Debbie Knight

Repair or Replace? Adventures with wheelbarrows and broken-down lab equipment

In observation on April 13, 2011 at 11:38 am

For a week, I’ve been trolling hardware stores, home improvement stores and Internet sites looking for replacement handles for my (formerly) trusty wheelbarrow so that I could get some yard work done. Ultimately, I was able to find the exact handles I needed, only I would need to buy a new wheelbarrow to get them (apparently, the handles aren’t sold separately at retail stores). I didn’t really want to buy a new wheelbarrow because, with the exception of the rotted wooden handles, the wheelbarrow was in good working order. A seemingly simple thing to fix – except I couldn’t find the parts anywhere and I have no way to do my own woodworking. So, I finally broke down and bought a new wheelbarrow. I still hold out hope to fix the old one, but I had work that could no longer wait.

This experience made me realize (again) just how “disposable” American society has become. There isn’t even supporting infrastructure to repair rather than replace broken equipment. And it’s no wonder the landfills are filling up – they could be overflowing with broken-handled wheelbarrows!

In the academic research setting, there seems to be a little bit of infrastructure to aid in repairs.

Lab equipment (as simple as a research-grade blender or as complicated as a gas chromatograph with mass spectrophotometric capabilities) is quite expensive and many researchers will make a valiant effort to repair the equipment before buying a costly replacement.

If they’re lucky, they have a service contract held on the equipment, so a service call can readily fix the problem. Of course, those service contracts usually cost a few thousand dollars, so not every piece of lab equipment can be covered.

Some labs and departments cannot afford such contracts. So in those situations, and if they’re lucky, there’s a mechanically-inclined person in the lab or down the hallway who can figure out why the equipment is no longer working.

Sometimes, the manufacturer has parts available, and sometimes they don’t. In those cases, you might have to come up with a “creative” repair solution (for those who ever watched the TV show “MacGyver” would understand what I mean by “creative” – the guy could fix anything with a paper clip and duct tape).

The creative solution could add years to the equipment’s lifespan or it might just work long enough to get you through the next experiment or two until a more permanent solution can be found.

Perhaps we all could learn (or re-learn) a lesson here. Perhaps we could think twice about running out to the retail store to replace that broken toaster or blender. Perhaps an attempt to repair could be made before the appliance is heaved into the old landfill where it might ultimately end up next to the broken-handled wheelbarrow.


  1. Great finish to the post. At the very least, if it can’t be repaired, recycle the piece of equipment.

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