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Archive for the ‘Fixing Things’ Category

Have you ever been to an “e-cyling event” in your community? Usually, these well-meaning events are sponsored by local high schools or community centers to help raise funds for student activities or other initiatives that benefit local causes. Basically, the event works like this: cars line up for blocks and blocks, each filled to the roof with electronic equipment that no longer serves a useful purpose. Volunteers work to unload the cars and trucks, transferring all the old TVs, computers, monitors, keyboards and electronic gizmos into Big Metal Containers to be shipped away and recycled. (Never mind that this equipment often ends up in third world countries where it is disassembled and chemically treated under health conditions that would never be acceptable in the United States…)

In any case, on the surface, the recycling of electronic equipment is a proverbial win-win! The local kids get to raise some much needed money, and homes throughout the neighborhood can finally get rid of that abominable 52″ plasma TV they bought 2 years ago, and upgrade to a 70″ model LCD. Bravo!

What a ridiculous waste.

It’s really rather shocking and sad to see how today’s electronic equipment is pretty much made to be disposable. Use it for a while… it quits working (or something even more shiny is dangled before our eyes)… toss it out and buy something new. Way back when every TV and stereo store had a repair department. Every city and even the smallest of towns had a “fixit guy” whose job it was to fix every day appliances and electronic equipment. Electric fan not working? Take it to the repair guy. TV acting strange? Take it to the repair guy. Radio sounding scratchy? Take it to the repair guy. Electronic equipment was made to be repaired, and repaired at a very reasonable price; not like today where the cost of “servicing your TV” costs nearly as much as a new model—hence, rendering what’s otherwise a perfectly good set (perhaps requiring a $19 part), disposable.

My Timex alarm clock — the ON switch is on top, on the right

Like most people, I have an alarm clock. It’s a neat little Timex with a small bedside footprint that has a pair of alarms and a bunch of other features I’d probably have to refer to the manual to fully appreciate. For many years I relied on my alarm clock to wake me up each morning at the ungodly time of 5:45 AM so I could be one of the first people into work and set a good example for all those I managed in my previous life as a High Tech Executive. Now, since I work at home taking photos of records and toys, I don’t really use the alarm, but I do appreciate two uses for my Timex: it displays the time, and it plays music. I especially like that second thing, as I can switch it on to listen to music while I read, and easily set a timer to automatically switch itself off after some period of time. Press the ON switch once for music, twice to play music for 90 minutes, three times for 60 minutes. I like to press it three times.

One day a couple of weeks ago I pressed ON three times, and nothing happened. That was odd. So I pressed it once. Still, nothing happened. I pressed the OFF button (which was stupid, because it was off). I pressed SNOOZE. I unplugged it. Plugged it back in. I pressed ON again. Nothing. I pressed RESET. Nada. I dug up the manual….

After a bit of troubleshooting I discovered that I could change the time, and work all of the buttons on the face of the clock. I could even set the alarm and the radio to come on at the appointed time. So, basically, the alarm clock worked… you just could not turn it on.

Even though I’ve had the alarm clock for 10 years, and long ago got my money’s worth from the purchase (I think it was $20 at Costco), it seemed wasteful to throw out (or e-cycle) what I viewed as a perfectly good alarm clock.

Why not fix it myself?

Fixing things really isn’t all that hard. You narrow down the problem (the ON switch appears to be broken), develop a hypothesis (hmmm… maybe it’s not making contact with a circuit board or something) , take the thing apart, and see if you can figure out how to make it work.

After removing a few small screws, the case opened right up

So, armed with a Phillips screwdriver, I went to work. The case came apart easily after removing a small handful of screws on the bottom and back. Unfortunately, this bit of dissection was not quite sufficient to get to the electronic components that worked the ON switch, which is tucked underneath the plastic top of the alarm clock, which otherwise revealed no screws. No problem; I soon found that the top was attached to the innards from the inside via a pair of small screws beneath a couple of circuit boards that no doubt operated the three buttons on the top of the alarm clock.

And out came those screws.

I now had access to the circuit board that is controlled by the top buttons, which you can see in the picture below. Each of the gold pads you see in the picture lies directly below one of the plastic buttons at the top of the unit. Yes, you see four pads—the two in the middle are both beneath the giant snooze button; I suppose to make bleary-eyed early morning stabs at the alarm a bit more accurate.

ON/OFF circuit board revealed!

The pad that works the ON switch is on the right, and as you can see from this closeup view there’s a little tiny indentation at the very center of the gold pad.

Closeup of the ON switch

I plugged in the alarm clock and pressed the indentation with the tip of my screwdriver, just as if the elongated plastic peg beneath the plastic ON button was doing the pressing. Of course, the radio did nothing. Nor had I expected it to do anything, as it was clear that the elongated plastic peg, beneath the plastic ON button, was doing its plastic-y best to strike the gold pad each and every time the button was pressed.

The problem had to be beneath the pad (or, possibly and hopefully not, along the maze of gold tracks that carry signals to other parts of the alarm clock).

I noticed that the gold pads were held in place by adhesive tape…. Seemed promising!

Closer still! The circuit point beneath the gold pad.

There, beneath the gold pad was the contact point for the ON switch. And with a touch of my screwdriver, music blared from my radio!

After a bit of examination it was clear that the gold pad and circuit were making physical contact when the ON button was pressed… they just weren’t making electrical contact. And in my experience, that usually means one thing: dirt. Sure enough, with a quick dab of denatured alcohol on the tip of a Q-Tip, I cleaned the contact, set the gold pad back on top, and pressed the pad as I’d done before.

Voila! Music!

I buttoned everything back up, put the screws back in place, set the alarm clock back onto my bedside table, and today it works perfectly!

Total cost of the operation: 20 minutes

And I saved myself an agonizing trip back to Costco to buy a replacement. There’s value in that.

Over the past few years I’ve fixed all kinds of things around my house: stereo equipment, the electric range in my kitchen, lamps, wall sconces…. When something quits working, my first inclination is to see if I can fix it myself, theorizing that: “…it worked yesterday, so there’s some logical reason why it doesn’t work today.” There’s also great satisfaction in fixing something yourself.

Just remember to always turn the power off before starting any repair!

My next project is to fix this 85 year old beast in my master bathroom:

Frightening electric wall heater that glows a fiery red when working

It stopped working a few weeks ago. But I think I can fix it.

I hope I live.

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