AP NEWS

FIGHT TO REPAIR: Independent repair shops want the right to repair major manufacturers’ electronics

May 1, 2019

Cracked screens, batteries that won’t hold a charge, buttons that don’t work properly, software malfunctions. Electronics break. It’s inevitable.

The question is: how to get them fixed — without spending your entire tax return.

In the consumer electronics arena, there are three options on that front. The owner of a broken smartphone, tablet or computer can take it to the manufacturer, to an independent repair shop, or they can try to fix it themselves.

Most people — even crafty engineers — can’t replace a broken iPhone screen themselves, they can’t crack open a Samsung Galaxy phone and pop in a new battery. It’s not like putting new spark plugs in an old car. Smartphones are manufactured in a way that makes it nearly impossible for untrained people to work on them.

Even if an iPhone owner had the technical know-how, the parts needed to fix a phone are hard to come by. They can’t run to the local RadioShack, buy a new “home” button for their iPhone and install it using the tools in their toolbox.

These problems gave birth to a growing movement in the United States, including in Idaho. It’s the “right to repair,” and its advocates believe consumers should be able to repair their own smartphones, computers or even computer-driven tractors. At the very least, they should be able to choose from a group of reasonably priced, competitive repair shops.

“Where does ownership begin?” said Cory Meisenheimer, owner of Idaho iRepair, an independent electronics repair business. “Or are we just leasing everything?”

Typically, if a gadget is under warranty, taking it back to the manufacturer is the best option. But older electronics — which still work fine but might need a minor repair — lose their warranties after a year or two.

That’s where independent repair shops come in.

“We’re not here for the customers that need their phone repaired that are under warranty,” Meisenheimer said. “We want to be able to repair any mobile tech that a consumer brings to us. Working families ... they need a cheaper repair or some other method of getting that fixed, other than going out and acquiring a new device.”

Independent repair shops exist in between consumers and electronics manufacturers. Repair shops have the skills and tools to repair electronics, but, lacking an agreement with manufacturers, they don’t have any more access to original parts than a consumer does. For the most part, they have to rely on aftermarket parts.

Idaho iRepair, a Boise-based chain, has eight locations throughout the state, including stores in Ammon, Chubbuck and Rexburg. Its primary business is broken screens, but iRepair technicians also replace batteries and fix problems related to microphones, among other things.

The repairs aren’t cheap. Replacing a broken iPhone screen, for example, costs between $70 and $280, depending on the model.

“If we could just get the parts, the price of everything would go down,” said Maxwell Perez, a technician who manages iRepair’s Rexburg location.

Tinkering inside a smartphone or tablet is a delicate art. One wrong move could shut off the screen for good or disable a fingerprint identification feature.

To learn how devices work and how to get them open (an increasingly difficult and expensive task as screens are modernized), Perez relies on crowd-sourced schematics from iFixit, a wiki-based site with user-submitted and -edited manuals. He also watches YouTube videos.

Idaho iRepair is open to working with manufacturers such as Apple and Samsung to make parts available, Meisenheimer said.

“I wish there was some more willingness from the manufacturers to work with businesses like ours,” Meisenheimer said. “I always try to relate it back to the auto industry. We’ve got certified Ford shops, but we’ve also got other guys that can do the repairs.”

The right to repair isn’t just a consumer electronics issue.

Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts and presidential hopeful, has pledged to pursue a right-to-repair law, aimed specifically at farming equipment. The law would require farming equipment manufacturers such as John Deere to make diagnostic tools, manuals and other repair-related resources available to consumers and independent businesses.

“Farmers should be able to repair their own equipment or choose between multiple repair shops,” Warren said in a blog post. “That’s why I strongly support a national right-to-repair law that empowers farmers to repair their equipment without going to an authorized agent.”

Kevin Caudle, owner of K&G Repair, a tractor and farming machinery repair shop in Mud Lake, estimates that 90 percent of farmers near Mud Lake/Terreton own John Deere tractors.

When a John Deere tractor breaks down, its owner typically has to call a John Deere technician, who is dispatched to the farm to run a diagnostic test on the tractor’s computer system and pinpoint the problem.

Meanwhile, the tractor is unusable, and its owner doesn’t have the tool — computer software — required to fix it. Repair shops don’t have access to the software either.

“Anymore, you’ve got to plug a laptop in them,” Caudle said. “They don’t give you the program or let you buy it, even.”

Diagnosing a problem, ordering a new part if necessary and installing the part can take three to four days, Caudle said.

Hale’s Repair, an automobile repair shop in Riverside, used to repair tractors but has phased out that aspect of the business in recent years.

“We don’t even work on them anymore because we can’t get the stuff to work on the computers,” said Eric Hale, the shop’s owner. “We’ve been gradually going towards automotive-type stuff. There’s not a lot (of repair shops) around that work on tractors anymore.”

Since the late 1990s, tractors have become more and more computer-driven, Hale said.

“If you haven’t got a computer and all the software to go with it, you can’t do much to it,” he said. “It’s got to be extremely frustrating for the farmers that own the tractors.”

Meisenheimer said that when it comes to third-party repairs, he understands the manufacturers’ perspective.

“I have no problem with them wanting to maintain the quality that their consumers are expecting,” he said. “If I made that iPhone, and I spent so long doing research and development and perfecting it, I might get concerned if someone down the street decided to put something on that and change its quality. Is that device going to perform the way the consumer expects?”

But it’s the consumer who would ultimately benefit from manufacturers handing over their plans and parts to third parties, Meisenheimer said.

“I think a partnership with the manufacturer would give the end user a better experience,” he said. “The core of everything that we do is to try to save people money, keep them from buying something new when they don’t have to and to get their (devices) up and running again.”