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Bay Area's 'Fix-It' Culture Thrives Amid State's Forthcoming Right-to-Repair Law

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Two people look at the circuit boar inside a disk-shaped device in an indoor setting.
Frank Zhao (right), a longtime Fixit clinic coach, helps Al Lee (center) fix a vaccuum cleaner at a Fixit clinic in MIllbrae on Feb. 3, 2024. (Kathryn Styer Martínez/KQED)

Nancy Harris does what many Americans do when appliances break — she throws them away. In particular, she has gone through four Magic Bullet blenders. When this happened again, she decided to try to save it and break the cycle of waste.

That desire, mixed with frustration, motivated her to drive 25 miles of foggy roads from Moss Beach to the Redwood City Public Library one recent Saturday morning. There, she found a Fixit Clinic. It’s a bustling, pop-up workshop where around a dozen volunteers — called Fixit Coaches — were hunched over their projects. Wires splayed out from a toaster. There was a disassembled air purifier. A 1950s-era waffle iron was ready for dissection.

Upon Harris’s arrival, the group did a customary welcome ritual. A volunteer took the broken appliance and held it up in the air — like Simba in “The Lion King” — and shouted “Magic Bullet Blender!” Cheers ensued.

Harris was then thrown into the deep end of this grassroots repair subculture. A person acting as a sort of maitre d’ polled the room of waiting volunteers.

“Who wants to give fixing the blender a shot?” one of them asked.
With a bewildered look on her face, Harris was whisked to a table where volunteer Alex Schmitt was stationed. Schmitt, whose day job is in software, said he likes to tinker in his spare time.

Harris, like a patient at a hospital, described her blender’s symptoms to Schmitt.

“As soon as I plug it in, it starts whirring. It’s just always on, and I can’t get it to turn off,” she said.

Schmitt quickly diagnosed the problem. He said the machine probably hadn’t been cleaned in a while. Blended liquids and foods can leak, making the switch that turns the motor on and off permanently stuck.

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Fixit Clinics are different in that they aren’t places where someone can just drop off an item and expect it to be fixed. At these events, the owners of the appliances are expected to roll up their sleeves and be the primary people enacting the repair, with the guidance of a coach.

Both Schmitt and Harris spent an hour or so working on the small appliance. Together, they manipulated small screwdrivers, removed protective panels to reveal the inner workings of the machine, and even discovered a family of small bugs that had made a home inside the motor.

Before long, Harris’s Magic Bullet was as good as new.

“That saves me $100, $200 every couple of years when this happens again,” she said. “I’m really happy about it.”

A person wearing a work apron holds up a set of bells in an indoor setting.
Peter Mui celebrates an item being repaired by chiming tingsha bells at a Fixit clinic in Millbrae on Feb. 3, 2024. (Kathryn Styer Martínez/KQED)

As Harris said her goodbyes, Peter Mui held up the blender in the air and initiated another Fixit Clinic ritual, yelling, “Magic Bullet Fixed!” This time, he rang a bell, the sonic signal of a victory. The workshop, like a set piece in a movie musical, erupted in cheers again.

Bay Area Roots

Mui founded Fixit Clinics in Berkeley in 2009. The first one was at the UC Berkeley Albany Village Community Center.

“It was really just to see if we could even fix anything,” Mui said. “And lo and behold, not only could we open them up, but we could fix a lot of it.”

A person wearing a work apron smiles and looks at the camera.
Peter Mui at a Fixit clinic in Millbrae on Feb. 3, 2024. (Kathryn Styer Martínez/KQED)

He said since then, people have asked him and his fellow fixers to repair all sorts of things: broken washing machines, a Geiger counter, even a backpack to carry a parrot.

“It’s like improv. You never know what the general public is going to present you with,” Mui said. “It speaks to our innate desire to want to fix and to be curious about why the thing broke.”

According to Mui, Fixit Clinics have a dual purpose: They are places where people can learn critical thinking and troubleshooting skills through repair, and they’re designed to get people to think about how their buying habits affect the environment. He argues that getting people into the mindset of repairing before buying something new helps reduce waste, conserve resources, and lower their carbon footprint.

“It’s incumbent on us at this point in the planet to keep all of our durable goods in service as long as possible,” he said.

Over the past two decades, these clinics have grown in popularity and expanded outside of the Bay Area. Mui said there were over 200 Fixit Clinics last year in the U.S. He has also built an international community on the social media platform Discord.

A large room filled with groups of people clustered in groups around tables.
People attend a Fixit clinic hosted by the County of San Mateo’s Office of Sustainability at the library in Millbrae, California, on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. (Kathryn Styer Martínez/KQED)

This year, Mui has partnered with the San Mateo County Office of Sustainability to bring Fixit Clinics to a different San Mateo County Library each month.

“It has exploded,” said Shova Ale Magar, a sustainability specialist at the San Mateo County Office of Sustainability. “We have a lot more demand than what we can offer.”

Mui said the ultimate goal is to increase a local repair culture in the Bay Area and around the world.

“We want to propagate these skills and that ethos,” he said. “It’s a hobby that has gotten way out of control.”

Right to Repair

This community of passionate fixers has grown alongside a burgeoning right-to-repair movement in the U.S.

In July, California will become the sixth state in the nation to enact a right-to-repair law. The new law will require manufacturers of appliances and electronics to make the parts, tools, and information necessary to fix their products broadly available.

Two people work closely on the inside of a wooden device.
Andy Caughman (right) holds a clock while Charlie Kennedy (left) inspects it at a Fixit clinic in Millbrae on Feb. 3, 2024. (Kathryn Styer Martínez/KQED)

Mui said this signals a turning of the tide in the fight for the right to repair, given the stiff opposition California and other states have been met with when attempting to pass right-to-repair legislation. Companies like Apple, John Deere, and T-Mobile have all lobbied against these laws in an attempt to keep information on how to make repairs secret or require that repairs only be made by the company itself.

“Apple has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in California alone fighting against right to repair and millions of dollars nationally,” said Liz Chamberlain, Director of Sustainability at iFixit, a website that sells repair guides and tools for electronics and appliances. (iFixit also co-sponsored California’s right-to-repair law.) “But at the last minute in California, right before the bill passed, they came on in support.”

In October 2023, when California’s law was signed, Apple announced it would comply with the law nationally, not just in California. In January, Samsung announced it was broadly expanding its self-repair program for its phones, tablets and PCs.

“Manufacturers can’t just stop selling in California and New York. So, if they want to keep the U.S. market, they have to comply,” Chamberlain said. “Manufacturers are interested in making money, but they’re also not interested in angering customers, and if customers tell them over and over again, ‘Hey, we don’t want this stuff to break after a year; we want to be able to fix it.’ Eventually, they will respond to that consumer demand.”

According to Chamberlain, California has the strongest right-to-repair law passed by any state so far, but it has some caveats. It only applies to products sold after 2021, and there is a limited time frame for when it applies. If an item costs between $50 and $99.99, manufacturers must make parts, tools and information to repair the item available for three years after the sale. If it is more than $100, manufacturers must make these repair assets available for seven years.

So far this year, 24 state Legislatures are considering their right-to-repair measures covering everything from farm equipment to cars to consumer electronics.

“I think a lot of people are fed up with disposable culture,” Chamberlain said. “They’re fed up with the idea that planned obsolescence has become status quo in a way.”

Those same people fed up with disposable culture are falling in love with the feeling of repair, Mui said.

“Because when the thing starts working again, and they’re the ones who fixed it, it’s like Easter,” he adds. “It’s a really wonderful feeling that we don’t want to deprive anybody of.”

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