Cost of Living

The right to repair the stuff you buy and why some companies prefer don't-it-yourself to DIY

The idea of fixing the stuff you own may seem like a given for certain items: a car, for example. But as digital technologies replace analog, it's getting harder to repair anything from your family sedan to your dishwasher.

Fixing your own electronics or purchases gains traction among farmers, car owners and other consumers

iPhones are just one of the items that are harder to "do-it-yourself" with in the 21st century. (Jon Castell/CBC)

Hannah Konschuh was out in the field harvesting wheat near the southern Alberta hamlet of Cluny when all the sudden, three codes started to flash on her combine monitor.

"If those three codes had actually flashed three more times within a 40 hour period, the machine would have actually started to shut itself down," Konschuh told CBC Radio's Cost of Living

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She immediately turned to the machine's manual and was able to determine it had something to do with the diesel exhaust fluid system, which minimizes air pollution.

"Beyond that, there wasn't much information given," said Konschuh, who had no choice but to call the authorized dealer for help.

One of Hannah Konschuh’s combines started flashing a warning in September, putting a halt to the harvest for half a day and forcing her to call for repair rather than fixing it herself. (Submitted by Hannah Konschuh)

After all, every minute counts when it's harvest season.

"We only have a very short window to get the crop off."

It took the mechanic some time to arrive at Konschuh's farm. Four hours of labour and $1,300 of repair fees later, the high-tech combine was up and running again.

"Luckily we fared OK and we had good weather, but it could have resulted in thousands of dollars of losses had that crop had to sit out longer than it should have," said Konschuh.

"But for my farm to thrive, I need to be able to take care of those things in house."

Unauthorized repair can void warranties

The problem for Konschuh, and many other farmers, is they cannot tinker with newer models of farm equipment such as that combine, even with the right tools or skills.

They also can't call in a third-party repair person either, because doing so could void the machine's warranty and nullify future software updates.

"Right to repair" supporter Hannah Konschuh and her family own more than 2000 hectares of farm land near Cluny, Alta. (Submitted by Hannah Konschuh)

"It's not like plumbing. I can choose which plumber [I want to use]," said Konschuh.

With equipment like her combine, Konschuh was not even able to decide which technician she would hire to deal with her immediate problem. That choice would be made by the manufacturer or the dealer.

Why would I invest six figures into a combine if I'm then not able to have some autonomy over those repairs and how the equipment is maintained?- Hannah Konschuh, farmer near Cluny, Alta.

Farmers aren't the only ones pushing for change. 

During last Tuesday's U.S. election, voters in Massachusetts overwhelmingly approved an amendment requiring car manufacturers to reveal their vehicle data for repairs.

In Canada, advocates for the "right to repair" include groups, such as OpenMedia, pushing for similar legislative measures.

Dealers and manufacturers push back

However, there are good reasons to restrict the end consumer's ability to tinker with high-tech equipment, according to a trade group that represents 400 agriculture, industrial, forestry and outdoor dealers across Canada.

"When you chip equipment or take it out of its standard specifications, you're increasing the wear and tear on that equipment significantly, almost exponentially," said Eric Wareham, vice president of government affairs with the Western Equipment Dealers Association.

Eric Wareham of the Western Equipment Dealers Association points out there are good reasons to limit how much can be repaired by consumers, including safety and emissions regulations. (Submitted by Eric Wareham)

"This past summer, we had a dry season. We saw a lot of combine fires. A lot of that equipment was chipped and led to those premature engine failures," said Wareham.

Environmental and safety regulations are also a concern.

Allowing farmers to repair or modify their machines could theoretically allow circumvention of emissions standards, for example.

"That's harmful to the environment, harmful to the farms and the producers," Wareham said.

The industry representative added that dealers and manufacturers have every incentive to improve their machines and make them as efficient as possible.

"The interests of the dealer and the manufacturer are aligned with the producer to increase uptime, because if the producer is not successful, doesn't make money, loses money because of that downtime, they're not going to be buying new equipment."

They don't make 'em like they used to: but why?

Anyone who has bought a new smartphone, appliance or motor vehicle in recent years may have faced a similar question: what do I do if this thing breaks down?

Taking apart an iPhone or Tesla isn't like opening up a pocket watch. Modern devices include proprietary screws only available from the manufacturer or batteries glued to other parts. Add in manuals that only go to authorized dealers, and it's increasingly difficult for consumers to fix their own stuff.

An iPhone undergoes repair at an Apple's laboratory in California in 2017. iPhones can include proprietary parts that are more difficult for consumers to obtain on their own. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

One of the biggest backers of the right-to-repair movement, iFixit, recently deemed the latest iPhone 12 camera might be impossible to repair without turning to Apple and asked if it was "the end of the repairable iPhone."

The problem extends beyond consumer electronics. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, some doctors and research groups have said restrictions against fixing ventilators have jammed up hospitals.

In defence of intellectual property

While consumers are understandably frustrated by this trend, it's important to consider how technology has evolved, according to one expert who specializes in innovation and entrepreneurship.

"If you look at most of the things that that we use in our day-to-day lives that are easy to use, if you just hand someone the device and within a couple of minutes, they can be up and running behind the scenes in order for that to happen, a whole bunch of stuff had to be taken care of on your behalf," explained Chad Saunders, assistant professor at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business. 

In order to get the simplicity, we have to accept that there are certain things that we're probably not allowed to have access to.- Chad Saunders, assistant professor, University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business

Remember the days when even a simple, digital clock came with a manual an inch thick?

Today, it's plug and play, no matter how complex the device — whether it's an Alexa or a smart television.

The innovation that fuels that usability isn't possible without companies like Amazon and Samsung being all secretive and territorial with their intellectual property, according to Saunders.

Chad Saunders, an assistant professor at the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary, points out that the innovation behind devices like Alexa or the iPhone requires the "tradeoff" of secrecy. (CBC)

"From the consumer point of view and user's point of view, it's kind of the tradeoff that we've either unwittingly or maybe even wittingly, that's the deal we've done," he said.

"In order to get the simplicity, we have to accept that there are certain things that we're probably not allowed to have access to."

Tug of war over repair rights continues

Ironically, that same innovation could also hinder others from adopting new technology.

With the launch of every new product, anecdotal evidence also seems to suggest many consumers are resisting the leap by going out of their way to purchase and refurbish old cars, "dumb" phones and analog everything.

"I know some smaller farms that intentionally run older equipment because they just can't afford these sorts of repairs," said farmer Hannah Konschuh near Cluny, Alta.

"Why would I invest six figures into a combine if I'm then not able to have some autonomy over those repairs and how the equipment is maintained?"

Written and produced by Falice Chin.
Click "listen" at the top of the page to hear this segment, or 
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The Cost of Living
 airs every week on CBC Radio One, Sundays at 12:00 p.m. (12:30 NT).


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