Lesson in Simplicity

It's October 2012. Washing machine technology has changed immensely since my wife and I last purchased a new machine in the late 1980s. Computerized front-panels abound, and front-loaders are everywhere. I'm particularly enthused about saving water. We settle on what appears to be a quality machine--a moderately high-end, top-loading, high-efficiency model from a well-known, international brand.

We aren't in Kansas anymore, and there is an adjustment period as we learn and grow accustomed to the new world of less water use and higher efficiency washing. We experience initial problems with moldy smells in the machine and bad odors in the washed clothes, and cycle times are triple those of our old machine. But we adapt and learn some new practices, and take more care about scheduling, and become very happy with the new machine. I am especially fond of the Sanitize cycle that triggers a built-in water heater for a hot wash. It is just the ticket for getting loads of towels fresh and clean, and smelling good. 

Life is good!

Then the machine breaks.

The good times have lasted 14 months. Now the machine throws an error and refuses to wash a load. Sometimes it loads the water first, leaving us to bail by hand when the error is thrown.

Of course, the warranty was for only 12 months. Go figure. 

Here is where high-efficiency goes flying out the proverbial window:

  • For several months we drive our clothes to a laundromat and pay coin-operated washing and drying prices.
  • Repair attempts involve at least six visits from repairmen.
  • Two visits are from 45 miles distant, and the other four visits are from 114 miles distant. (That's over 1000 miles driven)
  • An expensive sensor is replaced.
  • The wiring harness is replaced.
  • The main board is replaced.
  • UPS makes three visits to deliver the three parts. 
  • The power cable is cut and Fedex'd to the manufacturer.
  • The manufacturer buys back the machine.
  • We are out more than $500 in parts and labor.
  • The machine is carted off as junk. (Hopefully the appliance dealer recycles the metal)

But we saved water, right? Somehow I suspect that any water savings on our part is more than offset by the water used in manufacturing not only the various parts that are replaced, but also the new machine that we end up buying. Then factor in all the non-water waste from parts replaced, the many repair visits, the driving, the shipping, and a fairly new machine that has to be junked. Our high-efficiency washer isn't so highly efficient after all. 

It strikes me that the complexity of repair has outstripped the ability of appliance repairmen. Our machine presents an error code that fails to be specific enough to isolate the problem that has caused the code to be thrown. The repairmen are unable to do more than to read the code and look up the three possible causes. Then all they can do is try one part and then another, without knowing until after whether the right choice has been made. 

Yet replacing all three possible parts fails to solve the problem. The manufacturer is unable to suggest any further course of action. Thanks to my wife's gentle persistence, the manufacturer buys back the machine. The entire process, and especially my wife's negotiating of the buy-back, takes many months, during which time we dutifully drive to and feed the machines at the local laundromat. More waste--money and fuel, and time.

Lesson learned. 

There is beauty in simplicity. 

We replace our computerized and not-so-high-efficiency-after-all washing machine with a base-model top-loader from Speed Queen. We couldn't be happier. The new model is an obviously more robust design, and simpler. Everything is mechanical, and one can visually observe the parts to determine what has failed. Warranty on the Speed Queen is three years, triple that of the fancy electronic model that lasted just 14 months before coming to in ignominious end. (Speed Queen's design life is 25 years). 

Not every computerized washing machine will fail after 14 months. We may have just had a bit of bad luck. It happens. Yet the lesson on simplicity is sound. The easiest and least-expensive main board to replace is one that isn't there to begin with. Mechanical parts that can be visually inspected are easier to diagnose than a computer throwing error codes that won't identify a failed part. And high-efficiency is sometimes seen not in the environmental cause du jure, but rather is seen in the larger picture in the form of a robust machine that runs for years with no maintenance and is within the capabilities of the available technicians to diagnose and repair.