Think again before you toss that broken toaster into the trash. Instead, bring it to one of Peter Mui’s free Fixit Clinics, where appliances and electronics are reborn and their owners learn to tinker.
On a Sunday afternoon, Mui and his team of 10 fixit coaches bring their assorted tools and talents to Albany’s Community Center for Fixit Clinic # 52. As people walk in toting their goods, Mui calls out introductions, like, “Hey everybody, say hi to Jessica; she has an iPod with a broken click wheel.” The coaches drift to whatever catches their interest, often troubleshooting with one another and always including the appliance owner in the action.
Mui, who works in high tech, has a passion for extending the life of everyday appliances and teaching others to do the same. “Stuff goes into a landfill prematurely; people don’t understand how to fix things,” he says. Since December, 2010, Mui has hosted clinics throughout the Bay Area and beyond. He travelled to Minneapolis to help launch an ongoing clinic there and has participated in other out-of-state events through Skype or google hangout. Mui is eager to spread the clinics far and wide and is always on the lookout for new coaches.
George Chin Sr. of San Leandro is an early arrival at the Albany Community Center, along with his broken DVD player. It spins, but won’t play, showing a read error. Several coaches gather around, including engineer Roy Henrichs who cleans the player using a shop vac and swabs the lens with alcohol. Then they try again—a moment of expectation—but the disc still won’t play. Henrichs takes this in stride and continues to tinker.
Meanwhile, Raymond Yee of Albany has arrived with a toaster oven that won’t power on. “I was going to buy a new one,” he says, “but thought I’d try this first. I don’t want to add another appliance to the landfill.” Several coaches take a look, including engineer Jessie Tung, who says she became part of the fix-it community by working on bikes as a kid. Yee looks on as the coaches open up the toaster, check for continuity in the circuits, and eventually discover a burned-out fuse. He can buy a new fuse and get help replacing it at Mui’s next local clinic. Now the mystery is solved and the toaster is in pieces. Yee dives in and, with Tung’s help, they reassemble it.
Suddenly, a voice calls out “FIXED!” and people cheer. Henrichs has persevered with the DVD player. Straightening a kink in the flex strip and wiggling the strip’s connection to the wiring board has done the trick.
At another table, a few coaches have gathered around Horst Fischer, his 7th-grade son Toby, and their broken espresso maker. The machine proves challenging to take apart, but with many screwdrivers to choose from coaches Steve Berl and Martin Stevenson help Horst to disassemble it. Berl mentions that, as a kid, he took apart his family’s dishwasher when it was declared broken and left outside as trash. “That’s the fun part,” says coach Eleanor Stark, who is also part of the espresso team. “To take the whole thing apart.” Taking the espresso maker apart and trying to figure out which part is broken is a slow, methodical process. The group’s efforts eventually pay off, though, with the discovery that the pump is faulty. Googling reveals that a replacement pump can be had for just $32.
Another coffee maker is in the hands of 10-year-old Samuel Williams, the event’s youngest coach. He and his dad Jeff frequently attend these clinics, and Samuel volunteers that “the easy part is taking it apart, and the hard part is putting it back together.”
Mui, who says he’s “51 and still fun” loves to see the learning process in people of all ages. He’s quick to say that there’s no guarantee that an item can be fixed, but adds, “We guarantee you will learn something from the process of taking it apart.” His t-shirts reads, “Relax. I can fix it,” but over the word “I” Mui has taped a piece of paper with the word “You.” Along with teaching, Mui has bigger ideas for these events: “The surreptitious goal of these clinics,” he says, “is to demystify science and technology so we can make better policy decisions.”
Peter Mui’s next Fixit Clinic: Saturday, June 22, 12:00 noon to 3:00 pm at the Temescal Library.