In several previous articles on SurvivalBlog.com (‘Elements of a Security System‘, ‘Surviving With Electronics’ & ‘Tactical Technology for TEOTWAWKI’) I discussed various ways you can utilize technology like electronics to help you prepare and survive. However, the best technology in the world won’t do you any good if it isn’t working, and you probably won’t be able to go online and order a replacement after the grid goes down. The problem is that electronics are like magic to a lot of people, and the thought of opening a device up and repairing it isn’t something they’ve ever considered. Part of this is due to the societal market conditioning we’ve been receiving since childhood that you always need to have the latest and greatest so you should upgrade instead of repair, and part of it is due to the fact that most people aren’t being taught even basic problem solving skills these days. The reality is that performing common repairs on most electronic devices is actually pretty simple and straightforward, and it just requires the ability to logically approach problems and some simple tools and supplies. Note that ‘electronics’ doesn’t just mean thing like tablets, cell phones and computers – red dot sights, night vision devices, drones, security cameras, flashlights and many other devices commonly included in preps can fail and need to be repaired.
The purpose of this article is to discuss how to adopt a ‘repair, not replace’ approach to electronic devices and the skills, tools and resources you can use to support that approach, both in normal times as well as after the grid goes down. I’m going to focus on small electronics, not major things like appliances, televisions, computers, etc., all of which require a lot of specialized knowledge, tools and supplies. However, the underlying approach of learning how to repair things can be applied to pretty much anything.
The Easiest Repair
The easiest possible repair is quite simply the one you never have to make because you took the appropriate care to prevent problems or failures, to begin with. Even though manufacturers may not provide the same level of quality that they used to, a significant percentage of failures tend to happen just because people simply don’t take care of or perform basic preventative maintenance on the things that they own. When was the last time you charged or changed the batteries in that device you stored as part of your preps, updated the software/firmware on your devices, or cleaned the dust and dirt off of your devices? I’ve acquired a lot of devices and electronics over the years at little or no cost from people that failed to take basic care of them – all it took was some simple troubleshooting and a little elbow grease on my part to get them working again. While every item has different requirements, here are some general preventative maintenance tips that can reduce or eliminate the need to repair things:
- Clean – Pretty much everything works better and lasts longer if you keep it clean. Wipe down screens with an alcohol wipe, clean dust and dirt out of ports, regularly remove pet hair from fan motors, etc. For things with mechanical moving parts like cooling fans you should remove the covers and clean the insides on a regular basis, especially if you have furry pets or use them outside a lot.
- Maintain – Basic preventive maintenance is another key to keeping things working as they should for a long time. Users manuals usually include some information on maintenance tasks that you should follow, including things like regular charging or changing batteries, temperature ranges for storing, checking for updates, etc. Basic preventive maintenance will allow you to invest in a simple and cheap 30-minute fix instead of spending money on a replacement later on (assuming a replacement is even available).
- Use – Use the right tool the right way for the job to reduce the risk of damage. I love that commercial where a father walks into the kitchen and grabs the newspaper, his young daughter takes the newspaper away and hands him a tablet, then he proceeds to use the tablet to swat a fly on the wall.
It really is amazing how much time and money you can save by taking care of your stuff. Doing so now allows you to invest more resources in your preparations, and doing so after a grid-down scenario will allow you to continue using the tools and devices that may save your life.
Successfully repairing something actually starts with recognizing there’s a problem to begin with. This can be the result of one of two possible conditions – either the device isn’t working at all, or it isn’t working as desired or intended. Not working at all tends to be the easier one to recognize – your device won’t turn on, the screen is dead, etc. Reduced, incorrect or inconsistent operation can sometimes be harder to figure out and requires you to be aware of how the item is supposed to function. For example, your radio is intermittently cutting out during transmissions or the device becomes unresponsive occasionally. Regardless of the condition, the first step is to really understand the problem.
To begin with, is the item being used in a correct manner for it’s intended functions? Many many years ago I did contracting work for a large computer technology company as part of a customer support ‘tiger team’ to help large customers troubleshoot problems. Based on my admittedly hazy recollections I’d estimate that somewhere around half of the calls we handled were what we referred to as ‘PEBKAC’ – Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair, better known as user error or operator error. There were quite a few instances of something simply not even being plugged in, but the bulk of them were that folks just didn’t read the instructions. Even today I’d estimate that a significant percentage of the troubleshooting I do for family and friends is simply a case of user error, so you should always start with the most basic of questions:
- What are you trying to accomplish with the item?
- Is it set up or configured correctly?
- Is it being used correctly for it’s intended purpose?
- Have you read the instructions?
- Is it charged or does it have good batteries?
Once you know the answers to these questions you can frequently ‘fix’ the problem pretty easily. For an item that’s not functioning at all, defining the problem is usually pretty straightforward – the radio won’t power on, etc. What to do about it is the next question.
Before you get started in troubleshooting and repairing small electronics, there are a few things you should have in your tool kit. I’ve tried to put together a kit that’s relatively inexpensive and doesn’t require access to 110V/220V wall power in order to operate, and which can be stored long-term. The goal is to be able to support basic electronic repair for many years after you’ve lost access to the grid.
Here’s what I recommend:
- Soldering iron – This allows you to repair broken wires or connectors, remove soldered components, etc. The one I have for emergency use has a USB-rechargable battery from an e-cigarette and uses screw-on tips with a 510 thread. You can get one of these for around $10-$20 – just search for ‘USB soldering iron’.
- Soldering iron tips – Having a couple of different tips allows you to select the one that works best based on the shape of the pieces you’re trying to solder. Most soldering irons come with multiple tips, but you can usually find extras for a few dollars. Just make sure they fit your soldering iron.
- Solder – This is the material you use to solder with. I recommend stocking up on some rosin core solder (see next item).
- Rosin – This is a sticky paste you brush on to the two pieces you’re soldering together. It evaporates rapidly when it gets heated by the soldering iron and cleans surface contaminants so the solder flows and sticks better. Note that solder rosin is basically resin obtained from pine trees, heated to remove the liquid, then crushed into a powder and mixed with alcohol, so you can actually make your own if you run out in a post-disaster situation.
- Solder wick – This is a braided copper strip that you can use to absorb solder in case you need to de-solder something.
- Soldering stand (aka ‘third hand’) – This is optional, but it makes soldering things together a whole lot easier. The one I have is a Kotto Third Hand 5-arm version, but you can find less expensive models for around $20. I recommend something with at least 3 arms.
- Small needle-nose pliers – A pair of small needle-nose pliers are useful for picking up small pieces, holding them in place, etc. For some reason marketing folks like to use the term ‘precision’ in place of ‘small’ – I guess it sounds fancier.
- Small screw drivers – You’ll need the standard flat head and Phillips, along with a variety of small hex, star and other weird screws that tend to be used in electronics.
- Tweezers – Same thing as the needle-nose pliers. You should consider a quality set of plastic ones, since they won’t short anything out if you touch the wrong thing.
- Small wire cutters/strippers – For cutting and stripping wire. Note that a lot of the wires in electronics tend to be on the thinner side, so get a stripper that handles a range of around 16-26AWG.
- Spludger (or Spudger) – This is a fancy name for a small pry bar, which is useful for prying cases open. Plastic ones tend to be the most useful for prying open plastic cases, since they’re less likely to mess up the plastic, but thin metal ones can be used for tougher pry jobs.
- Dental picks – These can be useful for applying very precise pressure.
- Magnifier – Electronic devices can be small, so having some way to enhance your view can help a lot. I have a pair of magnifying glasses with changeable strength magnifying lenses and built-in LED lights that I picked up for $10 at my local dollar store. You could also use a USB microscope that plugs into your cell phone, but that’s probably overkill.
- Headlamp – If you’re not using a lighted magnifier this will provide extra detail lighting where you’re looking.
- Mutimeter – This is a device that allows you to measure things like voltage, continuity, etc. I have a model EM3085A from All Sun that fits in my pocket and costs around $15 online. It requires a single AAA battery, which lasts forever.
- Hot glue gun – This can be useful for fixing broken cases, attaching small parts, etc. I have one that’s USB rechargeable so it can be used anywhere without an outlet. You can find these for around $10-$15 online. Make sure you stock up on glue sticks that fit your gun.
- Dremel tool – This can do a lot of different things like cutting, cleaning, drilling, etc. I have a Dremel Lite 7760-N/10, which is rechargeable via USB. I received this for a Christmas gift, but you can find equivalent ones for around $25. I recommend you buy a good assortment of bits, including cut off wheels, wire brushes, drill bits, grinding wheels, etc. – you can find packages of over 100 different bits for around $15.
- Heat shrink tubing – This is used to cover wires that you’ve soldered together so they don’t short out. You could also use electrical tape, but it’s not nearly as reliable or sturdy. You can pick up a multi-pack of assorted sizes of tubing for under $10. Note: I’ve never found a cordless USB rechargeable heat gun that works well for heat shrink tubing, so I’ve actually gotten pretty good at using a lighter or candle and just moving the tubing across it rapidly.
- Small zip ties – These are useful for tying up wires to keep them in place and out of the way.
- Wire – You’ll most likely have to replace a wire sometime, so you’ll want to have a selection of different sizes to choose from.
- Parts – Things like switches, relays, jacks, screws, etc. break all of the time, so having replacements can allow you to repair something you might otherwise have to discard. I’ll discuss good sources of these later on.
This might seem like a lot, but much of it can be found pretty inexpensively at places like Harbor Freight, a dollar store or your local hardware outlet. For example, Craftsman has a really nice 6-piece mini-tool kit (part #CMHT81716) for around $20, or Harbor Freight has something similar for around $12. You can find multi-tool electronic repair kits that include dozens of different small driver bits, multiple types of tweezers, spudgers, etc. for around $25. Between Harbor Freight, online ordering, your local dollar store and sales at your local hardware store you can easily put together a decent kit that can be stored in a small ammo can or molle pouch for around $100.
(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 2.)