Hovering over an espresso machine, Erik Gutfeldt, an engineer and tinkerer from Palo Alto, gently probed at some exposed wires, guiding a college-aged apprentice through the steps of disassembling the appliance to diagnose its faulty components.
Alberto Ribas brought the espresso machine to Repair Café Mountain View with the hope of salvaging it from the dumpster.
"I feel miserable when I have to throw something away, especially when it's new and expensive. It's only 4 years old," Ribas said. "I tried to fix it," he added. "But because the problem is electrical, it escapes my competence."
Repair Café, which has several pop-up locations along the Peninsula, including Palo Alto, Mountain View, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara, was the obvious DIY solution for Ribas. A volunteer organization that helps people fix broken items, Repair Café got its start in Palo Alto in 2012, modeling itself on the Repair Café movement that originated in the Netherlands in 2009.
The Repair Café movement has since expanded to more than 2,500 locations worldwide, its environmental ethos appealing to people who want to keep repairable and reusable objects out of landfills — as well as those looking to expand the life of their broken household items.
Over the years, hundred of local residents have brought everything from lamps, toasters, vacuum cleaners, lawnmowers, furniture and other broken household items to Repair Café events along the Peninsula. During events, residents can work under the guidance of volunteers to repair their items themselves or have a volunteer tackle the job directly.
Maia Coladonato, co-founder of Repair Café Mountain View and lead organizer of Repair Café Palo Alto, said the organization does more than expand the life of household items. It connects people to a lost tradition of household repair work.
"It's a way to pass down skills that we don't have in our modern-day disposable lives anymore," Coladonato explained. "It brings back the service and value of repairing our own things."
For Buff Furman, a mechanical engineer and professor at San Jose State University, the chance to help others learn about repair work drew him to Repair Café five years ago. The collaboration of the "fixers" people who regularly volunteer their time to repair items was an unexpected benefit. "We get ideas from each other, borrow things," Furman said.
Jim MacDonald, a retired professor in the electronics and technology department at the College of San Mateo, also remarked on the tight-knit community of the fixers. MacDonald developed an interest in electronics as a child; his father worked in real estate and often brought home unwanted household items for MacDonald to disassemble and reassemble. MacDonald still enjoys tinkering with old appliances. "I like to give new life to everything," he said, explaining why he volunteers at Repair Café.
This tinkering hobby is a common experience for many of the volunteer fixers, one that's helped them develop a valuable skill set in repair work; they know how to disassemble and reassemble appliances fairly quickly. Modern electric appliances are designed not to open easily; their anti-tamper screws make repair work extremely difficult, in part to prevent electrical shocks.
But this inaccessibility also dovetails with society's "throw-away" mentality, a sentiment expressed by Mark Matteucci, a retired biotech researcher from Portola Valley who joined Repair Café to give back to the community.
"This is what I call a ridiculous appliance," Matteucci said, referring to a small food processor that he was disassembling. Replacing its faulty battery would cost as much as buying a new appliance. "It's not designed to be replaced. It's destined for the landfill. Planned obsolescence," he added.
To mitigate this landfill problem, fixers often break appliances down into smaller parts when they cannot be repaired and use those parts to repair other appliances.
The recycling of parts contributes to Repair Café's successful fix rates. Data from the most recent Repair Café Palo Alto event, which took in 195 items, showed that its full repair rate hovered well above 50% and its partial or deferred repair rate was more than 10%.
"It makes me happy to see things get fixed," Mountain View resident Calvin Hui said after a bell rang announcing a successful repair. He was waiting for a sewer to repair his ripped duffle bag. "I've been coming for 10 years," Hui added, noting that he usually brings in broken electronics and toys. "The success rate for me is about 99%."
Ribas' outcome was not as joyful. His espresso machine needed a new circuit board that was not in stock at stores. "I think it's a goner," he said sadly. But even in this case, not all hope was lost. There was the possibility that the appliance could be fixed at the next Repair Café if a new circuit board was found.
Roland Lee, a Palo Alto resident, had a similar experience at Repair Café Palo Alto event held in February. Missing a part he needed for his bicycle, Lee returned to Mountain View a month later with the necessary components that the fixers recommended.
"It's a great service to the community," Lee said. He then glided away on his bicycle.
Got a broken household item?
Palo Alto events are held at The Museum of American Heritage, 351 Homer Ave., Palo Alto, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on select dates. Repair work is free, but participants are required to pay for repair parts.
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