Fancy & fragile
Modern appliances aren’t lasting as long as previous models, repair experts say
By Jim Weiker • THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Appliances can talk with one another. They can track their energy use. They can be controlled by phones. • Now can we just get them to last? • All the technological and energy-saving gizmos added to home appliances in recent years have come at an expense: life expectancy.
• “The average appliance life span is 10 to 15 years,” said Robert Rist, whose family has owned Central Ohio Appliance Repair for almost 40 years. “The days of them lasting 25 or 30 years are gone.”
According to the National Association of Home Builders, the life expectancy of major household appliances ranges from nine years for dishwashers to 15 years for gas ranges. Other surveys, such as those from the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers and Mr. Appliance, give appliances a few years longer.
But whatever figure is used, experts agree that the plug gets pulled a lot faster on appliances today than in the past.
“Older products might have lasted 15 years before a repair,” said Dana Smith, who owns the Dayton and Lima Mr. Appliance franchises.
- “We’ve talked with people who say they just spent $3,000 on a range and can’t believe it doesn’t work, and we hear how the old one lasted 20 years without a single repair.”
A 2013 survey of 29,281 Consumer Reports subscribers found that 31 percent of side-by-side refrigerators broke within four years. In the same time period, 22 percent of front-loading washing machines and 20 percent of dishwashers failed.
The 2013 survey found that the failure rate of appliances and other household items was actually better than it was in 2010.
Celia Kuperszmid Lehrman, a deputy content editor with the publication, doesn’t know how the failure rate might compare with decades ago but thinks one reason people are frustrated with modern appliances is that when they fail, they really fail.
“When products break, it’s memorable,” she said. “About 53 percent of respondents said the products just stopped working altogether, and 32 percent said they work poorly, so it’s a big deal when it breaks. It’s not like the light stopped working on a refrigerator.”
Nonetheless, Lehrman thinks appliances today are better overall than in the past. They’re quieter, more efficient and more effective, she said.
Manufacturers have responded to issues of reliability in part by shrinking the typical warranty down to one year, compared with up to five years for large parts several years ago, Lehrman said.
There could be many reasons that appliances don’t last as long as they once did, including the greater reliance on plastic parts and thinner metal, but repair experts say the biggest reason is that energy-saving features and electronic components have made appliances more complicated and therefore more error-prone.
A favorite example among repair experts is the compressor used in refrigerators, which has shrunk to meet energy guidelines. Refrigerators are now far more efficient but also more likely to fail.
Another example: Dishwashers today consume about one-fifth the amount of water they used just a few years ago. But the water-saving change has boosted service calls from homeowners concerned about performance. “They use a lot less water,” Smith said. “That affects performance, and people are disappointed.”
- But perhaps the greatest culprit is the increased reliance on electronics and computers.
From simple LED displays to moisture sensors and Wi-Fi adapters, appliances have far more electronics, which brings a greater chance of failure.
“Each function adds another circuit,” said Jody Vass, president of Capital City Appliance in Columbus, which makes more than 30,000 appliance repair runs a year. “And each time you run electricity through a circuit, it creates heat and can fail.”
Local repair companies estimate that 50 percent of their service calls are due to electronic, rather than mechanical, failures.
“The classic example is the washer and dryer,” Smith said. “Most have automatic timers now. The old ones were all mechanical, and mechanical components don’t fail as often.”
Electronic components are also vulnerable to power surges and lightning strikes. (Repair experts strongly recommend surge protectors on major appliances.)
Each time a manufacturer introduces a new appliance bell or whistle, repair crews tend to roll their eyes. “We cringe when we see stuff like this,” Vass said. “They just lead to additional problems. I wish people would have stayed basic. It would have made their lives and our lives much easier.”
The classic example among servicers is the LG refrigerator that included a television on the front door. (The model has been discontinued.) “At a seminar I asked, sort of joking, ‘Should we send out the appliance repair tech or a TV repairman?’ ” Rist asked.
Experts say homeowners share some of the blame for appliance failures. Many problems could be avoided if they simply cleaned the appliances and followed the owners’ manuals, servicers say. “Nobody reads their use-and-care manual, but those things do help,” Smith said. “It’s much more critical now than it used to be.”
- The question of when to repair and when to replace depends on many variables, but repair crews, not surprisingly, lean toward keeping an old machine running.
“If we see an old Maytag, we almost always recommend that the customer fix it,” Smith said. “Even with a $400 repair and the increased electricity use with the old appliance, they’ll still save a lot of money in the long run.” firstname.lastname@example.org