Eugene is a qualified control/instrumentation engineer Bsc (Eng) and has worked as a developer of electronics & software for SCADA systems.
How Do I Fix a Remote Control or Keypad?
Rubber membrane keypads are widely used on burglar alarm panels, remote controls for TV, calculators, audio equipment, satellite boxes, gamepad controllers etc. Keyboards on laptops are now often rubber membrane types, with dome switches mounted on top for tactile feedback.
How Do Rubber Membrane Keypads Work?
If you look inside one of these keypads, there are lots of little rubber pads on the underside of the buttons which push against a circuit board when you press a key. The surface of these rubber pads is impregnated with carbon to make them conductive, so that when the pad makes contact with pairs of metal contacts on the PCB (Printed Circuit Board), it completes a circuit, triggering the circuitry to do something (e.g. send out an infrared signal to a TV, or register a digit on an alarm panel). Over time, the conductive coating can deteriorate and also the contacts on the PCB can become dirty.
If you can't find a new remote control or alarm keypad, or don't want to use a universal remote, you can try cleaning or repair the keypad.
How to Get the Keys to Work on a Remote Control
There are several steps to getting a remote back working again:
- Open the remote. It may be held by screws, clips, or the two halves could be plastic welded or glued together.
- Clean the control with washing up liquid (soap) or rubbing alcohol. This may temporarily restore functionality.
- If cleaning doesn't work, you can repair the keypad with electrically conductive ink or graphite, replace the pads, or use aluminum foil (see instructions below).
Always Check the Batteries First!
If your remote doesn't work, check first that the batteries aren't exhausted. You can use a battery checker, or simply try inserting fresh batteries. Also the electrical terminals in the battery compartment which make contact with the batteries can become tarnished and fail to conduct current. Try cleaning them with wire wool, fine sandpaper, a nail file or similar. Don't over do it as you can easily wear away the shiny nickel coating on the terminals.
This an inexpensive, easy-to-use universal battery checker suitable for 1.5 volt AA, AAA, C and D cells and also small, square 9 volt "PP3" (MN1604) style batteries, often used in digital multimeters. It's suitable for alkaline, NiMH and NiCD cells but not lithium cells.
It indicates whether the battery is flat, low or fully charged on an analog scale.
Is the Remote Control Sending Out an Infrared Signal?
The key fob for your car transmits a radio signal to operate locks. However, remote controls for TVs and other consumer electronics send out an infra-red signal when you press a button. The signal is emitted by an LED at the front of the control. You can't see this with the naked eye, but if you view the remote with a digital camera or phone, it's possible to detect the signal which appears as a flashing light. If this isn't apparent, check for any loose soldered connections when you open the control and resolder them. My beginner's guide "How to Solder Electronic Components and Wires" shows you how to do this.
How to Open a Remote Control or Alarm Keypad
- First things first: Remove the batteries!
- Remote controls can be held together with screws, clips, by using a plastic welding/glue bonding technique, or a combination of these methods.
- Screws are often located in the battery compartment, but sometimes can be hidden under rubber pads which you can prize out with an awl or narrow bladed jeweler's screwdriver.
- Once you've done this, try and pull the two halves apart. If they don't come apart easily or if there are no screws apparent, slide a blunt dinner knife into the crack between the two halves of the control to undo the clips, starting at one end.
- Hold the tip end of the blade between your thumb and forefinger. This gives more control and lessens the danger of the knife slipping out and stabbing you in the other hand!
- It's very easy to break the clips, so take care and prize the halves apart bit by bit. You need to feel your way along the crack and with a bit of practice its possible to locate a clip by sliding and pushing in at the same time (the tip of the knife sinks into an indentation).
- Twist the blade to undo the clip.
- Work your way all around the perimeter, and separate the two halves.
Remote alarm keypads generally have a faceplate held on by screws, so you don't need to do any of the above steps.
How to Clean a Remote Control
If the control is really dirty and sticky, e.g. someone has spilled sugared tea, coffee or soda on it, it will need to be cleaned.
- After taking it apart, you can wash the two halves of the shell, membrane keypad and circuit board in warm soapy water. I reckon its safe to do this because usually there's only one chip on the board and a few passive components and unlike a cell phone, no complex, high density, surface mounted electronics, or other modules which water could lodge in. Rinse the board, shell and keypad after cleaning, and allow to air dry, or dry with a hair drier.
- If the control is unresponsive but hasn't got dirty as described above, you can try cleaning the conductive rubber pads with isopropyl alcohol. This is also known as rubbing alcohol or IPA. You can buy it in bottles or aerosol cans. Its sold in electronic or hobby shops as a cleaning product for circuit boards. Spray a little onto a small piece of paper kitchen towel and clean each pad and the corresponding tracks on the PCB. As an alternative, you can use a cotton bud soaked in alcohol for cleaning.
Cleaning the pads with alcohol usually works for a time, but sometimes a remote becomes unresponsive again. Possibly this has something to do with the conductive layer on the pads permanently breaking down. The only solution then is to use conductive ink or aluminum foil to repair the pads.
Repair Option 1: Use Electrically Conductive Ink or Graphite Repair Kits
There are several products available for restoring keypads such as KePad-Fix which either involve using electrically conductive silver ink/paint or graphite loaded compound to create a new layer on the rubber pads. Depending on the product, you need to clean the pads thoroughly, apply a primer and/or super glue and then paint the pads using the supplied applicator.
Repair Option 2: Use Replacement Pads
Another option is to buy a kit of replacement pads and glue. After cutting off the existing pad, you apply a small dab of glue to the membrane and stick on a new pad, pressing it down to make sure it is attached properly.
Repair Option 3: Use Aluminum Foil
The third option which costs virtually nothing and works quite well is to use aluminum kitchen foil ("tin foil") You need to have nimble fingers to do this and it can be a little tricky, but not overly difficult.
How to Repair a Remote Control With Aluminum Foil
Step 1: Cut the Foil Into Small Squares
With a sharp scissors, cut the foil into squares roughly the size of the pads. You don't have to be overly fussy about this, just don't make the squares too large.
Tip: A reader has suggested using a paper punch to cut out circles of foil.
Step 2: Apply a Blob of Glue to the Pad
Super glue works quite well, but you can also try using contact adhesives or any other type of craft glue. Don't squeeze glue directly from the tube onto a pad, because too much is likely to squirt out, instead apply some to a pinhead, match stick, jeweler's screwdriver or similar, and spread it evenly over the pad.
Step 3: Attach the Foil Square to the Pad
Super glue bonds within seconds, so it's important to position the foil properly on the pad. You can use a tweezers, small snipe/needle nose pliers or suction pickup tool to pickup the foil.
Step 4: Press Down Firmly on the Foil Squares
Press down on the square and firm the edges of the square around the pad.
Adhesive Foil Repair Pads
If you don't want to go to the trouble of cutting squares of alu foil and gluing onto the pads, another option is these circular adhesive repair dots. They are 3/16" diameter, so check they are big enough to bridge the contacts on the PCB. 35 dots are supplied in a pack.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
Question: I have a pioneer remote control unit CU0FD002 for Pioneer Hi-Fi equipment. The equipment was purchased in the early 1990s. The sleep function recently stopped working. I believe it has to do with the rubber membrane you wrote about in this article. My problem is opening the remote's case. The knife trick you suggest doesn't work, and it may be that the remote's clamshell is glued together. Do you have a suggestion as to how to open such a remote?
Answer: The chances are that it is glued together or possibly welded at various points around the perimeter. Make sure you've removed all the screws (some could be hidden under labels). A credit card is also useful for prying into the gap between the halves and would do less damage to the plastic than a knife. If you can separate the halves even a bit, you might be able to see where the snap clips are and push in and upwards to release them. Another possibility is to heat the edges of the control with a hair drier. Most glues soften with heat, so it may help to free the halves. Other than that your only option is to cut the control using a junior hacksaw or maybe a toothed cutting disk and Dremel rotary tool.
© 2015 Eugene Brennan
Syed on May 04, 2019:
Dear Eugene this article was very useful, I tried the Aluminium foil option to fix my cable receiver's remote which worked perfectly. Although it took a bit of time but worth trying it. It made me happy as I saved myself from purchasing a new remote. Thanks Eugene. Keep continuing the good work.
Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on December 28, 2018:
Thanks for the suggestions Rob.
Care would have to be taken of course with the superglue, but a more pliable glue like UHU contact adhesive could also be used. The auxiliary keypad on my security alarm is still working fine after about 4 years. Not sure which glue I used though.
Rob on December 28, 2018:
The Alufoil method is quite effort-intensive. On some websites ist is discouraged to use superglue because it could affect the soft structure on which it is applied. Because of this, I tried a solution without using any adhesive, not even conductive ink. Other people experienced a low endurance of this solution.
I bought a very soft graphite pencil (B8), but striking over the soft pad does only transfer very little graphite. Then I used intermediate material, e.g. cotton fabric and drew with the pencil on it, several strikes forth and back. While wiping the "graphited" fabric over the pads, I could see that a graphite film was transferred to the pads.
It works, but I'll have to return in a couple of months in order to tell anything of its robustness...
BTW: good article, especially for its completeness and the mentioning of a few methods (as well as the trick with the camera).
Pixie N. on December 26, 2018:
However, for many keyboards, the contacts are more likely to get dirty than the pads wearing off, and it just requires a drop of alcohol, a towel, and some rubbing on the membrane itself, and off the gunk goes. Did that with a friend's "dead" keyboard, worked wonders.
...Feel like foiling up my TV remote.
Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on December 26, 2018:
Sounds like a great suggestion! Thanks Pixie!
Pixie N. on December 26, 2018:
There's yet another, simpler method than superglue that's not nearly as, well, "messy" or "permanent"; add some double sided tape to the aluminum foil (on the edges is ideal to not waste foil), cut it to size, lay the buttons out, and now peel off the other side of the tape (can be a bit of a challenge, but after a few it should work just fine), and then attach them to the bottoms of the pads. Probably great along with the punch method, but may be a tiny bit harder to punch through. This obviously has the benefit of you being able to either reapply the fix, or test fit the cutouts beforehand before you commit.
Oh, even though the carbon pads are functional, this fix is still useful, just to increase responsiveness of the remote controls. And let me tell you, it works absolute wonders for older game controllers too.
Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on July 26, 2018:
You could try using a razor blade or similar to separate the membrane and board, bit by bit. Start at the corner and slide the blade as you pull gently on the membrane. I think you can get single sided blades, but if your using double side blades, maybe you could hold one with a small vice grips. A "Stanley" knife is another option, but the blade would be thicker.
David Sperduto on July 26, 2018:
This is such a great hack to know about. Unfortunately, in my case, I have a data collector (used in land surveying) that has a separate membrane between the rubber pad and the circuit board. It's on the underside of the membrane that the carbon pads are, probably, and the membrane is glued very well to the PC board. So to get at the carbon pads, I'd have to peel off the membrane, probably destroying it and its precise alignment with the PC. Any ideas? Probably hopeless, right? Oh, well. I'm still glad to know about the usual way these keypads work. Thank you.
Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on July 19, 2018:
I don't know, all you can do is try. If the red areas are clear of where the buttons make contact, you may be able to get away without using lacquer.
Check resistance first along a section of the black coating to see whether it's a conductive material.
Nelix on July 19, 2018:
Would you recommend I then use the Lacquer/Varnish after using fine copper and solder? would this be sufficient to allow the rubber pads to work as they should?
Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on July 19, 2018:
You can get silver conductive ink for repairing tracks, but it's likely to cost as much as a replacement remote control. Fine copper wire plus a streak of solder should bridge the gap in a damaged section.
Nelix on July 19, 2018:
I checked it on the continuity function of the Meter, I'll check the resistance and let you know. I have some Circuit board lacquer that I could probably use but I think the copper tracks under the coating have been damaged by the leaking battery and was hoping to be able to repair the track using a few strands of copper and then re-coating but not sure if this would work. see this image:
The yellow hole is where the acid from the batteries came through, the damage to the board/tracks is next to the Red marks and the Blue mark is where I scrapped a little of the black material off to check connectivity.
Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on July 19, 2018:
The black coating may be an insulating material that prevents the buttons making contact with the tracks, but still allows capacitance to increase as spacing reduces when the buttons get close.
When you checked the black material with a meter, did you use the continuity range or a resistance range? Resistance of the material could be greater than the 30 ohms or so that would register as being conductive on the continuity range.
You could try coating the tracks with a lacquer/varnish and see if it makes any difference.
Nelix on July 19, 2018:
This is great advise, however, what would you suggest if this does not work. I have a remote where the battery leaked and a selection of buttons no longer work, it looks like the board has some slight damage, I believe these keyboards work off capacitance. The tracks on the board for the buttons appear to be covered with a black substance that is non-conductive, I assume this is some sort of special coating, if I scrape it off I can check continuity but the rubber button no longer works across the copper track, what is this coating and how can it be replaced?
Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on August 27, 2017:
Thanks for the suggestion Charles. I've tried using IPA on the contacts and it does work, but only for a month or so. How about using an ink eraser (sometimes coloured blue). These are usually more abrasive than the pencil types?
Charles Wohl on August 26, 2017:
OK, all you people out there with remotes with failing buttons, read this post and I guarantee it will save you some time and maybe money, and the repair will be closer to the original specs of your remote.
Forget the double-stick tape or glue and you can forget the aluminum foil as well.
Open your remote as described above and locate the squiggly contact on the circuit board as well as the black carbon pressure pads of the offending buttons. Make sure you have the right ones.
All you are going to need is a fresh pink pencil eraser on the top of the pencil, a couple of Q-Tips and some isopropyl alcohol - I'd recommend the 91%, but the regular concentration in your medicine cabinet will work fine as well.
Dip the Q-Tip in the alcohol. You want it moist, not dripping. In a circular motion, clean off the squiggly pads and the carbon pressure pads. The Q-Tips are going to turn black. Don't worry about this; just keep on cleaning for about a minute at each location. Now dry all the locations off with a clean dry Q-Tip.
Take hold of the back end of the pencil (eraser side) and rub the eraser in a circular motion on the offending squiggly pads and the carbon pressure pads. You'll begin to see a brushed sheen from the mild abrasives in the eraser. Blow off any fragments and again clean the areas with a moist Q-Tip, then wipe the area down with a dry cloth or dry Q-Tip. Let it dry for five minutes then put the remote back together.
The faulty buttons on your remote will now work like new, and the remote won't have any non-original materials in it.
I worked as an electronic tech and engineer and used this method in the past for many years. Before sending this post I performed this repair on two flakey remote power buttons, one for an older Pioneer plasma screen TV, another for an older Yamaha receiver. Both remotes are now functioning like they were new!
Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on August 08, 2017:
Thanks Larry - That's an excellent suggestion!
LarryK on August 07, 2017:
Use a Paper punch to punch out foil circles works great and all uniform size.
anil sharma. on May 31, 2017:
I have read it . I will try. Hope it works. Thanks. Good & simple information.
Henry on July 31, 2016:
Very helpful!! I learned something new!
Peter from Australia on May 01, 2016:
Thanks for the tip on checking the IR output of the remote and replacing the contact with foil.
Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on January 30, 2016:
Thanks Michael. You don't even need a smart phone, any phone with a camera or a digital camera will do. Thanks for the tweet!
Micheal is from United Kingdom on January 30, 2016:
Great hub Eugene, I learned something new (smart phones detect infra red signal) and found the whole article very useful. Sharing it to my twitter followers.
Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on August 13, 2015:
As Newton would say, "just standing on the shoulders of giants", learning from those who went before me!
peachy from Home Sweet Home on August 13, 2015:
you are a clever techno guy
Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on July 14, 2015:
Thanks Ronald, glad you liked it!
Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on July 13, 2015:
This looks like great info for repairing a remote. If I ever need to do that job, having seen this will give me some confidence about doing it.
Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on July 13, 2015:
Thanks Larry! I used foil to repair a remote keypad for my burglar alarm. Unlike a TV, a universal remote wasn't an option, and I couldn't find a replacement. The pad is still working fine over a year later.
Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on July 12, 2015:
I've actually done this before. It works.