Death Comes for the Appliance

Our dryer died this week. Or rather, it died last weekend and we got a new one this week. When we realized it was dead (with a full load of wet clothes in it, naturally), the decision making process was pretty simple.

We’re only the third owners of our (early 1950s) house, and the previous owners spent most of the 5 years they had it trying to flip it for a quick buck. We’ve owned it for 6 years now, so any appliance that wasn’t new when we moved in was probably put in by them when they moved in. That made the dryer about 11 years old, and it was a cheap model. I was pretty sure a cheap dryer over a decade old (that had been slowly increasing in drying time for a year or so, unhelped by a thorough cleaning) would be more trouble to repair than it was worth, so we got a new one.

After making the assertion above, I got a little curious if there was any research backing up the life span of various appliances. As long as I can remember I’ve been fairly fascinated by dead or malfunctioning appliances, which I blame on my Yankee heritage. I’ve lived with a lot of half-functioning appliances in my lifetime, so I’ve always been interested in what appliance sounds/malfunctions mean “this is an appliance that will last three more years if you just never use that setting and jerry-rig (yes that’s a phrase) a way to turn it off/on” and which sounds mean “this thing is about to burst in to flames, get a new one”.

It turns out there actually is research on the topic, summarized here, and that there’s a full publication on the topic here:

So basically it looks like we were on schedule for a cheap dryer to go. Our washing machine was still working, but it was cheaper if we replaced them both at the same time.

This list suggests our dishwasher was weak as it went at about 7 years (they refused to repair it for under the cost of replacement), but our microwave is remarkably strong (10 years and counting). We had to replace our refrigerator earlier than should have been necessary (that was probably the fault of a power surge), but our oven should have a few more years left.

Good to know.

Interestingly, when I mentioned this issue to my brother this weekend, he asked me if I realized what the longest lasting appliance in our family history was. He stumped me until he told me the location….a cabin owned by our extended family. The refrigerator in it has been operational since my mother was a child, and I’m fairly sure it’s this model of Westinghouse that was built in the 1950s, making it rather close to 70 years old:

Wanna see the ad? Here you go!

It’s amusing that it’s advertised as “frost free”, as my strongest childhood memories of this refrigerator were having to unplug it at the end of the summer season and then put towels all around it until all the ice that had built up in it melted. We’d take chunks out to try to hurry the process along.

Interestingly, the woman in the ad up there was Betty Furness, who ended up with a rather fascinating career that included working for Lyndon Johnson. She was known for her consumer advocacy work, which may be why the products she advertised lasted so darn long, or at least longer than my dryer.

14 thoughts on “Death Comes for the Appliance

  1. I moved last year and bought a house that’s 13 years old with original appliances. My current experience tells me that “contractor-grade” appliances have a 13 year lifespan.


    • Ugh. The weirdest thing we found in our house was that they’d used a model sink in the downstairs bathroom, meaning the drain doesn’t actually have all the pieces. It’s gotten extremely slow, which is when we discovered it can’t actually be taken apart like a normal sink. People do weird things!


      • Yes, people do very weird things! My husband was a pipefitter, his nephews are plumbers. Yes, I could get something “fixed” on the weekend with no charge, but… it was a quick fix. Sometimes involving electrical tape and/or jbweld. That sink wouldn’t have surprised me!


  2. “Frost Free” was an option, not typical at the time. The non-frost-free fridges of that time are very efficient in their use of electricity, and in an occasional/seasonal use situation where it is being cleaned anyway, the inconvenience of defrosting isn’t nearly as great as it was for my family when we borrowed every picnic cooler on the street for defrosting day, in hopes that we could keep all the fridge and freezer contents from spoiling.

    Perhaps I’m getting old and cranky, but every figure in that table is way shorter than I think it should be based upon the lifespan of appliances in my parents’ home and in the appliances I’ve owned, many of which were fairly old when I purchased them secondhand.


    • Yeah, seeing this refrigerator run really did bring new meaning to the term “ice box”.

      I think I’m a little skewed on how long appliances should last because something is really odd in our electrical system that seems to kill appliances faster than they should be killed. We keep finding out the circuit boards are fried on various kitchen appliances, and the last electrician we had in informed us our wiring was “wicked weird”.


  3. I remember after dropping more money than we could afford on a simple dryer switch repair, I invested in the repair manuals, which at the time Sears was happy to sell you. Step by illustrated step … they saved us a bundle over the years, even with the extra markup for parts sold to the consumer. Belts, gears, drive-train for the washer…

    The first repair I used them for was the dryer blower. The outside vent was open, and a squirrel tried to take refuge in a warm place, and the dryer started…


    • Funny story: I get up really early (like 4am) and last winter I was perplexed when at around 4:15 it sounded like a large truck was rumbling by. The sound got louder and I realized it was our furnace, roaring to the point that I had to go wake my husband up because I got mildly nervous the house was about to explode. I went and shut off the furnace, and he got a repair guy in that day. We had no idea what could have gone wrong since we had just replaced the furnace the year before. Repair guys shows up and informs us that the furnace is fine, but apparently a mouse had snuck in at some point, and uh, it didn’t work out so well for him.


  4. Remember old appliance were more robust because the designers had no option but to pile on ruggedness. Otherwise they would have failed in weeks. Also they were expensive for the average family. Power companies used to have appliance stores to popularize electric goods and they offered good payment plans tied to your monthly bill. A ten year life is just about when most people in the US have sold the house so it is just about right.


      • The articles in places where stores and appliance manufacturers advertise all say “you will save money as today’s appliances are so much more efficient!”, but they obscure the whole story — the 1950’s Westinghouse has much thicker insulation than current fridges and operates with lower-pressure refrigerant, with new door seals it would be more efficient than today’s stuff if you can cope with the small freezer space or use a chest-freezer in addition. It’s the “frost free” models of the mid 60s to early 90’s that one should replace. Stoves and ranges are no more efficient now than at any time in the last 70 years. Clothes dryers with matching features have not become any more efficient — the ones that sense humidity in order to shut off when clothes are dry rather than with a timer are much more efficient, but also have been common since the early 1960s.

        So if you want an appliance that will last decades, in these cases a reasonable option is to buy a popular model secondhand that has already lasted for decades, and just have your repair person drop in new timers/seals/elements as required.


  5. In the ’70s I used a refrigerator that I believe dated from the ’30s. Its only drawback was that the freezing unit was very small. It was going strong when I left.


  6. I got an Amana Radar Range microwave from my parents when I graduated college in 1984. It was still fully functional when I finally had to toss it in 2014 because I just had no need for it (every apartment and house has a built-in model) and nobody would take appliances more than 10 years old as a donation.


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