Monday, October 27, 2008

Cheesy Products: The Case of the Solar-Powered Lamp

Less than a year ago, I responded to my wife's request to install a light on the stairway leading down from our back deck into the back yard. Her elderly father, who lives with us, goes down those stairs at night when he lets his dog out for the usual reason that dogs like to go out, and even with a flashlight the stairs can be tricky. She mentioned seeing advertisements for solar-powered light-emitting-diode (LED) lamps, so I found one at a local hardware chain store and screwed it to the stairway near the bottom.

From the start, the thing was somewhat of a disappointment. After dusk fell the first night, I was hoping its light would be enough to see the stairs by. But frankly, it reminded me of Mark Twain's candle supplied by a skinflint innkeeper. Twain complained that the candle was so dim he needed a second candle to see the first one by. If you looked carefully out in the back yard after dark, you'd see a dim bluish light hovering somewhere in the blackness, but it served more like a lighted buoy in a channel than as a source of illumination for the steps. Still, it was better than nothing.

Time went on, winter, spring, summer, and somewhere along the line, the lamp quit working. It was getting as much sunlight as it ever did, so I decided to do a post-mortem on the thing. It's 98% plastic, of course, and the works are all in the top. A white LED shines down on a conical reflector in the base that scatters light back up along a cylindrical diffuser behind a translucent white plastic box. Inside the lid I found connections to the solar cell itself (installed in a square opening on the top), a cadmium sulfide photocell, and wires leading to a circuit board. I haven't bothered to trace out the whole thing, but it looks like they used a CMOS-type integrated circuit (IC) to detect the light level with the photocell and switch the 2.4-volt rechargeable battery pack to the LED when it gets dark.

That is all fine and good, but this thing sat out in the weather. Somehow water got on the top (not a startling eventuality), made its way inside, and created a nice little rust spot on the circuit board next to the IC. CMOS ICs are notoriously sensitive to small leakage currents, and the conductive rust likely shorted out something or other, causing the entire apparatus to fail.

Now in the grand scheme of engineering ethics, this is not a big deal. My father-in-law didn't trip in the dark and break his hip, the monetary losses are small (twenty-five bucks or so, if I recall correctly), and after all, the lamp did give us nearly a year of service, such as it was. And I suppose it may have even come with a one-year warranty with which, if I bothered to fill out the paperwork, get a return authorization, and ship it back, I could get a new one. But what would happen then? In a year or so I'd have to do the same thing all over again.

Cheesy bargain-basement products intentionally made to last just long enough but no longer are nothing new. As industrialization during the 1800s made possible the mass production of stamped-metal products, complaints arose about how the market was flooded with goods that barely lasted long enough to take home. But somehow, there is always a market for a thing that's a little cheaper than the next comparable product, even if it doesn't work as well. These products are generally made by anonymous factories in Asian countries (the lamp in question is made in the Peoples' Republic of China, to use the official name), sold under nice-sounding brand names (this unit carries the brand of Hampton Bay, which makes a decent line of ceiling fans), and carried by the Wal-Marts and Lowe's Hardwares of the world. And yes, it takes that kind of a system to deliver goods at the lowest prices possible.

But see what you get: a product whose impermanence is almost guaranteed. The problem I'm speaking of could have been prevented with a better weather seal, but that would have added manufacturing steps, labor costs, maybe some added R&D costs, and the price would have gone up a dollar or two. And with the ruthless international market to deal with, the designer said to heck with it, let's ship it as is.

Of course, in principle I could have spent a few more dollars and gotten a better product, but only if one were available. But I did the easy thing, which was to go to the big-box store, find the cheapest thing that did what I wanted (or at least claimed to), and bought it. Judging by the selection available, that's what most people do. I'm a believer in spending a little more if you know you'll get a better product that will last longer, but such options are not always available. In some areas of consumer electronics, the tendency is to drive toward the bottom of the product lineup, cutting costs while maintaining a minimum of functionality. And we as consumers vote with our money to encourage such behavior.

Was it wrong for that designer to neglect the problem that killed the lamp after less than a year? I can't say unequivocally yes, and yet this situation falls into a kind of gray area of ethics that I personally would not want to spend a lot of time in. Cutting corners and trusting to warranties to get you out of legal trouble does not add to one's reputation, but then brand recognition and reputation is such an ephemeral thing nowadays that I'm not sure anyone worries about it much anymore. If I'm in the market for a ceiling fan any time soon (although in contrast to this lamp, ceiling fans seem to run forever), I might consider Hampton Bay, but not for solar-powered lamps.

As for the backyard stairs, I went out and bought a set of three solar-powered lights that use a pole-mounted solar-powered battery. The new lights are much brighter than the old lamp, and you can actually see the stairs better than the lamps. But the other night my wife told me one of the lights had gone out, and a few days later the whole system died. I've just finished exchanging the solar unit for a new one and tracing out a short somewhere that mysteriously disappeared. It works for now, but we'll see how long it lasts.

No comments:

Post a Comment