Whitegoods

You’ve probably uttered that same inane line without realizing that in a changing world, making things as they were done in the past comes at some peril.    But recently, I’ve heard this refrain often applied to major household appliances like dishwashers, washing machines, stoves and refrigerators.   These are major white goods often costing over $1000 each, and people don’t like it when these expensive mainstays fail.    So have major appliances been experiencing a decline in quality?

There are those in the business who decry the move of appliance manufacturing to China.    As Daniel Braunstein, a senior lecturer at MIT’s mechanical engineering department tells it, many consumer-product companies have moved their manufacturing offshore, delegating design and engineering to contractors. A contractor, Braunstein is quoted, might try to lure corporate customers by keeping the cost of its design and engineering services low. Trimming costs can mean taking shortcuts that negatively impact the appliance’s quality.

Surveys by Consumer Reports indicates that, indeed, today’s major appliances require substantial care and feeding.   Their data shows appliances failing within 3 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

Reviewing blogs on the Internet reveals a simmering undercurrent of customer dissatisfaction with seemingly premature failures in relatively new appliances.    It doesn’t take much work to find articles or rants about the decline of appliance quality.    The anecdotal evidence is strong.   The empirical evidence is weak.   But ultimately,  appliances may contain the quality for which consumers are willing to pay.     Quality, it turns out, may not be an empirically identifiable term.

Consumer Reports has worked hard to define appliance quality.   Yet, some suggest that this consumer institution is heavily biased toward the rule of adequate performance for the dollar, rather than any regard for the best money can buy.    Is the quality that consumers seek defined by the best and longest lasting appliances?

Like the quality of furniture,  number of factors have contributed to major appliances being a bit more disposable than the ones built 50 years ago.    They reflect changing expectations of consumers who demand:

  • Greater energy efficiency
  • More bells and whistles
  • Greater style options
  • Lower prices

Energy Efficiency

As one example of how technology has improved the energy efficiency of appliances, today’s dishwashers consume less than half the energy of the 1981 dishwasher because of technological advances in soil sensors that minimize water usage, and the increased use of stainless interiors that accelerate drying time.  Similarly in 1981, the energy factor of a typical home refrigerator was 5.59, and by 2011 the EF increased more than three-fold to 15.50, for a 207% improvement in energy efficiency in the last 30 years. The other four home appliances also had significant improvements in energy efficiency since 1981 based on the increases in their EF ratings.  Compared to 1981, the energy efficiency of the average room air-conditioner has increased by 46%, today’s freezer is 65% more efficient, and modern washing machines are more than twice as energy-efficient.   Manufacturers are starting to get to the edge of what physics will allow as to energy efficiency.  The washing machine motor has gone from a simple one or two speed motor to the variable speed inverter controlled direct drive.  There are fewer mechanical parts,  they turn slower because they are directly linked to the washing machine with no belts and pulleys.    All of these have led to higher efficiencies.

However, there’s a trade-off;  energy efficiency reduces the life expectancy of appliances. That old fridge that lasted forever had a durable low speed compressor. These old compressors ran at 1125 to 1725 rpm. In order to get efficiency up the motors needed to run much faster. Most fridge compressors today run at 3450 rpm and some are running even faster than that.  The tolerances are much tighter than years ago, but the faster something runs the faster it wears out. The manufacturers aren’t making bad compressors or washing machine motors, we are simply running them faster to get efficiency gains at the expense of operating life.   For example, that compressor in your fridge that lasts ten years will have traveled the equivalent of 1 million miles without so much as an oil change or any maintenance whatsoever.  Try that with your automobile!

More Bells and Whistles

Oh how we love our gadgets.   We love them to do cool things and appliances are no exception to that rule.  Modern appliances have gone digital with electronic motherboards and LED screens, and features like moisture sensors and energy-efficient cycles. They do more, but also have a lot more that can go wrong.  Add on top of all of that the fact that the whizbang features that make new appliances such a pleasure to use imply circuit boards and chips which are often the first to go and the most expensive to replace, and it makes sense why they don’t rate the life expectancy so high.

Coming in the near  future:  smart appliances.   As reported by Digital Trends:   “Imagine a sentient refrigerator that automatically inventories items as you load it, knowing not only what the item is but everything about it, such as when it expires or what it could be used for.  Start pulling out eggs and flour and chocolate chips and the home prompts you with a chocolate chip cookie recipe and tells the oven to pre-heat itself. (That’s right, oven. You listen up when ‘fridge is talkin’!) And, since we’re in the future, the recipe will display on the counter from an overhead projector. You’d never misplace anything again, because your clothes will have RFID tags and the home will know exactly where your missing sock went.”    While these appliances aren’t here today, they promise to get even more sophisticated as they begin to connect wirelessly to energy management systems,  WiFi networks and develop greater interactivity functionality.  This ain’t gonna be your grandfather’s appliance.

Perhaps the best new “smart appliance” to start with is a ‘learning’ thermostat.    The one produced by Nest is perhaps the most promising one on the market and worth looking into if your cooling/heating costs exceed $100 per month.   It does the thinking for you.   That is, it doesn’t require you to figure out the best times and set points. It makes those calculations for you.   Very cool or very warm — and very stylish.

Style

Talking about stylish, part of the mobile culture of the American public, even though people aren’t moving as far as they used to, is that people change domiciles frequently, and often sell their appliances rather than moving them.  Moreover, we love to remodel and update our homes — which calls for new appliances to match redesign.   We’ve become acclimated to replacing other other important appliances (computers/mobile devices) on an almost two-year cycle.   Little wonder that we view our other appliances as similarly short-lived.   Therefore, much of the buying public only wants appliances that will do them for 5-7 years and still be working when they sell them.  They want cheap enough to be able to replace them.  From my vantage point,  American consumers have adopted a buying policy of  adequate performance for the dollar, rather than demanding the best money can buy.    Fewer Americans are demanding the best and longest lasting.

Lower Prices

Repair people contend that for manufacturers to keep machines at the prices consumers want to pay, quality has come down. Consider what your parents paid for an appliance 20 years ago, say $500 for a washer, a chunk of change back then. Washers can still be found for $500, they say, yet those models often feature thinner plastics, fewer features or components designed for computers or electronics that don’t do well near water or heat.   Manufacturers achieved these cost savings but at a cost, according to The Economist magazine.   It describes how Chinese factories Chinese factories make money:  their production cycle  is the opposite of the theoretical model of continuous improvement. After resolving teething problems and making products that match specifications, innovation inside the factory turns to cutting costs, often in ways that range from “unsavoury to dangerous” complains The Economist.

If an appliance’s longevity is a high priority, I recommend steering clear of features, settings or options you don’t think you’ll use.  Avoid digital if possible and look for machines with vents, fans or filters that are easy to clean.  That doesn’t mean buying the cheapest model but finding a solid middle-of-the-road appliance with basic functionality.    And when your appliance does break down, heed Consumer Report’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.