The ability to choose something simpler and more likely to endure

Tuesday, September 11th, 2018

Megan McArdle writes to a refrigerator dying young:

It turns out that refrigerators like the My First Fridge — the kind that quietly chug along decade after decade while needing only minor repairs — really are a thing of the past. According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average life span of a refrigerator is now just 13 years. And the German environmental agency found that between 2004 and 2013, the proportion of major appliances that had to be replaced in less than five years due to a defect rose from 3.5 percent to 8.3 percent. These days, we do not so much own our appliances as rent them from fate.

How did we become renters in our own homes? Peruse the Web, and you’ll discover a variety of explanations: outsourcing to suppliers who opt for cheapness rather than longevity; fancy computer-controlled features that add fancy problems; faster innovation cycles that leave inadequate time for testing; and government-imposed energy-efficiency standards that require a lot of fiddly engineering to comply with. But essentially, all of them boil down to one word: complexity. The more complicated something is, the more ways it can break.

When you are standing over the corpse of an appliance that died too young, it’s tempting to long for simpler days. But then, simpler isn’t the same as better. Replacement cycles may have shortened, but we can afford to replace our appliances sooner, because prices have fallen so dramatically. In 1979, a basic 17-cubic-foot Kenmore refrigerator cost $469 — or in today’s dollars, $1,735, which would have taken an average worker about 76 hours of labor to earn. It came with an ice maker, automatic defrost and some shelves. The nearest equivalent today has an extra cubic foot of storage, offers humidity-controlled crisper drawers and costs about a third as much to run. At $529, it represents under 20 hours of work at the average wage.


That’s the irony of modern life in so many ways, multiplying all our choices while taking away the most fundamental one: the ability to choose something simpler and more likely to endure.


  1. Candide III says:

    No mention of planned obsolescence (i.e. planned breakage after warranty expires) among the reasons? Maybe making appliances that last forever just isn’t good business. It sort of worked for a while when people were still buying their first fridges or upgrading to the much better newer models, but modern “newer” models only offer more bells and whistles on top of basically same functionality.

  2. Felix says:

    We should watch out when thinking of the good old days of long-lived manufactured goods. I know a fridge bought in the ’70′s. It was upper-end at the time. And, at the time, we all knew these modern fridges didn’t last a long time like those good old, rounded-top, smaller, louder fridges.

    The ’70′s fridge died a couple years ago and was replaced by the power company for “free”. With a quite equivalent model. The high-end fridge of the ’70′s had become the bottom-end product of the 2010′s. Will it last until 2055 with a couple of repairs? Probably not. It’s the wrong color.

  3. Kirk says:

    You probably want to consider “survivor bias” in regards to this…

    You remember the appliances that lasted “forever”, but without knowing how many of them actually lasted that long…? You might have just had that one Frigidaire that got built just right…

    The dumps and recycling yards are filled with old appliances that broke, and were not at all economical to repair. The few that are still running, for whatever reason? How many of them are there, really?

    Some things need analysis before you can start legitimately longing for the machinery of yore. Most of which wasn’t really that great, to be quite honest.

  4. Alrenous says:

    Even based on official numbers, it lowballed inflation by 15%. Are they really that desperate to kiss the ring? Do they really have to subtly lie about everything?

    Old fridge was 1/24 of an average yearly wage. New fridge is 1/92. Exact ratio: 3.76. Ratio of 1735:529 = 3.28

  5. Alrenous says:

    So uh, oops. Got my ratio of ratios backwards. Inflation actually overstated by 15%.

  6. Alien says:

    It’ll never happen, but modularity in disposables might be a benefit. With refrigerators, the insulation, shelves, doors, the refigerant piping in the walls, etc. won’t wear out, and door hinges will probably last a long time and are easily replaced when they do wear out.

    The compressor/motor/control hardware? Expendable and modularly replaceable. Quick disconnects, slide-in/slide-out assemblies, plug-in control modules. Even with vacuum pump-down of the refrigerant piping to refill with refrigerant, maybe 30-45 min to swap out; either recycle/scrap the old one or (competent) 3rd party rebuild. Same would work with most major appliances (maybe a universal motor unit to drive compressors, washing machine gearboxes, dryer drums, etc.?).

    Assuming, of course, one wants to keep the same color shell…..

  7. Kirk says:

    If buying decisions on appliances were made by rational engineers, then you’d probably see a lot more modularity. Being as the number one decision-maker on appliance purchases are the women of the household, wellllll… Good luck with that.

    We do a lot of kitchens in our contracting business. The sheer irrationality of some of the decisions I’ve seen would boggle your mind. One client insisted, positively insisted that she must, absolutely must have her freezer on the right of the refrigerator. Do you know how many companies build those? No? Well, let me tell you, at the time this happened, there was one, precisely one, that offered that option. The company was Gaggenau, and the flippin’ thing cost $15,000.00. They bought it, and as far as I know, it’s the only Gaggenau refrigerator in the county. The appliance guys we know who were asked about servicing it just laughed, and laughed… With a distinct note of hysteria.

    Household appliance purchases are almost never made on any sort of rational basis, or we’d all be using Speed Queen washers and dryers, and the rest would be some mix of other professional-grade brands.

  8. Mike in Boston says:

    we’d all be using Speed Queen washers and dryers

    Glad to see someone mention Speed Queen, motto: “Built Better to Last Longer”. I hope they start building fridges before my late 1990s-vintage Frigidaire goes.

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