Salvaging components from circuit boards and electronic devices has many benefits. Most notably, it gives you a bunch of free parts. But it is also a valuable form of education in product design and it reduces E-waste and its strain on the environment.
In this article I will show you the best electronics to salvage parts from, the best components to get and explain how to salvage them
Let’s get started!
The benefits of salvaging electronic components
Salvaging parts from electronic devices doesn’t only get you cheap components. It also comes with a bunch of other benefits that might not be immediately obvious. These are the most significant ones:
It broadens your inventory of components
When you desolder electronic components for reuse, you quickly build up a wide inventory of parts. These can be typical, run-of-the-mill parts, but also rare and uncommon ones that are not available for sale anymore.
Having a wide range of components at hand is useful when you have repair older devices, but also when you build your own projects.
Gives valuable learning experiences
By paying close attention while disassembling devices, you can learn a lot about product and PCB design. And just like the components itself that you get by salvaging, this form of education also comes cheap. Many people have started out their electronics career by disassembling devices and salvaging parts.
Hones your soldering skills
(De)soldering is a skill that takes time to develop and master. And what better to practice on than discarded electronics? Desoldering old components is a great way to learn what works and doesn’t work when it comes to soldering.
Most stuff that is thrown out is being wasted. Usually, a single component in a device fails and the entire thing gets discarded. Stripping and making use of as many components as possible before throwing it out reduces E-waste and helps the environment. In my opinion, this is something that we need more of in our modern throw-away society.
Disassembling electronics takes time, but indirectly it also saves it. Having a specific component at hand can save you a day or more, compared to the time it takes to buy it from a store and have it shipped to your location. Waiting more than a day is a great way to lose momentum in a project, so avoiding that is always welcome.
Salvaged components are cheap, if not completely free. But there is another, often overlooked way in which salvaging components from circuit boards saves money. Small electronics components sold online are typically sold in bulk. That means that even when you only need one or two of something, you might have to buy five, ten or a hundred of that part. This might make buying parts more expensive than you are comfortable with, and makes salvaging a more attractive option.
Get cool parts to experiment with
Salvaging electronics can give you access to cool electronics components that you otherwise would not have access to. These can be fun to play around with. If they happen to break, it is not a big deal. You didn’t invest any money into them after all.
Where to get electronics and devices to salvage
The easiest way to get electronic devices to salvage is to use your own old electronics or broken devices that cannot be repaired. But because this tends to be a short supply, it is a good idea to also tap other sources for broken electronics.
A good place to start is with family and friends. They often have old electronics lying around. If not, you can always ask them to put broken devices aside for you when they break. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure!
Another place to check is the sidewalk, especially on trash day. People often put their electronic devices out on the street so that trash collectors can pick them up. There is a lot of good stuff to find this way. TVs, DVD players, stereos, microwaves, you name it!
Other common places to find unwanted electronic devices are:
- Dumpsters. You’ll have to get your hands dirty, but in return you can find some good stuff. The dumpsters of malls, big box stores and home improvement centers are excellent places to start your search.
- Apartment building trash bins. Lots of people discard their electronic devices in or near these bins.
- College campuses. Just like in apartment buildings, there are a lot of devices being thrown out here. This especially happens at the end of the spring semester. Many students don’t bother taking their old electronics back home for the summer.
- The free section on craigslist (and equivalent sites). Here you can find a lot of old or broken products that you can salvage parts from. Many people are aware that simply throwing things out is a waste, and instead prefer to help others out with their unwanted stuff.
- Thrift stores and garage/yard sales. Unlike the other options listed above, these cost a bit of money. Depending on what you can buy, it might still be worth the investment.
These are some popular examples of places to get salvage electronics from, but there are plenty more. If you know of any other ones, let me know in the comments!
What are the best electronics to salvage parts from?
When it comes to salvaging components from electronic devices, not all devices are equal. Certain types of appliances have significantly more reusable components than others. Here is my top 5 of electronics that you should be on the lookout for:
Disassembling a printer can give you more reusable parts than you know what to do with. It has switches, buttons (sometimes illuminated), LCD screens, a power supply, DC motors, stepper motors, solenoids, linear rails/rods, worm gears, bushings, springs, gears and more.
Printers that have a built-in scanner come with even more goodies, such as timing belts and a front surface mirror.
2. Audio amplifiers / sound systems
These come with a bunch of chunky components that are worth desoldering. Large smoothing capacitors, power MOSFETs and transistors, voltage regulators, inductors and audio sockets are some examples.
And don’t forget about the transformer! This is usually a center tapped transformer that gives both positive and negative voltages.
3. Microwave ovens
Similar to amplifiers, microwaves also contain a big transformer. Aside from that, you will find heatsinks, voltage regulators, mosfets, a keypad matrix (and/or rotary encoder) and sometimes a geared motor for the turntable. Some microwaves even have a nice VFD display that you can salvage.
You could scrap the capacitors and cavity magnetron (the part that is responsible for generating microwaves) as well. These can be dangerous, however, so only do this if you know what you are doing.
4. Devices with switching-mode power supplies
Common examples are DVD players, computer PSUs and TVs. Switching-mode power supplies are an efficient way to provide DC voltage for electronics, and because of that, you find them in nearly every electronic device.
Components that are worth salvaging from a SMPS are high voltage, high current MOSFETs, temperature-dependent resistors, inductors, high voltage capacitors and film capacitors.
5. Toy robots and other motorized toys
These are a great source of all kinds of speakers, small (stepper) motors, springs, motor driving circuits and batteries.
Other great candidates that did not quite make the top 5 of best electronics to salvage, but are still worth scrapping for parts are:
- Fax machines
- Optical drives
- Alarm clocks and radios
- Laptop chargers
- CRT monitors
- Electric toothbrushes
- Washing machines
Salvaging parts from PC hardware
Computers might seem like a prime candidate for salvaging. They are full of components and circuit boards after all. Looking at them more closely, however, you will see that they don’t have that many parts that can be reused.
The main reason for this is that a lot of modern PC hardware uses very specialized components that don’t have much use elsewhere. Many of the remaining components are small surface mount components, which are also not ideal for salvaging.
Despite that, there are still some components you can take and reuse from computers:
- The power supply (see #4 from the list above). ATX PSUs are an excellent resource for making your own bench power supply.
- Fans. Provided that they are not too old or worn out. At that point they become noisy and unreliable.
- Heatsinks. You never know when you might need one of those for your projects.
- Inductors. These can be pricey when purchased from a store. You can find them on motherboards, graphics cards and in the PSU.
Electronic devices to avoid
Modern, flat devices (mobile phones, tablets, etc.) are typically the worst for salvaging components. The vast majority of their components are surface-mount components, which tend to be too fragile to desolder and reuse.
In addition, the processor chips are proprietary and often impossible to reuse in other projects. The same goes for the LCD screens that you find in these devices.
Sometimes you can find good batteries (Li-Po or Ni-MH) for reuse in other things, but because many of these gadgets are discarded when their battery life starts to degrade, this is not always the case.
On the other hand, if you can find a suitable replacement battery you can sometimes get a new, fully working device out of it. So that is always something worth trying.
Which components are worth salvaging?
So you get your hands on some good devices, what is next? What components are best to salvage and which ones are not worth spending your time on?
Below I have listed the things you should be on the lookout for. They are roughly sorted based on where you can find them (on circuit boards or elsewhere) and on their type.
Electronic components typically found on circuit boards
Most of the components worth salvaging from electronic devices can be found on printed circuit boards. Instead of stripping the entire PCB, we can be more selective. Only certain components are worth the time and effort.
In general, through-hole components (with leads passing through the printed circuit board) are better for salvaging than surface-mount components (which are placed directly on the surface of the PCB). I recommend only taking the through-hole variant of the components below.
- Capacitors. Focus on large electrolytic capacitors (great for repairing power supplies and power amplifiers) and film capacitors. Both types are costly when purchased from a store.
Don’t bother with ceramic capacitors (the common round brown ones), these are a dime a dozen (or even less, technically).
- Voltage regulators. These are often attached to heatsinks, but not always. Common ones are the LM7805, LM7809, LM7812 and LM7905, but there are many more. Take them all!
- Inductors/coils. These are one of the most expensive passive components. I find that even SMD inductors are worth taking.
- Connectors. BNC connectors, audio jacks and power jacks are great candidates for salvaging because of their high cost.
In general, however, connectors can be a bit hit or miss when it comes to salvaging. The more plastic they contain, the harder it is to desolder them without melting the plastic and causing damage. Keep your soldering iron temperature only as high as required to melt the solder, and take care not to overheat the connector.
- Integrated circuits (ICs). While these are not always easy to desolder, they can be worth quite a bit.
- Relays. There are many types, electromechanical, solid state, thermal and more. They can all be useful at some point in future projects, don’t hesitate to salvage every single one you come across.
- Crystals. You can find these in devices that have some kind of timekeeping function, like clocks, radios, watches and computers.
- Potentiometers. Both analog and digital potentiometers are useful and worth salvaging. Analog potentiometers that extend to the outside of a device usually have a nice knob attached to them, don’t forget to take the knob as well.
- TO-220 packaged components. Components that come in a TO-220 style package are always worth taking. These are high-powered components that can be easily reused.
- Heatsinks. TO-220 packaged components are often attached to heatsinks, but there are other components that come with heatsinks as well. Take every heatsink, you never know when you might need them.
Other electronic components
Aside from on circuit boards, you can also find electronic components in other places. These components tend to be larger and easier to salvage. Unscrewing them from their mounting points and detaching or clipping their wires is typically enough.
- Large transformers. Nearly all devices have some kind of step-down transformer that converts high-voltage, low-current electricity to the low-voltage, high current that is needed for circuit board components. They are useful for all kinds of builds and repairs.
- Batteries. Both Lithium-Ion (Li-ion/LiPo) and nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries can be salvaged and reused. They are most commonly used in cell phones, laptops and other mobile devices.
- Speakers. Speakers and buzzers are used in all kinds of devices. They are easy to repurpose in your own projects. Audio equipment and televisions contain the best quality ones.
- LCD displays/screens. LCD screens tend to be expensive. Salvaging them will save you a lot of money. Driving them isn’t always easy in your own projects, but for the more common ones you can usually find instructions online.
- Buttons and switches. Having a variety of these available will save you a lot of headache in the future.
- Motors. If you are into robotics, you can never have enough motors. DC motors, stepper motors, servo motors, none of these should be thrown away.
- Other actuators. Aside from motors, there are other components that move things around. Solenoids, for example. Take these too.
- Wires/cables. Small wires are usually not worth saving, but bigger ones with more copper are. The more copper they have, the better they are for salvaging. Copper is expensive, so not having to buy long or thick wires for future projects adds up to good savings.
- Solar panels
Aside from electronic components, there are also a couple of mechanical parts that are easy to find a new use for.
- Screws and bolts. Having the right screw at hand for a specific repair job can save you a trip to the hardware store. Make sure to sort salvaged screws based on type/size so that you don’t have to sift through a full container to locate the screw(s) you need.
- Magnets. Useful for many things. Computer hard drives are an excellent source of powerful magnets.
- (Timing) belts. Stripping down a printer or flatbed scanner will give you a variety of belts to work with.
- Enclosures. Having a neat box to put a new project in will make things a lot neater.
- Springs. Springs have a habit of getting lost, so having a variety box of replacements around is a good idea.
- Lenses. There aren’t that many projects in which optics are used, but they are expensive when you do need them.
Components that are generally not worth taking
It might be tempting to try to salvage every single component, but for many of them, what you need to invest (time and effort) is more than what you get out of it. Below I have listed the components that I never bother with and why.
Surface mount devices are fragile, often too small to comfortably handle and difficult to remove without a hot air gun. I don’t bother salvaging any, with the exception of inductors.
Basic discrete components
Simple discrete components like small resistors, capacitors, diodes, transistors and LEDs can be purchased cheaply in bulk. The time that goes in desoldering and sorting them is for me not worth it.
Another reason why these components are a hassle is that during assembly of the original circuit board, the leads of these components are typically cut very short. This makes them difficult to re-solder and impossible to use in breadboards.
If you are really short on cash and you have a lot of time, you can still salvage these. Keep in mind, however, that if they are old and have been used a lot, it is possible that their tolerances are no longer acceptable.
Connectors with a lot of plastic don’t hold up well when heated, because the plastic softens and deforms. Because connectors typically have many pins that need to be desoldered, it is often difficult to avoid overheating and damaging them.
Avoid at all costs. Not only are these components potentially damaged, but they can also reach havoc when reusing them on your brand new circuit boards.
This might go without saying, but if a component has visible damage, it can no longer be trusted to work according to its specifications.
Magnetron tubes are responsible for generating the microwaves in a microwave. They contain a beryllium oxide ceramic insulator. If this part gets damaged and its particles become airborne, it has the potential to severely and permanently damage your lungs.
How to salvage components from circuit boards
So far, you have learned which electronic devices are best to salvage components from, and which components are best to save for later. Let’s take a look at how you can actually remove these parts without damaging them.
Some devices contain components that can injure and possibly kill you when not handled properly. In this section I have explained the things you need to pay attention to to stay safe.
These warnings can make salvaging sound extremely dangerous, but rest assured, with good preparation and some common sense you will be okay.
Unplug the device
Whenever you open an electronic device, always make sure that it is not plugged into an outlet. In fact, it is best if it has not been plugged in for a while (see the next section on capacitors).
Capacitors are one of the main dangers when it comes to working on electronics. They store a potentially dangerous electric charge that they hold on to long after a device has been last used.
Always discharge any potentially dangerous capacitor. Small ceramic capacitors are generally nothing to worry about, but larger electrolytic ones are. The bigger the capacitor, the more charge it potentially carries, and the more dangerous it is.
Just like capacitors, batteries also store charge, but a lot more. Accidentally releasing all that energy at once can lead to dangerous situations, like fires and explosions.
Heating, bending or puncturing batteries should all be avoided. The same goes for shorting out the battery. Batteries that are swollen are especially volatile and dangerous and need to be handled and disposed of with care.
Pay close attention when salvaging strong magnets. You don’t want your fingers or skin to get caught between them.
The tip and shaft of a soldering iron get very hot. Never touch them when the iron is or has been on, or you will get burnt.
Work in a well-ventilated area and use a fume extractor. I can not stress this enough. Exposure to solder fumes (technically flux fumes) is dangerous and damages to your lungs over time. Take the right precautions so that you breathe clean air.
Most devices are designed in such a way that they can be easily disassembled. For some appliances, however, it might be necessary to drill or cut to get access to specific components.
Wearing a pair of quality goggles ensures that your eyes are protected when something inadvertently flies towards your face. It’s better to be safe than to accidentally lose an eye.
What you’ll need
For general disassembly
The more different screwdriver bits you have, the better.
For checking capacitors and batteries
Strongly recommended for any (de)soldering
Getting access to the components
To salvage components, you must first get access to them. In most cases, this means taking apart the outer shell of the electronic device by unscrewing the screws that hold it together.
Find the right bits in your electronics repair kit and use them to unscrew any screws or bolts you find.
Alternatively, the device might use clips to hold itself together. In that case, you need to use a spudger from your repair kit to unclip them.
After removing any lids, covers, etc. you should have access to the components you are interested in.
Removing large components
Large components that are not found on circuit boards are relatively easy to remove. Simply disconnect any wires, either by clipping them with wirecutters or by unplugging their connector, After that, unclip, unstick or unscrew the component from its mounting position.
Some large components that are salvaged like this are transformers, batteries, speakers, solar panels and actuators.
This method is also useful for removing entire circuit boards before salvaging their individual components.
Removing components from circuit boards
Salvaging components from circuit boards takes a bit of skill, but is not very hard to learn. In this section I will give simple instructions. For more details, I recommend this detailed guide on desoldering.
The typical process for desoldering through-hole components with 2-3 pins is roughly as follows:
- Identify the component that you want to desolder.
- Flip the board and identify the solder joints of the component.
- Add flux (or solder that contains flux) to the solder joints.
- Heat all solder joints with a soldering iron.
- Many components fall on their own when the solder melts. But the ones that don’t you can extract with a pair of pliers.
What to do after desoldering
After salvaging the components, there are still a couple of steps you can do to get the most out of your work.
Test your salvaged components with a component tester or multimeter. Most of the parts you collect will work, but some of them won’t.
It is a good idea to filter the defective components out at this stage. This ensures that your parts drawers will be full of working parts, and you won’t have to troubleshoot future projects due to a damaged component.
After testing the parts, it is time to sort them. Proper organization is key to getting the most out of your components inventory.
My approach is to first sort parts based on their type (capacitor, inductor, bolt, etc.) and then on their specifications (e.g. resistance/inductance/capacitance value, size, etc.).
The goal is to be able to find what you need without much hassle. Good places to store your parts are parts storage cabinets with drawers or, if you want to get fancy, Sortimo boxes (sold under the Bosch brand in the USA).
At this point, you will have a bunch of stripped circuit boards and a collection of other metal and plastic parts. Don’t just blindly throw them in the thrash. Instead, bring them to a local collection point for E-waste so that it can be properly recycled.
Is salvaging components worth it?
From an environmental perspective, definitely. It reduces the strain on the environment while at the same time you ensure that the remaining E-waste is properly recycled.
From a time/effort perspective, it depends on your personal situation.
If you are young, have excess free time and limited money, salvaging components can make a lot of sense. With little money to spend on components, you can invest your time to get what you need.
On the other hand, if you have a well-paying job and are raising a family, you are likely to find yourself with limited hobby time and more money to spend. In that case, spending that limited time on salvaging components does not make a lot of sense. Buying all your components keeps your hobby time free for the real fun stuff.
Later on, in retirement, you can be in the opposite situation again. Lots of available time, but a limited income.
In short, it all depends on what your current priorities in life are and the resources that you have available.
The place in which you live affects things as well. If there are no accessible or cheap local stores that sell parts, salvaging as much as possible makes perfect sense.
Can you recover gold or other precious metals from old electronics?
It is true that electronics contain precious metals like gold, silver, and platinum. But you will only find trace amounts of it (thin layers of a couple of microns thickness at best) and the extraction process is elaborate.
To make the process of extracting these metals worthwhile, you would have to scale the process up and have access to a large amount of discarded electronics.
Aside from that, it is time-consuming and needs quite a bit of chemicals, so it’s not something I recommend if you are just starting out.
Salvaging parts from circuit boards and electronic devices is unlikely to make you a lot of money, but it is a great way to expand the range of components in your inventory. In addition, it lets you practice your (de)soldering and reduces E-waste in the process.
Printers, switching power supplies and audio amplifiers are among the best devices to strip parts from, even though nearly every device has parts that can be salvaged and reused.
When salvaging parts, look for valuable components like large electrolytic capacitors, inductors, transformers, motors, actuators and buttons. These are always useful in other projects and can be costly when purchased in a store.
Whether salvaging components is worth it depends on where you are in life. If you have a lot of time and little money, salvaging is more worthwhile than if you have little time and a lot of money. Either way, you are likely to get some free parts out of it. And you help the environment.