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Product Review - 2 Disposable fan heaters and other crimes against humanity (and the planet)

A sorry sight - the inside of our portable fan heater - WARNING: Don't try this at home Kids, unless you have competent supervision!


The portable electric fan heater we were using while waiting for the heat pump – our main source of heating, to be fixed, also gave up the ghost right there in the middle of winter. Until then, this small heater hadn’t had much use and no one could remember when we bought it or from whom. Since there was no obvious reason for its demise and it still looked fairly new, I took it along to the Repair Café which happened to be on again last Saturday.

It needed specialist tools -many of them homemade, to have a look inside it and it took almost an hour to disassemble and get a new part. There is no way that this repair would have been an economic proposition. New heaters like this are currently on sale for around $8 and $12 when full price. It made me wonder how much the poor workers got, given that the variety store that sells them surely makes a profit on them too. Just sending it to the tip would probably cost more.

Looking inside, there is an amazing amount of gear in there – copper armatures, a fan, a rotor, a spiral coil, lots of wiring and resistors, not to mention all the screws and plastic. It turned out that mine only needed a new resistor because overheating had tripped it. This is a safety measure which causes it to shut down when it falls over or gets too hot, so that it doesn’t start a fire. Unfortunately it can’t be reset again. A new resistor from the electronics shop cost $3.95, but because the original was riveted in, there was some doubt as to whether the new one could be successfully installed given that heat from soldering would have melted the plastic or tripped the resistor again.

While we were still discussing possible options, another ‘client’ walked in carrying exactly the same make and model though hers had failed due to a broken starter switch. Brian, the patient and careful volunteer who was working on mine, inserted the switch from mine into hers and it instantly sprang to life. In the end we agreed that it was better to sacrifice mine because of its doubtful recovery and get at least one going. Brian who also works in a young people’s computer centre, was pretty sure mine could still be used for parts and the now unused resistor would find a home there too.

I wondered how many thousands of these heaters have been sold and are now either waiting to die, have been dumped in some poorer country for resource recovery or are continuing to live an immortal life in a landfill somewhere, forever leaching toxins into the soil or water. Apparently they aren’t intended to last very long. Warranty on new ones is only a year.

This  kind of throw -away mentality really irks me. It depletes resources, creates mountains of waste  and causes pollution in their manufacture, transportation and eventual demise. Now that we’ve finally seen the light on moronic products like single use plastic bags and straws, isn’t it time we banned products like this which are short lived and seem to be designed to be irrepairable? How many extra cents would it cost if the trip resistor were changed to one which could be reset after say, a power surge?[We have had a few of those due to high winds and storms].

More expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better either, as independent tester of consumer goods "Choice" points out. “Does spending more than three times as much money deliver the equivalent of three times better performance?… of course it doesn't!“ as their tests proved.  One person who commented on the results said that they had bought the $50 version and found that it had the same life span as the cheaper ones and spoke glowingly of the latter, despite having had to buy five of them over the previous ten years. If you are only talking about the financial cost, I suppose the cheap ones would seem like better value, but that still makes it a poor product.

Better quality control could help. The expensive European dishwasher in my last house didn’t work properly from the get go. Since it was under warranty, the repairman came several times to replace the timer switch, but they were all as bad as the first one, so eventually we learned to bypass the first three settings rather than put up with the continued disruption. More recently when the top of the range $3,800 heat pump also died this year, the repairman didn’t even bother opening it up.

“How old is it?” he asked. 

Assuming it was put in when the house was built, I guessed it to be about twenty.

“No point fixing it then,” he said. “ You’ve done well. They usually only last about ten years. Every part in it will be worn and on the way out and it will cost a lot more to fix them one by one. Do yourself a favour and get a new one.”

 Alas, it was wired in and too big to take along to the Repair Café. It had to be replaced and the old one was unceremoniously taken away to the tip. It was pretty much the same story for all the electrical goods here, including the hot water heater, which was the first to die and also very expensive. 

Now I don't want to put the Repair Cafe out of business - things will always wear out, but I would like to see an end to planned obsolescence. At the very least, our appliances should be repairable and the purchase price should reflect the cost of dismantling and disposal as we now do with old solar panels. As far as whitegoods go, Japan has this down to fine art and is recovering and reusing 98%. In these days of shortages of all kinds and especially in electronics, it should also include the cost of warehousing parts. Every recycling centre should have such a facility. 

That way I wouldn’t have had to pay $29.95 for two proprietary screws that had gotten lost while the range -hood light was being replaced. This would certainly create jobs and there might even be a profit in recovering things like copper from electric motors and wiring and the like, not to mention savings from not having to sacrifice land to build more landfill sites. 

Society and the world can't afford this stupid waste anymore, however profitable it might be for the manufacturers.* Perhaps no goods should be able to be marketed unless repair facilities are provided or funded as well. High -end  outdoor equipment and clothing supplier Patagonia already does this. 

As it says on it's website:

"One of the most responsible things we can do as a company is to make high-quality stuff that lasts for years and can be repaired, so you don’t have to buy more of it."

I'd also like product reviewers like Choice, to include repairability ratings, which the French now have by law for consumer electronics. In the meantime, every community most definitely needs a Repair Café. 


Winners are grinners


I had better luck with an equally cheap rice cooker I'd bought secondhand to melt wax for the beehive. These sell for $11 new. Only the low setting worked, which was fine for what I was going to use it for, but since I had it in the car, I thought I may as well bring it in as well. It too needed only a replacement resistor, but a slightly higher voltage one than the one I'd bought. I now have a perfect rice cooker which is too good to waste on the wax. I can’t praise the volunteers highly enough. They don’t get paid for any of this, so I was curious to know why they would give up their Saturday to deal with such thankless tasks.


Patience plus - Brian works on the fan heater

Apart from environmental considerations, they apparently do it for much the same reason that some people do Sudoku. Each item is a bit of a puzzle and a personal challenge. I saw the same look on the faces of people on “The Repair Shop,” a UK TV show that happened to be on later that night. One man had just restored an ancient cash register and another had restored an antique Gramophone. Their pride and satisfaction were obvious. However, it  didn’t seem to be just about the object itself, nor even being able to help people, but about unlocking the innermost secrets of a technology.  A successful restoration also meant that they were still on top of it and still had what it took. A round of applause to all of you!

If I was disappointed in anything, it was how few young people were there. They could learn a lot from these quiet masters who had so much knowledge and experience. Imagine understanding how the technology works, rather than just using it. It could even be a way to a living in future. I get it. Too many have to scramble to make a living now and to try to get a roof over their head. A hobby like this is perhaps only for retired people who have the time, the energy and the space to have one, but it’s a shame all the same. Where else will our future inventors and engineers come from?


* Speaking of useless products which should be banished from the face of the earth, let's add in disposable biros and lighters. Has anyone else ever tried to buy a refill for a favourite pen?