4 Reparability

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Reparability is unfashionable

There are two possible spellings for this word which denotes the quality of being easy to repair: "repairability" or "reparability". A google search yields about twice as many hits for the first spelling than for the second, but this article uses the second.

Whatever the spelling, reparability is a rather neglected topic. There is no Wikipedia article entitled either "reparability" or "repairability". While web searches using this or related words such as "repairable" may yield thousands of hits, few of them are pertinent.

Wikipedia does have an article on "Repairable." The following is all it says:

    Repairable is a term used by the United States Armed Forces for certain types of material. Generally these items are expensive hardware components for military equipment. They are called repairable because when they break or wear out, the servicemember will turn this item in for repair at a maintenance facility where it will be fixed or reconditioned to be issued again. The service unit receives funding credit for turning in these items.

Reparability is nonetheless generally listed among ecological design criteria. For example, in the Wikipedia article on Sustainable Design, one of the listed "Principles of Sustainable Design" refers to reparability, as follows:

    Standardization and modularity: standard, modular parts allow products to be repaired rather than replaced and promote interoperability so that systems can be upgraded incrementally rather than wholly scrapped and replaced.

However, reparability is here only brought in indirectly, as the goal aimed at by the principles of "standardization and modularity".

An indirect reference to reparability is likewise found in the Japanese policy document entitled "Public Notice No. 1 Concerning the Collection, Transport, and Recycling of Designated Household Appliance Waste Products", by the Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare and Ministry of International Trade and Industry, as follows:

    Consumers and businesses, when purchasing and using designated household appliances, should restrict unnecessary replacement purchases, select appliances with superior durability that are easily repaired, strictly observe appropriate usage methods, always carry out repairs when the appliances break down, re-utilize used products, and otherwise use designated household appliances for the longest possible period of time, and thus strive to restrict the volume of target-appliance waste products that are discarded.

Here again, the specific feature of "reparability" is found mixed together with diverse related concepts, such as product durability and waste reuse, rather than being considered on its own.

One can thus readily conclude that concern for reparability is marginal. Reparability is unfashionable.

"Repair Friendly"

Somewhat better results can be obtained by searching for the key word "repair friendly." This term is obviously constructed on the model of the term "user friendly." (However, according to the Wikipedia article on Usability, the term "user friendly" is now to be replaced by "usability.")

A search for "repair friendly" leads for example to the website of the EcoDesign Team of the Institute for Engineering Design at the Vienna University of Technology. This website includes a page about a "sustainability label for repair-friendly products", which specifically mentions "repair-friendly electronic appliances". The site also provides a checklist for "improving reparability."

"Repair friendly" also leads to a website vaunting the characteristics of the Opel Astra, notably under the sub-heading "Repair-friendly design for low servicing costs and short downtimes."


The word "maintainability" yields even better results, but this term appears to apply to the maintenance of industrial plants, rather than to the repair of personal equipment such as household appliances. Also, the orientation seems to be towards reducing the amount of necessary maintenance, as much as towards making the maintenance easier to perform.

The sites dealing with "maintainability" are all highly specialised. There does exist a Wikipedia article on Maintainability, but it gives little more than the following highly technical definition:

    In telecommunication and several other engineering fields, the term maintainability has the following meanings:

    1) the probability that an item will be retained in a specified condition within a given period of time, when the maintenance is performed in accordance with prescribed procedures and resources

    2) the ease with which maintenance of a functional unit can be performed in accordance with prescribed requirements

Moreover, a header added to the Wikipedia article on "maintainability" indicates that: "The subject of this article may not satisfy the notability guidelines." In other words, it is questioned whether the subject even merits a posting on Wikipedia.

A glance through the thousands of sites that reply to "maintainability" suggests on the contrary that this is a hot topic, at least for maintenance professionals.

The following specialised site dealing with maintainability presents a series of articles on "Design for Maintainability":

Plant Maintenance Resource Center

This site sums up design for maintainability as follows: "Human factors engineering can be applied to systems design to minimize the time and effort required to perform periodic preventive maintenance as well as unscheduled maintenance."

The following specialised website is devoted in particular to Mean Time To Repair (MTTR), which is the most common measure of maintainability:

Mean Time To Repair

This website provides information about how the Mean Time To Repair (MTTR) relates to Reliability and Maintainability (RAM) software and analyses.

In short, for insights into how to improve the repairability of domestic appliances, one might well begin by studying the literature on maintainability of industrial plants.

Perceptions of reparability

An interesting recent exchange concerning appliance reparability is posted on the environmental website "treehugger," under an article entitled as follows:

"What Can You Say About a Three Year Old Coffee Grinder that Died?"

The author of the article describes the impossibility of repairing a three year old seventy-five dollar Cuisinart coffee grinder that suddenly stopped working. The article begins with the following observations:

    It used to be, if your appliance broke down, you could take it in and get it fixed. Now that most are cheap, you just throw it away and replace it. According to a study of the yellow pages, between 1998 and 2006, the number of listings for appliance repair shops has dropped by 62%. According to Normand Tetreault of Personal Edge, a Quebec company that specializes in the sales and service of small electric appliances- "many products are now made in China and it can be hard to get parts." He says also that appliances are less robust, with a lot more plastic.

This article prompted numerous comments, including notably the following:

  • My Kitchen Aid grinder that looks like it was made in 1958 works fine after 4 years. Has an old fashioned "toggle" switch and that’s all. I got mine from a return bin. Many customers hate them because they manage to spill grinds around the cupboard top regardless of how well you use them and they end up getting returned. If you’re not a clean freak it’s the way to go.
  • I definitely agree that more things should be fixed before being replaced. And the standard for what devices are throw-away has been raised really high.
  • Have you absolutely determined that your grinder is beyond repair? You often have to dig, but lots of parts are available for all manner of appliances. Certainly it’s hard to stomach if the replacement parts shipped to you are $30, and a new machine is $50.
  • Is it that appliances have gotten more expensive in the past 50 years? Or that as they have become cheaper and more democratic, more people were able to afford them, but at the cost of being over-engineered and overbuilt.
  • Your overarching point about the state of consumer goods is right on. I thought I would point out a company that bucks that trend: Sennheiser headphones. All parts on Sennheiser headphones are user replaceable. I sat on my pair this past weekend and broke the headband. I was able to order a replacement headband in 5 minutes online. Even the cord is designed to be modular and just plugs right into the cans. I’ve replaced that part several times.
  • I have the same frustration you do with poorly designed, non-user-serviceable products.
  • Maybe TreeHugger needs a new section devoted to sustainable/repairable appliances? I’m willing to pay a bit more for stuff that will last and is home-repairable, but finding those things can often be a research project in itself. Cool Tools (http://www.kk.org/cooltools/) is the closest I’ve found so far.

Consumer Behaviour and Planned Obsolesence

The comments cited above touch on the essential problem concerning reparability. Consumers generally prefer goods offering a maximum of features at the lowest purchase price. This leads to the following consumer behaviour:

  • For relatively inexpensive items, consumers readily accept simply buying a new model when the old one breaks
  • For relatively expensive items, consumers expect the producer to offer a guarantee covering the first years of service, under which the defective item is repaired by professionals

This consumer behaviour allows the manufacturers to indulge in planned obsolesence, which denotes "products designed to break easily or to quickly go out of style." Appliances are deliberately designed to last a planned useful life-time, for example 5 years for a toaster, and then to break down so that the user will have to buy a new one.

Supply-driven development of the reparability market

The demand for repairable appliances does exist, but it currently represents only a tiny market segment. And due to lack of readily available repairable products, even this small existing demand is unable to express itself.
Development of the market for repairable appliances should therefore be supply-driven. Improving the supply would allow the latent demand to express itself more fully.

One of the goals of the present site is to encourage the development of the supply of repairable appliances. This could for example be initiated by referencing evaluations of products with respect to their reparability.