Why we throw it away

There’s been discussion here and on woodworking forums about how we’ve become a throw-away society. Here’s an example of how that’s happened.

While not directly related to woodworking, I think this serves as a good illustration of how manufacturers – whether of the furniture you buy, or the tools you buy to make furniture – would rather you get rid of something broken and buy a new one instead of repairing it. To start, take a look at the photo below.

That’s our master bathroom light, which (until yesterday) was broken for nearly two years. Inside each of those conical metal shrouds above the glass globes is a ceramic bulb socket attached to a bracket. The threaded ends of those curved tubes fit inside the metal shrouds. A nut below the bracket goes onto the threaded end of the tube to secure both socket and metal shroud to the curved tube. The wires to the socket run through the hollow tube and into the shroud. OK, got all that?

Well, a decade of replacing light bulbs loosened the bracket nut in one of the fixtures. Because the nut is behind the socket inside the metal shroud, there was no way to tighten it, so that fixture was loose for several months. Eventually, the nut came all the way off. It had the wires going through it, remember, so it didn’t fall out, but the socket, shroud and glass were no longer anchored. The short amount of slack in the wires, about 1/2″, allowed the whole fixture to swing merrily in the breeze for two years. Why two years? Because the only way to access that retaining nut was to dismantle the whole thing, which I had neither the time nor inclination to do, as I knew it would not be a fast repair. So I let it slide.

After two years, though, I couldn’t stand it any longer. Here’s what it took to fix.

Take down the entire fixture. Undo the light’s wiring harness from the house wiring. (Took two people – one to support the light while I disconnected the wiring.) Remove the light to a work area more suitable than our small vanity. Undo the wiring to that one dangling fixture from the light’s wiring harness. Push/pull the loose fixture’s wiring out through that curved tube (the hardest part of the task, it turned out) to allow enough slack for the socket to clear the shroud. Unscrew the bracket from the socket. Remount the bracket inside the shroud to the threaded end of the curved tube, which secured both bracket and shroud. Push/pull the wiring back up into the tube to draw the socket to the bracket. Use needle-nose pliers to set the small bracket screw into a tiny hole inside the socket (too small for fingers). Tighten bracket screw to secure socket. Reconnect the now-tightened fixture’s wires to the light’s wiring harness. Reconnect the light’s wiring harness to the house wiring. (Took two people – one to hold the light while I reconnected the wiring.) Replace all six light bulbs and glass globes.

Keep in mind that there was some fumbling with that tiny bracket screw and getting it seated, testing the wiring when reconnected, plus some difficulty in getting the entire light seated on the four screw posts holding it to the wall, getting out and putting away a ladder, separate trips to the breaker panel, and a bunch of other little steps I didn’t mention above. So, putting everything together, simply tightening a loose nut took nearly an hour and twenty minutes.

And that’s taking into consideration that I knew exactly what caused the problem and how to fix it, plus I knew the electrical part of the task. Would a typical homeowner? Probably not.

And that’s what manufacturers count on.



  • Al Horowitz says:

    How about when it is cheaper to buy a new item than to repair the old one. Example: I was going to make a set of T.V. trays, but ended up buying a set made of hardwood because it cost less than buying the lumber and building it myself. Another example. The printhead on my computer printer needed replacing. I bought a new printer for $10 more than it would cost to repair my 3 year old printer.

  • As Red Green said “If you’re not hansom at least be handy.”

    You’re right AJ. Manufacturers hate us folks who fix stuff.


  • Dan says:

    I know EXACTLY of this situation AJ, I have a set of two lights made precisely the same as yours, with the identical problem. I “solved” it by moving the light bar to a spot in a dark corner of my shop, to illuminate the contents of some drawers. I carefully removed the bulb from the “swing(ing) merrily in the breeze” socket, replaced it with a CFL, which should last the rest of my life. It sticks out beyond the shroud, ugly, but since it is not in my bath but in a ugly corner of a cellar shop…
    Also had the same problem as Al, printhead = $200, new printer = $50
    And with an oven, new part = $400, oven 10 years ago = $500. (Fixed that one by inserting some insulation between the shorted control ribbon and metal frame)
    We truly are and have been for some time a throwaway society, of both things and people.

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