Why refrigerators and other kitchen appliances break so easily now

New refrigerators, ovens and dishwashers come with all sorts of novel features — you can see your vacation photos on a screen on your fridge door, remotely monitor food temperature or connect your dishwasher to the internet. They’re also less expensive and more efficient than in decades past.

But many of the latest models of kitchen appliances have shorter life spans than those of yesteryear. Thanks to how complex they are, they require maintenance sooner, and the cost of repair often rivals the price tag of a new appliance altogether. Plus, it turns out a lot of people simply aren’t using most of the newfangled features.

Probably nobody knows the particular limitations of new appliances better than the people tasked with repairing them.

“We used to be able to tell people a dishwasher could last 15 years. And now you’re lucky to get five to seven out of a dishwasher,” says David Costanzo, owner of Appliance King of America in Boynton Beach, Fla.

At home, Costanzo has a totally original GE fridge from 1935 that he says “works perfectly,” but these days, “you’re lucky to get 10 to 15 years out of a refrigerator. And 10 to 15 years ago, that number was closer to 20 years.”

One major culprit is the switch from mechanical to electrical systems powering the appliances.

“There are a lot more sensors in appliances,” says Darin Williams, owner of Reliable Appliance in Anchorage. “Now, you have digital integration into motors versus strictly mechanical motors. And so with a lot of things being geared more towards digital, those types of components are more apt to fail than something that is analog and mechanical.”

On a modern appliance, you’re less likely to turn a dial that triggers a motor (a mechanical system) than press a button on a screen that connects a bunch of tiny components to a motherboard (digital integration). More complexity means more can go wrong.

“The motherboard controls everything,” says Leonardo Ben Fraj, owner of Optimal Appliance Repair in Washington. And that has major implications when things go awry, because the control board often costs about half the price of the whole appliance. In other words, it could set you back nearly as much money to fix it as it would to just buy a new one.

And even if you want to repair rather than replace, you might not be able to do so easily. When it comes to electronic components, “the pace of change is so fast that a company will make something one year, and in two years down the line, they don’t make that component,” says Michael Pecht, a distinguished professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Maryland. “They’re making the next generation and that new component may not fit the old one.”

Pecht has consulted for major U.S. and European Union brands. He says some of their CEOs and vice presidents lamented the difficulties of competing with Chinese companies, which often promise extremely inexpensive products. “There’s a lot of pressure for them to also make it cheaper,” he says. “So when you’re thinking about making it cheaper, what do you do? You cut down on materials — you don’t use the best, highest quality materials.”

You do use plastic — a lot of it. Which, of course, breaks more easily than metal. “One of the big things we see, in terms of breakdowns, are parts breaking,” says Daniel Wroclawski, a reporter with Consumer Reports who focuses on home appliances. Components such as shelving, ice makers, and water and ice dispensers are all more vulnerable than they used to be.

Plastic does have some benefits: It’s easily molded into complex parts, and its light weight means it’s inexpensive to ship. And metal isn’t perfect — it can rust, for instance. But even when metal is being used nowadays, the quality is diminished compared to the heavier-duty metal found in appliances from 20 or 30 years ago. “The metal is a little bit thinner. The wires are a little bit thinner,” says David Oliva, president of RD Appliance Service in Plainview, N.Y.

Manufacturers continue to push smart appliances, meaning they’re connected to the internet. Wroclawski says that there’s no indication yet that those features have led to more breakdowns. In fact, internet connectivity can at times even help with repairs, especially remotely. “But there is that potential as you make these things more complex, you increase the chance for something to break down at some point,” he says. (Cybersecurity experts also warn that smart appliances can make your in-home online network more vulnerable, and connected appliances are constantly sending collected data about use back to manufacturers.)

And this added risk comes with little payoff because the majority of consumers aren’t using their appliances’ WiFi features, according to surveys conducted by Consumer Reports. “Most people who own them don’t use the smarts or aren’t even aware that the smarts are there,” Wroclawski says. “Frankly, the use cases aren’t that compelling.”

Manufacturers haven’t given up on trying to add more functions, though.

“It’s almost like an appliance space race,” says Williams, the refurbisher in Alaska. “The manufacturer that comes out with the coolest thing that excites the consumer market is more likely to sell that product. Whereas when the consumer actually takes hold of that product, they realize the feature is not something that they even need or use.”

Indeed, when asked what people should keep in mind when buying new appliances, Ben Fraj, the D.C. repair person, said the bells and whistles are often a distraction at best, and a potential for an early repair at worst. The best appliances, in his opinion, “don’t have time for this BS.”

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