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Sometimes old is good

18 November 2021

Today we live in a throw-away culture.

Today's premium smartphone is tomorrow's e-waste and the whole concept of repairing electronic devices has been relegated to the history books.

Modern manufacturing techniques have made many products effectively unserviceable through the adoption of components with ball-grid-array (BGA) connections to the underlying circuit boards and super-micro-sized passive elements that require a microscope to even see properly.

These same manufacturing processes have significantly reduced the cost of electronic devices so now it's just not economically viable to fix most modern bits of consumer electronics.

The dramatic changes in electronic design and manufacture that have taken place over the past 30 years were brought into sharp perspective yesterday when the fan on my UPS started making a noise.

This UPS is a quality product made by Siemens, not a piece of cheaply made throw-away tat tossed out the door by some Chinese manufacturer building to the lowest price.

I don't recall exactly when I bought this but it was probably about 1997 or so, which makes it now almost 25 years old.

Unlike most bits of electronics, it has been running 24/7 for almost that entire quarter of a century, quietly (although now not-so quietly) humming away in the background so as to protect my computers from power surges and outages.

This UPS is a true UPS, not just a mis-labeled standby system like so many of the cheaper options on the market. It takes the 230V mains voltage and converts it to DC which then not only charges the three sealed lead-acid batteries onboard but also powers the inverter that creates a separate "clean" 230V sine-wave AC output at up to 1,000 VA.

Throughout its operational life I've only had to replace the batteries about four times which is pretty much in line with the claimed 5-year lifespan for such things, although I will be replacing them next week because they have lost a lot of capacity of late.

The only other time I've had to open this box up was to lubricate the fan about 10 years ago. Now that fan is noisy again so I'll go through the same process again and hope it fixes that problem.

I marvel at the fact that this bit of electronics has been working for so long and, with only minor maintenance, continues to work perfectly well to this day.

Looking inside it is designed in such a way that even if it were to fault, repairing it would be a pretty straightforward and worthwhile endeavour.

I'm pretty sure that by today's standards it's probably bigger and bulkier than it needs to be. In a new unit the SLA batteries could be replaced by lithium-ion ones and more efficient semiconductors would allow the use of smaller heatsinks.

However, I wouldn't swap this hefty beast for a newer "better" unit. The parts in this UPS are "standard" components that are still readily available today, even with the current chip shortage. There are no esoteric one-off bits of silicon that have been spun specifically to save $0.01 on every unit made.

What a shame that today's modern electronics, for all their benefits, improved efficiency and better performance, couldn't be made to be as long-lived and servicable as this piece of history.

A little oil, a blast with some compressed air and three new SLA batteries will likely make sure that my computers and other electronics have a safe, smooth, reliable source of power for at least another five years -- for a tiny fraction the cost of a new unit.

What's the oldest piece of electronic equipment that you still use on a regular basis?

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