Why you should repair your broken appliances

We should aim to keep products in use for as long as possible.

20sep why repair hero

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 …

Opinion: 3 repairs and a funeral (16 April 2015)

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.

Update: 17 June 2020

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.

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Member comments

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Christina R.
08 Sep 2020
Small appliances the worst offenders

While my larger appliances have lasted well (Hitachi microwave is 35 years old and still humming!), I am concerned how quickly small kitchen appliances break down. They can be fairly cheap and it encourages a throw-away mindset. Please add toasters, kettles, sandwich presses and the like to your 'expected life span' page - cheap or not, two-years-and-chuck-it is hugely wasteful.

My Kenwood Chef is the heroic exception, turning 40 years old next year.

Dave E.
22 Jun 2020
Whiteware Failures

Hi Paul. You make some interesting points.
As someone who works for a whiteware recycling company and has spent over 30 years in the electrical industry, modern appliances are not built to last and in fact a lot R&D teams that design these products have as part of their brief a criteria that the product must not last longer than 5 years.
It is obvious when working every day with the different types, make and aged appliances that the older appliances were certainly built to last a lot longer.
Dave

Kevin R.
02 Sep 2020
Whiteware Failures

Hi Paul, there are some interesting points made here, and being someone who is in the industry, I beg to differ with Dave on the fact that R&D have it as part of their brief that a product must not last longer than 5 years. I do not believe any reputable manufacturer will be as blunt as this.

The manufacturer I work for has made it their clear intention to make their products last and be more reliable. I believe the big issue here is that manufacturers have to work to strict guidelines set up by world bodies that the units must be a certain percentage recyclable. The problem is, if we use materials that used to last a long time in the past, the manufacturers will not necessarily comply with the guidelines. This forces them to do R&D on different materials and methods etc.

So whilst washing machines or fridges are not made from a heavy gauge metal like they have been in the past, their reliability especially in the moving parts of the units have improved vastly and the manufacturer I work for offer 10 years parts warranty on its direct drive motors and compressors used in our fridges.

I would however suggest that where a unit was expected to have a life of 20 years in the past, with newer materials and the comments I have made above. I would put the life at closer to 12 - 15 years. This coupled with the fact that there have been so many advances in the electronics of the units in the past few years it makes it very expensive for manufacturers to keep parts for obsolete units for over 7 or so years.
In the past you would see brand models changing every 3 - 5 years, whereas most change every year now production has become more efficient and customers pay less for products now as a percentage of their earnings that they have ever before. An example is that a 42' basic plasma TV cost almost $25k ($40k in today's money) in 1999 and you can purchase a better 43" TV now for less than $800.
I do miss the days though when I could change the element on an iron or kettle, but nowadays unfortunately we have become a throw away society and I do not see this changing too quickly in the future either.

Jj B.
20 Jun 2020
Right to Repair

In the US, farmers there have begun a "Right to Repair" movement. Their particular thing is farm machinery, particularly John Deere but now extending to Apple. We need that here as well - thank you Consumer!

Geoffrey M.
20 Jun 2020
These comments have wider applicablilty.

Because architects. builders and other tradespeople do a less than competent professional job, homeowners are faced with ongoing costs for leaks of various kinds, painting, window repairs, insulation defects, HW and plumbing issues among others. I see house maintenance jobs being done all around every day, and many if not most, can be traced back to shoddy workmanship.

Jonathan B.
20 Jun 2020
$1.50 repair or unrepairable machine

I had a LG washer/dryer combo. The start button wouldn't work. The repair person said that the computer board would need to be replaced, however they are no longer stocked so the machine will need to be replaced. I decided to pull it apart and have a look. I took the button off the circuit board and took it to Jaycar. Got a replacement for $1.50. Soldered it in place and it is still going over 5 years later.

Andrew Crosby
19 Apr 2015
reduce reuse repair recycle

In order of importance to our planet, somehow repair, arguable the most important step got missed.

About 2 years ago I was forced to buy a new washing machine, I had an f&p whiteway 400, old as the hills, but worked well, then one day it stopped pumping out, it turned out a wee metal lever that controlled the break in the gearbox had failed, about a 20 minute job to replace, if I could buy it, the part on the machine that had failed before took a bit over a week to find (Phoned every old rapair shop in the country, found a very helpful person in Rotorua that had the part then) but this time no luck. So for want of parts support out it went.

I really think we need some manufacturer mandate to keep parts for our appliances, furthermore, at a cost that reflects what the machine cost new, ie, in your case I'd expect the motor didn't cost 500$ to make, so its place in the overall cost/profit of the machine shouldn't have been so high. I suspect we often see parts prices to make it so we buy a new appliance, its largely not in manufactors interest to support you avoiding buying new. Sad state of affairs really.

Paul S.
20 Apr 2015
re: reduce reuse repair recycle

Hi Andrew,

Thanks for your comments.

The CGA does imply a mandate to keep parts available. It requires manufacturers to keep parts and be able to repair products for a reasonable lifetime. The definition of life is one a reasonable consumer would expect. We have asked previously asked manufacturers about their expectations of life for various appliances, and their responses actually align quite well to our survey findings of appliance reliability.

I do agree though, that the cost of replacement and service parts generally high - wouldn't it be great to see more manufacturers making these parts available at a realistic price and seeing a product purchase as an ongoing relationship with the consumer? I, for one, would be more likely to be a loyal customer if that was the case.

regards,
Paul (Consumer NZ Staff)

Andrew Crosby
27 Apr 2015
Less Durable Computer Games

I'd love to hear your thoughts on Games Publishers who use server backed authentication to make sure the game you purchased was purchased legally (Not a copy, pirated etc) only to find those same publishers turning those servers off a year or two later rendering a game unplayable, for no good reason other then the publisher didn't want to pay to keep the game available. http://www.gamespot.com/articles/nba-2k14-servers-brought-back-online-following-com/1100-6426479/ is that legal in NZ? are you due a refund should this happen?

Hamish W.
18 Jun 2020
Should manufacturers keep parts forever?

The Whiteway 400 Andrew talks about went out of production in the mid-80's, three and a half decades ago. I know F&P kept supplying parts for those machines for many years, and for a lot longer than many of their competitors so it's really a question of what's fair and reasonable. I'd be quite pleased if I could get parts for a 20 year old washer but 30+ - no that's a bit far.

We have just replaced a 17 year old F&P washer. it could have been repaired but it needed a new motherboard and a new motor. We thought the repair money was better spent on a new machine and the old one went to recycle. And, having had 17 years good service out of the old F&P we bought its new equivalent.

Dom
18 Apr 2015
Silvia

Excellent article Paul, I always look for quality over cost and I actually think things are getting better. We went through 20 odd years of cheap junk when we removed import restrictions and we saw the likes of Cargo King and The Warehouse pop up overnight. Everything was made as cheap as possible and everything was a throwaway item so products weren't great to use and weren't economical in the long run.

But I sense things are changing and I think it started with Apple products, for example you can buy a Nokia phone for $30 or an iPhone for $1000 and more people started buying the $1000 phone.

And so manufacturers of those $20 kettles started producing quality $120 kettles and found them selling out. So the race to the bottom seems to be petering out in favour of higher quality innovative products - and about time too, quality is usually more economical long term and better on the environment.

But here's a question for you Paul;

My Ranchilio Silvia is 16 years old and has had less than $100 of maintenance over that period. Very happy with that.

But it will be time soon for an upgrade, so what do think about the Breville Oracle?

Cheers
Dom

Paul S.
20 Apr 2015
re: Silvia

Hi Dom, thanks for your comments.

I hope you are right and things are getting better. There will always be the cheap and all-too-disposable end of any product type, but if we migrate towards better quality products then I like to think we (as consumers) can influence what is designed and manufactured.

Sixteen years for a Silvia is fantastic - mine has some way to go yet! For replacement, the Breville Oracle doesn’t impress in our test – it is let down by coffee taste. That’s a surprise as the other Breville machines perform well. We can't comment on durability, but I’d personally be wary of such a heavily automated machine. When my Silvia was 'refreshed', I was told I'd need to spend upwards of $2,000 to significantly better its performance. Perhaps you should look at replacing like with like?

regards,
Paul (Consumer NZ Staff)

Paul S.
18 Apr 2015
What is green?

Hi Paul, totally agree.
As an industrial designer and ex maintenance engineer in heavy engineering, I find that most products are let down by usually small design faults. Annoyingly obvious for the most part and certainly known by the manufacturer.
IMO - there is a case for acknowledging Durability as the most powerful 'green; characteristic of any product.
I have suggested that a regime of progressively increasing the statutory warranty period for goods sold here would both make us greener long term and drive local industry to growth as we became a boutique manufacturer of high durability goods.
Needs some working on but imagine if you had 5 or 10 year warranty's on certain items. Is this over the top?
Having 'consumed' numerous kettles over the years, most of which would have not lasted the 12 months, I feel the junk overhead it too big to ignore. One decent kettle, just better designed for the most part, would have been much kinder on the planet and my wallet.
But, alas, one small voice in a rock concert.

Cheers
Paul M Smith

Paul S.
20 Apr 2015
re: What is green?

Hi Paul,

Thanks for your comments.

It is always interesting to speculate how small, obvious design faults get through into products. I wonder if it is through lack of understanding, or foresight, of how consumers use the product (design failure), or just the result of cost-cutting and pressure to rush a product out to market.

We are lucky here to have the CGA - which allows us (the reasonable consumer) to define durability. That trumps the warranty by setting a realistic expectation of lifetime, rather than an economic worst-case period. Perhaps our manufacturers should build on that to sell increased quality and durability of homegrown products?

regards,
Paul (Consumer NZ Staff)