We're late and we're unreliable but we won't invalidate your warranty: We're engineers!

All we know is hate and machinery

Something for the Weekend, Sir? My pants are on fire. Would you like to take a look?

Of course you wouldn't, don't be ridiculous. Besides, my shreddies are not ablaze at all. I was fibbing. No doubt they may be found later tonight dangling from some pole or gallows.

Even if my nicknacks did catch alight, calling the emergency services would be a short-term measure, and even then only for a veritable roaring bonfire of the shreddies. But if my cuttys had merely an annoying propensity to smoulder from time to time or produce the occasional shower of sparks – come on, it's happened to us all at some point – I'd need some expert technical intervention.

So who do you call in to deal with hot chuddies? An artificial fabrics chemist? A heating engineer? An air-conditioner installation team? The lingerie manager at Anne Summers? The right tradesperson for the job isn't always evident.

I am struggling with this kind of conundrum at the moment as no one is prepared to own up as to who should maintain the modest array of solar panels on the roof of my newly purchased house.

The boiler man was a bit iffy. The plumber politely refused in that emphatically repetitive way people do when put on the spot (ie, "Oh no no no no no no"). The water and electricity companies had no idea. To date, the most expert specialist in solar energy to visit the house has been a roofer, and only because he had some ladders.

I'd have a tweak at the system myself, but two things stand in my way, quite apart from the obvious fact that I know bugger-all about channelling energy captured by photovoltaics. First, I can't make head nor tail of the control panel, even less so after reading the instructions. Second, and this is the more important of the two, I'm not sure I'm allowed to do any tweaking.

Do any third-party, unsanctioned repair work and I could find myself on the wrong side of officialdom, if not the law.


Harry Tuttle, for those who don't know, was a freelance repairman in 1985's Brazil, a surrealist nightmare of a crappily engineered future world

The last time I bought a house was 21 years ago, and by a curious coincidence that was also the last time I bothered to read all the small print of a home insurance policy. The intervening decades had me crawling all over the house, hammering on stuff that looked like it needed hammering, unscrewing and rescrewing things that I believed ripe for such treatment, and pulling tubes out of walls and ceilings, poking unpleasant bits back out of sight and generally splicing and rerouting cables as the mood took me. And I haven't even mentioned the digging.

I hate DIY, mind.

I learnt this particular lesson from trying to tile a bathroom in an earlier property. Every day I'd get home from work, wolf down dinner and then toil until midnight putting up another row of tiles. By morning, a few of these would have fallen off the wall, followed by a couple more by the time I got home that evening, ready to do it all again.

It's uncanny how a room barely bigger than a bathtub can transform into dimensions akin to those of an Olympic swimming pool the moment you decide to do "a bit of tiling". I was tiling that effing bathroom for months. And it looked shit when I'd finished.

So sometimes you need to call in the experts: they're quicker at the basic stuff and know how to get around the snags. If you've ever watched a painter-decorator at work with wallpaper, you know what I mean. In their commanding hands, wallpaper is simply too scared to peel or sag. Me, I tried wallpapering a room once and it ended up looking like bubblewrap.

Anyway, back to that insurance policy.

A closer look at the brand new insurance terms and conditions of my brand new home reveals that I'm no longer permitted to be quite so cavalier with the old cable pliers. At least, not if the insurance company thinks my cack-handed amateur interventions might have caused whatever disaster it is I might subsequently try to claim on.

I get the impression that home insurers are now emulating the evasive warranty terms inflicted by hardware and software manufacturers in the IT industry. In our world, of course, merely tearing a flimsy strip of paper, turning a proprietary screwhead or, er, passively and totally non-intrusively slipping heated box cutters between unnecessarily glued components is enough to invalidate a warranty and legally permit the Devil to claim your soul and sell your children into slavery.

Such Ts & Cs were first made known to me when, shortly after beginning my long career as an unqualified dogsbody, I dismantled one of the few PCs in the office – this was 1987 – in order to find out why the hard disk was squeaking like a rusty wheel. One thing I learnt was that a hard disk in those days was, in fact, a rusty wheel – at least in the same sense that audio tape is a length of rusty flat string.

The other thing I learnt was that I should not do this again because it upset the reviews editor on the magazine where I worked. This was inconsistent with the response of the managing director who couldn't see what the problem was even though it was his PC, and the magazine's technical editor, who thought it was funny. The upset tech ed left the magazine shortly afterwards to join Computer Shopper and did very well, so she was probably right.

Anyway, such heavy-handed restrictions on Harry Tuttle-ry in the domestic theatre has frightened me off. We even had to call in an electrician to play hunt-the-brick on our behalf when the kitchen ceiling spots failed to illuminate.

Good job we did as it turned out whoever had redesigned the kitchen before us must have been hurried, confused or high on drugs. After dismantling everything that could be dismantled, plus a few items that could not, our demon electrician eventually located the failed transformer – an insane steampunk-like block the size of a doorstep – stuffed into the chimney passage used by the extractor fan above the hob.

If I could find whoever installed that, I'd certainly love to stuff that transformer up his chimney passage. That would be a warranty worth invalidating.


Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He has been let down so often by technicians and engineers not turning up when they had been booked that he is particularly suspicious about the only one that did. He fears that agreeing to an appointment and sticking to it could be the sign of a rogue amateur. @alidabbs

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