We should aim to keep products in use for as long as possible.
This week, I started to write about how appliances die too soon and how repairing them is often too difficult and costly. It’s to launch our Built to Last campaign that will make appliances and devices more durable and repairable. But the article I started to write seemed familiar.
Not long after I joined Consumer NZ, I sent a dead dishwasher to the e-waste scrapheap. It turns out I’d written about that in April 2015. In that thinly concealed rant, I lamented how appliances weren’t lasting and how we’re too quick to replace anything faulty with something shiny and new. Though I’d repaired a few appliances I owned, I moaned about it being too difficult: appliances weren’t designed to be fixed, repair skills were disappearing, and the cost of parts and labour often made repair uneconomical.
Nothing much has changed in the past 5 years – I’d write the same article now. So here it is, as written 5 years ago …
The funeral was short and free of emotion. The dishwasher had a relatively short life – just 7 years. It ended suddenly with the unmistakable smell of a burnt-out motor.
With hindsight, it was partly my fault for buying a dishwasher from a brand Consumer’s reliability survey rates as “below average”. There was no point repairing it. It had been on life support for a while and I’d been quoted upwards of $500 for replacement parts alone. After a short ceremony, a man took it away to the great whiteware recycler in the sky and left a new, quieter, much improved model in its place – this time from a brand with “above average” reliability.
So much of the energy and resources put into creating that broken dishwasher are lost forever. More are used to recycle parts of it, and more still are used to build and deliver its replacement to me. We pat ourselves on the back for recycling, but we should be upset that we’ve needed to use this last resort. Our real aim should be keeping products in use for as long as possible.
A product should be reliable. It should perform without fault for a reasonable time, then be able to be repaired to keep it in use for an extended period of time. When we ask our members about their expectations of appliance life, we ask them to consider not just fault-free life, but how long they’d expect an appliance to last given some reasonable repair.
I’m old enough to remember when products were simple, mechanical and repairable. But advances in technology, such as the rise of microprocessor control, have added complexity that has eroded our ability to repair a product. Those advances are not a bad thing, but some decisions made during product design to deal (or not) with the increased complexity are bad: rechargeable batteries that can’t be replaced, electronic circuits that control entire products, rinse aid seals integrated within an entire detergent dispenser system. Products that should be serviceable all too often become uneconomic to repair, and are scrapped.
As an aside, the idea of planned obsolescence has been around since the 1960s. Along with reliability, a product has to retain its desirability and perception of usefulness to keep being used. Through marketing of “new and better” products, many of which are not better, the appeal of older products erodes and they get replaced. Vance Packard introduced the issue in his eye-opening 1960 book The Waste Makers. I’d encourage everyone to read it.
My dead dishwasher really was dead. I’d have been quite happy to keep using it, but the parts that failed were major and a repair made no economic sense. The new machine is quieter and more efficient with water and energy, so I feel slightly better about the extra resources I’ve consumed. One of the creeping advances in whiteware is the improvement in efficiency, which is a good reason to replace older machines. In the past couple of months though, I have had a few other products fail – products I really didn’t want to replace – a replacement would offer no advantages over the outgoing product.
In order of failure, these were: a KitchenAid blender (13 years old, broken blade connector), a Rancilio Silvia espresso machine (7 years old, leaks), and a Westinghouse fridge-freezer (9 years old, fridge warm, freezer super-cold). Fortunately, the repair news was good for all three. They would need a visit to the emergency room, and perhaps minor surgery, but they weren’t dead. I fixed the blender with a $30 part ordered from Amazon and 10 minutes of DIY surgery with a screwdriver. The espresso machine went to a local doctor, who serviced and upgraded it to better-than-new performance for $250. The fridge-freezer needed an air flow valve and 30 minutes of expert surgery – $150.
None of these products were cheap when I bought them. I invested in good performing, well-designed and durable products with the expectation of them lasting a long time. That policy seems to be working and I hope to get another few years use, at least, from all of them. Their funerals can wait a little longer. I took the same approach with my new dishwasher. I’ll get back to you in 10 years’ time and report how it’s holding up.
My Bosch dishwasher is going fine after five years, with no faults to report. My espresso machine has just turned 13 years old and still brews great coffee. The fridge-freezer still keeps food cold and frozen – though I sold it to a friend 3 years ago when I renovated my kitchen. My blender still blends.