Monday, July 25, 2011

Repair or replace?

[Note to readers: Once again, apologies for the long lag time between entries. Our last two weekends were completely booked up, the last one with family and the one before that with friends, and during the intervening week our free time was partly filled up with evening engagements and partly drained away by the brain-frying effects of last week's record-breaking heat wave. So this entry, originally started a week ago, is only now coming to press (changing somewhat in the process to reflect the events of the past week). We now resume your regularly scheduled blog.]

My husband's old ten-speed bike, originally cobbled together by his dad from the parts of three other old bikes found at police auctions, looks like it may be on its last legs (or wheels, as it were). The brakes aren't functioning, and the rear wheel has four broken spokes—more than the bike shop is willing to repair.  So we're faced with the age-old question: repair or replace? Is it worth trying to fix it, or is it time to give up and send it to the landfill?

Naturally, we tried first to figure out if there was a way to do the former on the cheap. I put out an APB on Freecycle for a 27-inch bicycle wheel from a ten-speed, but the only response we got was from a guy in another town who said, "Will an old and rusted one do?"—and then didn't respond to my "We'll try it, when can we pick it up?" We might have more luck looking for a whole non-working ten-speed bike, rather than just the rear wheel—but then we'd have the rest of the bike to dispose of.

Next we looked into the cost of repairing the bike with new parts. Brian checked with the local bike shop and found that he could get a new wheel and a new brake line for $70 (plus $20 if he wanted them to install it). But it isn't really clear whether this is a more ecofrugal option than picking up an entire bike secondhand. Is it better, environmentally speaking, to keep our old bike on the road with new parts, or to keep someone else's old bike on the road and scrap ours? I checked on Craigslist and found several used 10-speeds for around $65, a bit less than it would cost to repair the old one—but in each case, we'd have to drive an hour or more to pick up the bike (and we might find after looking at it that it wasn't worth the money).

It seems clear that either buying used or repairing with new parts is the best option, but just to get a complete picture, I also checked to see how much a basic new bike would cost. I checked the ConsumerSearch report on "comfort bikes" (that is, bikes suited for commuting and other light use) and found that their top pick in the "budget" category costs close to $500. This, clearly, is the least ecofrugal option of all; it would cost more than five times as much as repairing the old bike, plus the environmental cost of all the new materials and energy required to manufacture it.

And yet, I must confess, there's a part of me that wants to choose this option. Why? Because we recently went through this same decision process with my ten-year-old Macintosh computer, and the verdict in that case was "replace." So we have just spent about $700 on a new Mac Mini for me (along with the various cables and bits of software we had to replace because the creaky old versions I've been using won't work on the new machine). And even though this computer was a genuine need and not a want—even though my old computer was ten years old, and so slow at Web surfing that it was impeding my ability to do my job, probably costing us money because it took me so much longer to finish each work assignment—even though it's at least partly a business expense that I can deduct on my taxes, and even though I made a good-faith effort to repair the old one first by adding more memory, only concluding that I truly needed a new one when the upgrade failed to speed the machine up significantly—even so, still I can't help feeling somehow that if I got to buy a whole new computer, Brian shouldn't have to settle for repairing his old bike. If we just spent a big chunk of money on me, in other words, we should spend a comparable chunk of money on him.

I know this is an incredibly stupid way to make this decision. I guess the problem is, I don't really have a good sense of what would be a smart way to make it. If I had a straightforward "repair or replace" formula in my head (e.g., [cost to replace] / [cost to repair] * [annoyance factor of current item] / [annoyance factor of repaired item]), I could just apply it and feel confident that I'd always made the right decision. But this seems to be one of those choices that you have to make at least partly based on emotion, and emotional factors (such as "how much do I hate this old computer?" and "how much do I love the new one?") are much harder to quantify. The few formulas I have seen for making repair-or-replace decisions have all been fairly limited in scope—for example, "replace your old car when the cost to repair it exceeds its book value"—and even those seem flawed to me. The cost to repair the car may be more than its book value, but chances are, if you replace the car, you will not be replacing it with a used car exactly the same age, make, model, and condition as the one you have. Even assuming you could find such a car, it still wouldn't be identical to the old car; you wouldn't know how it had been driven over the past several years, or how carefully it had been maintained. (Thus, when we had the accident that totaled our old Honda, we decided to keep driving it, even though the insurance company thought the repairs would cost more than the car was worth. They were, but they were still less than it would cost us to buy another car that we could trust the way we trusted the old one.)

Or, to take an example offered by Consumer Reports, "If your appliance is eight or more years old, usually it makes sense to buy a new one. If you have a favorite high-end, older appliance, you may want to repair it...But skip any repair that costs more than half the price of a new product." This may be a nicely calibrated break-even point if you're doing the calculation purely in dollar terms, but what about environmental considerations? Shouldn't you factor in how much it's worth to you to keep your old appliance out of the landfill (and, on the other side of the equation, the potential energy savings of replacing it)?

Has anyone out there ever heard of—or thought up—a simple, useful rule for determining when it's best to repair an item, and when it's time to replace?
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