Be prepared: A guide to the spare parts every tech should keep on hand

Whether you provide on-site support or work exclusively from a shop, there are several computer parts you should always have on hand. Find out just which parts the experienced tech is never without and why.

In this week's From the Technical Q&A column, a member, who's starting an on-site computer repair and maintenance service, asked, "What are the most common PC problems I will come across and what parts should I have on hand, and in what quantities, to deal with these problems?"

While it's crucial for traveling techs to keep spare parts handy, it's even more important for those working from a shop to always stock a variety of basic components. Knowing which spare parts to keep on hand can be a real time saver for both you and the customer.

The basics
Some helpful TechRepublic members responded to this question by suggesting some parts always to have on hand, such as RAM, power supplies, PC cases, spare video cards, and CD-ROM drives. I agree, but would also like to recommend that you always have the following:
  • Keyboards (USB, PS2, and even DIN)
  • Mice (USB, PS2, and serial)
  • 3.5" floppy drive
  • Modems
  • NICs
  • Hard drives
  • A couple of surge protectors
  • Cables of all types

I came up with this list of equipment based on my experience working for a chain of hospitals, most of which were in very remote areas. I would typically have to drive up to 600 miles to the middle of nowhere to fix various computer problems. Computer stores were virtually unheard of in these areas and with the distance involved, there was no going back home to get a forgotten part. Unfortunately I was driving a small sports car at the time, so trunk space was at a premium. I had to choose my spare components carefully.

Keyboards, mice, and floppy drives
I started off by carrying a couple of spare keyboards, mice, floppy drives, and a spare monitor. There’s nothing more frustrating than attempting to make a routine repair only to discover that the machine has a bad floppy drive and can’t read your disk. Likewise, it’s amazing how banged up and practically unusable some keyboards and mice can become. I recall one particular repair in which someone routinely ate lunch at his or her desk, and the keyboard actually had a fungus growing on it from the food particles that had accumulated in it. That day, I was really happy to have a spare keyboard because I didn’t want to touch that one.

Modems, NICS, hard drives, and a surge protector or two
I also found it helpful to keep a lot of spare modems on hand. Because I was working in rural areas, broadband was non-existent and everyone used modems to dial in to a remote access server at the corporate office. At the time I took the job, almost none of the modem phone lines passed through surge protectors. It was common to have a storm at night and the next day, find that ten modems had been cooked by power surges. It was then that I also started carrying a few surge protectors with me.

Two other very common casualties are hard drives and NIC cards. Hard drives tend to go out just because they contain moving parts that eventually wear out. I’m not really sure why NICs seem to have such a short lifespan, but I found myself replacing hundreds of NICs during my time working for the hospitals.

Cables also receive frequent damage. I always made sure to keep spare monitor cables, serial cables, USB cables, and especially printer cables on hand. I also kept an entire spool of Cat 5 Ethernet cable in my car. I kept spare RJ-45 connectors on hand along with a crimper so I could repair damaged network cables. Although I didn’t need it very often, I also kept a spare hub behind the seat of my car, because hubs were impossible to find in many of the places I traveled.

Don't forget the tools
When deciding what components you should keep on hand, remember that spare parts aren’t everything. If space permits, keep as many hardware and software tools as you can think of and try to have backups for some. I can’t count the number of times when a screwdriver would disappear, and I wouldn’t have been able to finish a job had I not packed a spare. Likewise, having two sets of tools allows you to use a helper should the situation call for it.

Don't leave home without it
Check out these TechRepublic articles and columns for more advice on what the well-prepared tech carries these days: What spare parts and tools do you always have on hand? Post a comment to this article and share your knowledge. Or visit the Technical Q&A section to find other discussions like this.