American Changer AC2002 review – do not buy it

I had a terrible experience with a year-old AC2002 dual hopper, dual validator change machine from American Changer.  Here’s my review: if you’re considering a bill changer unfortunately I cannot recommend the AC2002.

I did a lot of research before buying this front load, high security $3,000 change machine. And initially I was pretty happy.  I like the idea of having fail-overs so the change keeps rolling, and this one has two hoppers and two validators.

So I was disappointed when one of the Pyramid validators in my AC 2002 change machine failed in less than a year.  That’s a low-quality validator that I won’t ever be using again.

I took this as a chance to upgrade to a higher quality Mars AE2600 validator, which the AC2002 manual available directly from American Changer’s installation instruction page clearly states I can use on pages 17 and 33.

Here’s where the story went south.  I bought an AE2600 and when I tried to install it, it wouldn’t fit.  At all.  I went over to my local vending machine experts but they didn’t have the right parts.

So I figured I’d call the manufacturer.  I gave them the serial number and model of my machine, explained my problem, and waited for at least 20 minutes while the guy there tried to figure out the problem.  He eventually said I needed a metal bezel support plate, charged me $175 and sent two.  Never mind that the support plates were more than I paid for the validator.

A few days later it arrived. Only it didn’t work.  So I make another call to American Changer.  I talk to the same guy and he doesn’t believe me.  I ended up spending a very frustrating 40 minutes on the phone, sending him pictures to prove that it wasn’t fitting right.

So the guy sends another support plate out.  Guess what?  That one didn’t fit either! Imagine my frustration.

I call in again and this time I talk to someone else.  They say, oh, you need a new DOOR!  A new door?  Are you kidding me? So I get redirected to the guy I talked to twice before who proceeds to tell me that he already told me I needed another door.  I’m like, really? At no time did you ever say such a thing. Your manual says no such thing. It’s ridiculous.

So I shell out another $165 for a door – and get this – it has no decals on it.  They want another $100 for a sticker.  Really?  I order the blank door figuring that it won’t work anyway.

So they ship this thing out to me.  It has a few more holes than my AC2002 door does, but okay let’s see if it fits.

Can you guess the result? THE VALIDATOR STILL DOESN’T FIT.  Well done, American Changer.  Zero for three.

Also I found a decal for $55 online, which is still outrageous but it’s half what the manufacturer was charging. So there’s that.

Moral of the story: don’t buy from American Changer.

I’ll update this if anything changes.

Brian Jamison Portland Oregon

Pin2DMD holding up strong one year later

I’m pretty happy with how my PIN2DMD’s are holding up.  I have them on five machines and they’ve been working flawlessly.  My plan is to install them on three or four more over the coming months.

Unfortunately, Sasha who was my go-to for PIN2DMD boards decided not to make them any more.  I got several from German Gaming Supplies, though so all is well.

Next up is converting my Rollercoaster Tycoon, which has been waiting to be shopped out for a long time now.

Brian Jamison

Portland, Oregon

Parts list for PIN2DMD color DMD replacement

A bunch of the DMD’s on  my pins started going bad, and replacements are $300.  I bought a ColorDMD my Theatre of Magic but at $400 each, wow.  I wasn’t excited about spending $2,000 on DMDs.

So I started looking for alternatives.  There are several options, but I chose PIN2DMD.   PIN2DMD requires some assembly, but total parts cost is less than $200, and if you buy several and/or have some parts already around you can get the price down to $130 or so.

I didn’t find list for absolutely everything you need in one place, so I decided to post one here.

Here then is a complete list of every single part you need if you replace the DMD on your pinball machine with a color DMD using the PIN2DMD system:

1) Two 64×32 DMDs – the only place in the world you can get these that I know of are from Aliexpress.com.  Search for P2.5 64×32 pixel 1/16 scan 180x60mm.  2.5 refers to the pixel size in mm.   Cost should be around $60 shipped to the USA.

I’m thinking about organizing a bulk buy of these sometime soon.

You can also buy one 64×64 180x180mm (they are just stacked two high) but you’ll have to cut the plastic bracket using a dremel, which isn’t very fun.

2) A bracket to hold the DMD that lines up with the mountings in your backbox.  I got mine from Fastpinball for $20 each including shipping.

3) A shield and controller, I got mine from UncleSascha on VPUniverse.com. There are several sellers of these.  I bought mine fully soldered for  $72.50 including shipping.  You can save a little money if you are good at soldering.

4) A 5v power supply, I used a Mean Well RS-35-5, $16.10 shipped from eBay.

5) A microSD card, between 1 and 16gb in size.  The cheapest one I found was on Amazon for $8.99 

6) A 3 prong power supply cord, you probably have one of these lying around but in case you don’t this one is $2.33 on Amazon.

7) M3-0.5 thread 6mm pan head screws, cheapest for 100 I found was on Amazon for $6.76.

8) A Male Micro B USB to Male A USB cable, if you have an Android phone chances are you already have one.  If not, $5.29 on Amazon.

9) Some 22 gauge wire, preferably in two colors, green and black.  Here’s 100 feet of Black on Amazon for $3.84 and Green on Amazon for $4.88

That’s the entire list.  I’ll be putting together an assembly guide next.

I learned something important today

The other day I received a problem report from a player.  The report was submitted on wonderful and ultra useful pinballmap.com.

When I want to play pinball somewhere else, especially when traveling, I always check that site to see how well their machines are taken care of.

I’ve seen problem reports that are years old on that site. Once quite recently I played a game and went to file a report only to find out the exact same issue had been reported three times over the last three years and never fixed. That just makes me sad, and has lost the operator of that machine a lot of money.

But I love getting problem reports.  No, really I do.  It helps me fix my machines faster.  So thank you for reporting problems!

Now sometimes the problem isn’t really a problem.  Often, when someone says “the game ate my quarter” they expect the game to start without pressing that flashing start button.  I’ve seen it many times.  Or they just haven’t put enough money in.

And not everyone can create a good problem report.  A good problem report is specific: “I tried this, expecting that, and this other thing happened.”

Well, this report was kind of vague.  I went out and played Addams Family several times as soon as I read the report, and everything worked.  And when I say everything, I mean everything.

That was my problem.  I shouldn’t have played it.  I should have tested it.

Turns out the game was suffering from something called a 5v reset problem.  Without getting too technical, you could play the game perfectly — unless you whacked both flippers at the same time.

Now I’m not a great pinball player.  I got creamed in the first game of the only tournament I entered.  But I do know not to button mash the flippers.

But that’s exactly what most kids, and a sizable percentage of adults do when they play pinball.

So now I’m adding button mashing to my test procedure.

Brian Jamison

Portland, Oregon

Pinball Capital of the World

 

Web based system for tracking pinball issues

Once I had more than three pinball machines on route, I needed a way to track problems. It was just too easy to forget.

I wanted to be able to add trouble tickets for a pinball machine when I was on site, so it had to be web-based. I wanted it to be easy to use, reasonably flexible, fast, and give me options to customize it.

Since I’m an old open source software guy, that’s the first place I turned. I was not disappointed. I chose software called Trac.

Trac, the almost free ticketing system

Nothing is free, but this is pretty darn close.  There are places that will host Trac for $6 a month. That’d be your entire cost.  Or if you’re like me and have your own web server, it’s free.

With Trac I can securely manage the issues on my pinball machines.  Tickets can have custom fields, so I have a drop-down box for each pinball machine I own.

Tickets are ranked in order of severity

I also have a drop-down for how bad the problem is, ranging from CRITICAL all the way to WISHLIST.

Trac has a neat report that groups tickets by their severity so I can see at a glance which machines need the most attention.

I use CRITICAL for anything that makes the machine completely unusable. Could be a coin jam, a blown fuse, or a failed part.

IMPORTANT is anything that has an impact on gameplay, but the machine can still be played. Examples of this are weak flippers, malfunctioning pop bumpers, drop target issues, bad switches or solenoids, and important lights out. These are problems I really want to fix right away.

MINOR is where a lot of cosmetic issues live — for example, non-important lights out, broken plastics, rubbers starting to go bad.

PREVENTATIVE is an experiment for me. I’m using it to store reminders for annual battery replacements, fuse and coil checks, and longer term projects like installing NVRAM boards.

Lastly I have WISHLIST where I add the things that I want to do but usually don’t want to spend the money. New plastics, replacing mylar, playfield swaps, improving lighting, installing cliffys all go on the wishlist.

Tickets have good summaries

I use a good descriptive summary for each issue, for example “WCS2: Fuse 116 check opto issue.”

I start with a two, three or four letter code for each pinball (e.g. WCS2 is my second World Cup Soccer machine). This helps me on site when to see if there are any other tickets for a machine I’m working on.

The second part of the summary is a good description to help me spot recurring problems with a particular machine. I try to be as specific as possible. Sometimes I will change the summary once I have identified the problem.

I also track the time spent on each issue and note any parts I use in the repair to keep accounting and parts ordering. I also generally note down the steps I took to fix the issue.

One an issue is fixed, I close the ticket, which will let me run a report showing me how much time it takes on average to fix a problem.

Triage

Dealing with lots of pinball machines is a little like a doctor trying to deal with too many patients.  And unless you have an unlimited budget or just a couple of machines, something is always going to be wrong.

I stay focused on larger issues and let smaller things slide for a while. For example my Rollercoaster Tycoon had a problem with one of the three pop bumpers that required a new coil. It didn’t make a real difference when playing, so I let it wait for a few weeks while I focused on other machines. I took the opportunity to fix it when another issue cropped up on Rollercoaster that was more important.

I’ve been using the system for six months and I’m extremely happy with Trac.  I haven’t spent any time at all maintaining the system. It just works.  And adding a new machine is as simple as editing one line of text.

Have a look at my actual system in action if you’re curious. Don’t worry, you can’t mess up anything. Trac can hide tickets from public view by the way, I just chose not to.

If anyone has questions about Trac or my maintenance routines leave a comment here!

Brian Jamison
Portland Oregon

Pinball maintenance routines

I do a fair amount of work keeping my pinball machines maintained. Here’s my list.

Keep them clean

Plain and simple, a clean machine earns better.

Here are some pictures of pinball machines on route in Seaside, Oregon. The playfields are so dirty they are black. They looked much worse in person.

I know rock & roll is supposed to be dirty but…
There’s a Game of Thrones under there somewhere
This isn’t what a Black Spiderman is supposed to look like.
Taking the the dirty zombie theme too literally.

I was ready to spend $20 on those pinball machines but I walked away disappointed. As you can see the machines are quite recent. If an operator can’t be bothered to take five minutes to clean the playfield every 300 games or so, they shouldn’t be operating.

Use Silicone Rubbers

I have been switching all of my machines over to silicone rubber. Silicone rubber lasts longer and is dramatically easier to clean. I prefer Titan rubber for the variety of colors and overall quality.

Replacing a slingshot rubber

Die, Credit Dot, Die

Most serious pinball players know what a credit dot is. It’s that dot that appears next to the number of credits shown on the DMD. A credit dot is a clever, subtle way of alerting an operator that there may be a problem without scaring off customers.

However, good pinball players know what a credit dot is too and won’t drop coins in a machine with one. Clearing these on a regular basis should be part of your routine.

At least once a week I check for credit dots. Most frequently they are false alarms. Modern machines throw a credit dot if a switch hasn’t been activated in a certain number of games. Chances are, the switch is fine and it just hasn’t been triggered. If you have a lot of kids or casual players, you’ll see more credit dots.

But sometimes the problem is real.

Just today a switch check showed me a switch was actually bent and non-functioning. On the same machine just two weeks ago I put new rubbers on an outlane post and accidentally blocked the right outlane. I’d played a few games and didn’t notice until the credit dot appeared.

The switch test worked, so I looked for other causes. I discovered the new slightly thicker silicone rubber was preventing the ball from ever entering that outlane. Adjusting the outlane post fixed that. I’m sure the players loved that you could never drain down that outlane, but I certainly didn’t!

 

Check the Mechs

I test each coin mech at least every week. Still, I get a coin jam every month or so. I hate jams because they often go unreported and I know I lose customers any time they put money in and nothing happens.

You’ll find many amusing things stuffed into coin mechs – foreign coins, toothpicks, and paper from coin wrappers. I’ve heard tell of stranger things.

Use Cleaning Cards

I use these inexpensive cleaning cards to clean bill acceptors. Change machines get carded monthly and the ones on pinball machines twice a year.

Swap out Coil Sleeves

When flippers feel weak, the first thing to check is the coil sleeve. I was surprised to find out that often all it takes is this little part that costs less than $1. They are a bit of a pain to swap out, and there are quite a few sizes. I buy them a dozen at a time from Pinball Life.

That’s a dirty coil

Play them frequently

I try to play every game I have on route at least once a week. Oh, the things I do for pinball. But seriously, it does take time. I know my machines and I can feel when the flippers are starting to lose power, or something is out of adjustment.

Sometimes I’ll let a minor issue slide if I personally feel that it doesn’t have an impact of gameplay.

Watch and Listen

I sometimes become aware of problems just by watching people. Other times people will approach me when they see me working on a machine and let me know something I wasn’t aware of.

Track issues

I use a web-based system to track the problems my pinball machines have, and to remind me to perform certain kinds of maintenance like changing batteries.

The software I use is is totally free. Really. I’ll talk about that in my next post.

 

Brian Jamison

Portland, Oregon

Getting over being a collector

As a pinball collector transitioning to a pinball operator I had to get over some things.

The customer’s opinion is more important

As a collector, I bought games that I liked. As an operator, you buy games your customers will like.  Sometimes those things overlap, sometimes not.

I bought a 2002 Stern Rollercoaster Tycoon because I thought it would do well, and it has.  I like the game and consider it under-appreciated but I never would have bought it as a collector.  And you know what?  It’s been a great earner.

Same with a 1994 Bally World Cup Soccer ’94, which has done so well I just bought a second one last week for $2,250.  I actually really like that game, but it wouldn’t have been my first choice as a collector, either, but boy can that thing earn.

Pinball machines are not princesses

But the biggest thing was getting over thinking of my pinball machines as special princesses to be treated delicately.  When you route your pinball machines, people are going to beat on them. It’s what people do. You can’t stop it.

When I first put my pinball machines on route I remember sitting nearby having lunch and some children came up. They didn’t play, but they banged on the glass and left greasy smudges all over the glass. I could have gotten mad, or shooed them away, or worried about the game getting damaged.

But instead I just ignored it and enjoyed my lunch, happy that they got some free entertainment. After they left I cleaned the glass.

That’s how you have to be.

Of course there are locations where pinball machines will get vandalized or stolen, but this should be obvious. I’m talking about a clean, well-lit, attended location.

What you can look forward to

Young kids are going to button mash the flippers, bang on the glass, dry fire the plunger over and over again, and leave greasy smears behind. Adults will slam the plunger with their open palm, kick, lift, drop, and jerk the machine, leave food bits on the glass, spill beer, and everything else kids do too. It’s okay. They can take it.  Pinball machines are built to withstand the rigors of daily public punishment. It’s baked into the design over decades and decades.

Sometimes I do have to remind myself of that.

I have asked children who were really banging the glass hard, or climbing on top of the machines to please not do that.

Sometimes you have to deal with spilled beer or soft drinks, but this seems to clean up pretty well. Putting cup holders on each machine cuts down on spills and makes people more likely to stay.

There’s not much you can do about this. Keeping the machines clean, well lit and in good repair cuts down a lot of abuse.

Wear is inevitable

Make no mistake though, your machine will begin to show signs of wear. Keeping it clean and well maintained will help, but there are differences between a home use only pinball machine with 300 plays on it and a routed machine with 10,000 plays on it.  And I have a couple of machines in my private collection that I may never route for this reason. I used to say ‘never’ but I may change my mind about that. I’ve routed an effectively new Simpson’s Pinball Party and it now has well over 10,000 plays on it. It looks pretty darn good. I’m certain I could sell it for more than the $3,000 I paid for it.

Pinball machines were meant to be played, and played often. I think it’s a shame to hoard them in a basement somewhere.

Next time I’ll talk about my maintenance routines.

Brian Jamison

Portland Oregon

My biggest mistake as a pinball operator

When first started as a pinball operator I had no idea how to fix pinball machines. The inner workings of pinball machines were a total mystery to me.

I laugh about it now, but back then I didn’t even know how to replace a burnt out bulb.  I was even afraid of damaging the machine if I even tried to clean the playfield!

Instead I relied on a great pinball repair guy I’d known for ten years.  He was great, often making repairs the same day. The problem of course was the cost of labor.

After a few months it became clear the machines were modestly successful.  I realized that I was running a real business, and I had to start treating it like one.  That meant not using contractors unless it was a last resort.

Learning to repair pinball machines

I couldn’t support an employee, so I had to learn how to do pinball repair and maintenance myself. I started slow, taking on the common, basic things.  Clearing coin jams and cleaning the playfields helped me get comfortable. Every time a problem came up, I tried to figure it out myself.

I found the process quite fun, and it took up most of my free time in the evenings reading up on pinball tech. Before long I was correctly identifying problems.  After a few months I was able to handle most of the repairs myself. Because I had spent so much time learning about other people’s mistakes, I made less of them myself.

I learned almost everything from two places: Pinside and YouTube.

Pinside is an incredible resource. Often just searching the forum turns up the exact solution to your problem. If not, posting to the forum gets quick answers from great people. The community is great.  They helped me diagnose problems, pointed me at resources on the web, and have been just hugely supportive.

YouTube was also very helpful on tutorials.  Being able to watch someone taking flippers apart makes learning easy.

The process of learning how to repair and maintain pinball machines has taken more than a year.  At this point I can fix nearly everything that can go wrong with a pinball machine. I haven’t yet learned how to repair bad transistors or do other board repairs, mostly because I don’t have a good enough soldering station. I’m sure I’ll learn that soon!

How much time does it take?

Of course, doing my own pinball repair and maintenance takes time.  I think right now it is about an hour per week per machine. But I’ve found that I really like working on pinball machines. The non-pinball ‘normal’ work I do is very challenging. Working on a pinball machine is relaxing and helps me recharge. It’s quite nice to take an extra 15 minutes at lunch and clean up a pinball machine, or do a couple of hours of work in the evening to keep a machine tuned up.

And I think that’s the biggest gain – spending more time on maintenance.  The machines are breaking less than they used to, despite being used more.

I find that I quite like being a pinball operator. While you are working with the playfield up it’s like a magic people magnet.  Folks rarely see the underside of a pinball machine and they stare in wonder at all the wires. Even with just the glass off or the coin door open people come up to you and ask questions.  I love hearing that enthusiasm for pinball. Many times I’ve been thanked for keeping my machines working and clean (just today in fact!), and that’s a great feeling.

Have I saved money doing it myself?

Yes, but it took quite a while to realize the savings.

At first all the savings I made in contractor labor was offset by the tools, tool cases, storage boxes, and spare parts I’ve had to buy.

But at this point most of that investment is behind me. I go on site, I have the right tools, I generally know how to fix a problem, and I often have the spare part I need to fix it.

This year have I only had to call in a repair expert a couple of times. And twice I’ve had to have boards sent out for repair. I still have significant ongoing expenses with parts, which I’ll also write about another time, but I’ve been able to channel a lot more money to buying pinball machines!

I can see a time when it makes sense as a pinball operator to have someone help with maintenance and repairs as I add more machines.  When I open my own barcade/pinball museum that will be a priority.

Looking back, I should have learned to do the work from the start instead of relying on a contractor.

Next I’ll write about some of the things I’ve had to overcome on my path to being a great pinball operator.

How it all began

I’m Brian Jamison. I live in the pinball capital of the world, Portland Oregon. This blog is a compilation of my lessons learned as a small time, part time pinball operator. If you love pinball, I hope you will think about doing what I’ve done, too.

Long ago I made the decision that I was going to run a pinball arcade. With the many other responsiblities I have I knew it was going to take years, so I began casually collecting machines. By 2014 I had eight pins in my collection and it felt like the time was right to take things up a level.

I started doing a lot of research. I spent hundreds of hours reading about running a pinball business, listening to podcasts, and talking to people.

A lot of what I heard didn’t sound good. It seemed that there were fewer and fewer pinball operators. People who operate them often talked about how much work it was and how little money was in it. A friend of mine with close to 40 years of experience as an operator and pinball repair guy liked to joke “I’m the only guy in Oregon who makes money on pinball. Because I get paid to fix them!”

But I also saw success. In Portland we have Ground Kontrol, possibly one of the first barcades after the first wave of arcades from the 70s and 80s died off. I saw them grow and thrive even through awful economic downturns.

In late 2014 I started talking with a friend of mine who owns a local chain of excellent family restaurants, and after some discussions we agreed to try out a couple of my pinball machines in one of his new locations.

I was psyched, and also nervous. Would my precious machines be destroyed? Would it turn out to be a money pit?

It took a few months to iron out the details, but by January of 2015 I put two machines on location – a 1995 Bally Theatre of Magic — the first pinball machine I ever bought back in 1999 for $3,000 — and a 2002 Stern Rollercoaster Tycoon I had just bought for $3,000. The machines did well enough in the first month that I invested in a 1991 Bally The Addams Family for $4,000.

Fast forward to August 2017 and I now have 24 pinball machines. I haven’t been able to buy all those machines with the profits from the pinball business. I’ve invested a fair amount of my own money to build up the collection, and made some very good deals along the way.

In my next post I’ll talk about my biggest mistake (so far!) as a pinball operator.