Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Repair or Replace? The Weber Kettle

The kettle itself is indestructible, but the racks and damper rust through over time.

We are faced with one of those conundrums - do we repair our old 18.5" Weber kettle, or just replace it?   It still works fine, but the grill portion is starting to rust, and that isn't good.    This is about $18 online, and third party sources seem to charge about the same amount.  The charcoal grate has sagged from the heat (Attention 9/11 "truthers":  Fire can melt steel, but even a low-level fire can anneal it and soften it, causing it to sag).  I "fixed" this by turning it over, but it, too, is rusting out.  Weber wants $11 for this part, which seems to be the same amount others are asking.

The damper assembly, called the "one-touch cleaning system kit" -  as you can move it back and forth to sweep out ashes - was replaced a few years ago, and has once again rusted into oblivion.  Weber wants an astounding $32 for this part (which is $12 more than they want for the same part for the 22" model).  I found it for $18 online, but they also want $11 in shipping.  So go figure.

All told, no matter what source I use (Weber, grillparts.com, Amazon, eBay) I end up spending at least $60 to buy all new parts.   eBay, oddly enough, had the highest prices - sometimes obscene prices.   Amazon prices ranged from "meh" to obscenely overpriced.

So what to do?  I disassembled the kettle, and the kettle part seems solid enough, although in the past, we had one kettle (which we literally found by the side of the road) that had a leg break loose.  I was able to fix it with a screw, but it illustrates that even the porcelain kettles are not forever.

The kicker is, on Amazon, Home Depot, and at the Weber site itself, a whole new kettle can be had for $89 with free shipping.  So the choices are paying $60+ to "repair" the old unit, or pay less than $30 more for a whole new shebang.   When repair costs are more than half the cost of buying new, it is no question - just break down and buy a new one.

I will put the old one at the end of the driveway, and no doubt someone at the campground will be happy to have it, for at least a weekend's worth of barbecuing.

It is a shame to have to throw things away - we live in a disposable consumer culture.   But it doesn't make sense, from a personal perspective, to spend nearly as much money repairing something as it would cost to replace it.  In terms of product lifespan for the dollar (as well as your efforts to repair the unit itself) it makes little sense.  While I could "repair" the old kettle for $30 less than the new one, its remaining life would be shorter than the new kettle.  Other parts may fail down the road - in addition to the ones already broken. The wheels may crack, the vent rivit is rusting, the handle can break, and as I learned with our last kettle (sold with the lake house) the leg attachment point can break free.   So I might as well break down and buy a new one.

Now, back in the day, replacement parts were a lot less expensive - and the kettles themselves cost a lot more - in real terms.   Today, you can buy this kettle for $89, but back in the 1970's, I recall buying one as a Father's day gift and it was around $99, which would be like $200 today.   So the real culprit isn't the high cost of parts, but the low cost of replacement.   This, in turn, discourages people from repairing, so the volume of repair parts is lower, driving up repair part costs.

Repairing products is an interesting conundrum.  For cars, I was told that manufacturers generally stock replacement parts for about 15 years or so.  I could be wrong about that. But what happens, over time, is that parts are initially expensive.  Then, as the cars one by one go to the junkyard, dealers realize they are stuck with an inventory of Chevette parts (don't ask me why, they are all over eBay).   They slash prices and often some 3rd party buys the parts and then sells them to collectors and hobbyists. There is again a "sweet spot" where the 3rd party gets sick of owning tractor-trailer loads of car parts and starts selling them cheap - until the car in question becomes "collectible" and then prices ratchet back up.   Not that the Chevette will be one of those collectibles anytime soon, or if ever.

In Europe, they now have a "right to repair" law, as one reader alerted me.   This sounds like a good deal for consumers and better for the environment.   But again, when you factor in the labor costs, often at $100 an hour or more (with $100 just to drive out to your home), the idea of repairing a $600 washing machine seems, well, short-sighted.  The problem is, the cost of labor to repair is about ten times more the cost of labor to manufacture.   In the time it takes for a repairman to drive to your house, diagnose the problem with your washing machine, get the parts (which may require they be ordered, or a second trip to the house) and then install them, a factory worker could have assembled ten washing machines - or maybe twenty. Repair is always more costly than manufacture, and the resulting repair will not last as long as new machine would.

Again, the Weibull curve kicks in.   Certainly a consumer should expect his appliance to last more than a year or two - which is why we have warranties.  And the first year or so is the time when manufacturing defects and "infant mortality" become apparent. So manufacturers cover this part.  The next few years are the most reliable time, with few failures, as the parts are all working and have yet to wear out.  But the end-of-life time is when it gets dicey.  It is tempting to "repair" an old washer or dryer (and I have hired people to do this, and also attempted repairs myself) but the costs involved usually come very close to half the replacement cost of the appliance in question.   You'd be better off applying that money toward a new machine.

Or, as we did in Alexandria, we found used GE washers and dryers for $200 (sometimes for the pair!) in the "Pennysaver" all day long.  People move away and need to get rid of appliances, and often they will "deal" with a nearly-new appliance they just want out of their garage.

You can argue all day long about how repairing something is saving the environment or whatever.  But when you get down to it, it is your pocketbook that is paying here.  And what I see happening with many poorer or uninformed people, is that they throw a couple hundred dollars at an end-of-life appliance, because they "can't afford" a new one.   A few months or years later, the mended appliance breaks again - and they throw more money at it (and by the way, cars are appliances too, so this applies there as well).  Before long they've spent more "mending" an end-of-life appliance than they would have spent buying new.   It is like the lady with the used tires - she spends more on them than she would on a new set.

I wish this all wasn't so.  But the alternative is to go back to the olden days when appliances and whatnot were staggeringly expensive.  Back then, there was a supply of cheap parts - and a guy in town who repaired lawn mowers, and another guy who repaired vacuum cleaners, and so on and so forth.  That was then, this is now.   Stuff is made so cheaply in China, that the cost of even a simple repair often exceed 50% or more of the purchase price of the same item, new.

With cars, often repairs exceed the resale value of the car.   When that happens, well, it might be time to just pack it in, even if the car still "looks good".    Yes, we've come a long way in terms of rust-proofing cars, and today, cars in the junkyard look great, even if they have blown engines and transmissions.  That doesn't mean they aren't junk.