February 08, 2014
Automation And Home Repair

In the past I've opined that home repair people have jobs that are less susceptible to automation. But a recent episode in my life is causing me to rethink that assessment.

When my heater stopped heating I had to arrange for someone to come over to fix it. It was inconvenient because I had a few hour period during which I had to wait for the guy and I had other things to do somewhere else. So my reaction was basically, hey this is inconvenient, how can future tech make home repair more convenient?

One of the problems was a thermostat in the heater. Curiously, the heater had a light that blinks out a diagnostic trouble code when it is not working. The front panel showed a legend of about 6 different blinking light patterns. I looked in and saw and reported the light pattern before the repair guy arrived. What struck me about it: replacing the thermostat is not hard. I did not need the repair guy so much as instructions and a thermostat (which could be delivered by any of a variety of same day shopping delivery services that are popping up).

What I expect will happen in the future: Heater manufacturers will install WiFi or Bluetooth (or other cheap local wireless) in the heater (and why not the refrigerator, freezer, etc). They will find out the failure even before you do (say it fails when you are asleep or not home). When they think they know the needed part they'll offer the part with express delivery for a price. You will be able to put a camera on your head, look at the refrigerator, and have some remote helper repair tech (who could be servicing a few people at once) guide you thru part replacement.

You will also be able to watch a video of someone replacing a part and do the replacement without ever speaking to a human.

Granted, some types of repairs are too difficult for this approach. But the development of appliance designs (and even plumbing pipe designs) aimed at easy parts replacement could expand the range of defective parts a home owner could replace on their own.

I see a future where we are going to have fewer repair technicians selling repair services to us. What do you see?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2014 February 08 10:25 AM 

Steven said at February 8, 2014 11:21 AM:

YouTube has become my go to place for gauging the difficulty of appliance repairs/maintenance. With overnight or even second day parts delivery, I handle most of my own repairs with just my reasonable set of hand tools. If you can do the repair in an hour for $50 in parts, vs. $200 for a repair call, you are less likely to just throw in the towel and buy a new appliance. Information really is power.

matt said at February 8, 2014 2:21 PM:

There is an incentives mismatch between home-builders and home-buyers. Home buyers want the cheapest plumbing system and heating systems because the more automated system isn't a big selling point to most buyers. Would you choose the place with the nicer kitchen or the better pipes?

This won't happen...at least not now

Ronald Brak said at February 8, 2014 6:22 PM:

I've noticed a considerable number of trades people that turn up don't seem to know what they're doing and they use their mobile phones now to call someone who does and maybe send them some pictures. And if you do get someone who knows what they're doing he will be an old grumpy guy who will spend three quarters of his time on the phone and complain to you about idiots.

Brett Bellmore said at February 9, 2014 5:16 AM:

I suppose my attitude is a little different, because I just read up on it, and built my own house, myself. (Took a bit over two years, and I hired out some things I *could* have done, like digging the basement, because I didn't have excavating equipment.) So, of course, I did all my repairs myself.

Seriously, almost all of this stuff is remarkably simple, if you can't figure it out, you can look it up. Homes are not built and maintained by geniuses.

There are some things that could be done to simplify the work still more, but they'd likely increase the initial cost of the home, and the trend at the moment seems in the opposite direction, lowering initial costs at the expense of the house falling apart on you in a couple decades.

destructure said at February 9, 2014 2:37 PM:


GE, Siemens and Whirlpool have had smart appliances for a while. But I agree that smart appliances are on the verge of breaking out and becoming standard. It will be like automotive where techs read computer codes. Of course, they'll be permanently networked so they'll be programmable and able to do things to save energy, etc.
Ronald Brak

There's a brain drain in the trades. People who would have gone into the trades 20-30 years ago go to college now. I think this is creating an oversupply of college educated people and a shortage of good tradespeople. While college educated people may earn more than trades that's because smarter people tend to go to college. If the same person had gone into a trade instead, who's to say they wouldn't have done better? Think about it -- someone with an IQ of 110 might struggle as an engineer but they'd make an outstanding electrician who could open their own company.

Ronald Brak said at February 9, 2014 5:48 PM:

Destructure, there is definitely a brain drain. In the past only the rich had access to higher education and now that's changed there are fewer geniuses going into trades. And also someone with one year of experience may often seem like an idiot to an impatient person with 40 years experience even if the inexperienced person is actually reasonably bright. But it is interesting how mobile phone technology is being used to allow less skilled to do jobs while in the past they probably would have had to work as an assistant to a skilled person instead of being sent off on their own. The smart phones are being used to save on labour costs.

KenH said at February 9, 2014 10:48 PM:

Low flow toilets have bumped toilet design and toilet repair up to a new level of complexity, which 99% of home owners don't want to think about.
In-line water heaters are now more stuffed with electronics, valves, and sensors, than most robots.
Government mandated resource conservation (e.g. water, energy) will only make everything in the house more complex and fraught, as we move to an even more heightened era of conservation.
If you don't believe this, try installing (and maintaining for 50 years), a grid-tied solar system.

MarkyMark said at February 9, 2014 11:12 PM:

A couple of comments above have picked up on most of what I want to say.

The combination of a smart heater and video phone turn a skilled job into an unskilled job at the location of the broken heater.

But that doesn't mean that the home owner will be the one to undertake the unskilled labour on site.

Already there are a number of unskilled jobs that the owner could do but they contract out. Most notably mowing lawns and garden tidying.

As more and more people compete for unskilled work the wages will (as already happens in places like India) drop to form a smaller and smaller proportion of the overall bill (which will be increasingly parts and transportation costs). In the future you will hire the unskilled handyman for repair jobs aided by third party electronic supervision. Technology may be used to make sure that the workman doesn't steal anything while they are in your house and you're not.

Ronald Brak said at February 9, 2014 11:48 PM:

KenH, we've got more rooftop solar here in Adelaide, South Australia, than just about anywhere else, it supplied about 23% of total electricity use around noon yesterday, and I can't say we've noticed any great difficulty in installing and maintaining grid-tied rooftop solar systems. It's pretty much fire and forget around here. A ten year warranty on inverters is pretty normal and a 25 year warranty on the panels, or at least German panels, is also common. This means that once a system is installed it will probably run for over a decade without a problem and if it fails within a decade then the householder won't be out of pocket. Inverters will generally need to be replaced at some point but they're not very expensive these days and it's easy enough for your local electrician to replace them.

Brett Bellmore said at February 10, 2014 2:55 AM:

"Low flow toilets have bumped toilet design and toilet repair up to a new level of complexity, which 99% of home owners don't want to think about."

Actually, both the toilets I installed in that home, (In Michigan, which scarcely has any shortage of water!) were "low flow", flush multiple times toilets. (The law changed between my ordering them, and their arrival, so I didn't get the models I'd ordered.) The interface to the plumbing was identical, and the innards weren't much different. I'll have to check the low flow model in our new house, it actually functions, and so might be somewhat different internally. But I can confirm that the interface is still the same.

Rigorous said at February 10, 2014 10:25 PM:

I generally don't want to bother doing the fix. But if repair and handymen become in short supply I would do more. Still, I rather pay them to fix things.

Cluebat said at February 11, 2014 5:51 AM:

You are opening up a raft of liability issues here.

I have indeed provided exactly such a service to customers on high tech manufacturing equipment. Asking a homeowner to do this is risky.

Now imagine the phone assistance which has already been outsourced providing direction to Homer Simpson.

Brett Bellmore said at February 12, 2014 3:44 AM:

At the very least, it would require a reform of our tort system. (Which needs reform anyway!) Under current conditions, asking somebody if they shut off the power to a water heater wouldn't immunize you against lawsuit if they electrocuted themselves following your subsequent directions.

David said at February 13, 2014 11:19 PM:

Homebuilding and maintenance is 90% knowing the following two amazing facts:
(1) Water always flows downhill.
(2) You don't want standing water.

As for repairs, they are doable with youtube, some tools and the parts. When I had to repair my dishwasher, I discovered that the parts are not sold by GE to us mere mortals directly, and their list prices are quite high. I have a neighbor whose profession is "HVAC Repairman" which is something that doesn't require a test to get a license, and I don't know exactly what he does, but maybe he gets trade prices for things this way.

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