Savings: Richard Scott
If a major appliance breaks down, there could be a way to extend its life
Not until they start coughing and spluttering do we realise just how much we take our whitegoods for granted. While the price of replacements is ever cheaper, are we throwing away money by throwing away perfectly salvageable household appliances?
“In a way, retailers have tricked people by giving the impression that if a machine breaks down that we must rush out and buy a new one immediately,” says John Moody, owner and operator of John Moody’s Appliance Service. “But a smoking washing machine doesn’t necessarily mean anything serious. It might look bad, sure, but it may simply indicate that the pump’s failed, which is a fairly common complaint and a pretty minor and inexpensive repair.”
Moving into our first home last year, we noticed our 11-year-old washing machine (Samsung 7kg front loader) was on the blink. It made strangulated noises before displaying an error message and refusing to continue. Online, we discovered it was a drainage issue; a replacement machine would cost upwards of $499.
Pulling it out, we found the hose had cracked during the move, and after my father-in-law’s abortive attempts to fix it (with electrical tape, no less) we called in the pros. A new hose ($ 41) plus flat-rate service call ($110) saved us $348. Our washer has been running happily ever since.
However, repairing older whitegoods is always a gamble. An American study (by the National Association of Home Builders) found that the average life of a washing machine is 10 years, 13 years for a fridge or clothes dryer and nine years for a dishwasher (see table).
But such numbers should be taken with a pinch of salt, warns Steve Rayner, a 31-year veteran of Wilson’s Washing Machines & Refrigeration in Goonellabah, NSW. “I tell my customers there’s no use-by date on the back,” he says. “I work on the assumption that you’ll get 10 years out of most washing machines but that will differ by brand, frequency of use and level of maintenance.”
The most common complaints he comes across are frazzled electronic boards and blocked pumping systems in dishwashers.
“Unblocking a pump is an easy fix, just a service call [and] labour,” he says. “But a new board can cost upwards of $400, depending on the brand. So if the dishwasher’s got a bit of age on it, I’ll try and talk [the customer] out of patching it up. I can guarantee the new board but if the rest of the components are over 10 years old, I can’t and won’t guarantee those.”
Refrigerators, once the most troublesome item in a household, are now built to last between 15 and 18 years, says Rayner. “So if you’re spending $3000 on a modern sideby-side fridge, putting a $400 board in and extending its lifespan up to 18 years is just good economics.”
Are there any telltale signs that an appliance is completely dead? If a dishwasher emits a burning smell, it can either be the electrical board, which is fixable, or the whole harness has burnt out, which is not.
Furthermore, should the compressor go on your fridge, a new one can cost up to $1000. However, says Rayner, a broken compressor is classified as an electrical burnout and may be claimable on your home and contents policy.
So what should you do if an appliance breaks down?
The first thing is to check whether your
machine is under warranty. Most manufacturer’s warranties last between 12 and 24 months – although some “parts-only” warranties can last up to 10 years – and then you’ve got extended warranties, sold through the retailer, on top of that.
There’s a good chance you purchased an extended warranty when you first bought your appliance – a recent Choice survey found 65% of Aussies who were offered an extended warranty ended up buying one and 33% felt pressured into doing so. Whether you actually need one, however, is another matter entirely (see box).
“Calling your manufacturer or retailer [in the case of extended warranties] is your first port of call – they can authorise a job and appoint an agent,” says Moody.
If there’s no warranty, you’ll need to call your local service agent, giving a brief description of what’s wrong with the appliance, and see if you can work out a rough cost.
“The benefit of using a qualified repairs specialist is that they can often provide an accurate cost estimate over the phone,” says Moody. “A larger appliance repair firm may slap you with a service charge for sending a technician to your house only to tell you they can’t fix the thing.”
Have you considered doing it yourself? Guido Verbist runs Australia’s first Repair Cafe in Marrickville, Sydney, where visitors can take their broken goods (from electronics to furniture and bicycles) and learn how to repair them.
“Today items are deliberately manufactured so that they are not easily repaired,” says Verbist. “Many electrical appliances have special screws that are designed to be thrown away, or require special tools that aren’t readily available and prevent people from fixing their own things. It’s cheaper, of course, to build electrical appliances this way but it leads to a one-off use.”
Furthermore, he says that fundamental repairs knowledge has been lost over the years, contributing to mountains of electrical waste. “Not only is [making your own repairs] significantly cheaper than the cost of replacing household items but it’s a far less wasteful approach.”
While his repairs cafe offers free advice and assistance, he doesn’t recommend novices taking apart machines at home without
the proper knowledge, confidence and tools. Rayner concurs: “Anyone working with electrical components should really be a licensed professional. A customer might put a green wire where a brown wire should be and light themselves up. There’s no getting around that.”
Ultimately, if you want to avoid shelling out for new appliances, you really should take better care of the ones you have.
While many newer washing machines have self-cleaning filters, your dishwasher filters need a regular clean. Rayner recommends paying special attention to any shards from broken wineglasses, which can be troublesome should they find their way into a pump.
It pays to use a vacuum on your dryer’s lint tray, along with AC filters and fridge units with fans at the base. If you’ve got cats and dogs, do it every six months, or annually in a tidy, well-kept home.
“Regular cleaning and care are essential,” agrees Moody. “Maintaining your appliances before they break down can significantly extend the life of any household appliance and drastically reduce the likelihood of either repair or replacement.”