The Problem With Short-Lived Appliances

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Appliance lives are getting shorter all the time - and it's an often overlooked problem by energy efficiency experts and manufacturers alike.

It's a fact that appliances are living shorter lives. Megan McArdle wrote a great opinion piece in the Washington Post about her refrigerator dying too young. It was also not repairable for a reasonable cost. Decreasing appliance quality is a common story. It's also one of the primary reasons we started Gleen. Why can't we buy appliances that last 20 years anymore? Why are they so expensive to repair, if they are repairable at all.

This is just plain wrong. It makes a lot of people mad. Just check out the 790+ comments on Ms. McArdle's article and you'll see the tip of the iceberg of discontent on appliance reliability.

What the manufacturers say

One of the justifications manufacturers use for the rapid replacement of appliances is the increase in energy efficiency we've seen from the newer appliances.  Another is that over 90% of an appliance is recycled so there is little physical waste that ends up in landfill.

The overlooked, ignored problems with short-lived appliances

We won't argue with these points, although there is a problem with refrigerant management and other insulation materials that we won't discuss here. However, where the manufacturers' argument starts to fall apart is in three areas:

Consumer cash outlay:

If an appliance must be replaced instead of repaired every 5 years (or less!), the consumer ends up replacing an appliance 4 times in a 20-year timeframe. If they'd been able to afford a $2000 appliance in year 1, they could likely have saved themselves the headaches of replacement and satisfaction of a better performing machine. Not everyone can justify or afford a $2000+ appliance and unfortunately, financing options are steep. So the consumer buys the lower quality appliance replacement hoping that this time it will be different.

Energy efficiency:

There was significant progress in energy efficiency in major appliances starting in the late 70's right up until the 2000's.  That meant that replacing old appliances with newer, more efficient ones was a good thing to do for your pocketbook and the planet. And because of energy efficiency standards, we have saved PetaJoules of energy output. Since around 2010, however, energy efficiency gains per appliance have been progressively getting smaller. Replacing a 5-year -old Energy Star Certified appliance for a newer model may or may not save a few kilowatts because some appliances are starting to use more energy per unit due to size increases (dryers, for example).

Consumption of natural resources:

While many appliances are recycled, there is still an untold amount of energy, water and virgin material that goes into creating new machines. It seems reasonable to believe that a five-year-old dishwasher should still have another 15 years of life in it. Why are we trashing appliances instead of refurbishing and reusing them? A robust secondhand market could extend the life of appliances while creating a second line of revenue for manufacturers and resellers alike. That's what happens in the car industry, after all. The bottom line is that appliances should be used for at least 20 years before they're recycled. It would save countless PetaJoules of energy and litres of water, and employ local people who work in refurbishing and service companies.

People are fed up with spending their money on appliances that don't live up to their promise.  We here at Gleen are creating ways for people to find better appliances and try to keep what they have running longer.