Dishwasher Repair

Volume 7, Issue 170; 28 Sep 2004; last modified 08 Oct 2010

The dishwasher broke. It broke because of bad design. And, of course, because it wasn’t really built to last that long.

I hate our disposable society. (I’ll write about how I hate the ever increasing amount of packaging on our disposable products some other time.) Relatively large, relatively sophisticated products (TVs, VCRs, vacuum cleaners, household appliances, cameras, telephones, etc.) are consigned to the landfill at the first sign of trouble.

And because it’s vastly cheaper to let robots (or sweat-shop labor) build new products than it is to provide trained technicians capable of repairing them, they’re designed to be disposable. Most of the durable metal parts have been replaced by molded plastic because they aren’t expected to last very long.

The product that started this rant is our Amana SofSound II dishwasher . A while back, the handle broke and we had it replaced. Last week it broke again and yesterday we had it replaced again. I don’t remember what the washer cost new, but a quick web search for similar sounding models suggests that it was probably somewhere between $300-$400. Apparently, the handle assembly constitutes 18-25% of that cost as a replacement is $74.05:

Handle Assembly
Handle Assembly

And why does this handle break? Because every time you open the washer, the entire load placed on the mechanism is distributed across a small plastic bracket with about 0.03125in2 of material support:

Handle Assembly (Detail View)
Handle Assembly (Detail View)

That’s criminally poor engineering in my book.

Experience suggests the handle lasts about two years. At $129.95 for the service call and $74.05 for the part (this year, it was less two years ago, even adjusted for inflation, I think), how many times does it make sense to replace the handle before just replacing the whole unit?

On the one hand, the answer is “indefinitely” because the alternative is either finding someone who will accept a used, slightly broken dishwasher as a donation or sending it to the landfill. On the other hand, effectively paying for a new one every four years is hardly the most economical plan.

I just hate throwing these highly engineered (almost entirely non-biodegradable) things away. Four or five years ago, our VCR stopped recording. It would play, but it wouldn’t record. It was, I don’t know, ten years old. If not impossible to get repaired, certainly prohibitively expensive, so we bought a new one. I kept the old one in the basement for years because I couldn’t bring myself to throw it out. I just threw out our old vacuum cleaner last week. There was something wrong with one of the belts. We had it repaired twice before giving up (about a year ago).

There is something fundamentally wrong with this paradigm.

Comments

This has been going on a while, my nice oil/gas mix weed eater doesn't want to start. As the repair tech told me - "I'll replace the spark plug and run some carb cleaner through it. If it takes more than that, it's cheaper to replace." This after it took me a month to find somebody that would actually work on it. It's a good brand, but you can't ship it to the manufacturer for repair and finding people that can make a living doing repair is getting harder and harder.
It's the same for shoes, the place I got my good leather work and dress shoes mended, cleaned and re-soled is now closed. The owner operator passed away and his widow couldn't find anybody to take over the business. Lots and lots of waste.

—Posted by Derek on 28 Sep 2004 @ 01:09 UTC #

It's brilliant engineering; after all, an essential part of mechanical engineering (or any kind, really) is to avoid over-engineering parts. We really don't want Wonderful One-Hoss Shays that run for 100 years and then all wear out at once.

What's wrong with it is political.

—Posted by John Cowan on 28 Sep 2004 @ 06:12 UTC #

I think you're attributing to malice something that can be attributed to carelessness, John. I agree entirely that the overall problem is political. As Derek points out, the problem is widespread and hardly new.

I'm sure Amana wants the damn thing to wear out sooner rather than later, but the handle design seems extraordinarily bad.

—Posted by Norman Walsh on 29 Sep 2004 @ 01:15 UTC #

In defense of engineers, a consumer product is typically designed (1) to a cost target, (2) for lowest possible failure rates above some specified minimum (depending on product), and (3) to marketing's feature spec (typically based on competitive products). Changes are frequently introduced during production to fix discovered weaknesses as well as to lower cost. That small lever you found was probably beefed up during production, for later customers' benefit.

Of course, price is often uncorrelated with reliability. A Camry is a lot more reliable than a Jaguar, or even a Mercedes, imho. This is no accident. Toyota (and some other companies) relentlessly pursues lower failure rates. (I don't work for them, etc.)

To your underlying point, I agree we need legislation that burdens manufacturers with some kind of product end-of-life cost. For example, manufacturers might be required to buy back any consumer product for 15percent of the original wholesale price, after it's worn out, and then recycle the materials.

I got 27 years out of a Sears clothes drier, and 15 years out of a washer. The point is, a lot of products last a long time. But I agree we do consume and throw away too much. Maybe my current washer will last 30 years...

—Posted by LJ on 23 Oct 2004 @ 07:39 UTC #

I agree with you entirely about this disposable society. I am relatively young, but didn't grow up here my whole life and I remember when our TV broke one called in a specialist to replace the needed part. Even though I was a child then, I now gather that repair job didn't cost more than the whole TV, as probably would be the case now here in the US. It annoys me to no end that people here (especially) young people don't think twice about tossing stuff out. And I mean pretty much anything! At the same time most of the younger generation doesn't even know how to sew on a button or repair a tear in a garment let alone fix any type of appliance. This type of lifestyle of easily-bought commodities has made this society this way. It is also sad to note that the manufacturers are not exactly helping matters by replacing high quality items (that they used to produce 40-50 years ago, which insidently still work fine)with low quality glitsy "fun design" "space shaped" stuff that works a year maximum and then is "designed" to stop working or malfunction in some way, so they can sell some more of the same item "updated". Why does this society stand for this? And it's spreading around the world---this terrible attitude of "Who cares about anything as long as I have my stuff!" Something needs to be done,but not by single voices in the ocean, since that will be of no use. Whole governments need to review their policies (and how often does that happen?!) So do try to fix your appliances when possible. If "consumers" stop consuming so much maybe the manufacturers will change what they produce.

—Posted by Diana on 06 Dec 2005 @ 02:41 UTC #

Hi,

Please do not ask "why" of these appliance failures and of the motivations of these manufacturers. Corporations love it when you ponder their motivation. Spending your time naivly debating rather than actively seeking accountability or change is just where they want you to be. Corporations are obligated to their shareholders, not to a million individual consumers. They engineer product demise because it potentially fills their future coffers. Greed is their end all and be all. And as we inevitably ponder how much profit is enough, we once again mire oursleves in the quicksand of liberalism, the place in which they adore seeing us squirm. Sure, a few do, indeed, have a true social conscious. But they are a minority. The rest remain loyal to the righteousness of the holy dollar, at any cost.

—Posted by mark stambovsky on 15 Dec 2005 @ 01:40 UTC #
> how many times does it make sense to replace the handle before just replacing the whole unit?
Replacing the whole unit doesn't solve the problem, does it? You'll just be changing the handle on the new unit, right? Why do we call the whole assembly a "unit"? To imply atomicity and reinforce the notion of replacing the whole assembly instead of fixing it?
—Posted by Adrian on 19 Feb 2006 @ 05:07 UTC #

We have an Amana SofSound I dishwashwer. We've had it for three years, and the door handle is starting to go. I found this blog while trying to find advice on how to fix it. We really like it, so what a waste if we have to get rid of it just for a door latch!!!

—Posted by chris on 07 Dec 2007 @ 11:16 UTC #

I had the same problem with the dishwasher. After having the handle assembly replaced once, a year later it broke again. THIS TIME I took the door apart myself and looked at exactly what was needed to make the thing work without replacing the assembly. Surprisingly, it took absolutlely no parts and no money, not a single cent. I removed the broken handle, reassembled the door and gently pushed it closed. The "C" latch on the door assembly caught nicely onto the fixed plastic pin on the washer. To open it, I just put my hand into where the handle used to be and pulled gently. It open very easily. It turns out that you dont seem to actually need the handle/latch assembly. You can just open and close it manually with a very small amount of force. I have done many loads now - there are no leaks and the dishes come out nice as ever.

—Posted by Howard Schler on 08 Apr 2008 @ 08:15 UTC #