Exploring experienced equipment
For small- to mid-size benchtop operations, a ‘pre-driven’ piece of test equipment may be financially attractive.
“Out with the old, and in with the new.” It’s a time-honored cliche, and one that more than a few people adhere to. There is a certain thrill to buying a new car, a new home or even a new suit that no one has ever driven, lived in or worn, respectively. As long as you don’t default on the payments, it belongs to you. Buying ‘used’ is considered to be the less desirable second option for those who simply can’t afford the luxury of a new item. However, in the world of RF test equipment, a few people would like to change the image of used items and show that it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks.
Test equipment is expensive. Spectrum analyzers, oscilloscopes, radio service monitors and other such units can cost from $20,000 to $30,000. Although large corporations, like OEMs, have little trouble spending large sums on equipment, it is the smaller service center or maintenance shop, struggling to adhere to a budget, that has difficulty allocating money for expensive analytical devices. That’s where the used equipment dealers come in.
“Our main market is ‘mom-and-pop’ middle-America,” said Paul Zeppa, president of RF Imaging and Communications, Martinez, CA. “Price is the number-one reason these smaller companies buy used. These guys can get a unit that is option-rich for 70% of the original cost.”
However, a 30% discount is not necessarily the rule. Steve Noll, a test and manufacturing engineer for Advanced Photonix, Camerillo, CA, and who also operates a Web site devoted to used test equipment dealers (www.big-list.com), pointed out that there can be a 5:1 price difference between two identical units sold by two different dealers. “It definitely pays to shop around,” he said. Rick Bowman, owner of Amtronix Instruments, Lakewood, NY, said several factors enter into the pricing of used equipment: everything from the condition in which a unit comes to the dealer who refurbishes it, to the age of the piece, can affect the used price. In the end, however, the most basic tenet-economics-is the deciding factor.
“Just like with any other product, supply and demand are the biggest things that determine the price,” Bowman said. “If no one is buying it, the price is going to go down.”
However, Bowman said the proliferation of cellular, paging and two-way radio over the last decade has greatly increased the demand for used equipment among smaller companies.
“The majority of our buyers are smaller to midsize companies,” he said. “Price is no doubt the major factor. If it wasn’t for price, everyone would buy new.” The growth of these communications sectors has stimulated a greater demand for used equipment, and it has also created a larger pool of equipment from which used equipment dealers can cull their resources. Both Zeppa and Bowman said they get a majority of the units they resell from larger companies that have either gone out of business or shut down a particular division.
“There has been a lot of action in the radio production and RF-related industries lately,” Bowman said. “A lot of companies start up, buy new equipment, shut down after five years and then have to sell off that equipment.”
Buyer be aware Although purchasing used equipment is an attractive alternative to spending exorbitant sums on new units, Noll offered a few caveats to potential buyers. “There are two things you definitely want from a used equipment dealer, and most offer them: a warranty of at least 90 days and a right of refusal of between five to 10 days, during which you can return the unit, with no questions asked,” he said.
RF Imaging offers a six-month parts and labor warranty and a 10-day right of refusal. Amtronix offers a 90-day full warranty on parts and labor and a five-day right of refusal. Noll says both plans are well within the parameters for a reputable dealer.
Another important question to ask, according to Noll, is whether the instrument comes calibrated and whether the dealer can provide a certificate of calibration.
“There are probably a lot of dealers out there that don’t calibrate their units before selling them,” he said. “It costs a little more, maybe $50, but it would be very wise to get that certificate of calibration.”
According to Zeppa, you can never be too careful when asking about the calibration of equipment.
“I’ve gotten a lot of equipment, from the dealer network, that is supposedly calibrated, but it turns out not to be,” he said. “I just go ahead and ‘cal’ everything, and everything is performance-tested.”
Bowman said it is also important to research the methods of calibration. For example, an “NIST-traceable” calibration means that the dealer applied the standards of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. “In this case, you can get paperwork that shows the equipment has been calibrated to these standards,” Bowman said.
Other considerations, such as the availability of an operator’s manual, accessories or system options, are not as important and can be dealt with on a case-to-case basis.
Aesthetics and dealer reputation The appearance of the unit is something else to consider. Zeppa compared the sale of used equipment to the used car industry.
“It’s got to look as good as it operates,” he said. “If you take it out of the box and it doesn’t look good, that creates a bad first impression. It might work perfectly, but if it doesn’t look nice, that customer is cursing me every time he looks at the unit.”
Bowman said going the extra mile to make an instrument look good is a small price to pay for the customer satisfaction.
“Cosmetics are very important,” he said. “These pieces are expensive enough that we can spend a little extra money to make them look good.”
Dealers that do not go that extra mile (or the first few, for that matter) bring down the reputation of the rest of the industry, according to Zeppa. “You’ve got a lot of guys in the business that are ‘working off their kitchen table,’ so to speak, selling for less and not backing up their merchandise,” he said. “Luckily, they can’t compete because they produce an inferior product.”
Bowman had a similar assessment. “A lot of the big companies with lots of money buy new simply for the peace of mind. That’s why when you buy used, you have to be cautious. A customer has to have faith in the calibration and the overall performance of the unit.”
Complicating the used equipment buyer’s assessment of a renovated device (and the workmanship that went into its restoration) is the lack of regulation in the used equipment industry. Both Bowman and Zeppa said regulation could help, but questioned how effectively dealer practices could be controlled.
“There’s no real way to regulate the industry because anyone can slap a calibration sticker on their product,” Zeppa said. “The ability to offer those warranties and rights of refusal is what sets a reputable company apart from others because if you can’t stand behind your product, you can’t offer them.”
Bowman pointed out other ways to combat the lack of regulation. “There are several new compliance standards for calibration,” he said. “The Z540-1 set of compliances tells everything a lab has to do in order to be in compliance, and a lab can be audited by the government to make sure they are in compliance if they claim to be.”
Untrustworthy dealers and lack of federal regulation aside, used test equipment offers a viable alternative to companies and agencies without the means to purchase a new instrument. It’s fun to take that brand new product out of the box and realize that no one has ever used it before, but there’s something to be said for the character and personality of a used item.
Halverson, an MRT intern, is a senior in the journalism school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos appearing on pages 20 and 21 were supplied courtesy of RF Imaging and Communications, Martinez, CA.