Telephone Answering Machine Repair

This Fix-It Guide on telephone answering machine repair explains how both digital and tape-based telephone answering machines work, what often goes wrong, how to identify a telephone answering machine problem, and what parts and tools you will need to fix it. It then directs you to other Fix-It Guides for simple step-by-step instructions for how to replace a faulty electrical cord or belt, and how to service the cassette. Though most answering systems in use today record digitally, some homes are still equipped with a tape-based telephone answering machine.

How Does a Telephone Answering Machine Work?

Telephone Answering Machine Repair

Components of a typical telephone (tape) answering machine. Digital phone answering machines have similar parts.

A telephone answering machine is a device designed to record audio telephone messages for later playback. Once the telephone rings a specified number of times, a telephone answering machine plays a recorded message to the caller and then records the caller’s response. Cassette-type answering machines store outgoing and incoming messages on one or two audiotapes similar to those used in audiocassette players. Digital answering machines use a computer chip to announce and record the messages.

What Can Go Wrong with a Telephone Answering Machine?

In most cases, problems with telephone answering devices are caused either by operator error (trying to figure out how it’s supposed to work) or low batteries, if equipped. In addition, the power cord may be faulty, the belt may be loose or broken, the telephone cord or modular plug may be damaged, the play and record heads and the tape path may be dirty, and the play or record heads may be magnetized.

Fix-It Tip

If you suspect that the telephone line itself may be the problem, consider buying an inexpensive phone line tester at an electronics stores. It will tell you if there is a signal or not and whether the internal lines are crossed. Also, replace the telephone cord with the shortest one you need.

How Can I Identify a Telephone Answering Machine Problem?

  • If the unit doesn’t take messages, first check the owner’s manual for a troubleshooting chart or other diagnostics. Some machines include self-checks that will tell you what the problem is.
  • If the machine doesn’t work at all, first make sure power is on at the electrical receptacle and test the electrical cord.
  • If the machine is digital, there is little you can do to replace individual components. Try cleaning the machine with canned air and electronic cleaner (see the Fix-Anything Fix-It Guide).
  • If the tape reels don’t move, check the cassette and replace it if it is faulty. If that doesn’t fix the problem, replace a loose or broken belt (see the Cassette Deck Fix-It Guide).
  • If the machine doesn’t respond to calls, try replacing the telephone cord or modular plug (see the Telephone System Fix-It Guide).
  • If the tape jams, repair or replace a faulty tape cassette (see the Cassette Deck Fix-It Guide). Also, clean the heads and the tape path (see the Cassette Deck Fix-It Guide). If necessary, replace a broken or stretched belt (see the Cassette Deck Fix-It Guide).
  • If the message quality is poor, clean dirty heads or repair or replace a faulty tape (see the Cassette Deck Fix-It Guide).

Fix-It Tip

If your tape answering machine is plain worn out, consider replacing it with a digital unit. It’s about the same price for the same features, and it has fewer moving parts to go wrong. However, there’s little you can do with a digital unit once something does go wrong, so buy a unit with a good warranty.

What Do I Need for Telephone Answering Machine Repair?

You may be able to find replacement parts and tools at an electronics supply store such as Radio Shack. Refer to the individual Fix-It Guides mentioned above for specific tools and procedures.