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A Growing ‘Right to Repair’ Culture in California

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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)

When one of your appliances or electronics breaks, do you buy a new one or try to fix it yourself?

Manufacturers have made it hard for consumers to fix their own stuff. But people have been pushing back in what’s called the “right to repair” movement. KQED’s Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman takes us to a “Fixit clinic” in Redwood City, where people learn how to fix their broken items.


Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra, and welcome to the Bay. Local news to keep you rooted. So lately, I’ve been watching my boyfriend deal with a messed up laptop, which is less than a year old. First, he spent at least an hour on the phone with someone from Dell. Then he had to buy a USB drive for some software thing I couldn’t really understand.

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Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Anyway, neither thing solved his problem. Finally, a Dell employee came to his house and actually, that didn’t solve his problem either. So at this point, fixing his laptop has become so inconvenient that it feels like the only reasonable solution would be to just buy a new laptop. But this disposable culture doesn’t have to be the norm.

Peter Mui: Well, there’s so much stuff in our built environment that’s easily fixable, and people don’t even think that repair is possible.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: This year, a new right to repair law will go into effect in California, and that’ll help make it easier for everyday people to fix their own stuff. Today, KQED reporter Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman tells us about a growing right to repair movement and takes us inside one fix it clinic in Redwood City.

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: So I went to a fix it clinic at the Redwood City Library…Walking in there? I mean, it’s this really kind of fun environment. It’s a little bit chaotic, but it’s very high energy.

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: There’s about a dozen and a half tables there, and they’ve got all sorts of appliances, electronics. Vacuums, fans, air purifiers, and they’re sort of splayed open. And there’s a fix it coach, which is essentially a volunteer alongside people who have brought these items in. And they’re got their sleeves rolled up and they’re digging in and they’re trying to diagnose and fix whatever’s wrong with the thing.

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: Fix it. Clinics are sort of these pop up events. They’re facilitated by volunteers. And these volunteers are basically handy people who are down to spend a Saturday morning helping people fix their things. And the kind of people that are coming in are just everyday people. And they have something, an appliance, an electronic that they really like, but it’s broken.

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: Fix it coaches are basically standing over your shoulder and telling you what to do, and then the person who brings in the item is performing the repair mostly themselves. So it’s really much more of an educational opportunity than just sort of a repair service.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And you mentioned this is primarily run by volunteers. Who exactly is running these clinics?

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: So Peter Mui started, Fix It clinic back in 2009.

Peter Mui: It’s incumbent on us at this point in the planet to keep all of our durable goods in service in place as long as possible.

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: Since then, it’s grown immensely. And now this year, Fix It clinic has partnered with the San Mateo County Office of Sustainability to bring a fix it clinic to a different San Mateo County library every month this year. And so, is this your job?

Peter Mui: No. This is this is a passion. Now, fix a clinic is a hobby of mine that’s gotten way out of control.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, I know you talked with some folks there who were there to get their stuff fixed. Can you tell me about Nancy Harris?

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: Yeah. So, Nancy Harris lives in Moss Beach, which is about 25 miles away. It’s on the coast. And she brought in this magic bullet blender.

Nancy Harris: And I’m so tired of buying a new one. I would love to fix this.

Alex Schmitt: All right, let’s see. I’ve worked on one of the bigger ones.

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: This was actually the fourth magic bullet blender that she’s owned. As she walked in, she was matched with this volunteer named Alex Schmitt.

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: And Alex Schmitt lives in the county. Works in software. Says he likes to tinker.

Alex Schmitt: There is one of these that the tabs may have broken off. And it looks like there may be jams. Oh. So.

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: So, Nancy basically described the problem. When she plugs it in, the motor of the blender just starts whirring immediately, and she can’t get it to turn off.

Nancy Harris: When you’ve got it plugged in, it’s supposed to not immediately start, but start when you put the top on and screw it and you’re ready to go.

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: Alex says, okay, well, let’s let’s take a look. And within a few minutes, really, he diagnoses the problem.

Alex Schmitt: So now the question is, will it spin the way that you’re having the issue with. Yeah it will. Okay. You mentioned it leaks. Yes. So whatever whatever leaked in there has sort of gummed up these plastic elements that depress the switch on the bottom to the point that they got stuck on the lower end. And so it was always on.

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: So the all of the gunk, all of the smoothie and coffee and all the things that Nancy Harris has blended over the past few years has sort of seeped down into this switch that activates the motor. So it was actually diagnosed really quickly and simply.

Alex Schmitt: And that would do it for you. But the big thing is cleaning, and I’m guessing we have some Q-tips and some alcohol that we can work.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Okay. Did she get it fixed?

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: Yeah. So it took her and Alex Schmitt about an hour to fix the blender, and it did end up getting fixed. Basically, it just needed to be cleaned. They really just went in there with cotton swabs and rubbing alcohol and sort of freed up all the sticky stuff that was making the motor stuck in the on position. They even found like a small family of bugs living in the motor. So there’s all these little discoveries that they make along the way. And.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, what happened when Nancy and Alex got the magic bullet working again?

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: As Nancy Harris walked out with her fixed to working magic bullet blender, volunteers took the magic bullet blender, held it aloft and yelled, you know, magic bullet blender fixed. Nancy Harris, she said she was overjoyed.

Nancy Harris: We fixed something that had been broken and driving me crazy for at least a year and a half. It just saved me a lot of time and energy, and I learned how to fix it myself.

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: You know, you could really see this, like, sort of contagious look of excitement and happiness. And that’s kind of shared by the whole room when you know something gets fixed.

Nancy Harris: It’s not saves you, what, 100, $200 every couple of years when this happens again, I’m really, really, really happy about it. And I feel very empowered.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Coming up, how exactly have manufacturers made it harder for us to fix our own stuff? Stay with us.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: It does for some reason, also feel like a thing of the past. Like this idea that we as consumers can fix things ourselves. Like, I mean, I’m just thinking also about my partner’s laptop, which he’s been trying to get fixed for like the past two weeks. And at this point he’s like, God, I should just buy a new laptop at this point.

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: Yeah. I mean, what you’re talking about is what’s called a repair monopoly. Basically, a manufacturer will, you know, not make their parts or tools or information necessary to repair their item accessible to consumers, basically forcing people to have to go to them to, get their thing repaired. Some companies will use, like, proprietary screw heads to put their devices together, or they’re not designed to be serviced.

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: There’s even something called parts pairing with electronics, where parts are paired to the serial number of your, say, computer. And if you put in a different part, it will throw an error code when you know you try to turn it back on. There’s also this idea of planned obsolescence, right, where, you know, companies are basically making things to break because it’s more profitable for them to sell you something new as opposed to have you repair it.

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: So, you know, manufacturers make it harder to repair their things, which means that your local shop can’t repair them. So then there’s, you know, these shops go out of business, and pretty soon the only place you can get the thing repaired is the company that made it. They can charge whatever they want, they can take as long as they want, or they can tell you it’s not able to be repaired, even if maybe it is, and force you to buy a new one.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Well, how then is all have people actually tried to combat this disposable culture, this culture of buying new? On a larger scale.

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: Over the past decade, really? And earlier than that as well, we’ve started to see this rise of what’s called the right to repair movement. And basically, in a nutshell, right to repair says if you bought an item, you have the right to repair it.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: And tell me what that has looked like in California.

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: So we’re seeing a lot of people interested at the community level in repairing their own things, but it’s actually translated into a movement in state governments to put this kind of legislation on the books. So here in California last year, there was a law passed, and it’s basically a right to repair law goes into effect July 1st this year. And so it changed how manufacturers have to make repair accessible basically to the public.

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: Right now, consumers in California are protected by this thing called the song Beverly Consumer Warranty Act. And basically that says that if a manufacturer makes an implied or expressed warranty on a product, then they need to make the parts, tools, and information necessary to repair that item available for a certain amount of years after the last model is produced, depending on how much that item costs.

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: This new California law is really moving that forward. So this California law applies to appliances and electronics, and it basically says that if an item cost between $50 and 9999, then the manufacturer has to make the parts, tools and information necessary to repair that item available for three years after the last production date of the model. If that item is more than 9999, then the manufacturer needs to make the parts, tools, and information available for seven years after the last production date.

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: There’s a lot of hope in the right to repair movement that with a state like California passing a right to repair law, that it’s really going to build momentum in the in the nationwide right to repair movement. And we’re starting to see that this year. So far, 24 states are considering right to repair legislation. And that’s just at the last count.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: So it sounds like this law is really about giving people the tools to fix things themselves. Was there any pushback on this law?

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: Yeah. I mean, writer repair gets a lot of pushback, and it’s mostly from, you know, big electronics companies like Apple. And then you have ag equipment companies like John Deere have historically pushed back against right to repair legislation. Apple lobbied heavily against this law and then came on in support of it at the last second, when they saw that it had basically, a guaranteed chance of passing or that it was going to pass.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Coming back to the Fixit clinic that you went to in Redwood City. I imagine we’re going to see more of these kinds of clinics. In other cities, it seems like there’s already a lot of interest.

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: Yeah, I mean, it’s it’s definitely possible. The San Mateo County Office of Sustainability is partnering with the library system there to bring a different fix it clinic every month to different libraries in the county. Fix it clinic also has a presence on on the social platform discord. Have hundreds of members on that platform. And the founder of Fix It clinic, Peter Mui:, actually told me that they have people in Africa or Europe and spread out all throughout the United States.

Peter Mui: So we basically, during the pandemic, launched a Global Fixers server on discord that allowed us to extend repair to anybody on the planet who has an internet connection and can get on discord.

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: I spoke with a representative from the San Mateo County Office of Sustainability, and she said that basically their demand is far exceeding capacity. There’s a ton of interest in these kinds of events throughout San Mateo County. And as we’re seeing sort of throughout the nation in the world at this point.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Why do you think that is?

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: I think as humans, really, we have this natural inclination to want to fix things. Peter Mui: would say that we are repairers at heart.

Peter Mui: Because when that thing starts working again and they are the ones who fixed it, you know, it’s like Easter, you know, it’s really it’s a really wonderful feeling that we don’t want to deprive anybody of. You want to empower these people to be able to repair stuff.

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: I mean, personally, you know, I, I used to have an old pickup truck, and I actually replaced the clutch on my pickup truck one time, and I went to my mechanic friend and told him about the experience. And he said, you know, that’s a feeling you can’t buy.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Azul, thank you so much.

Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman: You’re very welcome. Thank you.

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Ericka Cruz Guevarra: That was Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman, a reporter for KQED. This 25 minute conversation with Azul was cut down and edited by producer Maria Esquinca. Alan Montecillo is our senior editor. He scored this episode and added all the tape music courtesy of First Come Music and Blue Sessions. The Bay is a production of listener supported KQED in San Francisco. I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra. Thanks for listening, peace.

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