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Can we fix it? Building a meaningful right to repair for Australia

How long will my washing machine really last? If my vacuum cleaner breaks, will it be easy to repair? If my smartphone dies, can I take it to any repair store or do I need to wait until the manufacturer can look at it?

When you’re buying a product or when something goes wrong, durability and repairability matter.

At CHOICE, we want a world where it’s easy to find products that last and where the repair process is simple and fair. If we get this right, we’ll end up with better-quality products in our homes with a lower environmental impact.

To achieve this fair repair future, Australian governments have to tackle a few different but connected problems with product design and the repair process.

We need better information when we buy

Australians care about quality and repairs, in part because we all want a good deal on our major purchases, but also because of our growing awareness of the environmental impact of what we buy. Choosing products that last longer or that can more easily be repaired is one way we can reduce our household’s environmental footprint.

We’ve heard from the Community about the importance of the right to repair. In our recent consumer pulse survey, more than eight in ten (85%) people said that buying products that will last a long time is important to them and more than seven in ten (73%) said repairability is important. But people also told us that they’re frustrated. They struggle to get the information they want - nearly four in ten (39%) said they find it difficult to make decisions about environmental factors for products and services.

So, how can we figure out if what we’re buying will go the distance? Many people use price or brand as a proxy for durability, assuming that the trusted name or the higher cost means better quality. But as our tests at CHOICE often show, a high price doesn’t guarantee anything. There are plenty of high-cost duds on the market, such as the $3,990 Smeg fridge that our experts dubbed the “worst fridge we’ve ever tested”.

We already have simple labelling schemes to tell us if an appliance uses a lot of water or energy. These labels work because they are consistent, mandatory and clear. You can walk through a retail store and see instantly which products use more energy and water by looking at a star rating. Australians need the same clarity about product durability and repairability.

France recently introduced a law that requires companies to tell people how long spare parts will be available. France is also rolling out a “reparability rating” label for electronic products. This idea could be adapted to Australia. Imagine how much easier it would be to find the right washing machine if you could quickly compare models based on how long they’re meant to last!

Companies need to make repairs easy

Every year at CHOICE we ask thousands of people to tell us about the reliability of their products - we ask our members if they’ve had a problem and, if they did, what the repair process was like. Digging into this data, we see huge differences in the repair experience between companies. Great repair experiences will make it possible for more people to get a product fixed rather than throw it out and create more waste.

Some companies make it really difficult to get a repair. They have a long assessment process so it takes weeks or months to find out what’s wrong with your product and if they can fix it. This can leave you waiting without access to something essential, like your phone or a laptop. Some companies charge you to send a product to an unknown repair centre, sometimes overseas. Worse, some companies make a habit of refusing repairs altogether.

But other companies have invested in quality customer service and the repairs process. There were a lot of reported problems with stick vacs in our last reliability survey - nearly one in three (31%) respondents said they’d had a performance or reliability problem in the previous 12 months. But even though a lot of people had a problem with their vacuum cleaner, the feedback about the repair process from our members was generally positive. It appears that stick vacuum brands - especially Dyson - have really invested in customer care to make the repair process as smooth as possible.

As one person told us in our latest reliability survey: “While no one likes when a new appliance stops working, Dyson offered excellent service and I was able to repair it with promptly mailed parts.”

This is what a good repair process looks like - it’s fast, it comes to you and it’s backed up by great customer service. It’s the standard that every company needs to meet, every time.

Companies have to stop designing products to fail quickly

At CHOICE, our lab tests regularly reveal evidence to suggest that products will fail in a short period of time. We also see products with single-use parts that will create unnecessary waste.

The best example is printers. Nearly one in four (24%) CHOICE members with a printer said they had an issue with performance or reliability in the previous 12 months. CHOICE members who want to get a broken printer repaired tell us they’re instructed by the company to just buy a new model: “I had trouble with the paper feed and the reply from Epson was basically it would cost more to repair than a new one,” said one member.

This is the business model for the printer industry: sell the printers cheaply but keep you paying for expensive ink refills. If the printer breaks, get people to buy another one. This fast-turnover system has a name: planned obsolescence. It’s a tactic companies use to get customers to spend more, more often. It creates unnecessary environmental waste – and a lot of pain for people stuck with a dud printer.

Printer companies double down on poor-quality design by deliberately creating products with unique single-use parts to keep us spending. An $89 printer from the Epson online store, for example, requires at least $57 in total to replace all the ink cartridges – that’s 64% of the cost of the printer itself. Worse, Epson wants to stop other companies from refilling and reselling ink cartridges - they only want you to buy a new “original” model.

Designing for durability

The design problem is tricky. It calls for a lot of different solutions. We need to stop the worst practices, such as companies deliberately designing products that break easily or using intellectual property laws to stop people from refurbishing products. We also need to encourage companies to make products that are easier to repair, for example, by building machines with replaceable parts or external panels that can be easily removed.

Australia is late to the “right to repair” debate - the US and the EU already have some laws in place to make things easier for consumers. But that means we have a chance to adopt a big-picture solution that covers product design, point-of-sale information, repair processes and intellectual property blockers that stop people getting fair repairs.

Australia needs a new approach to make a “right to repair” a reality.

Have you had a good repair experience? Or had trouble getting something fixed?

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Some sort of designation for Discontinued items that the company no longer supports. In our case, we bought 2 items in Australia which the parent company in the USA had designated as Discontinued and Out of Warranty (2 years after Discontinued). When they broke down shortly after purchase we could not get parts or service. One $1,400 unit they offered if we freighted it to them and paid $450US they would “see what they could do” but had already said there was nothing they could do as they did not hold any parts.

The USA definition of Warranty was not from the date of purchase.

A Discontinued model should be noted, especially where it relates to the “soon to be” unavailability of parts.

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Another thing … a sticker that says you will void the warranty (or No user serviceable parts inside, or similar wording) to stop you even looking to see if you can fix it.

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Workshop Manuals - should be available to consumers. Have dealt with a company who would only allow company service personnel to have them, another charged a fortune for a digital copy, which turned out to be a multi model job and pretty ordinary too.

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I would love to have appliances and gadgets that lasted longer and could be repaired. The model of throw it out and buy a new one ignores the huge cost to society overall that this principle has, it is the idea of privatise the profits and socialise the losses moved from extractive industries to consumer goods. For disposable goods the cost of disposal and the cost to future generations of having limited resources consumed quickly and going to landfill, because they are cheap at the moment, are both ignored. If you accept the principle that the current generation should not take resources that will impoverish future generations then we are disposing our way through our grandchildren’s birthright.

One issue not addressed in all this is the cost of competent repairers. From our point of view the labour component of consumer goods is kept low because they are made in low wage countries. In future assembly lines will be automated more and more so reducing the labour content further. On the contrary the labour content of repair is very high because for most things repairs are done by high-wage locals. They are from a high wage country with some skill and they will not be replaced by robots for the foreseeable future. On top of that is the cost of logistics such as travel, booking and appearance fees for home visits.

So even if barriers such as assemblies not being suitable for repair, stifling control of software and high price of spares (in some cases ridiculously high) there is still the problem that the labour cost of repair may be many times the labour cost of assembly. How is that problem to be overcome?

Let me give an example of the relationship between recycling, repairing and safety. I attend local auctions that have a very wide range of household, farm and general goods. You can pick up some real bargains.

Any time a household lamp (table, standard etc) is offered the power plug is cut off. I asked the auctioneer why, he said they were registered secondhand merchants and were not allowed to sell functional lamps as there was no way to certify the safety of such a used appliance in the way that new ones are certified. So you can buy it as an antique or a curio but not a functional lamp. I pointed out that in poorer areas all that did was take off the factory supplied plug so that unqualified people would have to replace it themselves, as they sure wouldn’t be taking it to an electrician. He agreed but that’s the law.

This example seems quite absurd but illustrates the additional overheads that have to be covered if you are going to recycle and repair.

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We repair our own, in as much as we can; some things are beyond our expertise (Win10 drivers, micro circuit boards). It does cost us a lot to do this - own lathe, tools, buy billets etc not counting our time.
When our washing machine needed an oil seal replaced, they said we needed a company technician, the nearest was 4 hours drive away. “Get me an exploded view of the oil seal puller” he asked and a few hours on a slow internet connection, drafting interpretations of photos, descriptions & my measurements, and about a week of work on the lathe etc and we did the 5 minute job ourselves. An illustration, or reasonably priced unit would have saved us some time. Our other washing machine company sold their oil seal puller for $4.95. The others wouldn’t sell us one at all.

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Don’t get me started on printers! They should be compelled to offer a driver upgrade to the next version of Windows - I lost my modem and Canon printer when Win 7 came in - their answer was “buy a new one”.

I bought a Canon (Choice recommendation) but a couple of years later it started printing the red off alignment. Canon responded that it would be fixed by installing all new genuine Canon cartridges (about $148) but that did not change anything and some commercial users protested that they had not used anything but Genuine. They said “buy a new one” and shortly after they no longer produced toner to suit making the printer useless. We tried fixing it but a part had broken and knowing we couldn’t get consumables, it was broken up and part recycled, but a lot went to landfill.

I bought HP and refused to use their app as it wanted to communicate to HP the origin of my toner. Because I don’t use it I don’t know what the levels of toner are and when it gives me an alert “Toner Low” I don’t know which one. I have to guess. I was using refills and third party, but they advised me that due to a software “update” by HP that their toner chips will no longer work. They are still waiting for stock from overseas. My “unusable” toners have all gone back to the refillers to be recycled, as did my Canon & others. What a WASTE.

My Brother MFP inkjet, bought for its scanning (you can’t get a scan only machine) keeps asking for ink refills before it will scan, even though I don’t use the print function - the other functions won’t work until I put new tanks in.

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Amen to that. I wonder if the scarcity in some areas is an attempt to prevent competition so their certified repairers can do better.

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Workshop manuals - even if they would send a page to show the part - if they are worried that someone might set themselves up as a Technician and do them out of work… The Techhie didn’t want to spend 8 hours on the road to do a 5 minute job (which would work out more like 9 -10hrs with breaks etc), especially as he was only carrying a tool to do a simple job. He didn’t want to come and quoted about $1,000 to be sure he wouldn’t have to. So we would have been stuck with no one to repair, except that we are handy people with sheds full of gear, the ordinary consumer would be buying another washing machine.

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And as consumers we possibly need not to be driven by the cheapest price, but the best quality we can afford to pay.

We as consumers should also not buy cheap items to satisify a ‘fast’ fad, were the product is only used for a short time before moving onto another consumable. This drives manufacturers to produce limited life products as this is the expectation of many consumers, to the detriment of those expecting a longer life.

Consumer need to move away from being part of a disposable society…where purchases are valued and cherished, rather than used and thrown out to follow the next consumer trend.

Some wishes, but unfortunately a reality.

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In the automotive industry it’s a common complaint.

For other examples perhaps a soulless money making exercise by the OEM service and spares profit centre manager.

I’m not about to argue against improved repairability, better access to information and parts or repairers. It’s worth noting there are risks some repairs or attempts at repair can create an unsafe condition, or lead to further damage. Whether a weak excuse or with basis in fact a supplier or OEM does open themselves up to litigation, if the information they make freely available fails the idiot test. At the same time Bunnings happily sell 240V mains GPOs that can only be legally installed by an electrician. They avoid concerns with a warning on the shelving.

Is it also necessary to push for reform of the statutory warranty provisions of the ACL? One step change could set out explicitly in the ACL minimum times (statutory warranties) for the reasonable life expectancy of all major consumer products.

Repairability whether by service or self is less important if items don’t fail. Especially where the cost of service in Australia can be very high. Much more if you do not live in one of the centres of the Aussie Universe (Sydney or Melbourne or …)

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Really good point @syncretic - something we saw when looking at our data from reliability surveys was that some companies had designed to make things easier to repair, even by people at home. For example, the products had panels that could easily be removed (rather than glued together), replaceable metal parts that could screw off and be taken out etc. It won’t solve the problem in its entirety, but better product design is needed to make it easier to repair products down the line.

This gets harder with products with software or complex elements that most people aren’t able to repair themselves. Repairs get easier for these markets when there’s competition in the repair market - so it’s not just the company offering the repairs. We need some changes to IP law and copyright to make sure third party repairers can get all the information they need to do their job.

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:rage: :rage: :rage: :rage:
This tactic from companies is so outrageous! Printer companies have so much to answer for…

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That is definitely a factor, as well as the example you give there is the push fit. One component is inside another and there are no visible fastenings, it seems they have been jammed together and somewhat flexible flanges, tabs etc now hold them together. Is it possible to prise them apart with the right tool? Is there glue inside that will prevent you doing it at all? Without guidance the only option is the possibly destructive experiment.

Those products that use the techniques above are designed to be assembled but not to be disassembled often have no question of repair cost as they are not repairable at all. That in itself is a problem but it isn’t quite what I had in mind. If we have better design for durability and repairability, and better documentation and availability of parts that all goes a long way to reducing the chance of needing repair and making it possible but only does so much to address the labour cost of getting it done.

If you are capable and don’t need to cost your time then tinkering for hours to fix something worth a few hundred dollars may well be seen as worthwhile especially if the barriers mentioned above have been removed. But what about the majority who are not very capable, or who are time poor or respect the regulations that one ought not fiddle with devices running on mains power without credentials?

While ever a repairperson is going to cost $150 per hour plus travel plus call-out plus parts anything less than several hundred dollars in replacement cost is going to be replaced. The gains that are possible in reducing waste through removing barriers have a definite ceiling. We are never going back to the days where ‘a little bloke in a hole in the wall’ fixed your gadget for a fraction of its purchase price. Relative to cost of living, the purchase labour cost has dropped and the repair labour cost has risen and they will never return to where they were 50 years ago.

One of the reasons that assembly cost has dropped is that methods have been adopted that do away with time consuming assembly steps such as screwing parts together, so now components are glued or pushed instead, which is where we came in.

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A very current example is a Fujitsu split system that has failed. There is some complexity, need for a manufacturers diagnostic guide, and possibly some specialist tools required to fault find. I deferred to one of the local service agents suggested by Fujitsu. The cost to identify the fault $200 near enough. The cause of the defect could have been a unit fault, house wiring or even the Energex DRS unit, or less likely a user deficiency attempting to reset the unit to operate after an outage.

I now need to resolve the repair which requires supposedly a new control board for the outdoor unit. Another near $200 for the labour and close to $600 for the board. That the complete two unit air con can be purchased for under $1700, leaves one to wonder. The cost of the replacement board stands out.

Some might suggest the right to repair could change this. The strict regulation of plumbing and electrical work are unlikely to change. I’m not sure that the right to repair will change this. Although better built in self diagnosis could. As would a repair network that can respond with the appropriate kit of parts for a one stop solution.

In referring to other Choice discussions on split system repairs, it’s always the gecko that gets the blame. It remains an excuse for poor design, whether caused by a gecko or roach or … getting in or a defect in manufacturing. The right to repair is of limited benefit where any regulated trade is required.

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Not covered under a home insurance policy? Some cover power surge damage and is the board failure due to the energy failure?? Should the failure be covered under ACL from a possibly faulty part or design fault?

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All good suggestions or questions. I’m waiting for the board to be removed and will keep it as exhibit A which ever way it needs to go. For that more detailed discussion I recollect we have another dedicated topic.

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Yes, the growth of technology in common consumer goods is a factor. As the complexity and sophistication of equipment rises the cost of repair rises faster than the manufacturing cost.

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I would be extremely sceptical regarding the cost of a PCB for a Fujitsu split aircon after we were nearly ripped off last year.

We had the person we had used for cleaning our aircons for around the past 10 years clean our 3 Fujitsu split aircons early last year.

Not long after, the bedroom unit developed a problem. It would not run and it displayed a sequence of flashing red and green lights. If I turned it off for sometime at the isolator switch, it would start and run for anywhere between some hours and some days.

I called the service person who took the side panel off the outdoor unit and called me to show me a dead gecko he was holding and he commented that it looke pretty fresh.

He called the aircon repair person he works in with and told me that we needed a new main board which was around $700 plus labour, and he recommended that we replace the aircon for around $1,400 installed.

I perserved with continuing to turn it off at the isolator until it stopped working altogether after which I emailed Fujitsu who advised as follows.

“Generally when we see this fault it relates to a problem with the indoor temperature sensors. These sensors are located near the indoor coil of the AC which would have been cleaned. We recommend a technician attend and carry out further testing.”

I called a local Fujitsu authorised service agent who replaced the indoor pcb and thermistor.

"Item Qty Rate GST Amount
Service Fee 1 $33.00 $3.00 $33.00
Technician 1 $99.00 $9.00 $99.00
Parts Fujitsu ASTG12CMCA ( indoor pcb and
thermistor)
1 $87.50 $7.95 $87.50

Sub-Total: $219.50

Total GST: $19.95

Amount Due: $219.50"

The technician also stated that it and our kitchen aircon needed chemical cleaning. The kitchen unit had also developed a flashing alarm code although it kept on working.

The technician returned to replace the receiver pcb in the kitchen unit for a total cost of $268.55.

They later cleaned both the bedroom and kitchen units for $135 each in comparison to the $220 each we had previously been paying.

We believe the person who cleaned our aircons somehow damaged the pcb’s in the bedroom and kitchen units with liquid but there was no way of proving it.

We also believe the dead gecko was a total scam.

I called the repair people we used this afternoon and asked the price of a main pcb for the outdoor unit of a Fujitsu ASTG24CMCA and I was told the RRP is $464.33.

Do you have flashing fault code lights on your indoor unit?

If so, have you asked Fujitsu about what they indicate?

Trust no one.

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But I do. I am however very selective.
Great tips I can vouch for several already.
Keeping it short. I did go directly to Fujitsu service support first. They were very helpful. And I had found the service fault codes independently. The original installer and the business who I called to fault find are both authorised repair agents, so I have that base covered. I tried several before getting one who was available, (3 weeks backlog).

I’ll take on board all your great advice, and when I have the whole story post what is most helpful. The outdoor unit was totally without life.

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