Introduction: Acquire, Repair and Sell Dysfunctional Electronics With Minimal Knowledge
Note:This Instructable has been entered into the Epilog and United States of Efficiency contest. If you like it in any way possible, don't forget to rate and/or vote for it!
Summary of reasons for doing this:
- You help reduce nasty things in landfills.
- You slowly get technical knowledge by studying electronic internals.
- You can get money selling repaired devices.
- You will feel good about yourself helping to save the world.
You may have heard about the recent increase in "e-waste." "E-waste" is what happens when millions of consumers across the globe buy electronics, only to throw them away after they become obsolete. Technology is advancing quicker than most other household appliances, like furniture or a washing machine for example, so a "slow" 3-year old computer might not be of "any use" and end up in the trash.
The Issue With E-Waste
The biggest reason this is an issue is that electronic devices are made from all kinds of nasty, non-eco-friendly chemicals and metals. At the very least, many internal circuits have been soldered with lead. Lead, as you know, is not anyone's friend besides large factories and specific hobbyists, and causes a myriad of ailments including cancer. Mercury, found in fluorescent (and CFL) light bulbs and old tilt switches, is also yet another nasty.
Your Part in The Solution
How can one person solve such a humongous problem? Truth is, they can't. It must be a global effort, but you can help it along and also recruit others. Take in other people's "dead", "old", "out of style", and "trashed" devices. Make them into something usable, then sell them as "reconditioned" at a steep discount. Your friends have room to now buy another toy, you've got some money, the buyer's got something they wanted for cheap, and there's a couple less pounds of junk in a landfill somewhere. Pat yourself on the back and feel free to shout a victory cry (outside please).
Like I mentioned earlier, this can be a profitable ordeal. So many things have little things wrong with them, and can cost cents to fix, that can then be sold once again for a few 20's. The only thing that "costs" you is your time. Instead of playing life-eating video games, why not put your time to good use and make money?
I had a walkie-talkie that had stopped functioned a while ago, so I dissected it and peeked inside. A maze of circuitry. Like I could understand that? Luckily, I didn't have to. Seeing some unusual goopy gunk on the circuit board, I removed it with rubbing alcohol and a Q-Tip. Popped it back up, put some batteries in, and turned it on. With a reassuring "bleep!" it lit up to channel 1. Success! Another story would be with my florescent torchiere. Rather expensive, I didn't have much of a choice but to open it up. The only circuity besides the ballast was a potentiometer (electronic knob) connected to some other discrete components. The underside of the pot (read:short for potentiometer, okay?) was a blackened scar. Fried. Sacrificing light level control for simplicity, I rigged a simple switch up. Plugged in, pushed the button, and the room was filled with glorious light. In much of my experience, it is these simple problems that are most common. Only bear attacks and angry lumberjacks truly destroy these things.
Other repaired, saved, salvaged, or scavenged things include, but are not limited to:
- Dusty, smoky, ancient PC (scavenged for parts)
- Nice speakers with a frayed cord
- A Compact Flash card reader with mangled pins
- An electric screw driver with a shot Ni-Cad (battery memory)
- Many an appliance with a broken switch, plug, or other simple thing
Let's Get Started!
Step 1: Gain Basic Electronics Knowledge
We all Could Use Some...
How on Earth am I going to teach an entire "basic electronics repair" course in less than a couple pages? Eeek! Luckily, you don't need to be a geek like me to repair things. It helps, but isn't necessary. By understanding the basic concepts of electricity, you increase your chances that it comes out well and you can sell it for money.
Electricity is Dangerous.
The stuff that comes out of your wall could kill you. Use common and uncommon sense to prevent electrocution. However, not doing so may end your repair career violently. In that, you're not alive. Not meaning to scare you, but disclaimers are disclaimers. I'm not responsible for anything that happens to you, just like anything else. If you see a huge capacitor like one below, take a pair of insulating pliers and connect the two wires. Sparks will jump. But that'll make it harder to get shocked from them.
Follow these basic rules to keep alive:
- Stay away from capacitors. Capacitors are cylindrical electronics components coming in all shapes and sizes that store a charge like a battery. Difference is, they let it all go extremely quickly, potentially through your body. Look below for different component pictures.
- Path of least resistance. Electricity, like water and many other things, always takes the path of least resistance. This means it will take the quickest way from positive to negative. Air is extremely resistive, but the body is a lot of water, and water is rather conductive. Your heart is electrically based and can be put out of rhythm by a shock. Reduce your chance of heart electrocution by working with one hand. The especially paranoid should stand on a rubber mat and tie their non-dominant hand behind their back.
- Feel your hair standing up? Although kind of rare, CRT TVs often produce a lot of static that makes your hair stand on end. An obvious sign of something plugged in, but not a guarantee.
- Concerned? Test the volts. Invest in a volt/ampmeter and learn to use it to test if something is live. Try Google for good tutorials.
In the images at the bottom are all the images of the components below that you will need to know:
-Switch - A switch will modify whether or not the electricity flows through it depending on its state. If it's NO (normally open) it will conduct when you press it. If it's NC (normally closed) it will disconnect when you push it.
-Capacitor - It's purpose is to store an electrical charge and then let it go very quickly. Very common in power supplies, amplifiers, and many other places. Often cylindrical and can fail explosively with a spurt of electrolytic juice.
-Resistor - Used to create a desired electrical resistance. This lets less electricity flow, following Ohm's Law. Resistors are measured in Ohms and are most everywhere.
-Potentiometer - A resistor that can be changed through a knob. Often seen on volume controls, light dimmers, and anywhere resistance is needed to change, or to signal a chip to do something depending on the position of the dial.
-Oscillator - An oscillator oscillates. Produces a signal that goes up and down at a precise speed measured in Hertz, Kilohertz, Megahertz, and Gigahertz. Quartz crystal oscillators are precise and common near "smart" electronics requiring chips.
-Chip - A prepackaged component that could do nearly anything. Millions of different chips exist. These are quite often black with shiny metal pins sticking out, or they may be covered with a blob of hard goo for protection. Should not get hot most of the time.
-Heatsink - Taking heat away from components and usually into the air keeps things cool. Often a simple chunk of heat-conducting metal. Used in places of heat.
-Circuit board - The thin, (fiberglass?) board with copper "traces" on one or both sides and sometimes holes to permit components to be placed in. "Traces" are paths between components. "Shorts" are when unwanted electrical connections are made, causing problems including overheating. Boards are used nearly everywhere except for very simple circuits.
-Transistor - The centerpiece of modern chips. Putting power to the base allows current to flow. Unintentionally applying too much power can destroy a transistor.
Path of Electricity
Electricity, as I mentioned earlier, takes the path of least resistance. In an on and functioning circuit, the path of least resistance is in a loop. It takes power from the positive (sometimes red or white) wire from the battery or outlet and does stuff with it, but it won't work unless it goes back to the negative (many times black) wire of the battery. Whichever way is quickest it will go. If there is a quicker route to the negative trace, via some metal scrap or something, it will skip energizing the circuit and go through the shortcut. Sometimes, if it's powerful enough, it can go from one trace to another trace, through the air. This also often leaves obvious "burnt" marks.
I'm really sorry but I can't go on any more about complex electricity. Check out a book at your local library, something like this. I know it's a kids' book, but let's face it, it's simpler and therefore all you need to know here.
Step 2: Acquire "Junk"
Before doing anything about repairing things, how about actually finding broken ones? This step is necessary to proceed.
Ask Your Friends
Many people have junk. Most people want to get rid of it. Ask around your friends to see if they have any broken electronics they'd like to get rid of. Don't "charge them for haul-away" or stuff like that, but if your nice you might even buy it off them for a couple bucks.
Craigslist and Online Communities
The Internet is great and widely known for bringing many people across the world together. Utilizing this force can certainly save you time, provided you do it right. Craigslist is great for when you want people's local junk, meaning there's no shipping required. Mozy around the "free stuff" section looking for listings in which the thing is broken. That is probably the best option unless you feel like you want to buy junk from across the ocean, which wastes resources and is not eco-friendly. There are probably a whole bunch of sites I haven't mentioned, but the more local the better.
I refrain from calling it "dumpster diving" due to the fact that actually diving in is nasty, unwise, and unsafe. Lift the lid, shine a flashlight in, anything shiny you inspect further. Like others recommend, you may wish to use a grabber or something to extend your reach. You may wish to carry garbage bags with you to bag grimy devices.
If it's not being thrown out, don't take it, alright? How would you feel if while you were moving in, someone ran off with your TV? Got it?
Step 3: Diagnose the Victim
The Most Common Issues
I have found a couple problems to be rather common among lightly broken devices, and are also often easily fixable.
I list them here, in order of difficulty:
-Broken/Frayed/Snapped Cords - Just because it snapped doesn't mean it's doomed, most of the time. Identify by wires with insulation missing, wire showing, or an obvious disconnect.
-Grimy Circuit Boards - Crud that has collected on circuit boards can cause shorts, harming devices. May be in the form of goo, small metal shavings or slivers, or a malformed trace.
-Bad Solder Joints - Sadly, in the effort of speed, quality is sometimes sacrificed. If a wire from a component has fallen off the board, it can cause problems. Can be caused by strong vibrations, impacts, or general wear and tear.
-Broken/Fried Switches - Probably the most beaten on of a device, switches and other user interface components can be broken by falls, angry children, or people with strong fingers. Signs include: switches wont go down, stay down unusually, "flake" on and off, or don't work at all.
-Other Failed Components - Things sometimes just fail. If it's obvious, they might be either really hard or really easy.
-Fried Chips - Smashed chip packages, very hot chips, melted chips, and chips that fully soldered to the board can all be signs of a damaged chip. Very difficult to impossible to replace, unless you really know what you're doing.
Using the Internet and Google
Both are very powerful. Make them work for you! Looking for what a particular component is? Google what's on the chip. For example, you might search for "ATMEL ATMEGA168-20PU" and find it's a 16Kb, 16Mhz, low-power microcontroller. You might also find out it's my favorite. Still stuck? Try asking a general electronics forum, making sure to use good English and give detailed descriptions. You are either trying to find out what it is and what to replace it with or what it does. Pictures on the forum are always good. Make sure to follow their rules on images, though. Good macro photography and lighting definitely help.
After you know what the problem is, it's time to fix it!
Step 4: Repair Time
The Easy Fixes:
Quite often, after diagnosis, the problem can very easily be solved with a quick bit of fixing magic.
Listed in the same order in the previous page:
-Broken/Frayed/Snapped Cords - Very easy. Outlet power cords have only two or three wires and are easy to (while unplugged) twist together, optionally solder, heatshrink or electrical tape, and be fine. Frayed cords will have to have frayed parts cut off, reconnected, and heatshrunk or taped.
-Grimy Circuit Boards - Just get rid of the grime! Brush metal slivers or shavings off with your hand, to see if they were soldered there intentionally. If they don't move, and there's no glop gluing it to the board, leave it be. If they do, sweep them off the board. Then, go in with a Q-Tip soaked in isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol and swab the thing down. Let dry. May also wish to blow dust off with compressed air.
-Bad Solder Joints - Simply, most of the time, just re-solder the joint in question. Learn to solder by searching Google or YouTube. Whatever, I'll just say here. Use the soldering iron to heat up both wires, then put the solder on the wires. Don't put the solder on the iron and rub it on the joints. That will just break off again like it already did, a cold joint.
-Broken/Fried Switches - Usually, the whole component will need to be replaced. Most important is getting the same type of component for replacing. Look for something indicating it's either a NC or NO switch, and look at the form factor. Enter part numbers into Google for exact matches. If it has absolutely no markings whatsoever, test the leads with a multimeter. Search Google how to do that too. If it's a knob, it's a potentiometer, and may either follow a linear or audio resistive curve. Also test with a multimeter, seeing if it goes up the same amount each same turn (give or take a couple hundred ohms), or goes up more at a different point.
-Other Failed Components - You must replace the component with an identically same-functioning one. To desolder, heat up the wires from the component and the pad on the circuit board, then either use a solder sucker and suck the solder off, or apply copper desoldering braid and it'll wick it off. Do this until you can remove the damaged component, then purchase an equivalent component after research and attempt to resolder it in.
-Fried Chips - Almost impossible to replace. The reason for this is that it is very hard to find the exact same chip, and then desolder and resolder the new one on. To the more experienced: Good luck!
Using the Internet
Like mentioned before, simply search Google or ask a forum about part numbers and components.
I can and will probably respond to emails questioning problems with a circuit (board). Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and provide pictures. I will respond to many messages within a week depending on volume but can't solve everything. I can, to the best of my ability, identify components, guide replacements, and help with other random things. I'm bored, so take advantage!
Step 5: Sell Device
After you've fixed it, you probably would like to make some money by selling it to someone else, right? There are multiple people/ways you could try to sell it.
I mentioned this earlier for acquiring broken stuff. You can put up a listing, for a much cheaper than new price, and describe it as "reconditioned for functionality" or something. It's really not that hard!
This isn't anything I've really been successful with. However, if you know what you're doing, you could potentially get a decent price for it. The disadvantage is that you will likely have to ship it, and if it's a large appliance, you're out of luck.
Perhaps you got the broken device in the first place from a friend. Perhaps they would buy the working version back from you? Charge them a small amount, around $20 or so, more for more expensive things, like a dishwasher or washing machine.
Worst Case Scenario
Truly, the worst case scenario you could run into is that you just can't sell it. Even if you've tried everything, maybe it just isn't working. Then, you've got it for yourself!
Step 6: Repeat
This cycle will work for a long time. People will always have broken stuff, and you will be there to fix and sell it. The more you do it, the more you make money. The more money you have, the more you can spend on cool already functioning electronics toys. Although it may seem like something for nothing, it's something for your knowledge and time. That's what's valuable here. By repairing electronics, you not only help save the world, but you keep your community's money local, get cash, and have fun. Who wouldn't want to?
Note:Like I said earlier, this Instructable has been entered into the Epilog and United States of Efficiency contest. If you like it in any way possible, don't forget to rate and/or vote for it!
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