Mr. Fixit - Embedded.com

Mr. Fixit

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Most summers my wife and I take our 32 foot sailboat to the Bahamas or Caribbean. Though St. Thomas is only a few hours by air from Baltimore, we're pretty happy to average a meager 5 knots under sail. It takes us two weeks to get there, two weeks of sailing 24 hours a day, many hundreds of miles from land. I took my previous boat across the Atlantic a couple of times, once spending 29 days nonstop aboard alone.

Non-sailing friends can't imagine how we stay occupied so far from land, TV, shopping malls, and the Internet. But the time passes quickly; it's a chance to be lazy, to think, to navigate with a sextant (a delightful retreat from the GPS age), chat on the ham radio, and most of all to read.

Even better: things break. Sails chafe or tear, the engine needs a never-ending amount of attention, wires corrode, and electronics fail.

One of the reasons I love ocean sailing is the chance to be completely self-sufficient. Repair shops just don't exist in mid-ocean. If you can't fix it you live without it. It's the perfect environment for an engineer who wishes to master, well, everything. The successful ocean sailor is a diesel mechanic, plumber, rigger, sailmaker, electrician, navigator, and even chef.

I just wish I could master fishing. You should have seen the one that got away . . . actually they all get away.

We live in an age where technology looms large. It dominates all facets of our lives. Decades ago shade-tree mechanics routinely repaired their own cars. Now specialized technicians swap computers and troubleshoot a mind-boggling array of sensors. Few of us, even us techies, really understand what's under the hood of a modern automobile.

I remember a time when people fixed their own TVs. Yank all the tubes and take them to the drug store's tube-tester; swap the one that reads “bad.” No more. PCBs sprout custom SMT-mounted chips with hundreds of leads. Schematics, if they're available at all, show big square boxes that represent complex ICs interconnected with an infinity of wires.

Today many people are intimidated by their technology. One of my uncles doesn't even own a screwdriver; he calls for service if anything goes wrong anywhere. An insurance guy, he's a tech-user without the slightest concept of how things work.

And that's a shame. He–and so many others–are more or less victims of technology, supplicants to the elite who know how to repair and even operate the latest gadgets.

Modern boards awash with surface mounted components can defeat even the most knowledgeable engineer who's looking for a fault. But it makes sense to at least make an effort at repairing equipment. Maybe there's a lose cable, or a simple power supply problem. I, and many other engineers I know, feel diminished when defeated by some inscrutable gadget that defies repair.

The open source movement continues to fascinate and puzzle me. People claim that with the source at hand they can fix bugs themselves without waiting for some uninterested corporation to take action. Part of me recoils in horror from this–hey, I don't want to fix a compiler! I need one that simply works. Yet that open spirit closely mirrors my approach to hardware.

My 17-year-old bought a car, a 1977 VW microbus whose engine was seized. His pals all frowned and said the thing would never run. They were wrong; we rebuilt it and he's now on the road. Nagging problems surface, though, and he's learning to jump in with a sure hand and big toolbox. At the moment the fuel injection is erratic, and it's too cold to spend a lot of time outside troubleshooting the thing. We traced the problem to a temperature sensor, but replacing that part doesn't cure the problem.

So we ran wires from the sensor to a potentiometer mounted on the dashboard. As the engine warms he manually leans the mixture appropriately.

And most importantly, he's learning that there are many solutions to problems. I keep telling him, and the local kids who gather fascinated to watch the latest project, that it's only a car, only a computer or software, a sailboat or a VCR. We're smarter than the machine.

What do you think? Do you dig out the tools when something breaks or not? Are there a couple of screwdrivers and pliers in your desk drawer, immediately at hand in case of need?

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He helps companies with their embedded challenges, and is conducting one-day seminars about building better firmware faster in Austin and Baltimore in April. Contact him at . His website is .

Reader Response


Well, when my open-source software breaks, I often do delve under the hood. Actually, it's usually the documentation that's broken, and having the source code available is invaluable to solving that problem. Occasionally, I'll put a lot of work into getting an open-source app to run just the way I want it to. But most of the time I don't need to, as someone else has gotten in there and fixed it first.

– Tim King


Well, I think I'm the only one in my circle peers and friends who will open a laptop computer to swap a harddisk or even take a crack at fixing it.

Recently, I had to resolder the power jack on my wife's notebook. It took 1hr to get into the notebook, 5 mins to reflow the solder connections to the PCB and 30 mins to reassemble it. I had 2-3 screws leftover, which apparently weren't essential for proper operation…

It would have cost more to send it in to get it factory serviced than to buy a new one.

I also still diagnose and fix my own car (89 Honda Civic). SMOG equipment, like the catalytic converter, has to be fixed by a state certified mechanic in order to get my SMOG certificate in this state.

– Ingo Cyliax


Fixing what's broke depends on what's broke.

– Cars to the shop

– Kids toys? I don't

– Computers, me, and I may be the neighbors' helper

– If I design it, I usually fix it

Mostly, if it's broke, I put in on a pile that I throw/give away (eventually).

– Douglas L Datwyler, PE


I agree completely with the sentiments of the article and confess to being an incurable tinkerer and “fixer”. While my spare time to mess with broken things seems to become more precious the older I get, I still can't resist cracking open that failed device and at least trying to understand how it works if I can't manage to fix it.

A couple years ago the Sony tape deck in my pickup let out the “magic smoke” as I was driving down the road. Since it would cost a couple hundred bucks and significant time to replace anyway I thought I'd pop the cover and see what I could do.

I pried apart the circuit board assemblies and mechanical tape drive and finally found the output amplifier board. I managed to get a part number from the integrated amplifier chip and called the local Sony service center — they had the part for $13!

A quick trip to pick up the part, a simple desolder/part replacement and I was re-assembling the tape deck. Did it work? Yes it did and I felt that great feeling you get when you dive into the unknown and succeed. Even if I hadn't been successful I'd always have that knawing feeling I should have at least tried…

– Matt Pobursky


I have proudly proclaimed many times, that no repairman enters my house. Whether it's plumbing, heating, AC, electrical (of course), telephone PBX, appliances (washer/dryer, etc) computers/networking – I do it all. If it's in a book or on the internet I can do it.

When I bought a new BMW a couple of years ago, I WAS a little intiminated by it. I took it to the dealer while it was under warranty, but have since done my first brake job on it, and learned how to use the OBDII tester that Auto Zone lends for free to check out any other abnormalities. My wife bought a BMW also, but I don't touch hers. Discretion being the better part of valor.

– Patrick Anglum


Jack,

You seem to have a lot of time on your hands. In today's age of efficiency, it is easier to replace than repair. I agree that you need to know about how to get down under the hood. But, if you have that much time on your hands, you are either retired or really rich.

Don't get me wrong – I love getting my hands dirty. Maybe some day when I have time, I can get down under the hood again….

– MT


I met a woman once who had a big-screen TV that would start flaking out after it was on for a few hours. Being the tech-geek-knight-in-shining-denim that I am, I dutifully tore into the thing thinking nothing ventured nothing gained. After about a half hour convincing myself that I had no idea what I was looking at I decided to just resolder the whole thing (16 x 12 circuit board… took about 45 minutes) Plugged it in and it's been working ever since. Needless to say my new lady friend thought I was a genious. She didn't have a a clue that I had no idea what I was doing. For intermittant problems I don't even waste my time troubleshooting anymore, I just resolder and plug it in. Works more often than not. So I get this new DVD player that starts flaking out when it heats up. I grab my soldering iron and open it up and, well, the board was smaller than a deck of playing cards(power supply included) and loaded front and back with surface mount parts. My soldering isn't THAT good. I ended up throwing it out. If it had cost $300 instead of $39 and had been 20 years old instead of 6 months, it would probably still be humming away. Oh well. My grandmother reminisces about the 3 day carriage ride from New York to Albany. Such is progress.

– Roger Morella


I too dig into fault and repair before actually going to associated mechanic/factory. Some times I save lot of money and some times I have to spend even lot more. But its more of fun and give pleasure to try with our own hand first.

– Parveen Kumar Gupta


Totally agree with Jack on that article.

I would tend to think I am one of those who even care more about disassembling a shiny new device to see what's inside than actually operating it…

I truly think an engineer should master as many skills as possible in order to be self-sustained. In that way, the boat analogy is excellent.

You are nevertheless right about cars : I do not really repair or maintain it. I think it's because it requires more equipment than for a simple computer (or maybe because a fault is likely to have lethal consequences as opposed to twiddling with your Hi-Fi system, computer or any home appliance 🙂

– Vincent Rubiolo


Engineers go to college for FOUR YEARS to study the fundamentals of how things work. It just confuses me to see some engineers that have absolutely no interest in understanding the world around them. I think it should be a REQUIREMENT to bring something like a 1977 VW Microbus to life before you get your diploma.

– Bill Plow


I couldn't agree more, Jack! I think too many people use the excuse that current products are too complicated to work on since they are all “controlled by a computer”. I feel that cars are much easier to work on, now. There is no longer any need to worry about tuning a nasty carburetor. And, the engine control system's diagnostics will generally point you in the right direction when problems occur. Say you don't want to spend a few hundred bucks on an automotive diagnostic scanner? Most automobiles provide a “poor man's” diagnostic readout capability in which the computer sends the codes in a morse code fashion that can be read with a simple analog multimeter — this information is usually available in the service manual (a must have!).

I think the biggest problem I have right now is that my oldest son thinks that I can fix any broken toy. I hope he's not too disappointed when he finds that this is not the case!

– Michael J. Linden, N9BDF


Back in high school I inherited the old family jalopy: a '67 Chrysler Newport — the kind they have finally banned in smash up derby's because they just wont DIE. But it had a lot of problems, so I enrolled in the local community Ed car-repair class with a friend. We spent many a lazy summer afternoon under the shade tree working and learning on the thing, trying to coax out another .5 MPG or another 5 MPH on the straight away. You could actually crawl right in there under the hood next the 383ci -V8 and work on the beast. Those experiences have given me enough confidence with cars to stop and help anyone else I see with motor troubles along the road.

– Dave Meekhof


When my kids were little I started giving them tools. My 12-year old daughter learned how to solder, etc. at 6. I've encouraged them to “pry off the lid & try to figure it out” when things break ( or when they simply want non-stock performance). This approach serves them well in non-technical areas of life as well, they realize that many things that most people take at face value are really “tinkerable”, whether it's a TV repair or dealing with a retail store. The world is too full of “sheep” who blindly accept everything in the form it is offered to them. Tinker with it, folks. Poke about in those circuits, software, & credit card contracts!

– George Barlow


I too am appalled at engineers that do not even attempt to understand the world around them. Really car engines and fuel management is not that complicated, armed with a little knowledge and your VOM the average engineer really can diagnose virtually all problems. If you think about it in embedded systems terms, internal combustion engines really are slow. Start out by opening the hood and identifying all the parts, what they do and when. At least when you take your car into the shop you can converse with the technician.

– Scott Greene


Sailing from Baltimore to the Bahamas, what a rush. Thought I was adventurous when I sailed my sunfish from the back bayous to the Gulf and back.

Have been taking things apart and repairing them since day one. Have a '57 KarmannGhia that my daughter and I renovated from scratch. She enjoyed the experience of running her own brake lines and wiring the electrical system with dad as her mentor. She even assisted when we broke the engine down into single nuts and bolts and reassembled. We use it for our daily driver to and from work/school. I know if she ever has a breakdown she has the confidence to troubleshoot and wire tie it together to get home safely.

You have to master the technology or decide to be its minion. Your choice

– Tom Bowen


Once convinced that a product or portion thereof is defective, I'm usually faced with a choice of throwing it away and replacing it with a new unit or delving into it to see if I can fix it. Since the worst that can happen is for me to learn a little and still have to pay for a replacement, I usually dive right in. And I find and fix the problem more often than would be predicted, save a little money, learn something, and have the satisfaction that I was not at the complete mercy of the manufacturer or service shop. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

– John Blalock


There is no substitute for experience gained by doing it yourself.

My son wanted to restore a 53 Chevy truck. We both got it running great and of course old devices seem to be prone to failure. I keeps him on his toes repairing it. It is great to hear him say “if it breaks I can fix it”.

– James Martinez


As usual, Jack, I very much agree with your sentiment — tinkering teaches self-reliance and is fun and rewarding when it works.

That said, I often make my decisions about whether to try to fix a thing based on the value of my time, with a bias thrown in to save the environment from unnecessary discarded electronics. If it is going to take me a day to fix an antique desktop that I use for consulting work, and I could make the cost of a two new ones in that time, do I really want to lose money only to wind up with a museum-piece on my desk? (And that's not even counting the productivity loss if it's a tool I rely on for work.)

Maybe the rule for me looks more like this: if the tool breaks, replace it; if the toy breaks, fix it.

– Greg Nelson


Entropy.

I think, as an engineer, we need to know when to fix and when to chuck it.

Generally I try to fix things. Sometimes you run into a problem that in your gut says you can't win. But on the other hand its not quite a lost cause. In these cases, I sometimes drop the item to be certain it is really broken ;^)

– Tim Flynn


I agree, fixing things not only saves money, it can even save time and certainly saves things from the landfill (and gives one a sense of accomplishment).

I repair everything that I can. I stop at some things like replacing windows in my house, but I try to do everything else.

I have a 1968 MG Midget I've been keeping running for 30 years now, and it is my daily driver in the summer and parts of the winter. I do all my own brake work, and I recently replaced the ABS pump & computer in my Blazer.

Speaking of tubes, I also resurrected a 1947 Hallicrafters radio a few weeks ago.

– Scott Linn


While doing my Bachelor's degree in Electronics, a friend had a CD-ROM drive failure. The computer expert came in and told them they needed to throw the drive and get a new one since everything was in 1-piece and he could not do anything about it. My friend and I decided that since that was going to be discarded, might as well open it up! Turned out that one of the gears had come out of the shaft. Put it back in place, closed it up and it has been working ever since! I asked my friend for the money he would have spent on the new drive! He told me I should have signed a contract first! 🙂 Been a free consultant to many since then!

– Prasanna


I always claim that if you are are an engineer, you should be able to do anything! This means that if anyting goes wrong in the house, I have to fix it. This can range from small electronic items to cars. So our 30 year old washing machine is still operational after having virtually all replacable parts replaced over the years. A couple of years ago, a wall air conditioner developed a loud squeak when the fan was running. There was no way I could get it out of the wall, so called a couple of servicemen. They said “it's too old, not worth fixing, get a new one”. I purchased a spray can of oil and blew a fog of oil into the back of the unit where the fan was. Enough got on the bearings to quieten it and it has been perfect ever since. Probably saved $1000s over the years by not throwing away but fixing even if it did take time.

– Charles Kosina


I had fixed our old vacuum cleaner several times over the years, that when it broke the last time – an easy fix by the way – my wife would not let me near it. She said it wanted to die and that I should just let it go in peace. But the truth is that she just wanted a new one. So I bought her a new one, but fixed the old one anyway and gave it to someone else. It seems I can't stop myself from fixing something if I have the ability. I'm not sure if I just hate to throw things away, or if fixing things is woven into my nature. It doesn't matter if it is an old vacuum cleaner, an old computer, or the Linux kenel, if it's broke, I at least like to get in there and give it a shot.

By the way, whenever I am interviewing a prospective engineer, I ask if they work on their own car or like to fix things. It is amazing how much you can tell from the answers.

– Lance Kasari


My kids say confidently that “Dad can fix anything!!”. It is closer to the truth to say that I'll try fixing anything, and a good percentage of the time I'm successful. I don't quote them to pat myself on the back, but rather to bring home the point that I involve them as much as is safe. I want them to grow up with the confidence that if they are patient and are willing to try, then they too “can fix anything”. This goes for automobiles, appliances, furniture, electronics, torn clothing; and yes, toys. They're learning that there's a lot of personal satisfaction, less impact on the environment, and the ability to save some money! I just hope it will continue to be the case that replacement parts are available for a reasonable length of time for a given product, and for reasonable prices.

– Jim D.


This is a good article. We should all be familiar with how to fix at least some of the technology we use. I have met engineers that aren't even familiar with the Windows Update feature on Win XP and they use XP every day!! I keep not only a screwdriver and multi-meter at hand; I use them almost daily… at home or at work.

I do call a repairman if I can. But frequently things break at a bad time. Like when I was selling a house recently and the central heat & air system suddenly just wouldn't work. A buyer was coming the next morning to look at the house and I didn't have time to have a repair man fix it. After a half-hour of troubleshooting, I found that ants had gotten into the contacts of the 220V relay on the condenser outside. I didn't WANT to fix the AC, but after about an hour it was back up and working and it cost me only my time (even though it was at 10PM on a weeknight).

Just this morning, I came in to work and found that my wireless mouse didn't work at all, even though it had been on the charger all weekend. I checked the charging base and within a few minutes found that the fuse had blown. Well, darn it, I know I can go buy another wireless mouse for $40.00. I just didn't have the time to do that this morning. I checked the wall wart and saw it only delivers 200mA, so I soldered a wire across the fuse in the charging base and it is now back up and working. (I didn't have a replacement fuse at work that would fit, but I think I have one at home) If it dies again I'll replace the mouse, but the thing is that I fixed the problem in 15 minutes and got on with my work this morning. I don't think I could have even gotten a new mouse from the MIS department in less time than it took to “band aid” my broken one.

– Tom Burns


Trouble shooting is the best exercise for learning how a system works. It seperates the copiers from the designers.

– Ross Potter


Even if you can't fix it, there's nothing lost in taking it apart. You get to see what it's made up of, at the very least. You might get some good ideas about how to make a better one. If the parts you reduce it to are made of different stuff, you can recycle each part separately. Good reason to keep that screwdriver, hammer, etc.

– Doug Raymond


I agree 100% Jack!

I'm often disappointed that people would rather just “clear the table” of a malfunctioning widget as opposed to seeing what the “real” problem is. Man made it, man can fix it.

Plus, it's *neat* to find the source of the problem, because it gives you creative liberties to solve the problem. To me, that's the Art of Engineering. It makes you a better engineer, offers insight to future problems you might encounter down the road.

– Bryan F.


I'm delighted to read so many “yep I try to fix it” responses. It shows that weasels do not occupy 100% of the engineering world — that there are still those who have a genuine love of engineering, at least in this great blue-collar world of embedded control.

But what I am not seeing here is the C-word: CHINA. Basically, we're living revoltingly fat, incredibly dumb, and somewhat happy in the U.S. at present because China is actively keeping its workers' consumer expectations capped, keeping its yuan mechanically pegged to our dollar, and ridiculous CEO compensation does not exist. Basically, China is an economy rigged to eat our lunch.

This bears upon our situation because I've seen all objects made outside the U.S. become dirt cheap (in inflation-adjusted dollars) during my lifetime. When this changes, we'll start to take a fresh look at repair. We'll value the HDTV monitor we have rather than wanting that new 600″ model. “Can't you fix it” might be heard more often than “just toss it, I want a new one anyway.”

I hope so, anyway. I used to enjoy changing tubes in my “hi-fi”…

– Robert K

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