Repair, rebuild or recondition: Which is the sustainable choice?

Paul Studebaker explores the fix-or-replace decision with sustainability in mind.

By Paul Studebaker, CMRP, editorial director

Walking out of my house on Sunday morning, May 22, I couldn’t tell whether or not the rapture had occurred. My family and I, as well as many of my neighbors, were still evident, but that was no surprise. Monday morning’s traffic was a little lighter than usual, and all my coworkers showed up, but again, that’s no proof that the truly righteous had, or had not, been taken. Absolutely none of the usual email had gone missing.

But when I went to start my lawnmower, I saw a sign that, indeed, the apocalypse had arrived. For the first time in 29 years, the old Honda HRA214 SX would not start, because it would not make a spark.

For all those years, so long as I put a little Stabil in the gas, that mower would start on the second pull the first time out in the spring and on the first pull for the rest of the season. But this year, the old beast has become, relatively speaking, a parts-eating machine: a new blade, a new foam sock for the air cleaner, even a new pair of front wheel bushings. At this rate, I might have to replace the original spark plug.

A replacement ignition coil costs $80, which is pretty pricey. It still makes economic sense to fix the mower rather than buy a new one, but is it the right thing to do from a sustainability point of view?

When I bought the mower back in 1982, I used it a lot more. Now, I just run it about 15 minutes a week to do edges and tight areas where my riding mower doesn’t fit. When it was new, its four-stroke, overhead-valve efficiency and emissions were state-of-the-art in a market full of two-strokes and flatheads. Now, I could probably do the job with an electric mower. Back then, I needed the self-propulsion. Now I could use the exercise of pushing.

When lifecycle energy consumption was considered, more than half of the rebuilds either used more energy or the energy balance was too close to call.

Even if the alternative was simply replacing it with a new, gas-powered, self-propelled mower, fixing the old one might not be the most sustainable choice. A new mower would probably be lighter and more efficient. It might leak less oil and gasoline fumes and have cleaner exhaust. Besides, running to the Honda dealer for parts burns a lot of gas.

A recent MIT study of remanufacturing versus replacement looked at 25 cases in eight categories, from motor rewinds to retreading tires and refilling ink cartridges. Reconditioning by itself almost always saved energy over a new component, but researchers found that, when lifecycle energy consumption was considered, more than half of the rebuilds either used more energy or the energy balance was too close to call.

If the remanufactured item is less energy-efficient than a new product, the extra energy used over its lifetime generally cancels out the savings from the manufacturing stage. This is a big deal in motor rewinds, as new motors tend to be several percent more efficient than the ones that are wearing out. This has some folks wondering if an older motor can be rewound to be more efficient, and motor experts say it’s not likely. New motors have differences in design, materials, bearings and precision that old motors just can’t match.

But if the component in question doesn’t consume energy, the MIT researchers say you can usually be confident that reconditioning is the more sustainable option.

That’s the case with most of the electrical components that are reconditioned by members of the Professional Electrical Apparatus Recyclers League (PEARL), who met May 15 to discuss, among other things, why LEED doesn’t recognize using remanufactured electrical equipment as a way to earn points for incorporating recycled materials in a new structure. You can get credit for using staves of old-growth redwood from recycled water towers hauled in from California instead of steel siding, but not for freshly rebuilt, certified switchgear or circuit breakers. Go figure.

As for my mower, for me, the fix-or-replace decision boils down, as it often does, to knowledge and infrastructure. I have the manual and a collection of accessories, and I understand how that old machine works — even better now that I had to find and test the coil. Besides, we’ve been through a lot of grass together. That’s green enough for me.

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