Diagnose and Repair Modern Electronics: A DIY Guide: Why Fix-it-Yourself?

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Electronics is a lifelong love affair. Once its mysteries and thrills get in your blood, they never leave you. I became fascinated with circuits and gadgets when I was about 5 years old, not long after I started playing the piano. There may have been something of a connection between the two interests-both involved inanimate objects springing to life by the guidance of my mind and hands. Building and repairing radios, amplifiers and record players always felt a little like playing God, or perhaps Dr. Frankenstein: "Live, I command thee!" A yank on the switch, just like in the movies, and, if I had figured out the puzzle correctly (which was far from certain at that age), live it would! Pilot lights would glow, speakers would crackle with music and faraway voices, and motors would turn, spinning records that filled my room with Mozart, Berlioz and The Who. It was quite a power trip (okay, a little pun intended) for a kid and kept me hankering for more such adventures.

By age 7, I was running my own neighborhood fix-it business, documented in an article by The Los Angeles News titled "Little Engineer Keeps Plugging Toward Goal." Repairs usually ran about 35 cents, and I had customers! Neighborhood pals, their families and my dad's insurance business clients kept me busy with malfunctioning radios and tape recorders. I even fixed my pediatrician's hearing tester for 40 cents. If only I'd known what he was charging….

My progression from such intuitive tinkering to the understanding required for serious technician work at the employable level involved many years of hands-on learning, poking around and deducing which components did what, and tracing signals through radio stages by touching solder joints with a screwdriver while listening for the crackling it caused in the speaker. Later came meters, signal tracers and, finally, the eye-opening magic window of the oscilloscope.

Ah, how I treasure all the hours spent building useful devices like intercoms and fanciful ones like the Electroquadrostatic Litholator (don't ask), fixing every broken gadget I could get my hands on, and devouring Popular Electronics, Electronics Illustrated and Radio-Electronics-great magazines crammed with construction articles and repair advice columns. Only one issue a month? What were they waiting for??

C'mon, guys, I just have to see the last part of that series on building your own color TV camera, even though I'll never attempt it. But now I know how a vidicon tube works! And, thanks to my parents' wise and strict rule that I experiment only on battery-powered items, I survived my early years to share my enthusiastically earned expertise with you, the budding tech.

After graduating from the MIT, I did what any highly trained, newly certified composer/conductor does: I completely abandoned my field of study and started working in electronics! I was a tech in repair shops, I programmed computers, and I developed circuitry and software for several companies around Boston and New York, while building my own inventions and running a little mail-order company to sell them. All of those experiences integrated into the approach I will present in this guide, which includes inductive and deductive reasoning, concepts of signal flow and device organization, taking measurements, practical skills and tips for successful repair, a little bit of art, and even a touch of whimsy here and there.

No guide can make you an expert at anything; that takes years of experience and squirreling away countless nuggets of wisdom gleaned from what did and didn't work for you. My hope is that this distillation of my own hard-won understanding will infect you with the love of circuits and their sometimes odd behaviors, and start you on the very enjoyable path of developing your skills at the wonderful, wacky world of electronic repair.

So, warm up your soldering iron, wrap your fingers around the knobs of that oscilloscope and crank up the sweep rate, 'cause here we go!

Repair: Why Do It?

When I was a kid, there were radio and TV servicers in many neighborhoods. If something broke, you dropped it off at your local electronics repair shop, which was as much a part of ordinary life as the corner automotive service garage. These days, those shops have all but disappeared as rising labor costs and device complexity have driven consumer electronics into the age of the disposable machine. When it stops working, you toss it out and get a new one. So why fix something yourself? Isn't it cheaper and easier just to go out to your local discount store and plunk down the ol' credit card? It might be easier, but it's usually not cheaper! Sans the cost of labor, repair can be quite cost effective. There are lots of other good reasons to become a proficient technician, too:

It's fun

You'll get a strong sense of satisfaction when your efforts yield a properly working gadget. It feels a bit like you're a detective solving a murder case, and it's more fun to use your noodle than your wallet.

It's absorbing

Learning to repair things is a great hobby to which you can devote many fruitful hours. It's good for your brain, and it beats watching TV any day (unless you fixed that TV yourself!).

It's economical

Why pay retail for new electronics when you can get great stuff cheap or even free? Especially if you live in or near a city, resources like craigslist.org will provide all the tech toys you want, often for nothing. Lots of broken gadgets are given away, since bringing them in for repair costs so much.

They're yours for the taking. All you have to do is fix 'em! It can be profitable. Some of the broken items people nonchalantly discard are surprisingly valuable. When your tech skills become well developed, you'll be able to repair a wide variety of devices and sell what you don't want for yourself.

It can preserve rare or obsolete technology

Obsolete isn't always a negative term! Some older technologies were quite nice and have not been replaced by newer devices offering the same features, utility or quality. The continued zeal of analog audio devotees painstakingly tweaking their turntables offers a prime example of the enduring value of a technology no longer widely available.

It's green

Every product kept out of the landfill is worth two in ecological terms: the one that doesn't get thrown away and the one that isn't purchased to replace it. The wastefulness of tossing out, say, a video projector with a single capacitor is staggering. To rip off an old song, "Nothing saves the green'ry like repairing the machin'ry in the morning…." Your friends and family will drive you crazy.

Being a good tech is like being a doctor: everyone will come to you for advice and help. Okay, maybe this one isn't such an incentive, but it feels great to be able to help your friends and loved ones, doesn't it? Being admired as an expert isn't such a terrible thing either.

Is It Always Worth It?

While it's often sensible to repair malfunctioning machines, sometimes the endeavor can be a big waste of time and effort, either because the device is so damaged that any repair attempt will be futile or the cost or time required is overwhelming. Part of a technician's expertise, like a doctor's, lies in recognizing when the patient can be saved and when it's time for last rites and pulling the plug-in this case, literally! Luckily, in our silicon and copper realm, those destined for the hereafter can be recycled as parts. A stack of old circuit boards loaded with capacitors, transistors, connectors and other components is as essential as your soldering iron, and you'll amass a collection before you know it.

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