Rusted Through in Four Years

Just when I think I’ve seen it all, I’m shocked. Last week one of my customers called because her $2,100 fridge wasn’t cooling. The freezer was cold, but the fridge wouldn’t go below 50F.

This was the second time I fixed this machine. The fan in the freezer was making some noise, so I investigated there first. I disassembled the freezer to reach the evaporator fan blade, which had come loose on the motor shaft and was rubbing on the fan housing. I reattached the fan blade to the motor. Defect #1: fixed.

The fan was still moving air, and the evaporator was not clogged with frost. Unlike many other similar situations, I didn’t find the cause of the fridge not cooling in the freezer. So I began to disassemble the fridge section. Right away I found a second evaporator in the refrigerator. Covered in frost. I finished the disassembly and spent more than an hour melting the block of ice surrounding the evaporator. Being in the refrigerator, the engineers designing this machine assumed the the evaporator would not freeze over. They hadn’t built the machine with a second defrost heater. I melted the ice. Defect #2: fixed.

This is when I was able to visually inspect the drip pan under the evaporator.

Removed from a four-year-old refrigerator.

This is a component designed to be in contact with liquid water, every day the machine is plugged in. Why did the engineers choose that thin, galvanized metal? My best guess is cost. They were minimizing the cost of building the machine. Which makes sense, if you’re building a machine with a low price-point. Yet this was not an inexpensive fridge.

Of course I replaced the drip pan — with another one of identical “quality.” Defect #3: fixed.

Recalling that I worked on this machine previously, we know there have been at least four failures so far on this unit. Four repairs in four years is abysmal performance in the reliability category. Sure, the machine made it out of the one-year warranty period, so the manufacturer has no expense associated with these repairs. The homeowner does. My customer so far has paid $2,800 for her $2,100 fridge. And it hasn’t yet reached half its expected lifespan.

I witness similar examples of this every day, across every brand, on every model. Simple things which could have been fixed before the machine was built, yet weren’t. I don’t know why. But after 15 years as a full-time appliance repair technician, I have a few guesses. Engineers have little control over what they design. Sometimes they are limited by manufacturing costs.

Other times, I suspect, they are instructed to create nuisance failures. The very next day, I repaired a similar machine with an identical problem. The drip pan had not yet rusted through, but the rusty bits of the fridge drip pan had clogged the condensate drain.

If this was an isolated incident, it wouldn’t matter at all. We could pretend it was a manufacturing defect. The galvanizing on one drip pan was too thin. The parts supplier needs to investigate their quality control practices.

But that is not my experience. Engineers have the ability to design (or select) components with very specific failure rates. They multiply the failure rates for all the components in a machine, allowing them to estimate the projected failure rate of a machine before they ever build a single unit. Using data from the repair industry, they can project how long a machine will be in a home. Prognosticating when a specific machine will be replaced is very difficult. Yet calculating the height and width of the bell curve for a specific model is a science.

This is what people mean when they use the words planned obsolescence. It’s not helping homeowners any. One could argue it’s helping the repair industry somewhat. To be honest, I did get paid twice to fix that machine.

To call that a win, I need to forget my customer’s experience. I would need to pretend not to care about her situation. Her home is in a poorer part of town, and similar in appearance to her neighbor’s homes. From this I can deduce that she is less likely than most of us to be able to afford an unexpected repair. She mentioned the price of the machine, stating that she assumed is was reliable, because it cost so much. She though she was investing in a quality product, which would perform well for many years.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Increased complexity means increased costs and more frequent failures. It’s worth noting that repair industry data predicts the threshold at which someone will choose to repair a machine, compared to when they choose a replacement. It’s no surprise that the purchase price of a similar unit plays a large factor in that decision. If this had been an $800 fridge it would have been replaced already. The manufacturer is taking advantage of the homeowner’s psychological motivation for loss aversion. They’re invested in this machine and they want to get the value they think they’ve paid for.

Ironically, the $800 fridge would have been more reliable. If I had gone to the appliance store with her, I could have told her as much (to the disappointment of the sales person!).

6 million appliances are sold in the U.S. every month.

Planned obsolescence doesn’t hurt us only in the pocketbook. A retired machine generally gets shredded. The plastic bits are sorted from the metal bits and the pieces are melted down and made into other products. The electronics? They’re still in there! Recycling is an energy-intensive process, and generally costs more than using virgin materials.

Businesses measure success in dollars, and they often ignore the environmental costs of retiring a machine and building a replacement. We’re trading in our resources, our air quality, our forests, and we’re creating unnecessary and unbearable expenses for homeowners in exchange for slightly more profits for the manufacturers of durable goods.

I don’t know about you, but I live here. I don’t have another planet to move to. This is my world, and what other people do affects me, and my children as well.

Which brings me to the point of this article. Very soon, homeowners will conclude that home appliances are disposable. Once that happens, if a fridge, a washing machine or an oven breaks down, homeowners will stop calling for a repair and move directly to finding a replacement. The cost to homeowners and the cost to our planet will increase exponentially. My career will be over. The other 33,000 appliance repair technicians in the U.S. will need to find a new profession.

I intend to reverse this trend by re-introducing the idea of reliability and longevity to the home appliance industry. I intend to provoke international manufacturers to do the same. I’ll do this by manufacturing millions of home appliances with the lowest cost of ownership. They can either change their business model or go out of business. Either way, we all win.

The easiest way to lower the cost of ownership is to use reliable, modular components across an entire brand. The machines I build will come with a five-year warranty, and cost no more than a comparable competitor’s machine with a five-year warranty bolted on. As a portion of the manufacturing cost, components are relatively inexpensive. I intend to offer free replacement of any failed components for the 20-year life of my machines.

Do you want your next fridge to last longer than your current one? Which features will you be looking for? Do you have an appliance nightmare to share? Concerned about the environmental impact of planned obsolescence? Do you know someone in the repair industry whose career may be in danger? I’m listening!