Seven stories that show why the FTC should act on Right to Repair

Hundreds of people have submitted personal stories that show why it is so hard for people to fix their stuff. Here are some of the best

Prostock-studio | Shutterstock.com

Take Action

If you think that they don’t make things like they used to anymore — when companies built things to last that you could repair — you aren’t alone. 

For most of the last month, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been accepting public comments about the Right to Repair. In 2021, the agency voted to enforce laws against illegal repair restrictions and support state Right to Repair legislation. 

Since opening the public comment period, stories have poured in from across the country. As of January 25, Americans had submitted almost 700 recorded comments, nearly all in favor of the Right to Repair. 

People are sharing both why the Right to Repair is important to them and also  repair-related horror stories. Here are seven stories of repairs gone wrong, and how the Right to Repair would have made a difference.

No spare parts and third-party parts won’t operate properly

“I work for a county K-12 school system’s IT department in Tennessee…We have fleets of multiple products that are far harder to repair than they otherwise would or should be due to parts availability … The problem starts when these tablets come into the IT department workshop with a smashed display; we have replacement displays, and we could order more, but all the suppliers we’ve tried can’t seem to get all OEM parts for the display assembly, and for some reason, one of the differences with these replacements leads to the cameras being unable to function.”

Samuel Lyons

One of the most common ways that manufacturers frustrate repairs is by failing to stock adequate replacement parts. You may have to wait a very long time for a small replacement part. Sometimes, they don’t provide spare parts at all. If you try to use a different, similar part, the device doesn’t work. 

Some devices employ “parts pairing,” which can mean that even if you manage to locate a manufacturer-original part, perhaps salvaged from another device, it won’t operate without manufacturer intervention. 

The FTC could take action to require companies to sell available parts, and remove barriers to installing otherwise compatible third-party parts. There is no reason why Samuel here shouldn’t be able to fix the displays on his school’s tablets, especially when so many children rely on them for their education. 

Are you “authorized” to read that manual? 

“I am a repair enthusiast, having founded the Boulder U-Fix-It Clinic [http://boulderufixitclinic.org], a volunteer organization that helps people learn how to fix their broken stuff … I had a problem with a popular, highly rated … dishwasher. I contacted their support team and they were unable/unwilling to help me, only referring me to authorized service. I was able to obtain a bootleg copy of the technical service manual and found the solution to the problem: push the door gasket back into place — a 10 second fix! Avoided an expensive service call.”

Wayne Seltzer, CO

Usually, you need a service manual to fix a device. Manuals explain how to  troubleshoot and address basic faults. Now that much of this information is only online, it’s easy for manufacturers to block the information you need to fix something, unless they “authorize” you to access the manual, catalog of common faults or updated service bulletins. They effectively monopolize these critical resources, and give the information only to authorized dealers. This savvy repair enthusiast found a service manual for his dishwasher and fixed it in 10 seconds rather than paying an “authorized” technician up to $300 — if he could even find an available technician to help.

Unique screws and lots of glue

“As a technician, I depend on being able to service third party IT devices for my livelihood … Poor design of components can also make repair unnecessarily hard. For example, I own a … phone, which is held together with glue. A traditional phone would use screws or clasps, which can easily be undone for battery replacement or other service procedures. The … phone requires specialised (sic) equipment to disassemble and reassemble, and uses unique parts that can be difficult to find.”

Vivian Dean, WA

Gluing parts into phones and other devices is nothing unusual in today’s repair-phobic world. Many manufacturers use glue instead of screws, making it difficult to get inside your device or remove necessary parts. Even if they do use screws, they might design their own unique screwhead which means that you might need to buy a new tool just to open it up. 

Our Right to Repair petition asks the FTC to create a “repair score” program, which would label products with how repairable they are, deducting points for anti-repair tactics such as specialty screws and glued-together components. The agency could also ban certain practices outright, or label products that contain non-removable batteries so consumers don’t buy something without knowing it is essentially disposable. 

Glue inside electronics

Brand new is cheaper than a repair

“Recently I broke my [tablet] screen. The only solution was to go to [the manufacturer] or an authorized repair site, [retailer], to have it replaced at a cost higher than purchasing a new device. I’m an electrical engineer and quite handy, but I have no access to buy the parts and make the fix myself.”

Alex Roschli, TN

All of these repair restrictions add up. With parts locked away and information nowhere to be found, authorized repair sites can charge so much for a repair that you might as well buy a new device. The environmental consequences are horrifying. In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency calculated that Americans throw away more than 416,000 phones every day. 

For the sake of the environment, we need the Right to Repair. We should be able to fix broken devices, rather than having to buy new ones.

Small businesses struggle and sink

“Hello, I worked as a third-party repair tech for phones and laptops for a few years, but I was forced to switch careers by that industry’s decline. Our small city (slightly over 100k) in 2018 had at least 5 independent repair shops with a handful of techs working in each, a couple of those shops had been going for over a decade. All of those have since gone out of business.”

Elijah Hekel, CO

When manufacturers restrict access to service manuals and only give them to authorized sites, independent repair shops can’t compete. Small businesses make industries more competitive, which fosters higher quality service, and they ensure that local communities get what they need. When they have to close up shop, we all suffer.

The Right to Repair would help independent repair shops stay in business by giving them the diagnostic tools, repair manuals and software access they need to fix things. Then, you might be able to go to a local repair shop across town, instead of traveling to an authorized (and likely more expensive) dealer.

Repair restrictions are especially tough on vulnerable consumers

I am a low income consumer, so making a high dollar purchase is financially difficult. I needed to purchase a floor model ac/heat unit…It took me over 8 months to save for this expensive (over $600) unit… After 4 years of service and well past warranty the unit ceased to perform at 100% … it now works at about 40 to 50%. Called…for information to repair unit, was told it’s a sealed unit, NOT REPAIRABLE and offered … a new unit at a discounted price which was more than I paid for the original unit…I live on such a low income and inflation is eating up the value of the dollar that it has taken me OVER a year to save up for a replacement unit.”

Donald McCollumIn my low-income family, getting to repair computers means being able to do schoolwork, being able to connect to the outside world (for my disabled family member). If we’d had to buy new computers, we would be computerless.

Anonymous

Technology is an essential part of life today. Without a phone or a computer, people can’t complete essential tasks or communicate when they need to. A broken electronic device can become a disaster for those who don’t have the means to replace it because fixing it for a reasonable price is rarely a possibility. 

PIRG’s research found that repairing instead of replacing devices could save an average American family $382 per year, or nearly $50 billion across the country. For some people, that’s not a huge amount, but for others, it means being able to get a job, complete homework assignments, or keep their home cool and comfortable.

Standing up for thrifty folks and handy blokes

“My first two-wheel bicycle was made by my grandfather, from pieces of three discarded bikes he trash-picked. I inherited his shop, and his spirit of repairing and making new things out of other people’s trash. Our society has forgotten that everything you can see was, at some degree or another, made by a person.”

Walter Davis, PA

Walter’s grandfather made an entire bicycle out of scrap metal, while in today’s world, bicycle mechanics warn that many new bikes are only made to last a few months. We should not have to put up with this reality when another one is possible. We just want stuff that lasts and that we can fix. 

If you have a similar story of a repair gone wrong, or if you think that current repair restrictions are ridiculous, there is still time for you to tell the FTC. If you follow this link on the FTC webpage, you can click “Submit a Comment” and write to them directly. Tell the FTC: Stand up for the Right to Repair and let us fix our stuff!

Topics
Authors

Meghan Smith

Designed to Last Campaign, Associate, PIRG

Meghan works on the Designed to Last campaign for the PIRG New Economy team. Meghan is from Maine and currently lives in Boston. She likes playing the guitar, singing, running and enjoying the outdoors whenever she can.