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Why Appliances Need Repairs So Often

New models break down more quickly than ever. Here's how to decide whether to repair or replace a clunker.

posted by Caroline Mayer, August 14, 2012 More by this author

an appliance junkyard

Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer


an appliance junkyard
iStockphoto | Thinkstock
For better and for worse, I’ve successfully navigated four kitchen remodels in the past 30 years. What’s better is the way each remodeled kitchen looks and functions. What’s worse are the appliances.
 
The newer appliances just don’t work as well, or hold up as long, as the old ones. My husband I have repeatedly replaced relatively new appliances, both large and small. (At least ours haven’t been deemed a safety hazard like the 1.3 million GE dishwashers just recalled because of potential fire risks.)
 
So I’ve been wondering: Despite all the latest whizz-bang features on today's appliances — from noise reduction to energy savers to extra cycles — is it possible that they just don't make 'em the way they used to?
 
(MORE: Home Repair: When Not To Do It Yourself)
 
Our Sad Appliance Tales
 
Get out your tissues. Here's the history of my household appliance woes:
 
The scary mixer. Two years ago, I gave my daughter our 30-year-old stand mixer and purchased a new one by KitchenAid. The motor soon made scary grinding noises. A KitchenAid customer-service rep listened to it over the phone, agreed with me, and the company quickly replaced the mixer. The new model isn’t making weird noises, but it doesn’t seem as powerful or sturdy as the one I used for three decades.
 
The dishwasher that wouldn’t wash. This summer, we finally gave up and replaced our five-year-old dishwasher that — from Day One — never fully cleaned the dishes, despite repeated service visits from the manufacturer’s repair team. 
 
The grills that made us go grrr. We’ve purchased at least four gas barbecue grills in 20 years after parts rusted out or just quit working. Each new model seems to have the half-life of the preceding one.
 
I concede that today’s appliances are far more energy-efficient than in the past. Bob Markovich, home & yard editor for Consumer Reports, told me that today’s dishwashers use about one-sixth the amount of water than models made seven years ago, and a new refrigerator uses half the energy of a 15-year-old fridge.
 
Still, according to the 2011 Consumer Reports Repair or Replace customer survey, more than one in five new major appliances need fixing pretty quickly. Consider the statistics:
 
Percentage of Appliances Breaking Within Three to Four Years
 
  • Side-by-side refrigerator/freezers with icemakers: 36 percent
 
  • Refrigerators with top- or bottom freezers with icemakers: 28 percent
 
  • Front-loading washing machines: 25 percent
 
  • Dishwashers: 20 percent
 
And when appliances do go wrong these days, the problems may be “more catastrophic,” Markovich notes. “Things will just stop,” he says, because the appliances are now laden with electronics.
 
Bob Matthews, owner of R.S. Myers Service Co, the northern Virginia repair company I often call when one of our appliances breaks, says today’s appliances usually have more cycles and choices than in the past, all of which add up to more potential trouble. “They generally require more service calls than older appliances,” he says.
 
Why Appliances Don’t Last
 
I asked Daniel Braunstein, a senior lecturer at MIT’s mechanical engineering department, whether newer appliances have lost their steam. His reply: "That is a very meaty topic.”
 
Braunstein says appliance quality relates to the state of manufacturing, the global economy and corporate profits, among other things. “The overly simplistic view," he notes, "is there has been a real push for bottom-line performance” by appliance makers and their stockholders. That has affected product performance.
 
(MORE: Quick Kitchen Facelifts In A Weekend)

As Braunstein tells it, many consumer-product companies have moved their manufacturing offshore, delegating design and engineering to contractors, which can create a conflict of interest.

A contractor, Braunstein says, might try to lure corporate customers by keeping the cost of its design and engineering services low. “The result becomes focused on the factory's bottom line instead of the interests of the consumer,” he explains. Trimming costs can mean taking shortcuts that negatively impact the appliance's quality.
 
Then there’s the growing competitive pressure.
 
“Consumer-product companies must always be releasing new products,” says Braunstein. “That means rapid product launches and short product life cycles. Design, engineering, manufacturing and especially testing get short shrift."
 
Consumers Share Some Blame
 
Time-crunched consumers looking for bargain-basement prices also share some of the blame, when they choose inexpensive products that aren’t built to last.
 
Braunstein admits he’s guilty of having bought a $30 printer to suit his immediate need. “I have every expectation that it will fail within a year,” he says.
 
One more reason consumers replace their appliances so often: the high cost of repair bills and replacement parts.
 
“We charge a minimum of $92 just to go and diagnose a product, plus parts and labor, so it’s easy for a consumer to pay $150 to $250 for a minimum repair,” says Matthews. “A lot of people would rather go buy something new.”
 
Repair or Replace?
 
How do you know when it’s time to buy a replacement appliance?
 
A good starting point is Consumer Reports’ Repair or Replace timeline.
 
The magazine’s rule of thumb: When the cost of fixing an appliance will be higher than half the price of a comparable new model, don’t repair — replace.

To find out whether your balky appliance has been recalled by the U.S. government, visit the Recalls.gov website.
 
What’s been your experience with appliances? Post a comment here or write to me at NextAvenue@carolinemayer.com
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