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Schools save money with refurbished computers

CDI employees test, clean, and upgrade each piece of equipment.
CDI employees test, clean, and upgrade each piece of equipment.

At less than half the cost of purchasing new computers, buying high-quality refurbished machines is cheaper and more efficient, some education technology directors say—and that’s a big deal with school budgets stretched so thin.

It’s also more environmentally friendly, which can be a big factor, too.

McNairy County Schools in Tennessee bought 300 used Dell laptops for its one-to-one computing initiative from CDI, Computer Dealers Inc., one of the largest computer resellers in North America. The district plans to buy 300 more from CDI when more funding comes.

“We don’t have very much money here, and I’m trying to get as many laptops in the classroom as I can,” said Terry Burns, McNairy County’s technology coordinator. “To me, it’s a no-brainer. If you get Dell refurbs with a three-year warranty, or a four-year warranty, … that’s the same thing as a new Dell to me.”

And they come at a fraction of the cost: CDI’s used computers cost one-half to one-third of the price of new computers bought directly from companies such as Dell, HP, and Lenovo.

“Whatever you would pay for one computer from Dell, you can get two, maybe three, from us,” said Saar Pikar, senior vice president and general manager of CDI, which is based in Markham, Canada, and operates as a subsidiary of U.S.-based Relational Technology Solutions.

CDI resells name-brand computer equipment—including laptops, desktops, LCDs, servers, and printers—that was leased to Fortune 500 companies and returned, or is brand-new “end-of-the-line” product inventory that computer companies never sold.

Getting over the stigma associated with buying used equipment is one of the biggest challenges—but CDI’s no-questions-asked warranty and its exceptional service have helped.

“Of course, I had hesitations … but you’ve got to take a chance in life,” said Burns, who has nothing but positive things to say about his district’s experience with the refurbished machines. He added: “Now, I don’t plan to buy anything but refurbs, especially with our budget. Tomorrow night, I’ve got a board meeting, and I’m going to tell the board that I want to go with CDI and these refurb computers. I don’t plan to buy new computers.”

Brian Bray, director of technology for Lebanon Community Schools in Oregon, feels the same.

“First, the decision had to be made that we would buy refurbished equipment, leased-returned equipment,” Bray said.

It made good business sense, he said, so the district bought 2,000 Dell desktop computers from CDI to use in its administrative offices, students labs, and classrooms.

“We are rolling out way, way, way more technology in front of our kids for the dollar, and it’s completely reliable. And at these prices, you [can] keep some spares in the building and when it quits, you say: ‘Go swap it,’” Bray said.

“It’s been a total good experience. I often check in with other school districts about their acquisition strategies and their fleet maintenance strategies, and what we’re doing wins. It’s the right thing.”

He added: “We get machines that are just a little behind the curve, [but] they are more than enough to do what we need to do. We get very good pricing, we get warranty coverage, and there’s some logistical considerations for us.”

Greater efficiency

In addition to low prices, buying refurbished computers from CDI has helped the Lebanon Community Schools standardize its computers on only one model, which in turn helps its staff of three full-time equivalents be more efficient.

“With such a small team, we rely on network automation tools. If we need to install software, we push it automatically. We don’t walk up to machines and do things almost at all,” Bray said. “So it’s important that the machines be long-runs of the same box. We don’t have to worry about any drivers or anything. We can make a good standard image and push it out.”

With the way technology turns over in the marketplace, the same computer might not be available to buy when more computer funding becomes available.

“If you go buy new machines, you buy $20,000 worth in March and you want to go and get some more in July, that exact same machine might not be there,” Bray said. “If you are buying off-lease business-class equipment that’s coming out of big corporations … there are millions and millions of them out there. And if we want more, even a year later, we can get them.”

CDI, he said, is great at handling large volumes of orders for the same machine.

“It isn’t only the price savings in getting lease-returned equipment, it’s that standardization is key to our efficiency,” Bray said.

Also, the way CDI packages and ships computers—stacked three-high and shrink-wrapped and bubble-wrapped on a skid—adds to Lebanon’s efficiency. There are no boxes to dispose of for each machine.

“It’s huge. Imagine if you are unpacking 200 computers. You’ve got 200 boxes and 600 pieces of foam—it’s a big deal for a little operation like us,” Bray said. “We could not possibly buy new machines and roll them out as efficiently.”

Quality control

Over the years, CDI has refined its procedures for testing, cleaning, upgrading, and even imaging the equipment it resells. It’s something that customers take for granted but ensures high value.

“We don’t give it a thought,” Bray said. “We’re just happy with it. They come ready to go, and we just stick them in place. I know there’s a good process behind it. I just take it for granted.”

He added: “They are really top-notch computers. They are top-of-the-line. You can’t tell them from a new one.”

During a tour of CDI’s facilities, Chris Bristow, CDI’s operations manager, explained the company’s quality control process.

“We are dealing with a year-and-a-half to two-year-old technology, so people are getting pretty decent equipment,” Bristow said. “We touch everything at least twice.”

All equipment procured by CDI goes through the test and audit production line. Trained computer technicians process the equipment, and each stage is recorded.

First, PCs and notebooks are tested for functionality. A testing software image is loaded to see if everything works, including the hard drive, CD player, DVD burner, video card, and so on. This process is automated, which eliminates human error. Then, the appearance is assessed. “Every product has got to look nice,” Bristow said.

Then, the item travels in a tray on a metal roller conveyor belt to be cleaned, fixed, and upgraded as needed.

Cleaning is a two-part process. With their covers removed, desktop computers travel through a custom-built “dust containment booth” in which high-powered vacuums and blowers suck and blow dust off the guts of the computer. The equipment is also hand-washed and polished.

After the cleaning, each computer is tested again, and any customer-requested modifications—such as upgrades or pre-loading of an image—are fulfilled.

“Everything is date [and] time stamped, so we know where the unit is at all times and who touched it,” Bristow said. “Everything gets cleaned twice: once before it goes to the warehouse, and once before it goes to the customer.”

In another area, technicians test and clean LCD monitors. “A monitor with bad pixels instantly fails,” Bristow said. “If you look at a lab in a school, one bad monitor stands out like a sore thumb, so our standard has to be high and consistent across the board.”

A green solution

The idea of refurbishing computers is very green, and so is everything else CDI does—from choosing its packaging materials to making sure nothing ever goes to a landfill, Bristow said.

Because “end-of-the-line” equipment is brand new, CDI reuses the packaging it came with, including the Styrofoam. Its box for laptops is made of cardboard and is completely recyclable.

“One thing we do that I think is spectacular is that we package in such a way that the equipment gets there in one piece with the least amount of boxing possible, but adequate protection—and it lowers the cost,” Bristow said.

Any equipment that failed the test-and-audit process gets either resold or recycled.

“I’m able to get any product recycled properly,” Bristow said. “We don’t send any computer equipment to landfill, ever. That has never happened in my entire career here.”

He added: “We find a way to sell it to someone who is going to refurbish it at a level we don’t want to, or they are going to shred it down to the core product.”

Customer service

CDI has been steadfast in improving its support and customer service for education customers.

“Since 2008, our customer service policy has been as simple as this: Any educational client that asks us to do something, we will do it as long as it’s not illegal. That is it,” Pikar said. “So we’ve had customers who have phoned us and asked us to pick up units that we didn’t sell them … [and] we picked them up and replaced them. We did that without any questions.”

That’s typical of how CDI handles its warranty issues: It does whatever is easiest for the customer, with no extra costs incurred. “We feel whatever you pay for that computer should be all you ever pay for that computer,” Pikar said.

And customers can’t say enough nice things about CDI and its used computers. “The service means a lot,” Burns said. “I’ve been 100-percent pleased.”

A former eSchool News editor, Cara Erenben is now a freelance writer living outside Toronto.

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