EDGE OF TECH — Tech vs. Mech in Household Appliances: Built to Last or Built to Impress?

Originally Posted in The Bend Bulletin – Edge of Tech
by Preston Callicott

Ah, Those Were the Days

One irritating fact of home ownership for most of us: appliances aren’t built to last anymore.  I’m sure many of you can relate.  We’ve been in our home for 20 years and had to replace our microwave, dishwasher and refrigerator three times. Make that four for the microwave.   It doesn’t matter what brand, they all last years instead of decades. Now, every year manufacturers add more features and subtract durability.

Buying Power – Nothing To Brag About

The time-cost ([number of hours] x [today’s average hourly factory wage]) for a middle-class worker to earn enough income to buy things has dropped by roughly 90% over the past 60 years.

For example (excluding tax considerations), the average salary in 1960 for a manufacturing job was about $5,620. Adjusting for inflation in today’s dollars, that is about $52,532. Today’s estimated median household income in Deschutes County is $63,680, about 21% more than it was in 1960 (adjusted for inflation).  Our buying power hasn’t improved much in 60 years. To add insult to injury, income for a family in 1960 was earned by a single breadwinner, typically the husband. Now it takes two family members for many households to earn the median income.

A decent refrigerator in 1960 cost about $275, or about $2,600 in today’s dollars. Today, a low-end fridge will cost about $600, or about $65 in 1960 dollars. To buy a $600 fridge today in Deschutes county would take about 19.5 hours of work. To buy that well-built $275 fridge back in 1960 would have taken 102 hours of work. Back then, a purchase $275 represented about 5% of their income.  Today, $600 is only 1% of our county’s median income.

Appliances That Lasted

I know friends and family who have a fridge, washer or dryer bought in the 60’s or 70’s which is still working today.  They used to last 40 to 50 years with an occasional repair.  Now a fridge croaks and needs replacing about every 7 years.  Some appliances break down after just 3 or 4 years.  Today it is usually cheaper to buy a new one than to have it repaired.  Microwaves? Forget-about-it. Fridges? If it costs more than $1,000, It may be worth fixing but no guarantee how much more use you’ll get out of it.

Durability used to be a key selling point. Old appliances were bulky and hefty thanks to thicker panels and the liberal use of heavier metals. Controls were few and mechanical. Nothing was sensitive or fragile like today’s LED display panels or buttons.

Are Tech Appliances Worth It?

Despite all the hype, what do consumers want in their appliances?  Hands down, the basics. For a fridge, keep things cold using the least amount of power and last at least 10 years.  Same thing for microwaves, stoves, washers and dryers.  We all want them to do their basic functions well and to be durable. Everything else is fluff.

I bet if I polled all my friends on what appliance features they use, for instance on their stove, virtually all of them would fess up to using only the most basic functions, such as setting the temperature and timing for the meal and maybe a meat probe, and have never used the rest. I confess we use the warming drawer for storing pots and pans.

One of the dumbest ideas ever is the connected “smart” appliance. What a waste of money.  After the first few weeks of using cool new features, everyone falls back to their basic needs: for a fridge, to keep things cold, match the kitchen décor and hopefully last more than a few years.

Don’t buy the hype. There is little reason to buy connected appliances, and lots of security issues if you do.  Why do we need a microwave or a fridge on the Internet?  Are we really going to let an artificial intelligence algorithm designed by engineers at Samsung decide what items in our fridge need to be reordered? I don’t know about you, but our decision matrix on what groceries we buy on any given day is a mystery in our family. Embedded displays are another ridiculous and expensive “feature” most of us can do without. Better to spend the money on a cheap internet-connected countertop display with streaming services.  Amazon’s Alexa Show is a great substitute.

Anything on a home network is vulnerable to hackers, especially an appliance which could cause damage to a home and its occupants. Imagine a connected gas stove (yes, these are available), with all gas burners and the oven turned on by a hacker . While you’re on vacation. The entire time.

The risks outweigh the miniscule convenience of controlling kitchen and laundry home appliances remotely.  The exception to this rule are lights, AV and other benign IoT devices.  Yes, it would be annoying for a hacker to play with your lights or stereo, but little potential harm. You may get irritating calls from your HOA or neighbors, but your house won’t burn down.

Disposable Appliances

Many believe quality declined when manufacturing moved overseas which I believe is not true.  What changed was the cost expectation of consumers.  Most of the washing and drying machines we buy and about 76% of their parts are made in the USA.  Yet we still have quality issues.

Why do appliances and other consumer electronics die so quickly? Manufacturers are competing with a global manufacturing economy which drives them to outsource components to lowest-cost third-party providers which substitute durable components for cheaper alternatives. To keep costs down to compete, plastic replaced metal and electronics replaced mechanical. These substitutes contributed to increased failure rates.

I believe in our manufacturing prowess. A fridge designed and built as it was in 1960 in today’s modern factories would last much longer than 50 years.  However, the average price would be at least $3,500 or more. A $4,000 refrigerator with the same durability as those built in 1960 would cost $100 per year over a 40-year life span.  A $1,000 refrigerator on the market today, replaced at the same price (to be generous) every 7 years over 40 years would cost about $143 per year. It makes economic sense even with financing over 5 or 7 years.

Tech is used to hide the appliance’s true nature, a boring device with a mundane purpose. Features are marketing-driven today, no surprise.  Back in 1960, durability, color palettes and quantity (i.e. more space, burners, etc.) were the main reasons to buy a new appliance. Today, styling and technology are marketing’s best tools, to make the unsexy sexy.

We Are the Problem

A long-time urban myth is that appliances are designed to fail. Not true. Manufacturers are designing to meet consumer expectations and to compel a shopper to buy.  If we demanded quality over price, expecting an appliance to last 40 years or more, manufacturers would build them.  We’re the problem.  We’ve become accustomed to disposing of cheap things rather than paying more and repairing quality items.  Sure, it’s more convenient (and fun) to buy the latest and greatest, but the environmental cost is huge and incentivizes manufacturers to build cheap stuff.  Forget about tech features. We need to focus on the core function of appliances and devices we buy.  Fridges keep things cold, microwaves cook, washers wash.


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