The “Repair Man” Trap

Anyone who has ever worked in the electronics trade will almost certainly have been asked to repair consumer electronics products for friends, family and even random neighbours.  How do you deal with these requests? Do you politely decline or do you end up getting sucked in?
Rookies usually get sucked in.  I’ve been there, done that, and got the T-Shirt.  But give yourself a few years and you’ll soon learn that it can be a huge “trap for young players” (as EEVBLOG is fond of saying), and that once you’ve fallen into the trap it can be very difficult to get out!

I’m older and wiser now, so usually I’ll politely decline a request for this sort of work.  Occasionally I’ll agree to do the odd thing for close friends and family, but even then I only tend to agree if I feel confident that the symptom is indicative of a quick/easy and permanent solution.  If there’s any kind of uncertainty involved, or if it’s someone I don’t know, forget it – I’ll avoid it like the plague.  Why? Well, let’s have a look at it!

My main reasons for declining this sort of work are as follows:

  • Once you agree to repair something for someone, suddenly everyone in the neighbourhood will want you to provide a similar service for them too – and once you’ve agreed to do it for one person, it becomes difficult to say no to anyone else! How can you justify saying no to Mr. Jones at number 4 when you previously said yes to Mr. Edmunds at number 3? You’re almost obligated to become the local repair guy, and from then onward your spare time will be constantly eroded by other people’s problems.
    At least you can make a few bob for yourself on the side though, right? No! That neatly leads me on to my next gripe…
  • Nobody ever wants to pay you money for the work.  They think your technical expertise in this area is worthless, and in one way (as explained further on in this point) they are right!
    It doesn’t matter that you may have spent 4 hours tracking down a problem, and that the only reason you can do it at all is because you spent years (decades) honing your electronics skills – they’ll still want it done for free.  Or, at least, for a very small amount of money.
    In fairness, this kind of attitude has mainly been fostered by cheap consumer electronics products from countries like China.  Your diagnosis/repair work might be worth £80 an hour in terms of your expertise, but why are they going to pay that when they can just get a brand new one from the local supermarket for <£100? Cheap goods from developing countries have literally decimated the monetary value of a Technician’s work.  Products have become more complex and hence more difficult to diagnose, but the amount that consumers are willing to pay for their repair has fallen to a pittance.
    Naturally Mr. Jones won’t want to add £100 to his next TESCO shopping bill though – he’ll just want you to fix the one he’s got for free.
  • Once you’ve placed your hands on someone’s product, you instantly inherit any future problems it may present.  If Mr. Jones bought you a pint of beer in return for restoring power to his television last month, then he’ll bring it back to you when the colour goes down on it and assume that the two problems are linked.  “The colour was fine before you started fiddling with it”, he’ll say.  “It must have been something you did!”.
    Naturally, he’ll not only expect you to fix his colour problem as well but he’ll also expect you to do it for free.
    Sometimes you’ll even be blamed for totally unrelated things like, for example, poor reception.  You fix their dead television for a measly tenner (even though it’s not even worth 15 minutes of your time, and the job took you three hours!) but then they’ll call you back 3 months later because the picture on ITV4 is breaking up.  “It didn’t do that before you took the TV apart, Mr. Hoskins!” and before you know it you’ll be up on their roof fixing an antenna or adjusting their satellite dish.
  • Sometimes, if you don’t have your wits about you, amateur diagnosis work (and if it’s done in your spare time as an aside to a related but different professional trade, it is amateur – even if your skills are not) can even end up costing you money.  Faults (especially in the digital domain) can be very difficult to diagnose, and are littered with “gotchas” that you can inadvertently stumble into.   Fault symptoms will often lead you around the garden path.
    It can seem, for example, like a Microprocessor is to blame for your problem when in fact the firmware is simply hanging up because some other component is upsetting it.  But if you go ahead and order a replacement Microprocessor you’d better be damned sure it’s going to solve the problem, because Mr. Jones isn’t going to want to pay for it if it later transpires that the Micro wasn’t the root cause after all!
    If you work in the diagnosis trade (which, these days, hardly anyone does) problems like these are easily navigated – you can swap components on like products to see if the problem moves with them, and then you can be more confident of your diagnosis before you spend any money (even though at the very least it’ll certainly cost you more unpaid time), but if, for example, you’re a design Engineer who (by the very nature of your work) happens to also possess some skills from the fault diagnosis trade, you won’t have this luxury.  When Mr. Jones presents his faulty product to you it’ll almost certainly be the first time you’ve ever seen one.  If you’re lucky (provided Mr. Jones never brings it back) it’ll be the last time you ever see one! So the moral of this particular point is that if you order parts for someone’s faulty product, make sure you’ve made your disclaimer clear before you do so otherwise the cost could be coming out of your pocket, not theirs!
  • The final reason I prefer to decline this sort of work is that it just isn’t my specialty.  Yes, I probably could track down the fault on someone’s TV, or laptop, or PVR.  Given enough time and sufficient motivation I could probably fix any electronic product.  But unless you actually work in the trade, diagnosing these things day-in day-out, it’s always going to cost you more time and money than it’s actually worth.  For a start you’ll hardly ever have schematics for the products, and that means you’ll have to reverse engineer them before you even start diagnosing the problem.  You won’t have spare parts hanging around so you won’t be able to follow hunches by swapping bits out,  and finally you’ll never have the opportunity to reap the rewards of a hard-earned diagnosis.  What do I mean by this last point? Well, no Technician wants to see a one-time fault.  Obscure one-time faults do happen occasionally, but usually (if you work in the trade) it’ll be something you or one of your colleagues have seen before.  So you invest the time in a diagnosis once, and then you apply it instantly to any future occurrence of the problem. In that way, you start to make money on your investment.  If a product costs you six hours of diagnosis time, most of which will end up being unbilled time, then you hope that it’ll pay you back when you see the problem again in the future.
    When you do these things as a side job, you typically only ever see the problem once, even if it’s a relatively common problem for that particular product.  So each time you complete a diagnosis you invest significant time, but never see its return.   Even if people were still willing to pay good money for diagnosis work (which they’re not), it would hardly be worth it for someone who just does odd bits on the side.
No I will not fix your computer!
No I will not fix your computer!

So that’s why I will almost certainly decline any request to fix someone’s consumer electronics product for them.
What about you? Are you a design/development engineer who has been asked to fix other people’s stuff? Do you agree to it or do you decline? What stories can you tell?!


4 responses to “The “Repair Man” Trap”

  1. As a young player, I have gotten sucked into repairing other people’s electronics before. Sometimes I was successful at doing so and gained a couple of bucks, and at other times I was unable to do anything and it just ended up costing me time, money and last, but not least, my reputation. However, this last time, I decided to draw the line.
    A friend of mine, whom I have not seen in months, invited me out for a drink and eventually told me that he had a faulty computer monitor in need of a fix. He told me that the backlight would die a minute after turning it on. “It’s the caps!” I thought to myself and accepted the job. I cracked it open, checked the values and headed to a local shop to buy replacements. I replaced all the electrolytics, reassembled the whole thing, and powered it up. Sure enough, it worked … for two minutes. I spent the entire afternoon trying to pinpoint the problem, but was unsuccessful. I drove to my friends house to return the monitor, as I didn’t want it laying around. All I got in return was a disappointed look and a “thanks for trying.” Not only did I waste an entire saturday, filling it with frustration, but I also had to pay for the replacement caps and gas. I also haven’t heard from that ‘friend’ since.
    A valuable lesson learned.

  2. I always decline. But I also offer to take it off their hands when they give up on it. I got one of my monitors that way. When I was like 10 my brother broke his vectrex. He broke the joystick and threw it away. I snatched it up from the heap opened it found the four loose screws and had my self a vectrex. A nice working one at that. I also got a rather angry big brother who tried to “detrash” the vectrex after I fixed it but stood my ground and claimed it as my own. Since then Ive gotten 2 cars (both returned to working order and served me well for another 5 years each) and numerous electronics Ive fixed from the same brother. I learned this lesson early on. My pay for fixing “garbage” is keeping the working device when I fix it. If you never prove you can do it, people easily believe you when you say “sorry I dont know how to fix it”

    • That’s a good way to go about it – fix other people’s trash but only when it means you can keep it for yourself! You’re right, in that way the time investment can be worth it because you end up with a perfectly serviceable product for free. It sounds a little unfair, but it actually isn’t. Why shouldn’t you use a skill you’ve developed over many a year to bring you some payback? Yes, perhaps it’s at someone else’s expense, but if you’d agreed to repair said product for them instead would they have wanted to pay you any money for it?!

      When I first started in electronics I used to do diagnosis work as my full time job. I had a good few products out of the scrapper as well. One thing that used to happen quite often was that customers would drop their TVs and damage the PCB. The largest (heaviest) component on these PCBs would be the line transformer, so invariably the PCB would split right along the HT tracks. It was against health and safety rules for us to effect a repair on the HT tracks because it was considered a fire hazard. Of course, as long as you completed a sturdy repair the TV would be perfectly safe – the HT tracks were quite thick anyway so you could just strap them up with wire. I rescued quite a few TVs from the scrap this way! I never considered them a fire hazard but to be honest I kept them to myself – God forbid a fire starts in someone’s house and it transpires that you sold them a TV that was destined for the scrap heap due to health and safety reasons!

      • Yeah I usually kept it to my self that I managed to fix the stuff. Again learned from my brother at about age ten. I got beat up a few times to keep my vectrex. No one I know locally knows I work on electronics or computers. Maybe the random cute girl here or there but that is it. I fix my moms pc all the time but she knows if she tells any one she has to goto a repair shop next time. I dont do it to be mean, it is a liability issue. Not to mention a time sink.

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