Last updated on September 19th, 2023
In the world of household appliances, the reliability and longevity of your trusty fridge or washing machine have been hot topics of debate. Many of us have wondered why the 50 year old chest freezer in the garage is still running, while our 10 year fridge just stopped working. Are the appliances we buy today more prone to breaking than their historical counterparts? Are today’s appliances more likely to break than their historical counterparts? Are they intentionally designed to have a shorter lifespan? And when they do break, are they designed to be repaired? In this article, we will delve into these questions, exploring the factors that influence appliance durability and repairability.
The Complexity Conundrum: A Case Study of Refrigerators
Let’s begin our exploration with refrigerators, a quintessential household appliance. If you’ve ever compared a vintage refrigerator to a modern one, you’re probably unlikely to have noticed a striking difference in complexity. They both make things cold, and have a door that opens and closes, maybe you have an LED display instead if a dial to change the temperature. What you cannot see though is the massive difference in power consumption, and you probably didn’t give a lot of thought to the needs of that old fridge to be turned off every 6 months for the ice to melt out.
As technology advanced in the 1970’s, refrigerators became more complex. Manual defrost was replaced with frost-free systems, which promised convenience but came at the cost of increased complexity. Frost-free refrigerators employ various components such as defrost heaters, fans, and sensors to automate the defrosting process. While these innovations have their merits, they also introduce more potential points of failure.
In the early 2000s, another significant shift occurred as refrigerators transitioned from analogue controllers like thermostats to digital computer control. This change brought benefits such as improved energy efficiency and precise temperature control. However, it also added a plethora of electronic components, including relays, capacitors, and solder joints, to the mix. While these components enhance functionality, they also increase the likelihood of breakdowns.
A Word of Caution: Gimmicky Add-Ons
In the quest to attract consumers, appliance manufacturers often incorporate flashy add-ons into their products. Features like built-in icemakers, touchscreens, and chilled water dispensers in refrigerator doors may seem alluring, but they contribute to the overall complexity of the appliance.
For instance, an icemaker involves an intricate system of valves, pumps, and electrical connections. While it offers the convenience of ice at your fingertips, it also presents more components that can malfunction, and worse a fault with the icemaker can cause a system wide failure resulting in a hot fridge. Similarly, touchscreen displays, though visually appealing, introduce potential vulnerabilities to the appliance’s electronics.
The lesson for consumers here is to carefully evaluate whether these add-ons are essential to your daily life. While they may enhance convenience, they also compound the complexity of the appliance, increasing the chances of breakdowns down the line.
The Soldering Shift: Lead-Free Woes
Another factor affecting the lifespan of modern appliances is the industry-wide transition to lead-free solder in 2006 with the European Unions implementation of the Restriction of Hazardous Substances in Electronics (RoHS). This change is not limited to refrigerators but extends to various electronic components used in appliances across the board.
Lead-free solder is promoted for its environmental benefits, as it eliminates the use of toxic lead, which is definitely a good thing especially once the product becomes eWaste. However – lead free solder requires stricter control over manufacturing processes and better design practices to ensure long-term reliability. For instance, the Electrolux condenser dryer range is notorious for control board solder joints developing annular hairline cracks, leading to error codes. These cracks often lead to error codes, such as EH0 or EHO, appearing intermittently or getting progressively worse. It is relatively easy for a professional to fix this issue in an hour or less with a few cents of solder, but in other cases its expensive. Some Samsung frontloader washing machines are absolutely notorious for control board failures. When they fail, because they have a very thick layer of silicone over the board, the board cannot be repaired, it must be replaced.
Spare Parts Availability: A Game of Brands
When appliances do break, the availability of spare parts becomes a critical factor in determining whether the appliance can be salvaged or will end up in the scrap heap. Here, not all appliance brands are created equal.
Cheaper appliances, often found in budget stores like Aldi specials, frequently offer limited to no spare parts availability. These products are generally designed to be disposable, with the manufacturer opting to replace the entire appliance or refund the customer if an issue arises within the warranty period. This approach can be convenient for consumers but raises concerns about the environmental impact of disposing of entire appliances with minor issues.
In contrast, premium brands like Miele, Asko, and Fisher & Paykel tend to provide extensive spare parts support for their products, often measurable in decades. This is a reflection of their commitment to customer satisfaction and product longevity. When you invest in such high-end appliances, you are not only paying for superior performance but also the implied assurance that your appliance can be repaired and maintained for many years.
Revisiting the case of our irreparable faulty Samsung control boards from earlier, sometimes even relatively respectable brands will have no parts availability to repair your out of warranty machine which is only a few years old. Because so many of these control boards failed, Samsung ran out of parts. The part just went on back order for months, it was impossible to get. This type of thing isn’t just limited to this case, it happens across the board with most brands.
The Labor Cost Factor
In many Western countries, especially Australia, the cost of labour is high, which makes in-home appliance servicing a bad financial choice for consumers. Manufacturers are acutely aware of this, and it influences their design and production decisions.
Creating an easily repairable appliance requires certain design considerations. Panels must be removable, and internal components must be accessible. These design features facilitate repairs but often come at a higher manufacturing cost. Moreover, appliances designed for easy disassembly need to withstand the rigors of disassembly and reassembly, further adding to the production cost. Herein lies the conundrum. The high cost of labour means that consumers are often reluctant to pay for appliance repairs. It’s not uncommon for repair costs to approach or even exceed the price of a new appliance, especially for budget models, and almost always exceed the price of a used appliance which comes with a warranty. This leads to a positive feedback loop. Manufacturers know that consumers are unlikely to invest in costly repairs, so they may choose to prioritize cost effective production methods over repairability. Appliances that aren’t meant to be taken apart can be built more inexpensively. However, this approach has its downsides. When one attempts to disassemble such appliances, they will encounter difficulties, including components that break or specialised tools required for reassembly, tools that are only available at the manufacturer’s factory.
This brings us back to the cheap Aldi special appliances. They don’t generally have available spare parts, and if anything goes wrong they’re headed for eWaste or scrap metal. Reliability aside, how is this different to the more expensive appliances that can be repaired but usually won’t be? Because the Aldi Special is cheaply made and not really designed for repair, it can use less resources in its initial manufacture. There is certainly an argument to be made that the Aldi special could be the more environmentally friendly option, but whether that is the truth remains to be seen without proof either way. It would be a shame if the throw away option was the most sustainable, and absolutely a failure of regulation.
The increased complexity of today’s appliances, has undeniably introduced more potential points of failure. Appliances today are also significantly more efficient, and convenient for the user. It’s also essential to consider that the high cost of labour in many markets often discourages consumers from repairing their appliances, creating a vicious cycle whereby manufacturers are encouraged to prioritise cost effective production methods over repairability creating a vicious cycle.