How to repair? The death of schematics

There was a time when, if you used a soldering iron, you could easily open a radio or TV repair business. You may not be rich, but you can live a good life. And if you have enough business knowledge to sell, you can do well. There aren’t many repair shops these days and it’s no wonder. Labor costs are rising and things like TVs are falling in price every day. What’s worse is that today’s TVs are not only cheaper than last year’s models, but probably better. Plus, TVs are full of custom parts you can’t get and jam-packed into smaller and smaller cases.

In fact, I saw a “Black Friday” ad for a 40-inch 1080p flatscreen with a streaming controller for $98. Granted, it’s not huge by today’s standards, and I’m sure it’s not a perfect picture. But for $98? Even a giant high-end TV these days can cost a little over $1,000, and you can get something pretty cool for under $500.

Looking back, a Sears ad on a 19″ color TV in 1980 looks a lot. The price? $399. That doesn’t sound too bad until you realize that today it would be around $1,400. So with a ratio of about 3.5 to 1, a $30/hour service call would, today, be $105. So for a one-hour service call with no parts, I could buy that 40″ TV. Add even a simple segment or another hour and I’m getting close to big league TV.

Have you ever wondered how TV repair technicians know what to do? Well, for one thing, most of the time you don’t have to. A surprising number of calls will be something as simple as a fraed line cord or a dirty tuner. Antenna cables destroyed by critters were common enough. In the tube days, you could easily swap out tubes to solve most real problems.

Back to the shop: Raiders and Sams

Many shops will send a junior guy to check simple things and then bring everything else “back to the shop” where someone will troubleshoot at the component level what needs to be done. Surprisingly, many TVs and other consumer electronics at one time had schematics inside the cabinet for the service person. Although they were often compressed.

A rider page for Admiral Radio

There were better options. Raiders would collect data from all the consumer electronics they could find, and they would publish it in huge volumes, sometimes totaling 2,000 pages a year. Many of these old volumes are available on the Internet.

Another major publisher of service data was Sams Photofacts. These folders will contain detailed information about major TVs, radios, CB transmitters, and in some cases computers.

Sam’s is still around and will still sell you their photofacts, so it’s hard to find them online. But if you look around, there are some. You can often buy used original books just like you would a used book. Obviously, the copyright is out on some of the older ones and there are third parties who will sell their copies. You can sometimes find them in libraries too.

Photofact folders were usually very detailed. They will display disassembly instructions and, in addition to schematics, nominal operating waveforms for the gear. It wasn’t uncommon to see a picture of a PCB with a grid of letters and numbers to help you find parts on a crowded board.

These were similar to the car manuals that people often bought for their vehicles. Most service shops will buy these and store them in case a certain brand of set comes back or the same set needs service later.

the part

Parts were probably easier to find as well. Now you have many proprietary chips and assemblies that are hard to source and even impossible to trace Tubes, of course, were ubiquitous. For other parts, service shops often rely on distributors like ECG, which became NTE. They will take parts with wide applicability and package them. They’ve also created cross-reference books that will tell you which parts you can use to replace common consumer electronics parts.

RCA offered a similar service with RCA SK transistors and Motorola had HEP as their brand name. Generally, these parts were more expensive than what a hobbyist could afford, but they were readily available and known to fit, so they were often used in service businesses. NTE is still around and you’ll sometimes find a store with ECG or SK parts in stock, usually in hanging plastic bags or blister packages.

Recycle, recycle

There is something interesting about repairing things instead of trashing them. It should be good for the pocketbook and it’s definitely good for the environment. However, the sad fact today is that many things are beyond repair. Even if there were parts and schematics, unless you can do it yourself like many of us, paying someone to do the repair is probably unlikely. Times have changed. Unless, of course, you can find a repair cafe.