Your major appliances don’t have long to live. While today’s cars last longer than ever, the phrase, “They don’t make ’em like they used to,” is nearly 100% accurate when it comes to refrigerators, dishwashers, clothes washers and dryers—even as these major appliances creep upward in price.
Why? Appliance makers are continuing to cut production costs by replacing durable metal parts with cheaper plastic ones. They’re also stuffing their appliances with more and more electronics and advanced features. Those latest, greatest features attract shoppers in showrooms—but packing more features into an appliance means there are more systems that can fail…and many of those electronic components are absurdly expensive to replace, so you end up replacing the entire appliance instead.
Here’s how consumers can identify the appliances that are likely to last as long as possible—and avoid those likely to fail fastest…
Three General Strategies
Pick appliances that have only the features you truly value. New features might seem neat, but as noted above, each extra system or feature is one more thing that could fail. That doesn’t mean we must buy stripped-down, nothing-but-the-basics appliances, but it does mean that it’s prudent to choose appliances that have only the features that really matter to us. Example: Some refrigerators include two ice makers—one in the freezer and another in the fridge. One ice maker is great…but how badly do we really need the second one?
Favor brands that have easily available and relatively inexpensive replacement parts. These include Amana, Jenn-Air, KitchenAid, Maytag and Whirlpool (all made by Whirlpool Corp.) and Electrolux and Frigidaire (both owned by Electrolux of Sweden). Having readily available, affordable parts makes it more likely you will keep an appliance longer. Example: If the part you need for your eight-year-old washing machine will cost $50 and arrive in two days, it makes sense to fix it…but if it will cost $150 and arrive in three weeks, you might reasonably decide it’s time for a new washer.
Whatever appliances you buy, buy surge protectors, too. Most people are savvy enough to plug their computers or televisions into surge protectors…but very few think to do the same with their appliances. That’s unfortunate because most of today’s appliances are loaded with electronic components that are just as vulnerable to power surges as consumer electronics. Helpful: Many electric dryers and some other appliances have special plugs that do not plug into standard outlets—or standard surge protectors. Either obtain a surge protector designed for this outlet from an appliance store or protect this and all of your other appliances and electronics by paying an electrician $500 to $1,000, depending on your area, to install a whole-home surge-protection system.
Refrigerators. For a longer life, avoid fridges that have multiple separate compartments, each with its own access and temperature settings, such as fridge drawers that can be opened without opening the main doors. These can be convenient, but each separate compartment might have its own fan and fan motor, among other parts, greatly increasing the number of parts that could fail.
Also consider the positioning of a refrigerator’s condenser coils before buying. You probably already know that regularly clearing dust and pet hair off a refrigerator’s coils can reduce the strain on its motor and compressor, extending the refrigerator’s life (and reducing its electricity consumption). Home owners are much more likely to do this if they can get to the coils relatively easily. If getting to the back of a fridge would mean pulling the heavy appliance away from the wall, lean toward one that has coils on the bottom (with a removable “toe kick plate or grill” at the base of the front for access). If your kitchen layout allows relatively easy access to the back of the fridge, coils located there might be easier to get to.
Note: Refrigerator buyers often wonder which fridge configuration lasts longest—top freezer…bottom freezer…or side by side. It turns out that none of these configurations has a notably longer life span than the others. Buy whichever you prefer.
Brands: Whirlpool and its higher-end sister brand KitchenAid tend to make more reliable refrigerators.
Dishwashers. For a longer life, avoid units that boast of multiple moving spray arms and “wash zones.” The added complexity and extra moving parts increase the odds of problems—and many dishwashers without these features do a fine job washing dishes.
Also, check how well a dishwasher’s warranty covers its dish racks before buying—you want at least five years of coverage. Dish racks might seem like a very simple part not worth worrying about, but dish-rack failure often is the problem that dooms a dishwasher. When the vinyl coating on a dish rack wears through, the metal beneath soon rusts and breaks apart. Replacement racks tend to be so expensive—often $200 to $300—that it can make more sense to replace the entire dishwasher. (Continuing to use a rusty dish rack is unlikely to be a long-term solution, either—bits of rusty metal are likely to damage the inner workings.) If the dishwasher comes with at least five years of dish-rack coverage, that’s a sign that the manufacturer has confidence its racks will last.
If dishwasher noise doesn’t bother you, perhaps because you usually run your dishwasher when no one is in the kitchen, consider skipping units that trumpet their exceptionally quiet operation. Quiet dishwashers are no more likely to fail than other units, but when they do break down, their added sound insulation can make it time-consuming to access and replace failed parts, increasing repair cost and the odds that it will make sense to replace rather than repair the machine.
Brand: KitchenAid is the most reliable dishwasher brand (and its warranties typically include five years of dish-rack coverage).
Clothes washers and dryers. For a longer life, avoid washers and dryers that have especially elaborate digital display screens and control panels with large numbers of buttons, lights and LED readouts. Electronic control systems tend to be expensive and failure-prone. The more elaborate these are, the more cost-prohibitive it tends to be to replace them—some cost more than $300 for the screen alone.
Front-load washers tend to last slightly longer than top loaders, on average. Why? Front loaders use less water on average—although there are some low-water-use top loaders on the market, too—reducing the stress on their pumps. They also have sturdy metal bearings holding their tubs in place, whereas many, though not all, manufacturers use less durable plastic bearings in top loaders.
Brands: Whirlpool and its sister brand Maytag tend to be dependable choices. These brands offer an extremely wide range of washers and dryers, they have a record of reliability at reasonable price points, and parts for them are readily available. It’s not clear that spending more for a prestige-brand washer/dryer will result in longer product life.