Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Let's Try This Again: Repair Parts

 I had an epiphany this morning, and it seems to bear up under further scrutiny.  I was talking to the light of my life, the wife with whom I have shared the last twenty-odd years (very odd!), and offered this little test.

"I think I know how to determine whether something is designed to be repaired versus just used up and thrown away."

"Oh, yes?"  She raised the quizzical brow in that just-so way.  She does that a lot with me.  She's right to do so, because sometimes I'm full of baloney.  "And what is that?"

"Look at where it was bought."

The quizzical brow stayed firmly arched.  "Say on."

"What do you do when something breaks, that you bought from Wal-Mart?"

"Throw it away.  Oh!"  She smiled.

"And from Target?"

"Still throw it away, probably..."

"And from Sears?"

"Well, Sears has their own parts depart...ment...Hey, you're onto something."

And there it is.  The big box stores like Wal-Mart and Target don't sell parts.  They sell merchandise at the lowest possible price.  The lowest possible price often precludes such things as design that permits things being opened up, fixed, and put back together again.

Now let's be real: the parts department at Sears doesn't carry parts for such things as the el cheapo alarm clock that was marked down at the end of the aisle.  Those are just throwaway items.  They're not like they used to be.  My mom and dad had an alarm clock that wasn't new when I first took note of it back in 1973, and I think they finally got rid of it sometime around 1998.  I'm pretty sure that at some point along the way, the silly thing got repaired once or twice.  It got repaired because it was designed to be opened up, repaired and put back together.

Another example.  My mom had a vacuum cleaner that I used to ride on, because I was small enough to to not overload its casters.  She had it through three houses and an apartment, and didn't get rid of it until MY kids were too big to ride on it.  She told me outright that the thing had been repaired a couple of times.  It was repaired because it was a Kenmore machine, and she could still get parts for it from Sears.

My wife just brought home a Filter Queen brand vacuum cleaner.  She brought it home because two things happened: first, she seems to prefer canister vacs for hard floors.  I don't fully understand the rationale there but there it is.  The other thing is that the Eureka brand vacuum cleaner we had bought a mere year and a half ago bit the dust.

This Eureka vac was pretty flashy.  It had the bright colors that were popularized by Dyson, and the swirly "bagless" design that circulates the grunge and dust where you can see it.  It's a show like no other, all that crud whipping around in there, proof positive that your flashy plastic vacuum is working hard and it's so convenient!  No bags to change, tools right there with, headlight for peering under stuff, all that jazz.  I'd like to point out that these so-called bagless vacs don't have much capacity.  They say they're so convenient because you don't have to change out that nasty ol' bag...but they don't talk about how often you're cleaning out that nasty ol' dust cup.

When did I ever want to peer under the furniture?  What good is that headlight?  I poked the nose of the vacuum under there.  If there was something to suck up, the vac got it.  If there wasn't, the vac got it anyway.  Didn't care to see it.

Well, so we had this Eureka vacuum.  Telescoping duster doohickey that sucks itself clean when you put it back in its caddy, pretty cool.  "Pet Paw" attachment for cleaning upholstery.  Except the duster does a great job of picking up the cobwebs here and redepositing them there, just like every other duster I've ever used.  And the Pet Paw, powered by an air motor, bogs down and stops under any kind of reasonable pressure.  It doesn't maintain its operating speed unless you just wave it around at the furniture.

The vacuum's beater bar tended to bind up a lot.  It only kept working as long as it did because Son #2, determined to get the family's money's worth out of the thing, kept taking it apart, clearing and cleaning the bearings, and putting it back together again.  It turns out he's actually pretty good at that, and good thing too - that vacuum needed a lot of help.  The vacuum had been his choice, and he was mightily annoyed with it when it started running hot and sounding bad after only six months.  He got it running right, as I expected he would, but he wasn't thrilled.

It did it again.  And again.  And finally last week it finally bound up a bearing and melted the bearing mount.  "That's it," he said.  "I can't fix that.  It's not fixable."  Enter the Filter Queen.

The Filter Queen is an old design.  You can tell just looking at it that it's old.  And it's okay that it's old, because if I wanted to, I could replace every single part on it.

I checked that.  It appears to me, checking on the websites that represent companies that sell parts for these things, that you could buy every part needed to build a Filter Queen up from scratch.  Motor, blower, hoses, bearings, all of it.  It's all there.  It's like owning a Kirby vacuum, but a little cheaper.

It doesn't matter that it looks old, either.  Vacuums that work can look like H.R. Pufnstuf for all I care, so long as the dirt comes off the floor.  When that Eureka stopped working, it wouldn't make any difference to me whether the damned thing was made of solid gold, because it still wouldn't be a working vacuum cleaner, which was what I wanted at the time.

Repair parts are out there for the Eureka Pet Lover with the Power Paw or whatever it's called.  But when the bearing mount melts because the bearing got that hot, well, what do you do?  For the price of the new housing with its sound bearing mount which I cannot have because it's obsolete and no longer available, plus the price of the new bearing, I got a good used Filter Queen.

The Filter Queen is made of metal.  Before it gets hot enough for the bearing mount to melt, the motor will be shooting fire out through its exhaust ports.  I'll KNOW it's hot, by golly.  And I could build a brand new Filter Queen exactly like this one I have, because all its parts are still available.

It costs more because it's worth more.  It costs more because it's designed to be cheaper every day for the rest of its foreseeable life.  Like Mom's rugged old Kenmore, like a well-made car with all its bolts and screws and removable things that are designed to be replaced when they wear out, value is one of those things that you really can see.  If you can find fasteners that don't take fancy tools to open - plain ol' phillips screwdriver, for instance - you have a chance at keeping things going.

Wal-Mart doesn't have a parts department.  If you want repair parts for one of those cheap, flashy vacuums they sell, you have to go online and hunt them down.  Granted, I would have to do that with the Filter Queen. But I don't think Filter Queen has obsoleted a part in my lifetime.  I have some confidence of finding whatever I need for a good long time.

Like I was talking about with my Volvo.  If I need parts, Volvo made that car for a long time.  Parts are out there.  The Volvo "red block" engine is sturdy, tough, and got bolted into everything including boats and I think some forklifts.  I have a shot at finding parts virtually anywhere.  And the body was made with only minor changes throughout the 200-series production run, so parts are available there, too.

The old adage is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."  But it should go on: "But make it so you can fix it when it does break."

That reminds me.  I have to get the icemaker working again.  I wonder what that's going to take.  I'll bet I can find the parts at Sears.

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