TILT Amusements: Repair Questions and Answers
Proper care and maintenance is critical for receiving long-term enjoyment from your investment in a new or vintage pinball machine. Answers to common maintenance questions can be found here. Be sure to check the specific pages on replacement parts and tune-ups as well if you have a specific issue you're trying to diagnose. The two most important things to keep in mind:
Pinball machines range from sturdy and mechanical to delicate and digital, and the surest way to obliterate your investment is to make a bad, incorrect or insufficient repair yourself. Not only can you damage parts and render the machine inoperable, but you could create a fire hazard or cause grievous injury or even death. Under no circumstances should you ever attempt any repair without a full awareness of this danger, complete comfort with the repair you are making, and an understanding that the liability rests entirely with you for installing a part incorrectly if you do it yourself.
"How much will it cost to keep my pinball machine working?"
Operating costs and maintenance expenses are generally very low or completely negligible for the first several years with a new machine. LED lights and modern electrical components are rated to last 5-10 years in most cases, and the latest machines rely much more on digital circuit boards than moving parts. The operating environment is the main factor for new machines and repair issues. Public use in a bar, arcade or other place where users may be more unkind than friends and family are one factor; dust and humidity probably matter even more, as an excess of either one can foul electrical connections and lead to sluggish bumpers and flippers, misfires, or shorts. These can be more difficult to diagnose than they are to fix, once the specific problem is identified.
Used machines, on the other hand, are a different story. Wear and tear on a machine and scarcity of replacement parts are both factors that can drive up expenses over time on used machines, potentially from the moment you turn it on depending on where it spent its past life. Offsetting this somewhat is the relative simplicity of analog/mechanical systems compared to partially or totally digital ones. Older machines can be cheaper to repair, depending on the parts at fault. Older systems require straightforward electrical knowledge of switches, wiring, fuses, and capacitors. Newer systems also require specialized knowledge of chipsets and circuit boards, and certain types of failures may require highly specialized tools and training to patch or replace faulty components.
"The ________ on my pinball machine is broken. What do I do?"
Obviously there's not just one answer to this question, but there is one choice to be made when you find yourself asking it. You have to decide between fixing the broken _____ yourself*, or enlisting the aid of a specialist to fix it. Both options have their pitfalls, but in general unless you are qualified to make the repair, have the parts and tools needed to make the repair, and are completely comfortable making the repair--unless you are all three of these, you should contract the repair with a qualified specialist and not risk permanent damage to the pinball machine or to yourself* by doing it on your own.
We at TILT Amusements are fully certified and qualified to make most repairs ranging from replacing a mini-incandescent bulb to completing a complete restoration of a salvaged machine. Obviously that's going to be our first choice, if you decide against making the repair yourself. But pinball machines aren't particularly portable, and our location may not be convenient for you. In that case, feel free to contact us via phone (740-803-2276) or email for a referral to someone in your more immediate area with whom you can discuss your repair needs.
Note: Getting your brother-in-law, son-in-law, or buddy from work to do the repair counts the same as you doing it - ill-advised without proper tools, training and comfort level on the part of the person doing the repair.
"I've heard there's a $2 part on many pinball machines that places charge hundreds or even thousands to fix if it breaks. What's the deal?"
It sounds crazy, but when you're talking about the circuit board battery, you're not far off from the truth. The fact is that the circuit board battery is often a standard AA, and how much do those cost? $2 or so maybe. But if it starts corroding, the leak will eat into and ruin the master circuit board, which is the brains and master controller of the entire machine. Replacing one of those can easily cost hundreds or even thousands depending on the age and rarity of a machine and the scarcity of replacement parts. It's a pretty expensive way to get a new battery.
Now, keeping in mind everything we said about not doing repairs you don't have the tools, technical know-how, and comfort level to do, this is a pretty standard operation in machines that use an AA and that put the board and its battery in an easily accessible place. If you're in luck, it's behind the scoreboard in the top section of the pinball (and not down in the cabinet). If you open up the scoreboard glass or plexiglass case it should be easy to see. If the pinball machine works, you know the battery is fine. If the pinball machine doesn't work, however - when you turn it on, nothing happens - then a dead circuit board battery is one of the first things to check. If the battery looks ok then go ahead and replace it, being sure to align positive and negative correctly. Try turning the machine on again. If it still doesn't work, that's not the problem, or at least it's not the only problem. If it fires up, congratulations; you just saved yourself hundreds of dollars you would have had to spend if you'd waited long enough for the battery to melt into the circuitry. If you open the case and see the battery looks chalky, corroded, or wet, well...*wince* Don't mess with it. The board connections are potentially hosed and the whole thing may need replaced, but you can make a bad problem worse if you move a corroded battery and leak its acid guts on anything else. If you just bought the machine, you'll want to take this up with the person who sold it to you if you didn't agree to it as-is. And if you're ever going to buy a pinball machine, this is the first thing you want to check before you make the purchase or agree on a price; if the battery is melted, the board is dead and will have to be replaced, and this is the main reason why machines kept in storage and left untouched for years won't fire back up.
Word to the wise, on that point - if you're going to leave a machine unplayed for a while, say more than a month or two, there's no harm in taking that battery out as a simple way to protect the machine from a corroded battery.
Machines made before the mid 70's generally were analog with mechanical parts and no circuit board or battery, but in the 80's simple chip controllers for scoreboards became more and more common, eventually evolving to control game settings and in time, the entire game experience. As a rule of thumb, if the score is kept on plastic roller wheels you probably have an analog machine. If it's kept on the same kind of numbers as a digital alarm clock uses, it's a sure bet it's digital and it has a circuit board and a battery for it somewhere.
Of course, when in doubt, consult the manual. There's a complete map of the entire electrical path and all components in the manual that should always remain inside the cabinet so as to remain with the machine it describes (usually inside the cabinet, along the side wall or against the faceplate, a strap, pouch or bag can be found that contains the manual).
"But it plugs in, why does it even have a battery?"
It wouldn't be much of a pinball machine if it could only keep track of a high score for as long as it was switched on, right? The circuit board memory keeps track of that as well as all the general game settings like coins per play, number of balls in a given game, point ratios, the free game match code, etc.
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