Sam Mencimer was 12 when his dad busted his iPhone.
“He came home one day and was like, ‘Sam, I broke my phone, what should I do? Should I go to the Apple store?’ And I was like, ‘No,’” Mencimer told Motherboard. Mencimer watched YouTube videos and figured out how to repair the phone himself. It was Mencimer’s first repair, but it wouldn’t be his last. Now, at 17, Mencimer runs a thriving repair business and recently testified before the Maryland state legislature about the importance of the right-to-repair.
Mencimer spoke to the Maryland state legislature’s Economic Matters Committee on January 27, 2021 via Zoom. He sat in a garage at his home that doubles as his office and workspace. Bins of electronics sat in the background. A circuit board microscope with its light still glowing rested next to a multimeter.
“I’m here because I think right-to-repair is an incredibly important issue,” Mencimer said. “When people started working from home, work started revolving around electronics. Every kid needed a computer to go to school.”
Mencimer explained that the early days of the pandemic stressed repair stores across the country.
“It’s also completely changed how people see independent repair shops,” he said. “People like me keep people’s electronics working while Apple closed all their stores…they were quoting a 4 to 8 week turnaround time for mail-in repairs. I was fixing people’s devices that were under warranty because these people couldn’t wait 4 to 8 weeks for Apple to fix their stuff.”
He picked up a stack of motherboards behind him. “This is a stack of motherboards from Chromebooks for a school district in Long Island, New Jersey,” he said. “My job is to repair them because Acer will not sell replacement parts for them. There’s no documentation available for them so I have to use what I have here to reverse engineer these things. I try to figure out how second graders break them in ways I never thought were possible.”
Mencimer told the committee that he’d discovered he can’t repair the boards because Google hasn’t made the firmware available for one of the chips on the board. The chip is paired to the Chromebook’s original hardware and Mencimer said he can’t pair it to a repaired machine without help from Google.
“So this stack of motherboards is going to go into the e-waste pile and the school is going to have to buy new Chromebooks,” he said. “Right-to-repair would mean that I could reprogram that chip…I just want to be able to swap out parts on these computers and have them work again.
The journey from repairing his father’s phone to testifying before a state legislative body only took five short years. And it all started on the carpeted floor of his living room. “I lost ten screws along the way,” he told me. “But I plugged it all back in and it worked. And I was like, ‘Wow, I can make money off of this. So of course, the middle school cafeteria is a pretty good place to find people who have broken phones.”
He had trouble getting the business going in the early days, but he fixed a friend’s phone for free and word of mouth spread. Pretty soon, he said that even teachers wanted him to fix their stuff.
He started running up against issues with Apple products pretty fast. On newer iPhones, several of the device’s internal pieces are paired with each other. When a part is replaced, like the screen, the phone recognizes it’s using an aftermarket screen and cuts off some functionality. Mencimer said there’s often workarounds for these issues, but they’re time consuming. “That’s really what my work ends up consisting of,” he said. “It’s about ‘how do we [repair] this so the phone doesn’t realize it’s fixed?’”
He had a similar problem with the Chromebooks he mentioned in his testimony, though he did finally figure out why the second graders kept breaking their machines. He said he has hundreds of them that he can’t fix.
“The H1 chip on these Chromebook motherboards internally shorts itself when small children drop them with the charger plugged in,” he said. “The USB-C port on the motherboard falls off and the pins bridge together and it sends 20 volts where they shouldn’t go. Every one of these that has a dead H1 chip also has a mangled USB-C port.”
Google is famously open source and more repair friendly than Apple. “But it just goes to show that if these manufacturers don’t make any effort to make [schematics and repair information] available to the public they’re gonna have problems like these motherboards,” he said. “And now they’re pieces of garbage.”
Right-to-repair laws could help Mencimer repair the Chromebooks and save them from the garbage. More access to schematics, basic repair information, and diagnostic tools would make everyone’s life easier, drive down the cost of repairs, and save e-waste from filling up landfills.
Mencimer said that his business picked up during the pandemic and that the increased demand highlighted the desperate need for right-to-repair legislation. As Apple shut down its repair stores and the wait times for mail-in repairs expanded, he started seeing an uptick in the number of people asking for repairs for Apple products.
“I was fixing devices that were still under warranty, and people were paying incredible amounts of money,” he said.
Early in the pandemic, a customer paid Mencimer $900 to fix a 2016 MacBook Pro. There’s been two recalls on the machines, the keyboard and the screen are faulty, and Apple would have repaired the device for free, but the wait time was eight weeks.
“So I replaced his screen and his keyboard and he paid $900 for a computer that would have been fixed by Apple for free because Apple could not physically provide the service he needed,” he said.
Mencimer is applying to college right now and plans to study electrical engineering. “I want to be the guy who figures out how to make these things better,” he said. He described a future where parts for different computers were standardized and the information about their components was available to everyone.
“If I were given the choice, I’d do all I could to make electronics more durable and last longer,” he said.