Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Small Appliance Follies (And Right to Repair?)

When small appliances break, they are often not worth fixing!

When I was a kid, they had articles in Popular Mechanix and even the Boy Scout Manual on how to fix your toaster.  Back then, toasters were pretty simple appliances and only made.... toast.  The heating elements, as they aged, would break, and it was possible to disassemble a toaster and crimp the broken heating element back together.  Of course, if the heating element was so old and brittle that it was breaking, chances are, the repair would only be temporary in nature, as it would break at another point shortly.  Such is the nature of repairs, which is why it is smart to think hard before trying to repair something near the end of its design life.

On the other hand, a new appliance should last more than a few months, which is why we have warranties.  Last June, before we went away for the summer, we bought a new toaster oven.  This is likely the fourth or fifth one we have bought - they do not live long.  Not only do they break down, they get disgustingly dirty, as baked-on grease and nonsense becomes impossible to remove.  Even using oven cleaner doesn't do much, after a while (and indeed, can cause more problems than it solves).

I wrote before about infant mortality in machinery and appliances.  In electrical gear, this is particularly a problem.  You put in a new light bulb, turn it on, and poof! it blows out right away.  In any batch of product, there are bound to be a few bad apples that fail early.  The rest will run for their design life until they fail late.  Responsible manufacturers use "burn-in" to cull the herd of the bad boys who would have failed early.

The term is confusing as nothing is "burning" during burn-in.  Instead, the product is simply run for a number of minutes, hours, or days (depending on the product and how much the manufacturer can afford).  Out of say, 100 products, maybe five will fail.  The reliability of the remaining 95 units is that much higher.  So you ship out the units that "passed" burn-in and have fewer complaints and warranty repairs from customers.

Of course, burn-in costs money, as you have to take up space in your factory with burn-in stations and people to plug the product in and monitor them.  In a factory making thousands of product a day, this simply is not feasible.  So to cut costs, many modern factories simply test the unit for functionality - if that - and then ship it.  The consumer becomes the burn-in tester or Beta tester as they call it in the software world.

Our toaster oven, Black and Decker model TO3217SS was pretty neat.  It had an "air fry" mode that cooked almost microwave fast.  We liked it, until about two weeks ago when it started acting up - not turning on sometimes, unless you played with the main switch.  Then finally, it stopped turning on at all.

There are three knobs on the toaster oven.  The top knob selects between toaster modes and oven modes and also sets temperature (in oven mode).  The bottom two knobs are timers, one for oven mode and the other for toaster mode.  Most toaster ovens have one knob to select mode, a second knob to select temperature, and a third knob for the timer.  So this is a somewhat unusual arrangement compared to other toaster ovens.

So, I look in  my four ring-binders of appliance manuals and I can't find one for the toaster oven - this is not like me.  Fortunately, I could download the user manual from Black and Decker or from Manuals.lib (the latter presenting a confusing "abridged" version as well).  By the way, Black and Decker is just a brand name these days (at least for some products), owned by something called "Spectrum Brands" the successor to "Ray-O-Vac" which is an ancient name for a battery company that only Boomers would remember.  Everything is made overseas.  Guess where?

Turns out, there is a two-year warranty on the toaster oven, as listed in the back of the service manual, so I log on to their site and start a warranty claim.  They want a copy of the original receipt.  No problem.  As a near-boomer, I keep paper receipts and throw them in a big cardboard box and when the box is full, I tape it shut and store it.  After seven years or so, I burn the box in the fireplace.

So I dig through the box and find it.  Actually, I already knew which layer of receipts to look in, as Quickbooks told me I bought it at Walmart on June 22, 2023.  Yes, it is handy to log these things!  So after 15 minutes of digging, I find the receipt, scan it in and upload it.

Turns out we only paid $59 (exactly) for the unit, which is below MSRP.  I get a response back from Spectrum Home Appliances (via Brand Protect Plus) the next business day.  They agree the unit is under warranty, but want a photo of the plug cut off with the date code which is stamped on one of the prongs of the power plug. That, and they want a check (OK, boomer!) for $7.50 for shipping and handling.  So I cut the plug off and take a photo and mail off a check to the company and they send another e-mail saying they will ship me a new unit.

By the way, I realized that the switch will probably last longer if we don't switch between modes with either timer "on."  When you switch a "live" switch, it will arc, which can leave a deposit of oxide on the contacts which can act as an insulator.  Better to select "mode" and then activate the timer, although that just moves the point of arc-ing to the timer switch.  Sadly, with the price of copper these days, so many switches now use aluminum contacts and aluminum oxide is an excellent insulator.  Switches don't last as long, as a result.

Of course, a lot of people would just say "forgetaboutit!" and buy another toaster oven.  Who saves receipts, except cranky old retired gay men?  Who has the time and energy to jump through these hoops and pay $7.50 for a $59 toaster?  Ditto.  They count on most people not being willing to take the effort and time to do this.  And if the toaster failed early-on, most people would put it back in the box and take it back to Walmart.

But of course, being a (retired) Electrical Engineer, I had to take apart the old toaster oven to see what was what. 32 small screws later, it is laid open for me to examine.  The main rotary switch is not showing continuity in any position, while the timer switches are.  The switch seems to come apart, but I have not examined it in that detail.

The devil in me thinks, "Cutting off the plug?  No big deal!  I have several replacement plugs in my box 'o electrical stuff!  Why not put a new plug on it, repair the switch and have two toaster ovens!"  All I need to do is find a replacement switch, right?

Uh, yea.  Nothing is repairable anymore and parts - other than cooking racks and pans - are not available, it seems, anywhere.  I can't even find a parts diagram or parts list so I can search by part name.  Even the cooking racks and pans are priced such that, for a $59 toaster oven, they are not worthwhile buying.  Unless I could find a switch for ten bucks or less, the deal is off.

Sadly, this is the norm with so much of our technology today.  Things are so cheaply made as to be disposable.  Technology becomes outdated so quickly there is little point in making something last a long time or be repairable as it will be outmoded so quickly, or repair labor costs will exceed the value of the item.

With our split-system A/C unit, for example, the labor cost (at over $100 an hour!) to install one can easily exceed the cost of the unit itself.  We have cheap labor overseas, not so much here in the USA.  Time was, the "mending man" could fix things, but then again, he wasn't driving a $100,000 pickup truck or had expectations of doing so.

No, nothing is made to last anymore, and in a way this is a good thing.  We don't keep things around for very long, but constantly upgrade to "new! New! NEW!" every few years.  Even when they don't break, we end up getting a new toaster oven every five years or so - they just get gross after a few years.

Maybe that is why Toshiba went bankrupt - not because of their nuclear power plant deal with Westinghouse, but because they over-built their laptops so they would never break.

I guess I am officially an old boomer!