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How fridge and dishwasher makers restrict repairs—and enable more e-waste

Hindering access to information for technicians can mean higher costs and longer waits for customers—and more appliances sent to landfills.

How fridge and dishwasher makers restrict repairs—and enable more e-waste
[Source images: Bet_Noire/iStock; cybrain/iStock]
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For Dean Landers, fixing people’s refrigerators, dishwashers, and washing machines is more of a hassle than it should be.

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Even after 40 years running an award-winning repair service in Baltimore, Landers says he still gets the runaround from appliance makers. He can’t always obtain the diagnostic data or electronic codes he needs to finish a job, and if he needs to consult with the manufacturer when all the usual repair steps fail, some won’t even let him pay for the privilege.

That all translates to longer waits and costlier repairs for customers, who in turn may end up replacing their appliances instead of fixing them.

“Every day, we run into something where we need to figure something out by doing an end-around, by talking to somebody else, by doing deeper-dive research than I should have to do because of the structure that these manufacturers have set up,” Landers says.

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Home appliances are an overlooked facet of the right-to-repair movement, which aims to make parts, tools, and diagnostic information more easily available to users and independent repair shops. While the difficulties of repairing consumer electronics and heavy equipment have received widespread attention, large appliances have flown under the radar, even as evidence shows that they’re more prone to breaking down than they once were.

That leads not just to greater expenses for consumers, but to more electronic waste. Data from the Environmental Protection Agency shows that 2.1 million tons of waste from major appliances went to landfills in 2018, up from 1.2 million tons in 2005, even as recycling increased during that same time frame. A 2015 United Nations University study found that large appliances, such as dishwashers and washing machines, made up nearly two-thirds of all e-waste worldwide. Unlike with phones and other consumer electronics, home appliances have no thriving refurbished market, likely due to the high costs of hauling the products around.

Lawmakers have started to take notice. Large appliances like refrigerators, dishwashers, and washing machines are becoming the next frontier in the growing right-to-repair movement, with a new bill in Congress and fresh interest from the Federal Trade Commission.

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Why appliances are hard to fix

If you’ve ever suspected that appliance manufacturers don’t make them like they used to, the evidence is on your side. A 2015 study by the Öko-Institut, a German environmental group, found that 13% of all large appliances that people replaced in 2012 were less than five years old, up from 7% in 2004. Most of those replacements were prompted by breakdowns in the original products.

Based on surveys of its members, Consumer Reports also estimated in 2019 that 40% of all refrigerators will experience issues within their first five years, with problem rates as high as 60% for certain Electrolux and Frigidaire models. For dishwashers and washing machines, the chance of having an issue within five years was 30%, and it was 20% for ranges.

Matthew Zieminski, the general manager of operations for the appliance-repair booking service Nana, says home appliances are a lot more complicated than they used to be. A modern clothes dryer might have a dozen different functions, from steaming and wrinkle-releasing to low-heat drying. That means more potential points of failure, and more ways for users to break things by choosing the wrong settings.

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“We do tend to see a shorter lifespan now than we did in the past. And part of that is just, there’s a lot more features, and it’s a lot more complex of an environment than it was 20 or 30 years ago,” Zieminski says.

Still, some reliability issues can’t just be explained by the presence of more technology. Last year, LG settled a class action lawsuit over compressor problems in nearly 1.6 million refrigerators. As part of the settlement, LG denied any wrongdoing and said its fridges weren’t defective. However, according to two technicians I spoke with, those fridges are now a frequent source of repair requests.

After publication, LG spokeswoman Taryn Brucia said the company now backs its refrigerators with a five year warranty on its cooling system, including labor, and a 10-year warranty for linear compressor parts with five years of coverage for labor.

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LG is also facing a class action lawsuit over compressors in its Kenmore-branded refrigerators, and Samsung is facing a class action suit over its refrigerators’ ice makers.

Kei Son Summers, an appliance repair tech and the owner of Mr. Kei Services in Oklahoma City, says he believes quality control has fallen by the wayside as companies race to get their products out the door.

“It’s a problem all around when manufacturers don’t take the time to quality-check their [product] before it goes out,” he says.

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Authorized repair pressure

Because their appliances are breaking down faster, manufacturers have strong incentives to drive down the cost of repairs while they’re still under warranty, which is often for one year but can run longer depending on the manufacturer. One way companies accomplish this is by pressuring technicians to perform warranty repairs at below their typical costs, says Nathan Proctor, who heads the right-to-repair campaign for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, or U.S. PIRG.

Proctor says that in many cases, technicians can only access troubleshooting guides or diagnostic information by becoming authorized service providers, but that authorization can come with strings attached. For instance, the manufacturer can dictate the price of warranty repairs and require a certain number of them, effectively forcing technicians to recoup their costs in volume or through additional out-of-warranty work.

Three repair technicians confirmed to me that this is common practice among manufacturers.

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“If you don’t take the warranty jobs, you can’t get access to the parts, you can’t get the service instructions, and you can’t service the out-of-warranty stuff, so you’re kind of over a barrel,” Proctor says.

While joining an authorized repair program isn’t always detrimental—it can lead to new business, for instance, or provide steady work for new technicians—working with every manufacturer doesn’t always make sense. Repair companies may not want to become authorized if they don’t stand behind a company’s products, or if the brand isn’t popular enough to justify fixing appliances at cut rates.

In those cases, technicians have to rely on workarounds to get the information they need. For example, Dean Landers says that a lot of electronic parts have a programming code that allows them to pair with the existing system, but some manufacturers won’t provide those codes to unauthorized technicians. Landers says he’s hired a former field technician whose only job now is to track down the help that appliance makers won’t provide.

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“If you don’t have a relationship with them, because you’re not authorized . . . you can’t get it,” he says. “And so now you’ve got to try to do an end-around. You’ve got to try and find someone that does have that access that will help you, through chat rooms, Facebook pages, myriad ways.”

Technicians and consumers do have options at their disposal for finding their own fixes. Sites like RepairClinic and Sears Parts Direct provide both parts and guides for common issues, similar to how iFixit works for consumer electronics.

But technicians say those resources don’t always have the information they need or the best prices. In those cases, they have to rely on quid-pro-quo arrangements with other repair providers, in which they trade access to various brands.

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“You have to have a lot of friends is what you have to do,” Landers says.

Meanwhile, appliance makers put pressure on consumers to stick with authorized technicians as well. A 2018 survey of 50 appliance makers by U.S. PIRG found that 45 of them had threatened to void the warranties of any product repaired by a non-authorized service provider. Proctor says 43 of those companies were still threatening to void warranties as of last October.

The practice echoes that of the consumer electronics industry, which has used an array of tactics to discourage unauthorized repairs. Apple, for instance, has warned users against installing cheaper third-party screen replacements and withheld battery-health reporting features. Many other device makers have stuck scary—and potentially illegal—warning stickers on their products, telling customers that unauthorized repairs could void their warranties.

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“It’s the same as Apple or anybody else. It’s to control the behavior of their existing customers to their own benefit,” Proctor says.

Safety first

The appliance industry has argued that its motivations aren’t so nefarious. In a 2019 statement to the FTC, the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, or AHAM, said it was concerned with the agency’s investigation into repair restrictions. The trade group cited the proprietary nature of manufacturers’ products and the safety of users, given that technicians are entering customers’ homes and dealing with delicate electronics.

Those arguments echo what other industries claim in their fight against right-to-repair laws, but AHAM also points to the large number of locally-owned repair shops that exist as evidence that the repair industry is healthy. The group says there are more than 20,000 service providers across the U.S., 87% of which are authorized with at least one brand, and 94% of which employ 10 or fewer people. (The group otherwise did not answer specific questions for this story.)

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According to U.S. PIRG’s Proctor and some technicians, the industry’s argument that authorizing repair technicians is necessary to ensure quality doesn’t withstand scrutiny.

“I’ve seen some of these guys that are certified, they ain’t worth crap sometimes,” says Myles Ong, the owner of J&M Appliances in Las Vegas.

Landers had a similar assessment, especially outside of major cities where technicians are in shorter supply. “They’re not vetting those guys,” he says. “They need bodies.”

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Besides, Ong says, he’s heard of numerous instances in which LG has sent compressors directly to consumers so they can find their own repair technicians, something that Landers says he’s seen happening as well. (LG spokesman Ken Hong would only say that the company doesn’t sell compressors through its customer service website.)

That may be a response to both a shortage of technicians during the pandemic and the refrigerators involved in LG’s class action lawsuit, but it undercuts the argument that only authorized technicians are trustworthy. It’s also prompting more people to just give up and replace their appliances.

“Now, [technicians are] scheduling people out weeks and months, and people don’t have that time,” Ong says. “They’re buying new stuff instead of waiting.”

Carrots and sticks

Landers says the solutions are straightforward. Working with the United Appliance Servicers Association, a trade group for technicians, he recently helped establish a vetting process for refrigerator company Sub-Zero that doesn’t have the usual warranty strings attached. The trade group vets the repair company, Sub-Zero gives its approval, and the technicians get access to the information they need.

“I think that’s a phenomenal middle ground,” he says.

While Landers doesn’t expect the industry to have a right-to-repair awakening on its own, new laws or regulations could help them see the light. In the EU, new rules that went into effect this year require appliance makers to offer replacement parts for up to 7 years for dishwashers and 10 years for other appliances. The FTC has already said that it will crack down on potential violations of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, which generally bars companies from tying warranty coverage to a specific service provider. U.S. PIRG’s Proctor says stricter enforcement of those rules could give technicians more leverage when dealing with appliance makers.

Meanwhile, a bill proposed by Congressman Joe Morelle, called the Fair Repair Act, would require companies to make tools, parts, and diagnostics available for any product that depends even partly on the use of electronics. In other words, the very digitization that makes appliances more failure-prone could also end up ensuring they’re easier to repair.

The appliance industry will almost certainly fight those rules, but technicians believe the companies will ultimately benefit when anyone can make repairs more easily. It’ll improve the brands’ reputations, they say, and will benefit the environment at a time when customers are becoming more sensitive about e-waste.

“As long as we get the information to know how to do it, we don’t have to send stuff to a landfill,” Ong says.

This story has been updated with comments from LG, which were provided after publication.