IoT sucks, but your home appliances are unreliable slabs of junk

Orphaned and proprietary IoT devices are annoying, but having major home appliances that fail after only a few years is extremely worrisome.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer
Image: iStockPhoto

This week the Revolv smart hub service shut down, not even two years after Google's parent company, Alphabet, acquired the company as part of its overall IoT initiative.

I've already said what Alphabet/Google has done is unconscionable, that it needs to be held accountable for its actions and it has so blatantly violated the trust of its customers that it should call into question the company's ability to provide long-term support for any of its consumer products.

Revolv will be providing a full refund to its customers. That's a consolation and may provide some closure, but I still find Alphabet/Google's behavior inexcusable.

This is a learning experience that should give pause to anyone who is looking to put smart devices in their home, to reassess what device companies they should be dealing with and whether or not they should be an early adopter in the first place.

Being an early adopter has its downside, but it also has its upsides. You expect that you are going to get burned every so often, as with Revolv, or even with version 1 of something like Nest Protect.

Some of us do this specifically for the learning experience, and even if we derive a small amount of value from these things, we consider the money well-spent.

However, we have a long way to go until the average consumer can buy IoT devices with the same level of confidence that one might have in purchasing something like a refrigerator or a dishwasher as it relates to product support and reliability.

I mean, we can trust companies with established consumer brands like Samsung, LG, General Electric, Electrolux, Whirlpool, Kenmore and Maytag, right?

What if I told you that these companies' products are absolutely awful as well? That your home appliances are unreliable pieces of junk?

Everyone is familiar with the old adage "They don't make 'em like they used to." I'm not one for cliches and the idea of planned obsolescence is certainly not a novel one in the consumer products industry, particularly as it relates to technology.

But things are getting freaking ridiculous.

Now, I don't consider myself an expert on the manufacturing processes and quality control methods for every company that makes consumer appliances.

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I can only speak to my own personal experience and that of friends, family and associates and those who write and contribute product reviews to manufacturer and retailer websites, as well as recent interactions I have had with those who work in the appliance servicing industry.

This is the bottom line based on what I have learned: Your appliances are total crap.

Not only will they not make it to the stated 10 years warranty, and not only will the appliance manufacturers figure out how to not honor it out of the box, but you'll be lucky in most cases if the current models being sold by these large manufacturers will make it to 3 to 5 years of use without a major equipment failure, tops.

Have you shopped for a major appliance lately? Have you noticed how poor the construction is, that everything is made of plastic now? That if you lean into one of these things too hard you'll either crack it or dent it?

I don't know exactly when things started going south with the build quality and reliability of major appliances. Some folks who I have been talking to in the industry say ten years ago, others say five.

Part of the problem may be attributed to the fact that many of these companies have off-shored virtually all of their manufacturing to Asia. This is not to say countries like China and Korea aren't capable of producing quality products, but when we are talking about appliances, they aren't being built to the same tolerances that these products were built to 20 or 30 years ago.

In some cases part of this may be due to regulatory requirements introduced in the last decade.

For example, in the case of dishwashers they are all lower water capacity due to environmental legislation, making the products less effective overall in terms of the robustness of the components used.

(As an aside: Have you wondered why your dishwasher doesn't clean your dishes as effectively anymore? Part of it is the reduced water capacity and less powerful motors and pumps, but it also has to do with modern detergent formulations changing to those without phosphates due to laws enacted in most states to restrict their use. Additionally the more expensive models that are designed for silent <50dB operation do not use noisy food grinder/disposals that were common on older machines; they use filters that gunk up, require constant cleaning and kick the filth back up into the washing area. If you want a dishwasher with a food grinder, look at the cheaper models.)

Additionally, due to industry consolidation, the brands themselves have become an illusion, much like it has become in the consumer electronics industry, where there are only a few true ODMs of components that go into these things and the only true differentiation a lot of these products have is the brand label, aesthetic packaging and trim.

Here's my personal experience, and you can take it for what it is worth.

Four years ago this month I moved into my current home in South Florida. Since then, I have replaced my refrigerator (the new one had a defrost issue out of the box needing in-warranty repair, and it broke again this week) and my dishwasher so many times with different models and manufacturers and insurance claims I can't even count.

What seems to be consistent is the part that breaks on these things more frequently than others is the main electronics/logic board. It's a single point of failure that has replaced purely electro-mechanical control systems in virtually every appliance product you buy nowadays.

We got our first hint of this issue when shopping for a higher-end dishwasher in 2013. My wife called an authorized repair service company and asked which brand they recommended.

Upon hearing that we wanted a sleek, top control-mounted model, the representative said, "Whatever you buy, get the extended warranty. Because it's not a question of "if" the display/control unit will fail, it is "when" and that repair can run around $400 if it is out of warranty."

It used to be that the electronic stuff was purely display tech augmenting the mechanical systems and they were somewhat independent and modular. Now, all the important electronic components are integrated into a single board, so if it dies, effectively the entire appliance becomes useless.

That's not the worst of it, though. Assuming you do have the out-of-pocket cash to spend on a repair, there's no guarantee your repair company being contracted by the manufacturer or your retailer can get the part in a timely fashion or at all.

Case in point: my expensive Whirlpool refrigerator being repaired by Lowe's had an original parts order estimate that was over a week long until we complained about it yesterday.

In the case of the previous dishwasher we owned, a $1600 General Electric Cafe model, the main logic board had to be replaced three times. On the fourth failure, the extended warranty company told us the part was on such a long back-order that it could not be fixed.

If you take anything out of this article, it should be this: If you buy a major appliance like a refrigerator, a dishwasher, cook-top, range or washer/dryer, get the insurance for the $100 or so extra.

Although I have had good results dealing with large retailers like Home Depot, Sears or Lowe's for major appliances and repairs during the first year of purchase, my recommendation for extended coverage is to either buy direct from the manufacturer, or from the insurance company itself.

Regardless if you buy direct from the manufacturer or retailer the actual insurance and service is probably being handled by the same company, and that one is Assurant.

After multiple visits and claims over the course of less than a year, Assurant determined our problematic GE dishwasher -- a model that was less than two years old -- was impossible to find parts for on a timely basis, so they cut us a check for $1400.

As I said earlier, the insurance policy/extended warranty itself cost us a whole $100. I recently decided to replace the GE with a $600 Maytag which has front-facing controls, and uses a grinder/disposal instead of a filter.

It's not as nice as what we had, but maybe it will last a little longer because it is simpler. As I have heard many times, price with appliances is no guarantee of quality -- in fact the less sophisticated and computerized the better off you are.

Chances are a failure will happen within the first year of the life of the product, in which case, the retailer or the manufacturer base warranty should cover it. After that, you'll want the extended coverage.

You can usually do this within the first year of buying the appliance, as opposed to the store warranty which must be an add on to purchase (although Lowe's allows you 30 days from purchase to buy their own coverage).

At the moment my $2000 Whirlpool refrigerator is running at 55 degrees due to a busted logic board that is now supposed to be replaced by Lowe's the end of the week.

Meanwhile, all my perishables are currently in a mini-fridge which is entirely mechanical in nature, is around 15 years old, and is running perfectly at 38 degrees.

Have your recent appliance purchases turned out to be lemons? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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