Learning to Repair My Busted TV Taught Me How to Love the Internet Again
Just because you can’t fix a new Apple laptop doesn’t mean you can’t fix anything
Ever since I was young, I’ve had the desire to do things on my own and make them last. I’m also frugal. I’ve got tools in my workshop that are well over 40 years old, my car just turned 30 and my Sorel Caribou boots are going into their 29th winter. I’m an engineer by training and I’ve spent the best part of two decades working on electronic control systems and embedded software, so I’m not afraid of or averse to tech in any way. I like to get my hands dirty, literally and figuratively.
But I’m not the first to notice that lately “tech” has changed. After seeing the impact that Facebook and Twitter have had on society this decade, I’ve come to believe that so much of the tech that seemed like such a boon just 20 years ago now seems like a net negative; one that is accelerating the end of civil society. This is especially true when these social media platforms are used by so-called influencers and narcissistic pseudo-visionaries and pseudo-populists to cultivate cults of personality.
And then there are the hardware companies churning out vast quantities of unrepairable devices with limited lifespans that are also often impractical or dangerous to recycle. I have a 2009 MacBook Pro that I’ve replaced hard drives in, added RAM to, and swapped out batteries from, and it still runs. Try doing that with any recent Apple laptop.
Over the course of my 50-plus years on the planet, I’ve learned skills including carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work that have allowed me to keep stuff running and not have to pay vast sums of money to have someone else fix. While I firmly believe that the ability to reconnect with long-lost high school crushes is of dubious benefit, there are aspects of the web that are still great, especially for those of us who love DIY repairs.
As the world of home video has transitioned from massive cathode ray tubes to ever slimmer flat panels, like much of technology, these devices have become less repairable. Big flat TVs are now so seemingly inexpensive that when one goes bad, people are more likely to toss it and buy a new one than to repair it. But I’m not one of those people.
A few months ago the five-year-old Vizio 55-inch TV in our living room stopped turning on. I tried the usual diagnostics, unplugging for a few minutes to reset, restarting, swapping cables, and more. Nothing seemed to work. We went out and bought a newer 4K UHD model and put it in place, but I didn’t toss the old one. Instead, I went to Google and started digging around. It turns out this older TV has an easily removable back panel and a mere four circuit boards in the back.
For every angry screed from some incel or jihadi on YouTube, there are countless barely produced but very helpful how-to videos on almost every subject imaginable. A few diagnostic videos showed me how to check the power supply and mainboard, and a quick follow-up search led me to an online retailer of TV repair parts, including ones for my five-year-old Vizio. I ordered a $40 mainboard and a few days later, I swapped it in.
That turned out to only be part of my problem and an additional search led me to another video showing a loose connector on the power supply board that was a common ailment of this particular model. After 10 minutes on the workbench with my soldering iron to reflow the solder onto the pins and reinstall the board, my dead TV was back to life and good as new.
Having never repaired a TV before, I was only able to do this because I had a ready resource of seemingly infinite knowledge on the web just a few keyboard taps and mouse clicks away. Over the years, the internet has made possible various projects that I was either able to complete myself, or at least complete more cost-effectively because I was able to learn what needed to be done by a professional.
I’ve replaced furnace ignitors in the dead of winter, air conditioning capacitors during summer heatwaves, and clothes dryers that wouldn’t heat up when we had a wet load of laundry. In most of these cases, I found both the instructions and the parts online. Starting from pdf files of exploded drawings with part number lists, I got particularly lucky in one of my early forays with appliance repair because one of the top search returns was a site called repairclinic.com. As I was preparing to order parts, I noticed that the phone number had the same area code as my own and it turned out the warehouse was just 15 minutes away from me. I’ve become a regular customer there as I keep everything from our oven to our snowblower running.
The revived TV has now replaced an even older one in the bedroom, with that one going into the basement for now. It may get used down there or possibly sent off to a new home. Either way, none of these are going into dumps or toxic e-waste recovery facilities in China just yet. Companies like Apple and increasingly the manufacturers of our cars may not want us messing around with the guts of our devices anymore. But as long as there are devices I can take apart, and information and parts on the vast internet, I’ll keep taking advantage of them.