How fridge and dishwasher makers restrict repairs—and enable more e-waste

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For Dean Landers, fixing people’s refrigerators, dishwashers, and washing machines is more of a hassle than it should be.

Even after 40 years running an award-winning repair service in Baltimore, Landers says he still gets the runaround from appliance makers. He can’t always obtain the diagnostic data or electronic codes he needs to finish a job, and if he needs to consult with the manufacturer when all the usual repair steps fail, some won’t even let him pay for the privilege.

That all translates to longer waits and costlier repairs for customers, who in turn may end up replacing their appliances instead of fixing them.

“Every day, we run into something where we need to figure something out by doing an end-around, by talking to somebody else, by doing deeper-dive research than I should have to do because of the structure that these manufacturers have set up,” Landers says.

Home appliances are an overlooked facet of the right-to-repair movement, which aims to make parts, tools, and diagnostic information more easily available to users and independent repair shops. While the difficulties of repairing consumer electronics and heavy equipment have received widespread attention, large appliances have flown under the radar, even as evidence shows that they’re more prone to breaking down than they once were.

That leads not just to greater expenses for consumers, but to more electronic waste. Data from the Environmental Protection Agency shows that 2.1 million tons of waste from major appliances went to landfills in 2018, up from 1.2 tons in 2005, even as recycling increased during that same time frame. A 2015 United Nations University study found that large appliances, such as dishwashers and washing machines, made up nearly two-thirds of all e-waste worldwide. Unlike with phones and other consumer electronics, home appliances have no thriving refurbished market, likely due to the high costs of hauling the products around.

Lawmakers have started to take notice. Large appliances like refrigerators, dishwashers, and washing machines are becoming the next frontier in the growing right-to-repair movement, with a new bill in Congress and fresh interest from the Federal Trade Commission.

If you’ve ever suspected that appliance manufacturers don’t make them like they used to, the evidence is on your side. A 2015 study by the Öko-Institut, a German environmental group, found that 13% of all large appliances that people replaced in 2012 were less than five years old, up from 7% in 2004. Most of those replacements were prompted by breakdowns in the original products.

Based on surveys of its members, Consumer Reports also estimated in 2019 that 40% of all refrigerators will experience issues within their first five years, with problem rates as high as 60% for certain Electrolux and Frigidaire models. For dishwashers and washing machines, the chance of having an issue within five years was 30%, and it was 20% for ranges.

Matthew Zieminski, the general manager of operations for the appliance-repair booking service Nana, says home appliances are a lot more complicated than they used to be. A modern clothes dryer might have a dozen different functions, from steaming and wrinkle-releasing to low-heat drying. That means more potential points of failure, and more ways for users to break things by choosing the wrong settings.

“We do tend to see a shorter lifespan now than we did in the past. And part of that is just, there’s a lot more features, and it’s a lot more complex of an environment than it was 20 or 30 years ago,” Zieminski says.

Still, some reliability issues can’t just be explained by the presence of more technology. Last year, LG settled a class action lawsuit over compressor problems in nearly 1.6 million refrigerators. As part of the settlement, LG denied any wrongdoing and said its fridges weren’t defective. However, according to two technicians I spoke with, those fridges are now a frequent source of repair requests.

After publication, LG spokeswoman Taryn Brucia said the company now backs its refrigerators with a five year warranty on its cooling system, including labor, and a 10-year warranty for linear compressor parts with five years of coverage for labor.

LG is also facing a class action lawsuit over compressors in its Kenmore-branded refrigerators, and Samsung is facing a class action suit over its refrigerators’ ice makers.

Kei Son Summers, an appliance repair tech and the owner of Mr. Kei Services in Oklahoma City, says he believes quality control has fallen by the wayside as companies race to get their products out the door.

“It’s a problem all around when manufacturers don’t take the time to quality-check their [product] before it goes out,” he says.

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