  19. When I added a PID controller to my venerable Rancilio Sylvia, I bought the relevant UL/CSA standards document in an effort to ensure that things were done right. I was surprised at how low the bar actually is e.g. ensuring that no molten solder drips from the appliance at any point during operation. As a result I don’t have a lot of faith in those little UL/CSA stickers.

  20. Great article discussing a topic I was unaware even existed but makes total sense. Repair cafes seem like a natural idea heavily fraught with the safely concerns you point out. The comments section here has other great safely examples I’ve enjoyed looking though, thanks!

  21. So many of the replies to this thread are miles beyond the scope of the Repair Cafes. The vast majority of the repairs that come through the door are those that Hackaday readers would do themselves without thinking and may be at a very low level – frequently the owner lacks the eyesight, the tools, the knowledge or the confidence to attempt a repair.

    Apart from replacing mangled mains cables I cannot remember a repair that I have carried out, or been involved with that could go dangerously wrong. We don’t repair bicycle brakes or step ladders or microwave ovens. The question of liability simply does not arise BUT if it did the owner would be implicated because a large part of the process is to involve them in the repair – they see what we do and we explain why we do it.

    The question of obsolescence is relevant but not something that concerns us. Can we fix it? Yes/No. Whether it was designed to be fixed or not might be relevant, but the spirit of Hackaday is that the impossible is achievable – the snowmen that I mentioned in my previous post and that I fixed had obsolete light bulbs that I simply replaced with LED tape. I have fixed a couple of ‘clamshell’ CD players that were mis-tracking by simply blowing the fluff off the read lens, I haven’t been so lucky with the same problem in the ‘stick-your-tongue-out’ type of player.

    You do what you can and, if you are unhappy with some aspect you just say no. I was asked if I would sharpen some garden tools. I’ve got some sharpening equipment and at first I said ‘yes’ but on reflection I changed my mind. I didn’t want the responsibility of encouraging people to bring their carving knives, scissors, machetes and who knows what else through the streets in a carrier bag to see me.

    None of us are paid for what we do but sometimes I take a job home because I need to buy parts for the repair. I show the owner the receipt and do not accept any other money (but I didn’t refuse a bottle of wine that was delivered as a thank-you). the owners are usually delighted with the repairs and that makes it worthwhile. They are asked to make a donation for the repair/advice that they receive (and for the drinks and cake that they have) which all goes towards the upkeep of the church here it takes place (thought to date back to 1095).

    The Repair Cafes are called Cafes because there is a strong social element to them – there is tea, coffee and home-made cakes available and more than a couple of pensioners turn up just to sit and have a chat.

    1. I participate in a fix-it clinic sponsored by our local library. They have a liability waiver that participants sign and strong rules/guidance that make it clear that as a non-profit, no fee activity all efforts are at the owners own risk and no liability for damages is assumed. as an degreed (but not Professional Engineer) engineer, I enjoy helping teach others and help save folks money and the environment. I’ve helped fix lamps, stereos, blenders, and some odds and ends. The website is:

  22. There are better solutions. A legal document limiting liability would be very easy to write up and c opy. Become the change you seek in the world. If the problem is political then hack politics.

  23. I’ve given my expertise, time and skills for free and because it was free, it was assumed by the recipient to be of no value. Now I point people to ‘professional’ repairers who show their prices – and it shocks them into appreciating the real world is not free to have stuff fixed. Risk vs Reward – not for me thanks.
    If you are close family, I’ll do the work, but with the caveat – if I fsck it up, thats on you for not paying an ‘expert’ to do it. PS I don’t fsck up.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.