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Repair or replace: The shortening lifespan of consumer goods

May 9, 2022, 10:53 PM | Updated: Jun 19, 2022, 10:01 pm

MURRAY, Utah – It’s a phrase you have likely heard or even uttered yourself: “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.”

It is not just your imagination. It is simple economics. Companies make more money if they sell more stuff. From appliances to electronics, when your purchases fail within a few years and are either impossible to fix, or more expensive to fix than purchasing a replacement, it sends a lot of stuff to the landfill that maybe should last longer.

On the fritz

Just ask Mark Reinbold. He is really agitated by his washing machine’s lack of agitation. He bought it a little over 12 years ago, but now?

“It would stop at the spin cycle, and it just wouldn’t spin,” said Reinbold, who added the washer would also emit an odor of something burning.

“Sometimes the motor was overheating or something,” he said.

Turns out, the washer’s transmission is fried. It would be cheaper to repair than replace, but the manufacturer no longer makes the necessary part.

“I’m kind of stuck with a machine that I can’t fix,” Reinbold said.

Mark Reinbold explains to KSL’s Matt Gephardt on how he’s not able to fix his 12-year-old washing machine’s transmission because the part is no longer available.

Amy Humpherys just bought a brand-new dishwasher, after one she only owned four years stopped working. She has been down this road before.

“Each dishwasher we’ve had seems to last four years,” she said.

A repairman told her it was going to cost almost as much to repair it as it would to just buy a new one. On top of that, she has recently replaced a washing machine that has been giving her fits lately.

“My mom had a washing machine, uh dryer, that had lasted 25 years, and I’ve probably had three in that amount of time,” Humpherys said.

Amy Humpherys just bought a brand-new dishwasher, after one she only owned four years stopped working.

Diane Hoffman invested in a high-end dining set. The chairs alone cost nearly $1,000 apiece. Hoffman said she rarely uses the set, yet a mere seven-years in, the padding on one chair is gone and the others have started to collapse.

“If I knew this was going to happen, I would have never purchased them or I would have never paid that kind of money for them,” Hoffman said.

Dianne Hoffman tells KSL’s Matt Gephardt the padding in the chairs she paid nearly $1,000 a piece for is beginning to collapse just seven years in.

Is planned obsolescence real?

The KSL Investigates tip line is full of Utahns who say their relatively new stuff is not lasting as long as it used to last. And our investigation found, it is not baseless fist wagging.

Take refrigerators. They used to have a life expectancy of 25 years. Today, it is 12 years, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Dishwashers and microwaves break at around nine years, while trash compactors fail at age six, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

Has your printer ever stopped and told you you’re out of ink, only to have you pull out the cartridge that clearly still has some ink inside? It has led to lawsuits and the internet is full of videos on how to bypass the printer’s sensors and let you use the ink for which you have already paid.

Appliances, furniture, cars, phones, even light bulbs – the examples go on and on.

“This is a big problem,” said Nathan Proctor of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, or PIRG.

“It’s obviously in the best interest of the manufacturer to have you replace products as quickly as you can,” he explained.

Repair rights crackdown

Regulators are getting wise to this and are, in some small examples, cracking down on companies that make it hard to repair stuff. The European Union is now requiring manufacturers to make spare parts for seven years for some products, ten for others, in the hopes of less going to landfills.

In the U.S., a smattering of state laws, including here in Utah, force companies to honor warranties. And the Federal Trade Commission pledged to ramp up enforcement against certain repair restrictions imposed on consumers by manufacturers.

“I still think that the FTC’s rubber meets the road moment has yet to come,” Proctor said. “As of yet, they have not taken that kind of enforcement action directly to any of these companies.”

While in some cases the goal is to sell you an upgrade or a whole new product, in others, it is simply product evolution. Many consumer products have evolved beyond basic engineering that goes with the flip of the switch.

“They’ve put more computer chips in these products than they used to,” Proctor said. “It’s very difficult to repair any kind of computer chip unless you have that exact chip with the same embedded software in it. You can’t just take a blank chip and plug it in.”

Computer chips fail, as do the less expensive plastic parts used these days to help keep costs, well, cheap. But do not be fooled: paying top dollar doesn’t assure you something will last.

“Price bears no correlation to how long that will last,” Proctor said, “or how feasible it will be to fix.”

The KSL Investigators reached out to Ethan Allen, the makers of Diane Hoffman’s collapsing chairs. The company denied any inference that it designs, manufactures, or sells products with the concept of planned obsolescence. But they said they are sending a skilled upholstery technician to her home to determine if any repair work is needed.

As for Mark Reinbold’s washer, GE told us they only guarantee they’ll provide replacement parts for seven years.

Options for consumers

So, what can you do? Proctor recommends looking at products from companies which offer long warranty periods. And if it is a significant purchase for you, research and look for companies and products that have replacement parts easily and readily available.

If a warranty is not an option, you can always try a local repair shop.

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Repair or replace: The shortening lifespan of consumer goods