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The Great Washing Machine Scam

As consumer technology improves, household mainstays like the basic washing machine keep sprouting new, high-tech functions. These gizmos are mostly unnecessary, and increasingly difficult if not impossible to repair. Who put us in this jam? And why? Our journalistic gumshoe sets out to crack the case.

Issue: Fall 2023

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Finding answers to life’s persistent questions—in this case, why are today’s washing machines more expensive but less reliable than yesterday’s?—requires an investigator willing to put some good, old-fashioned shoe leather on the case. photo by Jamethyst Photography

Written by AARON BRITT

  1. Farewell, My Laundry
  2. The Short Goodbye
  3. Green Illusions?
  4. The Repairman Often Rings Twice
  5. Junk Progress
  6. Tips from an Appliance Bookie

I was on my knees in my basement on a rainy Saturday afternoon when I started to suspect the fix was in. An hour earlier, I had hucked a tangle of wet laundry into my noisy dryer, turned the knob to Very Dry, Permanent Press, hit Start. Sixty minutes later, I still had a tangle of damp laundry. I had heat, but the dryer had gone silent. I tried again. No luck.

I got the message loud and clear: Life is a slow procession of everything you love and use eventually breaking. And now my beloved, 30-year-old Whirlpool dryer might finally be all washed up. I thought about booking it a one-way ticket to Palookaville, which in a dryer’s case would be the local dump. But after all these years together, why give up on the old dame? So I got on the horn to my local appliance-repair company.

The next morning, I opened the door to Steve Carroll, a small, wiry guy with a spry intelligence and a white ponytail that pokes out from the back of his baseball cap. That and his white goatee give him the look of someone who’s seen a lot of balky washers, and knows exactly what to do about them.

Late one night, I sat on my basement steps with a tall glass of Jack Daniels in my hand, trying to put together the shattered pieces of my appliances’ lives…

Carroll has been fixing appliances in our neck of Midcoast Maine since 1990. It took him five minutes to open my Whirlpool’s casing, figure out the problem (a slipped belt), reloop the belt, and tell me that if I didn’t want to pay him $100 every time something goes wrong, I should go easy drying sneakers and big loads of sheets, heavy blankets, and whatever else I could stuff in.

What can I say? I’ve got two young boys, and they bleed on everything. I wash a lot of bedding.

Carroll’s other suggestion was that I learn to make this simple repair on my own, so I don’t have to keep calling him over whenever my dryer has a cough. With a simple, old machine like this Whirlpool, he says, fixes like this are rookie-ball maintenance.

I appreciated his vote of confidence, but it felt like a tall order.

On our way back up the stairs, I caught Carroll casting a sliver of side-eye at my washer: a late-model Electrolux that came with the house. When Carroll left, I went through the paperwork I had on the Electrolux. It’s a 2018—younger than my youngest kid, but middle-aged by today’s washing machine standards. I thought about what it must feel like, being washed up after five years, still humping to do your job while everyone knows your current case might be your last.

But a middle-aged washing machine has to be better than an old, dried-out dryer, right? My dryer rolled off the line in 1993, making it a full quarter-century older than its laundering mate.

Most industry insiders—manufacturers, repair techs, consumer publications—give new washers 8-10 years before they fail. That puts my relatively new Electrolux on the back 9 of its expected lifespan already—and me in the worst place you can be with an appliance: If something goes wrong, it’s not clear whether it’s more cost-effective to fix it or replace it.

Me, I’d always rather get something fixed. Call it a cockamamie cocktail of vintage aesthetics and the idea that old generally beats new (because you know that old actually works, or at least that you understand what doesn’t work, and might even be able to fix it). So I asked Carroll which will go first: the washer or the dryer.

“The washer,” he said. “Every time.”

When old-school sleuthing tactics—like working the phone book to get to the Big Boys who make our appliances—failed to crack the case, it was time to try a 21st-century tack: Googling for appliance dealers and repair shops with lots of stars under their names.

Farewell, My Laundry

Late one night, I sat on my basement steps with a tall glass of Jack Daniels in my hand, trying to put together the shattered pieces of my appliances’ lives. On the floor below, I had a 30-year-old laundry machine that a savvy old-timer fixed in five minutes, and encouraged me to keep going as long as I could. Next to it sat another laundry machine that was only five years old, whose replacement will cost far more than its feisty old aunt. Yet I was already being told I should start planning its wake. It didn’t make sense. And another Jack wasn’t making things much clearer.

I didn’t doubt Carrollhe’s a guy who calls ’em like he sees ’em (you should hear his politics show on our community radio station). But I had to know if his reading of what’s going on with my household appliances was a pattern, a trail to follow, or just another anomaly of life in small-town Maine.

In the old days, a sleuth like me would have poured a Scotch and started thumbing through my yellowing Yellow Pages. But those old business directories are yesterday’s game. So I cracked open the laptop, hit up Google, and started looking for outfits with lots of stars under their names..

Call it the appliance industry’s version of greenwashing. Literally.

A few wily search terms led me to a guy named Landers. Dean Landers. A little bird I know down Baltimore way told me he’s the brains behind Landers Appliance, a top-rated service provider in the area. I soon learned that the affable guy I got on the phone is a 30-year veteran of the appliance sales-and-repair industry.

When I asked Landers if newer washers are better than the old ones, he didn’t pull any punches. “Certainly not!” he said. “And it’s not even close! To simply compare the size and weight of various components—pump, fill valve, pressure switch, motor, any electrical item, et cetera—of a 30-year-old washer and one built in the last 10 years or less would prove my point.”

I heard the same thing when I Zoomed with Matt Ziemenski, the clean-cut, boyish vice president of The Repair Association, a consumer- and business-advocacy group that pushes for right-to-repair policies. (The burgeoning right-to-repair movement in the U.S., explored in our story, “One Night at the Fixit Clinic with Peter Mui,” hinges on the idea that companies should be prohibited from requiring that repairs be handled only by the manufacturer; or from making products that can’t be repaired at all.)

“A washer from a few decades ago would likely last you 15 to 20 years—almost double the lifespan of many modern machines,” Ziemenski told me. “They were simpler and easier to maintain. No fancy touchscreens to go haywire, fewer electronics to fry.”

And why the hell does a washing machine need all those electronic options in the first place? Especially if they’re the first to go?

In this 1939 window display, complete with life-size cardboard cutouts of female “homemakers,” the electrically driven WashMaster promised to “banish the backbreaking drudgery of washday.” That’s obviously not enough for today’s appliance manufacturers, which now pledge to make your “smart home” even smarter.

For gumshoes like me, this was another one of life’s persistent questions, at least when it comes to home appliances. So I kept sniffing around. Eventually, I got tipped off to Adam Butcher, director of Fred’s Appliance Academy, a trade school for appliance repair just outside Cleveland. When Adam joined me on Zoom, he pulled in a guy named Philip Whiteford, who has run a sweet little operation out of Minneapolis called Omega Force Appliance Repair since 2013.

Whiteford gave it to me straight: “Longevity has diminished,” he said. “Some of the older machines out there are 40 years old.” Whiteford says his guys still carry parts on their trucks to service these old workhorses.

The Short Goodbye

I’d heard a lot by now about how washing machines have gotten worse. But I wanted to get the story straight from the horse breeders’ mouths. So I figured it was time to get on the blower with the Big Boys, the guys at these companies who work upstairs, who have their coffee brought to them while they make bottom-line calculations that Joe Lunchbox never hears anything about.

There was only one snag: Nobody was talking. I started with Samsung, which shut me down quick: The company flack I got on the horn seemed to think sending me some boilerplate from the company FAQ would do the trick. Funny, I didn’t ask any of those Q’s, or any others she non-answered. I tried to make nice, but Sam just wouldn’t sing. Neither would Maytag (which, along with Amana, is owned by my machine’s maker, Whirlpool).

The furthest I got was with LG. Its PR reps didn’t really answer any of my questions, but they did at least respond, emailing me the corporate boilerplate: “LG Washers usually last somewhere between 8 to 20 years.”

Eight to 20 years? That’s quite a range there, big fella. How the hell are we supposed to go to the bank on that?

Well, it looks like the gamble is all up to you: LG’s warranties only cover its washers for a year. To soften the blow from that news, LG points out that it will pay for a new drum if it dies within 3 years—and the Drive Motor, too, if it takes a dive within 10 years. But if either of those failures happens after the first year, the shipping, hassle, and labor involved is all on you.

Is that really as good as it gets these days? For the answer to that question, who better to turn to than Consumer Reports magazine, the oldest, wisest, most venerated product-quality detective still working the streets.

In early 2023, the magazine stated that today, “a washer’s shelf life is close to 10 years.” That assessment matched what I heard from Zieminski, who added that a washer’s life expectancy is a far cry from its predecessors: “A washer from 20 to 30 years ago,” he said, “could last anywhere between 15 to 20 more years.” Add in what Whiteford told me—that he still fixes machines someone bought during the Reagan administration (we’re talking early to mid-1980s here)—and you start to get the picture. The whole damn enterprise stinks like a plate of week-old herring.

Once upon a time, a U.S. consumer could expect decades of service from a household appliance like a washer or dryer. That dwarfs the lifespan of many modern machines, which privilege costly functions you don’t need over quaint notions like reliability and longevity.

And here’s the part that really gets me: As the longevity of appliances like these has taken a dive, their prices have stayed nice and fat.

You heard that right: You are now paying at least as much if not more for a machine with a shorter life. (Some of the price hike was caused by COVID-era supply chain bottlenecks, as well as Trump-era tariffs on washing machines, but both obstacles have now passed, without any commensurate decline in prices.) For the home appliance market in general, since 1980, according to the industry research firm IBIS, prices have doubled. In the laundry sector, these costly machines might give you dozens more wash cycles to choose from, and a smartphone alert can tell you when your load is done. But how many of us ever use those bells and whistles?

There is one change the Big Boys made on their new washers that might deliver some real benefit: By the most obvious measures, these machines are a hell of a lot more environmentally friendly than their never-die ancestors were. But I italicized that word might for a reason.

Green Illusions?

A guy walks into an appliance dealership. He notices a shiny new laundry machine in the corner, gets closer, sees it’s got so many buttons and touch screens it looks like the cockpit in a jet airplane. Wow. State of the art. The guy throws down some cash—OK, maybe a credit card. Goes home happy. But what exactly did he get?

If I had to guess—which I do, since Samsung, LG, and Maytag wouldn’t answer my questions—I’d say this: When manufacturers talk about how their machines are far more water and energy-efficient than they used to be, they’re right. But what if I also told you that washing machines going green is a major factor in their premature obsolescence?

“I don’t think they’re planning obsolescence,” the manager said. “I just think the stuff they are making now is junk.”

Sorry, but this sob story is legit. Thanks to federal regulations in 2012, which mandated a significant reduction in water and electricity use for new units, washers today use just a third of the water the old guzzlers did. (For a good, back-of-the-envelope comparison, think of the gas needs of a modern Prius versus a mid-’70s Chevy.) And thanks, as well, to much higher spin speeds during the final cycle, today’s washers throw much more water off your clothes. When that clothing is dumped into the dryer, it’s not nearly as wet as it once was. Which means dryers need less electricity to finish the job.

In the course of their dogged pursuit of efficiency, many washers have also shed weight. Instead of bulking up on metal, they’ve turned to plastic. But those plastic parts can’t punch as hard as their durable metal ancestors, and that leads to early breakdowns.

Then comes all the electronics: sensors and circuit boards to monitor water temperature; another set to convert washers’ AC motors to DC power, which enables a washer’s higher spin speeds. The list goes on and on. The new functions provide more efficiency, but also more circuits and wires to break. This electronic cobweb also creates all kinds of features you’d never even think of—or want—as U.S. manufacturers push to get the latest “smart home” appliance in residences from Berkeley to Bangor. Call it the appliance industry’s version of greenwashing. Literally.

The Repairman Often Rings Twice

Let’s break this whole green thing down a bit.

Just for starters, electronic systems fail sooner than mechanical ones. And, because today’s washers are loaded with so many of them, a lot are cheap devices, which don’t last. Those broken parts then go into our e-waste stream, which contains toxics like lead and mercury and constitutes an estimated 70 percent of today’s toxic waste.

Now comes the hidden environmental cost: Many households today have two high-efficiency, relatively sensitive, built-to-break machines doing the work that one old-school, easy-to-fix, last-forever top loader used to do all by itself. And here we go again with technology’s eternal bargains, which usually turn ugly only when it’s too late to go back.

If you’re starting to hold onto your wallet, you’re getting the idea. Because it gets worse. As household appliances have grown more complex, they’ve required special devices to read electronic error codes, further widening the array of parts to repair or replace. All of this of course requires repair experts (when you can find them) with more specialized knowledge. “The metaphor I use for the current state of appliance repair is that you’ve got garage mechanics working on Teslas,” Carroll told me. “I saw a stat a couple years ago that the average age of an appliance tech was like 65.” Carroll is now 72. And he’s often flummoxed by the disregard manufacturers have for basic repairability. “You wind up taking apart the entire machine, floundering around, trying to figure it out.”

Whiteford’s been there too. “There are so many different manufacturers, and they all require different gizmos to service, and they all cost something,” he says. “Samsung requires you to have an Android device, but with GE you can use Apple or Android. Miele makes you have a PC to use their troubleshooting device. It’s becoming really complicated and a lot to manage.”

Whiteford told me that he stocks 4,800 different parts, and carries about 250 at a time on his service truck. Which makes for lots of return trips, many unhappy customers, and more time washers spend offline.

Pulsator washing machines were all the rage in the 1950s. And their selling points—making clothes cleaner and having a higher wear rate than a tumble washer—were nothing if not practical. The simplicity of this machine—virtually nothing to break down, easy to fix if it does—turns today’s laundry machines, with all their fragile bells and whistles, into a laughing-stock. image: Erkki Salmela 2006 / Helsingin kaupunginmuseo, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“If you were to go back to the old Whirlpool Direct Drive washer,” Whiteford says, referring to an appliance that was hailed as an iron horse design but discontinued over a decade ago, “more than 90 percent of the time, we can repair it using one of six parts.”

Junk Progress

Now, let’s add a few insults to this injury. Even when repair techs or enterprising DIYers want to maintain and fix their appliances, they often can’t get the materials they need. A January 2023 report (sent to the Federal Trade Commission, by the advocacy group iFixit) found that 86% of appliance companies won’t provide service manuals to consumers. Some claim it’s too dangerous for DIYers to fix their own machines. But the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that personal home repair is about as dangerous as working in an office supply store.

At a major home warranty firm I spoke with, an accounts manager, who asked that I not mention their name, worries that as appliance complexity has increased, manufacturers haven’t taken the necessary steps to keep their washing machines up and running. “Big companies should have to subsidize the prices of new units,” this manager said, “because they don’t have to maintain warehouses with parts anymore. It’s pretty ridiculous.”

So what angle are these guys working? “I don’t think they’re planning obsolescence,” the manager said. “I just think the stuff they are making now is junk.”

After hearing assessments like this over and over, I started seeing how the pieces in this puzzle fit together. In one corner, we have the government creating environmental rules that, on their face, should help both the planet and the consumer. In another corner, we get another standard offering with government policy: the law of unintended consequences. The G-men set high goals, the private sector uses its creative energy to look for shortcuts. Bingo: we end up with a whole generation of appliances that, while less resource-intensive, are also less durable, less repairable, and less capable of avoiding an early trip to the dump.

And who’s left holding the laundry bag? You can bet it ain’t Samsung.

Tips from an Appliance Bookie

The more I worked the phones, the more I started feeling that my case was going cold. When that happens to guys like me, there’s only one thing to do: find a sympathetic ear–maybe at home, maybe in my local barand figure out what lessons are worth learning from the whole fiasco. You know, tips to pass on to all you working stiffs.

Here’s what I came up withas a fellow consumer, as a fellow launderer, and as a loyal American citizen:

As consumers of washers and dryers, or any machine for that matter, we need to put repairability first. Even if that means going upmarket for a pricey machine—good washers can hit you up for as much as 2,000 clams—in the long run, quality always pays for itself, and then some. If you want one of those rugged old workhorses, look for a used pre-2012 washer, like a Whirlpool Direct Drive or a Speed Queen. If it’s in good shape, it’s likely to keep chugging for as long as many of today’s laundry machines last, even when bought new. Carroll told me that when he used to run a used appliance shop, he got to a point where he sold only Whirlpool Direct Drives—and he never got a complaint he couldn’t fix.

Either way, Ziemenski recommends hoarding as much documentation as you can find about your machine. Go locate manuals and schematics; try your hand at DIY maintenance. You might even collect a few replacement parts before they go out of production.

One might call this a portrait of the Third Law of Regulatory Dynamics: Environmental rules that should help both the planet and the consumer + private sector shortcuts = unintended consequences. For home appliances, one of the consequences is a premature traffic jam at the local dump. 

If you are buying new, go for simplicity over complexity. When you visit the showroom floors at places like Lowe’s, don’t be suckered by all the “smart” gizmos and dozens of cycles. Remember: You grew up with no more than half a dozen wash cycles, and your clothes were clean, right? So it’s best to buy the most mechanical, least electric washer you can find. One repair tech I spoke with put it this way: “Think like a landlord.” In other words, find the most fixable, lowest-cost washer you can, “run it until it takes a dive for good,” which, if it’s properly maintained, can be a dozen years. He mentioned one no-frills top-load washer, made by Amana, which can be had for under $500.

As launderers—especially if we’re talking about Americans—we also need to run smaller loads, both in our washers and our dryers. “We’re dramatically overloading” them,” Carroll told me. (Europeans, it turns out, have different laundry habits: They generally do several small loads over the course of a week, instead of waiting until the end of the week to do a massive pile.) “They’re not designed or manufactured to take that kind of load, even though they market them that way. But it’s a lie.”

And as a citizen, I’ll start pushing for policies that make laundry machines and other devices repairable again. Fortunately, more and more states are already adopting new laws in this direction. Many preceded, and perhaps encouraged, moves by the Biden Administration, in 2021, to clamp down on companies that void warrantees if consumers pursue repairs themselves, or by another shop (those voids are technically illegal). By mid-November, 2023, legislation putting more teeth in our rights to repair our own goods had been introduced in all but five states in the U.S. Six states had already passed such laws, and my own state of Maine was the latest.

Already, more and more states are adopting new laws in this direction, following an executive order President Biden signed in 2021 encouraging federal agencies to better monitor companies that void warrantees if consumers pursue repairs themselves, or by another shop. Fortunately, campaigns to put teeth into our rights to repair our own goods are spreading like wildfire. By mid-November, 2023, “right-to-repair” legislation had been introduced in all but five states in the U.S. Six states had already passed these laws, and my own state of Maine was the latest.

Unfortunately, our law doesn’t deal with home appliances—it’s about cars. But the vote was so overwhelming84% in favor, a mere 16% againstcan’t help thinking it won’t be long before we regain the freedom to fix our appliances, as well as our cell phones, our laptops, and many of our other possessions.

While I’m waiting around for that day, the next time my washer or dryer skips out on me, at least I won’t get played for a sucker.

More stories from this issue:

Throwaway Nation

The Case for a Maintenance Mindset

Is France Making Planned Obsolescence Obsolete?

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