Wednesday, December 6, 2023

The Confusing World of Appliances

No other industry is quite like "White Goods" - even if they are all stainless steel today.

We thought about replacing all of the kitchen appliances at once, as they are 18 years old and failing.  The microwave - and now the one in Mark's studio - are broken.  Busted.  Done. Gone. Trash.  So at the very least, we have to replace those.

Back in the day - in the 1990's - we replaced all the appliances when we remodeled our kitchen in Alexandria, VA.  The thinking was, back then, to get a "suite" of appliances, all the same brand and make, as it would "add value" to your home, as opposed to a motley collection of different brands - and worse! - different colors.

White was the order of the day back then.  The Avocado Green and Harvest Gold and Brown of the 1960's and 1970's seemed "dated" and surgical white was back in style.  Stainless steel was just making the scene - mimicking the expensive "commercial" appliances that seriously rich people (and restaurants) had.  The over-the-range microwave/range hood was just a thing as well, and wanting to be modern and "with it" we spent an astounding $500 on a over-the-range microwave.  It was a lot of money at the time and still is today.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and you could buy (and we did buy) an over-the-range microwave for our rental condo for an astounding $99 at Lowe's.  A simple range hood was $139 so the choice was easy to make.  Appliances, for a while at least, got super-cheap.

But all that changed, of course - or did it? The pandemic ushered in a new era of shortages, which turned out to be wildly profitable for Wall Street.  So they have tried to extend the "shortage" gag for a couple more years and kept prices hiked to pandemic levels.

On the other hand, it seems some things haven't gone up in price at all.  In 2006 (another boom time) we paid an astounding $1875 for a dutch-door KitchenAid counter-depth refrigerator (I found the receipt!). It has held up well, other than the control panel being flaky and the doors not closing all the time.  Today, the same (or similar) model (with a different control panel - what does that tell us?) is on sale for $1989 - in stainless steel.

Yes, stainless has now taken over the market - by storm.  There are even different versions of it - fingerprint resistant stainless, black stainless, or just plain stainless.  If you want white or black, you have to special order it and it often costs more.  They can deliver a new stainless fridge in ten days. A white refrigerator would arrive in April.  How times have changed!  And forget about "Harvest Gold" - that ship sailed in the early 1980's.

Navigating the market isn't easy.  Manufacturers make slightly different versions of the same appliance, each with a confusing number-and-letter moniker such as "KRFC300ESS" which is hard to parse, other than in the KitchenAid/Whirlpool ecosystem, the first letter (K or W) indicates the brand, and the last letter or letters indicates the color (SS, W, or B - although sometimes "Z" indicates stainless as well).

Like the car companies used to be, there are the "Big 3" and then a plethora of brands beneath them (and foreign competition as well - as we will see later!).  So Whirlpool has a plethora of brands, for various market segments, even if - like GM used to do and still does - the underlying products are largely the same with different trim levels.  KitchenAid is marketed as the "upscale" or "affordable luxury" brand of Whirlpool and Whirlpool is a less-expensive and less-fancy everyday brand.

In Virginia, circa 1990, we bought a KitchenAid dishwasher and it was "old school" with clunky push-buttons that looked like refugees from a push-button torque-flite on a '59 DeSoto.  It had a huge chrome handle in the front to latch it into place - again, like something from the 1950's.  It was also loud as all get out and without digital controls, you could not set a delay start.

We bought it because it was touted on "This Old House" which, as I noted before, is evil.  It lasted less than a decade before breaking down entirely, and we replaced it with a used Frigidaire that some lady was getting rid of for $75 because she wanted all-stainless.  Her loss, our gain.  It was only a year old.

Since those halcyon days, the only difference between a Kitchenaid and a Whirlpool is in the number of buttons - mostly for obscure "me too!" features that no one really uses and probably don't work, anyway.  What I have learned - the hard way - over time, is that fancy features are rarely used and when they break, they break expensive.

For example, we had a Maytag dryer ("the dependability people") that had a "dampness sensor" to shut it off.  You could not de-select this sensor.  The sensor was located on the rotating drum, so it had a spring-loaded carbon brush that slid on a copper ring to make the rotating connection.  Well, it was probably ten years old when we bought the house, so eventually the carbon brush wore out and the part was "NLA" and the repair man suggested I scrap the dryer.  I don't recall how I worked around it (I guess I jumpered it out, so it always thought it was damp) and since it had a timer, anyway, it worked OK for a few more years.  A nice feature?  Maybe.  But when they break, all bets are off.

I noted before that sometimes, simpler is better.  The old two-door "box" refrigerators that everyone has in their garage, seem to run forever with little in the way of maintenance.  The one at the Parcheesi Club ices up over time (I suspect the door seal is leaking) and I have to defrost it - once a year.  The one in our garage never stops and it was given to us for free.  Funny thing, they still sell these at the lumberteria and we saw one with a sticker on it saying "Garage Ready!" - they know their market!

We went to the local appliance store and then to Lowe's and Home Depot. Prices are confusing, but it seems Home Depot has the lowest of the three.  Again, it is hard to compare prices as each store sells a slightly different version of the same product.  It is akin, I think, to how WalMart sells bespoke versions of products.  The laptop I am typing this on is a "Walmart" version - with a unique model number and combination of features (i.e., stripped) that were not available to other retailers.  Hence the lower price than, say, Best Buy.  But since the models are different, it is hard to compare apples to oranges.

Quite frankly, we dismissed the "near luxury" versions almost right away, as they were often far more expensive than simpler models - which often had more features. A "plain" KitchenAid range might be more expensive than a basic Whirlpool range, the latter of which is not only cheaper, but has a convection oven feature.  Prices are all over the board on these things.

And speaking of ranges, we have a "slide-in" model, which, like "counter-depth" refrigerators, are harder to find and more expensive.  But at this stage, changing the cabinetry and counter-tops would be far more costly than the delta in price between a slide-in and a traditional stove.   In never pays to be unique!

We were getting discouraged by the prices - well over $4000 for four appliances - when we saw an inexpensive refrigerator from Samsung.  We have Samsung phones and they are well-regarded as reliable and inexpensive (the new folding model notwithstanding).  Samsung televisions were well-regarded, that is, until the new ones started playing non-skippable ads on startup.  That's just not right.

As luck would have it, our neighbors invited us over for a holiday soiree and I noticed they had an all-new Samsung kitchen.  Intrigued, I asked him how he liked it.  I presume, like with the Japanese invasion in the auto industry in the 1970s, that they would be cheap and reliable appliances and give the "Big 3" (Whirlpool, GE, Frigidaire) something to worry about.  But he told me the ice maker in the fridge would "freeze up" and after much pulling of hair and angry phone calls, service calls, and letters, they declared the refrigerator "unfixable" and Samsung sent him a check for $1100 - which is more than Lowe's is selling the same refrigerator today.

While in Home Depot, we were looking at a Samsung, and a fellow walking by, unprompted, gave us a tale of woe about Samsung appliances.  He ended up replacing the whole kitchen suite after five years. I went online and Googled "Samsung Appliances Suck" and found a litany of discussion groups complaining about the quality of this Korean brand.  Many mentioned the ice maker "freezing up" which apparently happens because condensation forms and freezes on it.  Weird, but after you read the same complaint again and again, you start to see a pattern.

Too bad, too, as it looked like a nice refrigerator, and $1099 is a decent price for a counter-depth36" dutch door refrigerator.

We also saw a bargain priced Whirlpool "four door" refrigerator and thought it might be a good deal.  The reviews online were scathing.  It is made in China and apparently the complicated door mechanism and door seals are problematic.  Getting someone to work on it and getting parts for it is also a problem.

I see a pattern here.  I suspect the Samsung refrigerators and the bargain-priced Whirlpool are made in China.  And while the Chinese make great things, they are also known for quality issues and having prices so low they aren't worth fixing.  I recounted before how the rich folks on neighboring Little Cumberland Island (where the Coca-Cola heirs live) were unloading trash from a small landing craft at the boat ramp here.  They wheeled out what looked like a new four-wheeler.  I asked them what was wrong with it and they said something in the engine broke and they can't get parts for it, so they are scrapping it entirely.  What a waste!

But it makes one wary.  Lowe's (and Tractor Supply and other dealers) are selling these "golf carts" for $8999 with four wheel hydraulic brakes (discs in the front!) and all sorts of features which, on an "American" golf cart (made here in Georgia) would cost $15,000 or more (with cable drum brakes, rear only!).  It sounds like a good deal, but you wonder, if it breaks, can I get parts for it?  I recently replaced the rear wheel bearings on our 1994 EZ-GO and not only were parts available, they were cheap - $20 for the whole bearing set, clips and seals.  Ironically, the bearings were made in China.  Seems the Chinese can sell parts for every sort of equipment, except what they make themselves.

So we took a hard pass on Samsung.  LG, my neighbor says, is highly recommended by Consumer Reports, but since Consumer Reports does little more than tally up "features" and divides by price, you have to take their opinions with a grain of salt.  More often than not, they have reversed their recommendations dramatically when they find out, over time, that a product they touted had serious long-term issues.  The Tesla, for example, went from "the best car we ever tested!" to their lowest rating, "not recommended."  Hard to believe the two reviews are from the same source.

At first, we thought about replacing all the appliances, and going with the same brand for all of them.  Again, "this old house" touted this as a good thing "adding value" to your home.  And indeed, if you are buying a new home and all the appliances match and still have their "EPA" stickers on them, it might be a selling point - unless they are Samsung appliances, I guess.  But on the other hand, is it really going to affect the price very much?  After seeing crazy prices for stoves ($1000 and up) Mark changed his mind about "matchy-matchy" and is open to having a mixed-fleet of appliances.

Then there is the issue of downgrading.  Our dishwasher seems to work OK and has a stainless-steel interior cabinet.  A newer dishwasher (nearly identical in appearance) has a stainless-steel exterior trim panel, but the interior is all-plastic.  It is akin to trading-in a lightly used Mercedes for a base model Mitsubishi. Sure, it is "all new" but is it really an improvement?

This gets me to thinking, maybe we are over-thinking this thing.  Maybe we should just save our money for the time being and buy a new microwave and put that in, and then "run to failure" the others and replace them once they break.  This way we get the maximum value out of the appliances we have, and delay the spending and spread out the cost over time.  Colonel Waddington would approve.

When you come right down to it, many appliances can last for years and years, particularly simpler ones.  I used to have a 1955 Frigidaire in my basement, with a draft beer system inside.  The entire refrigeration system is hermetically sealed, and so long as you don't move it, such refrigerators can last decades.  The problem with modern appliances often isn't the major hardware (compressor, motors, etc;) but in the control modules, which are needed to make the thing work.

The old garage fridge has a simple bi-metallic thermostat that literally will never wear out.  An old gas range that you light with a match has few moving parts.  Modern appliances, with digital displays, membrane-switch controls, and complicated "features" tend to break more readily.  And it goes without saying that complicated doors and bins and latches look cool, but don't last long.  Some of the fancy refrigerators we saw in the stores were already broken.  And why you need a door-within-a-door, I am not sure.  But they have it!  With a broken latch, natch!

Sadly, I am alone in this dream of being a techno-luddite.  It is harder and harder to find "simple" appliances or cars or phones - or anything.  And increasingly, it is harder to fit into society without some of these things.  Yea, I get it, I "need" a smart phone just to get a job these days. But do I really need a Wi-Fi enabled refrigerator?

I don't think so!