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I fixed it!

19 January 2021

The culture of DIY repairs seems to be dying.

Driven by super-low prices out of countries like China as well as the fact that fashion now seems every bit as important as function in so many products, the concept of fixing broken stuff seems to be falling out of favour.

I've written columns before lamenting the fact that it's simply not worth fixing much of the modern electronics we buy -- mainly due to high labour charges and the way devices are built to minimise manufacturing costs, not to facilitate repair. Nothing is going to change on that front I'm afraid, since most people prefer to buy "this year's model" of mobile phone or TV set rather than waste money fixing a broken one that has already been superceded in terms of "bang for your buck".

But what about other stuff?

What about mechanical items?

Are we fixing those or throwing them away too?

Let's take my lawn mower for example.

I mow a lot of grass.

To be honest, I *love* mowing grass. I'd do it all day as a recreational activity if I didn't have other things to do and a need to earn a living.

There's something immensely satisfying about turning an ankle-high jungle of flowering weeds and unruly grass into a velvet-smooth carpet of consistent green. Plus, as an added bonus, it's a great low-impact exercise.

As a result of my somewhat excessive mowing activities, I tend to wear out lawn mowers pretty damned quickly.

Even good semi-professional grade mowers don't last that long in my hands.

When I lived on a rural property North of Auckland, the brand new Victa side-throw contractor's mower I bought only lasted about 10 years in its battle with the infamous kikuyu grass that proliferates up there. I think that mower went through about three sets of wheels and countless new blades during its short but hectic lifetime.

Eventually the motor died from some kind of lubrication failure (during the first tank of fuel in which I tried Valvoline 2-stroke oil -- coincidence?).

By that time I was living in Tokoroa and mowing a significant amount of grass at the local airfield so I needed a replacement and, being the tight-arse that I am, I bought a second-hand rotary push mower for $50.

Yeah, it was old and tired but I spent a bit more money and fitted new blades, a new muffler some new wheels and welded up a few broken pieces. After that it was perfectly servicable.

Last week that mower suffered multiple failures.

One of the cutting blades fractured, causing significant vibration. The muffler fell off (hell, they only last 18 years?), the spring in the recoil starter snapped and the wheels are really wobbly again. The governor is also not working properly so I've been mowing at about 5,000 RPM -- which is kind of scary.

Considering that the amortised cost of this mower (including repairs) has been about $5 per year, I figured that maybe it was time to replace it with something a little more modern and pretty, so I checked out the options.

I could buy a horrible little $250 mower from The Warehouse but I really don't think that would last the warranty period and they're so damned small that it would take me twice as long to cut the same amount of grass.

A more capable mower is not cheap. In fact, you can pay a *lot* of money for a reputable "brand name" mower these days -- and what real benefit would I be getting for that money?

So I decided to just buy another muffler, a new set of blades and (eventually) replace the wheels. I can still start the mower by manually winding the recoil mechanism back and since it starts first-time every time, that's not a hassle. I will take the cover off and pull out all the grass that has caused the governor to stick as well.

So, for less than a third the price of the cheapest (and worst) new mower on the market, my old Masport will gain a new lease on life. In fact, I expect it will now outlast me. What's more, there's a deep satisfaction that comes from not having to take a lump of metal to the dump and pay for its disposal whilst also forking out big money for something new and shiny.

I wonder however, how long our ability to fix even the most basic mechanical gear will last.

When I was a pimply-faced youth, I spent huge amounts of time working on my car. Sometimes out of necessity and sometimes just for fun. Back in those days, cars were easy to work on and required just basic tools like spanners, a socket set and a torque wrench. Today however, things are much, much different. The first tool any amateur mechanic needs is an ODB scanner to diagnose any problems. Then they'll probably need inordinate amounts of time, patience and skill just to get at the inevitably faulty timing sensor or other faulty bits burried deep in the engine-bay where only those with super-tiny hands and the right "special tool" can venture.

In fact, I see that Haynes, the car manual people, are stopping publication of their legendary car maintenance books. These books were the mainstay of many a DIY mechanic but Haynes have said that modern cars just aren't user-serivicable any more so there's no demand for their product.

And that's where we're headed I'm afraid.

Even the most mundane and otherwise quite repairable products will soon be not worth repairing -- because it's cheaper, easier and probably more convenient to simply replace them with the latest flash-Harry version.

That has to be a tragedy for those of us who actually enjoy getting our hands dirty and saving the planet in a very practical way.

Do you enjoy fixing stuff -- or are you a fan of the new culture of "throw-away and replace"?

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