Analog Angle Blog

Right to repair (RTR): Good intentions, but risky as well

As an engineer, I like to fix things, or at least try to. This may be something as conceptually simple as replacing bad capacitors in the AC/DC power supply of a TV converter, or as delicate as making a tiny new axle for a toy using a Dremel motor tool as a mini-lathe. Sometimes, I even try to fix things that I really know can’t be fixed to get the experience of opening the product up, seeing how it was made, and testing new techniques.

That’s why I have been following the “right to repair” (RTR) movement, which is getting a lot of attention these days. Just Google it and you’ll see. There are legislative efforts underway as well as administrative regulations being put in place to ensure that products are repairable—at least to some extent—by their purchasers over some number of years. Most media coverage of RTR effort has been favorable. When manufacturers object—as car dealers have done vigorously—these are usually portrayed as self-serving objections; which is true to a large extent, of course.

So, what is RTR? There’s no single definition, as it depends on where the product is sold and who is buying it as well as other factors. In some cases, it means that manufacturers must provide public access, for a nominal fee, to relevant repair-related information. This may include part lists and assembly/disassembly information, or it may mean ensuring availability of spare parts for some number of years, or even provision of bill of materials (BOM) and schematics.

There’s a strong argument for RTR, no doubt. In the most obvious case, you’d like to have the option of bringing your car despite all of its high-tech electronics to an independent repair ship instead of a dealer because of price, comfort, location, or other factors. RTR advocates point to cases where farmers had to wait days for the dealer’s mechanic to come and repair their super-expensive farm equipment for several hundred thousand dollars while crops had to be planted or harvested, and here, every day counts.

This seems to make sense. But there’s also a legitimate argument as to how much should be repairable or even accessible to an outside third party. Should independent repair person be allowed to make changes to the software? Can they flash an operating algorithm into that tractor, which perhaps improves performance but also stresses components beyond their design limits? How do you “bound” the scope of the allowed repairs?

Even in the case of a $20 clock with bad electrolytic (bulk) capacitors which I fixed, it was still tricky, as I had to disassemble the AC-side safety enclosure to get to the low-voltage DC side. What if I didn’t put it back properly? Who would be responsible for any subsequent risks and possible shock?

To some extent, RTR butts up against the least replaceable unit (LRU) decision. In the case of a car, it might be a circuit board or module that is the LRU, while fixing that board itself requires sending it back to the vendor’s repair depot.

While I support RTR in principle, I also see so many practical issues. Who decides what is the suitable level of vendor support, what must be RTR-compliant with what resources, and to what extent? Would it be managed by bureaucrats or engineers? Would glued-together rather than screwed clamshell enclosures be banned? Would products need an RTR “certification tests” similar to those required for many regulatory mandates and standards for basic safety, EMI/RFI, and other performance aspects? As they say, the “devil is in the details” and the road to misery may be paved with good intentions.

Whatever perspires on RTR, what I’d really like to see is simpler access to replaceable parts and ease of actually doing the replacement. For example, I have a three-year-old handheld vacuum cleaner—Black & Decker Dustbuster HHVI320JR—powered by 12-V lithium batteries that won’t hold much charge anymore. Replacing the battery back should be an easy task, but it’s not, even though the power pack uses the common 18650 cells.

This basic Black & Decker Dustbuster handheld cordless vacuum retails for about $50; when the lithium-based batteries degrade after just a few years, the replacement situation almost forces you to toss the whole unit. Source: Google

The battery pack—once you get to it—has a conformal wrapping around the cells rather than a clamshell case. Furthermore, the batteries in the assembly are spot-welded with connecting tabs, which makes it even harder to connect them once I extricate the defunct ones, as explained in this short and helpful video “Repairable: Can You Replace the Batteries in a Black + Decker Lithium Dustbuster Vacuum Cleaner?” I could buy a replacement battery pack, but that costs almost as much as a new Dustbuster and many of these aftermarket packs use low-quality cells which don’t last long.

I’ll likely still make the effort to swap out the batteries when I have a chance, as engineering pride prevents me from tossing an otherwise lightly used $50 appliance because of degraded batteries. But it shouldn’t have to be such a challenge.

What’s been your perspective on right to repair? How about the challenges to basic repairability or replacement of obvious parts?

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5 comments on “Right to repair (RTR): Good intentions, but risky as well

  1. jimwilliams57
    October 6, 2021

    They say that opinions are like armpits; everybody has a couple and they usually stink. So, here’s my opinion of RTR. When I buy a product, it’s no longer the property of the manufacturer. Therefore, if it needs repair and I want to attempt the repair myself, then by all means I will attempt the repair. If what I do voids the warranty, it was my choice and the warranty is now void. If the repair is difficult, such as the Dustbuster example in the article, I may be frustrated and say things about the manufacturer that I shouldn’t, but I’ll still attempt the repair. Manufacturers shouldn’t be forced to make the device easily repairable, but at the same time the consumer shouldn’t be prohibited by law from attempting to repair their own property. If I want to change the firmware, resulting in damage to mechanical components, that was my choice and I should suffer the consequences of my own actions.

    • ron.ck722
      October 7, 2021

      Hi Jim,

      As a die-hard Analog guy, I’d been aware of Planet Analog, but hadn’t visited in years. When I tried to register, I didn’t realize my email address was already on file.

      I’ve been working on a subwoofer compensator for 10 months, dreading the fact that I might have to go digital and use an Analog Devices audio DSP processor – I’ve had a developer board for 5 months.

      Last night, I dreamed about differential filters. Never used one. They were a favorite of fellow Acuson EE, Stuart Carp, who died before he could tell me their secrets. I hope Stuart’s been able to share his knowledge with the late Jim Williams and my fellow National Semi co-worker, the late Bob Pease.

      Are you related to Jim?

      I started an online search for differential filters and stumbled on Planet Analog. I freaked when I saw the picture of the Dustbuster. I not only have a rundown Lithium Dustbuster, I have two Nickel Metal Hydride Dustbusters I’d hoped to convert to Lithiums. A dozen tool-rated 18650s have been in my parts bin over 5 years.

      If you’re a typical EE, too cheap to buy solder-tabbed 18650s and you don’t have sockets with heavy duty contacts, you can always use copper solder removal braid to make a reliable high current contact with the battery terminals. Use electrical tape to secure the contacts and watch out for wild copper strands.

      Speaking of vacuum tubes – I was a vacuum tube baby at age 8, graduating to the Raytheon CK722 in 1952/1953. Note my email moniker. The CK722’s worth several funny stories.

      In the mid-1970s, I designed CT scanner front ends. The photomultiplier post-amps were logarithmic. While many EEs hate log/antilog circuits, they’be been a lifelong toy. 30 years ago, I did a large-signal vacuum tube Primary Current simulator, using fellow Palo Altan Karl Spangenberg’s “Vacuum Tube” text. Emulating a Pentode with log/antilogs “only” takes about 16 op amps, 8 matched NPNs and around 200 discrete components.

      Primary Currents are those without Secondary Emission. I wasn’t able to satisfactorily emulate Secondaries. After TI acquired National Semi, a bunch of leftover Tektronix Curve Tracers disappeared. If I only had the $$$ and ambition to mod one for vacuum tubes……………………..

      • jimwilliams57
        October 12, 2021

        Sorry to inform you, but I am not related to, no did I ever meet the late Jim Williams. I only learned of the late Jim Williams about a year prior to his passing. I know very little about analog and only stumbled on this site because this article was featured in an EETimes email.

        The most I’ve done with analog circuits, aside from disassembling and reassembling an old tube type radio when I was a boy, was causing a short circuit by sticking my fingers where they didn’t belong (in the same tube radio.) Never quite had the patience to learn about it. But after learning of the existence of the late Jim Williams, I thought it would have been fun to have also been an analog engineer if only to confuse people.

        My career has revolved around microprocessors and firmware for longer than I care to remember. When my wife’s friends learn what I do, they always ask questions about Windows, to which I have to blissfully claim ignorance.

  2. nuwix
    October 6, 2021

    When electronic was based on tubes, every radio or TV had a paper schematic inside, sometimes with very useful information about node voltages.
    It was necessary, because the reliability of the electronic components was low ( maybe except for electrolytic capacitors, which may have a lower reliability nowadays).
    It was also dangerous, the tubes had a high operation voltage, so any failure to observe the rules punished you instantly.
    So an schematic of the equipment should be the minimum. Maybe not on paper, but available in the internet. Also the publishing maybe delayed until the OEM warranty is expired. That protects their IP and why bother fixing something which is still under warranty on your own ?
    The information about disassembling is also necessary.

  3. MartyZ
    October 8, 2021

    I agree with Bill Schweber 100% and will add to a detail he mentioned. Encouraging novices and amateurs to repair damage and/or defects to the primary side of the AC power section in consumer electric products produces a slew of accidents waiting to happen. UL has done much research on this, and while many complain that complying withy UL standards are tedious, it’s also true that they have statistical data behind their standards. I’m OK with encouraging novices and amateurs repairs to isolated secondary sides, and to entire products that have external AC adapters. Just nothing connected directly to AC power (100V – 240V, 50Hz/60Hz).

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