/ Sustainability

What happened to built-to-last?

The old adage goes ‘they don’t make them like they used to’– but is that really true? I, for one, think that it is.

Not only do I agree that they don’t make them like they used to, in fact, the change from ‘buy once, buy well’ to the rapid turnarounds we see now is indicative of a larger and more sinister shift in our society.

Robyn and Peter Cormack are the proud owners of a fridge from 1957. They bought it second-hand in 1975 when it was already 18 years old. It then migrated with them when they moved from Sydney to the UK and it’s still being used to this day, clocking it at 65 years old.

You might be ready for retirement at this age but this fridge wants to keep going, and Robyn and Peter have no intention of replacing it.

Read through our other old appliance stories

Repair vs replace

It’s hard to know exactly why we see more rapid turnarounds now, but my theory is that it starts with manufacturers competing to reduce costs.

Everything is made for less now than half a century ago. Great, you may say, but in order to reduce costs, build quality has been shot and cuts made, often sacrificing repairability.

Before we knew it, it was cheaper to replace than repair, so less people repaired and businesses took that as permission to only go further.

Who is to blame?

To say that we, the people, created this throwaway society is not seeing the bigger picture.

Now more than ever, we’re all looking to reduce costs, but businesses shouldn’t be so shortsighted and should think about what the long-term consequences will be. 

They should start by stopping it from going further, as the path is laid for things to only get worse. With your next washing machine likely being smart, how soon before you have to throw it out like you would a smartphone when it stops getting updates?

Comments

I am very keen on keeping products lasting for a long time, provided that they are still doing a good job. It is encouraging to see Which? reporting on products that have given outstanding service.

@aaron-west – Please could you ask Which? to have look at plug-in energy meters. These plug into a power socket and the appliance plugs into the energy meter. They show the power consumption (kW) of the product and how much energy (kW) is used over a period, such as a day, week or month.

I used to have a chest freezer that worked fine in my garage of my previous home for over 30 years but then gradually started to use more power. I noticed the compressor was running more than normal in warm weather and my plug-in energy monitor confirmed the increased consumption. I scrapped the freezer when I moved home in 2016.

I have been advised to hold on to my gas boiler by two service engineers, on the basis that modern ones tend to be less reliable. It is one of the more efficient non-condensing boilers but cannot match the efficiency of modern condensing boilers. With rising energy prices, it may have to go.

Crusader says:
29 April 2022

One thing to be aware of when replacing old gas boilers. If your radiators are past a certain age and are an older generation made to an older specification then you might not get the full efficient performance from a new condensing boiler, simply because they’re designed to work at a lower temperature so that the moisture in the gas exhaust can be recovered, i.e. condensed back to water and then the heat in it is transferred to the radiator return water. So that means that today’s radiators are made to work at the lower temperature and still provide enough heat for your home, so if a condensing boiler is connected to some older radiators then they might run too cold, depending on their spec. So the new boiler would have to be turned up and run less efficiently. And I bet most boiler salesmen don’t mention that. And you probably know about this already but I thought I’d mention it here just in case anyone’s reading who doesn’t know. It’s something to think about before blowing a small fortune on a new boiler and it’s fitting, that’s if you don’t qualify for a government grant of course.

Thanks Crusader. When I do replace the boiler I will be looking at other updates to the system. In particular I would like to have a better insulated hot water tank. I’m familiar with changes in radiator design and the most used ones seem OK.

Although I have bought less in recent years, I do find that most of what I’ve got doesn’t need to be replaced very often. My last kettle lasted about ten years, I replaced an original Dyson vacuum after about fifteen years of use, my six year old washing machine still works as new. My twenty year old gas boiler was replaced to upgrade it. It had just begun to need a repair to one of the valves. My hi-fi equipment is at least fifteen years old and gives excellent reproduction in all media settings including a Sony minidisc (remember those?). I bought the loudspeakers in London (Tottenham Court Road) in 1972. My television is one of the first without a cathode ray tube and it still produces pin sharp images and clear sound. I bought my current bed last century. My hedge trimmer is now ten years old. The last three cars I have had have never broken down or needed emergency garage repairs. I am not a typical user, and much household equipment gets used lightly, but I do look after it as well.
I suppose that because buying something new is an event, I choose carefully , and, as many have reported on these pages, and Which? reports, there are brands that are more reliable than others. I do believe the old days of “anything goes” are past and most firms take quality control seriously. It has been in China’s interest to make the outsourcing of European and American products, for them to build, to be attractive both for the company and the consumer. While much junk comes from that land, the reliable brands have found a willing work force, skilled at what they do. This double edged sword has, in recent years, swung back to bite!

Hugh Rogers says:
14 May 2022

I just thought I’d add to this. Our real car lasted 25 years and was then too old to be repaired. Doing 40 miles a day took its toll. The Sony H-Fi lasted 22 years and nothing I’ve found is anywhere near as good! Balance control, what’s a Balance control guv? Bass treble controls? Just get stares. Station presets? Oh don’t ask, there are none. Nor a scale plate to see where to go either. Speaker switching? Just stares, what’s a speaker switch I can hear him think. Thank good ness for our Hacker radio. The cooker lasted 40 years. The freezer is 30 years old. And so-on. If it’s any good, they’ll stop making it, is an old saying, and true.

Not only do I agree that they don’t make them like they used to,….”. Well , cars seem to last longer (one of mine is 28 whereas many BMCs, for example, went to rust), my TV is 16 and still going strong (the CRT predecessor died when the picture shrank before that age), washing machine, dishwasher, boiler in full working order and my 16 year old Nokia mobile was used yesterday. So I think this is a far too sweeping generalisation.

We had cheap stuff in olden days that didn’t last, and still do. And we import more from countries that seem to specialise in cheap stuff, and that often comes with the penalty of lack of durability. But there are still plenty of manufacturers who make decent products.

I would like to see Which? focus far more on examining the durability of products, rather than just initial performance. This requires knowledge and expertise, looking at component quality, design and build and, where possible, accelerated testing (as the German test.de did on washing machines). Then we can look at real value for money.

Repair costs are a real issue. Often uneconomic on labour costs, so even though spares may be available the decision to scrap may be the only sensible economic one. But if manufacturers were made to supply repair manuals (I had a fully-comprensive one for my first Mini) so competent amateurs could tackle their own repairs we might avoid unnecessary consignment to the scrap heap. Haynes supply very good manual including one for domestic appliances, but I don’t know just how useful they are for specific manufacturers appliances.

I agree. Indeed, given the general improvement in the performance of many appliances — largely due to major advances in precision manufacturing — without competent testing of component quality and durability, test reports do not get us far in judging best value across a number of models in terms of the whole lifecycle.

It’s interesting that an image of a liquor fridge in a garage setting was used to illustrate this Conversation. Not the most commonplace of household items, and fridges have traditionally had one of the best records for longevity of all appliances; even modern ones will last much longer than the fashion for their shape or appearance. I suspect most get junked for aesthetic reasons as part of a kitchen refit or to replace them with greater status symbolism.

Or they become unhygenic with unreachable evaporator coils, plastic cracks and split door seals supporting mould colonies.

I am not convinced that “built to last” is a design principle that most consumers automatically require or is even desirable for society. It can be wasteful of materials and manufacturing time, so ultimately will cost us more, perhaps unnecessarily. Many would associate manufacturers like Miele and Porsche with this concept, but even they do not overengineer their products.

The Miele philosophy of “Immer Besser” (Forever Better) still requires their appliances to fail every 20 years, so that they can introduce new functions, like heat pump tumber dryers which are far more efficient, cheaper to run and better for the environment.

Ferdinand Porsche understood the need for value engineering, stating that: “the perfect racing car crosses the finish line in first place and immediately falls to pieces”.

No consumer wants a VCR, let alone one that lasts for 100 years, or a noisy Hoover with a cloth bag blowing dust and allergens back into the room. We have 30 million cars in the UK that are reliant on fossil fuels; a known danger to the environment and hence no longer fit for purpose. Thankfully most of them were not built to the same standards or cost as much as a Rolls Royce or Porsche.

Everlasting gas mantle or incandescent lightbulb? Anyone?

Crusader says:
30 April 2022

I used to repair some industrial electronics and I was appalled at the bad design features of some of the stuff I fixed which was obviously designed in and designed to fail and break badly inside and cause further damage. And I got told quite often that the stuff had to have to some degree of unreliability built in or else they would be too reliable and long lasting and then the manufacturers couldn’t sell enough stuff to replace them, and that manufacturing staff would end up out of work etc. So I suppose the same must be true to some extent with domestic appliances and consumer electronics too, I suppose there has to be some kind of balance between reliability and eventual failure when the item becomes too uneconomical to repair. And I used to have and repair and refurbish some of the old British made TV sets from the early 70’s, some of which were absolutely built like battleships, but not all of them, some were appallingly badly made and unreliable. And even though some of them were thoroughly well built physically, the circuits inside weren’t always so reliable. And some of them were obviously just mass produced for the big TV rental chains and often carried the rental chain’s badge instead of the set maker’s name and they were often more basic versions of those that were sold to the consumers and possibly more cheaply made. And I remember one range of sets that were British made but they had dreadfully dangerous brittle plastic cabinets with a fake woodgrain finish which kept wearing off and kept breaking and exposing the dangerous stuff inside. So not all the older consumer goods were so well made. But some certainly was. And if that fridge in the picture is from Australia shouldn’t it be stocked up with Castlemaine XXXX or Foster’s?!

It’s popular to think that old products were well made and reliable but that was not always the case. We tend to remember the examples that did well rather than those that caused problems.

To make radios and TVs cheaper, some manufacturers designed sets without mains transformers and their sets had ‘a live chassis and the possibility of electrocution. Some radio manufacturers avoided the cost of a ‘dropper resistor’ by using the mains lead instead, which became rather warm in use.

Older products tended to be much simpler and had fewer components that were specific to a model.

RJF says:
12 May 2022

Very wise words, Wavechange.

Whilst it does seem that many products made in past decades (especially before the 90s) were/are more durable and longer-lasting, there can also be the ‘rose-tinted specs’ aspect at play, where we mainly tend to remember the good stuff and often forget about a lot of the cheap-n-nasty ‘crud’ that was still produced in the ‘good ol’ days’, plus of course we seem to have an ever-growing obsession with nostalgia.

I know in other comment threads before on here, I’ve often bemoaned our so-called ‘instant grat’ culture that has seemingly evolved since the 90s, where we want here, now and as cheaply as possible, and struggle to grasp the concept of ‘you get what you pay for’, but on the other hand, I can sense a bit of a ‘catch-22’ situation when and where it comes to persons only buying a certain product once in a blue moon, because the thing they chose was built like a tank, but the brand/manufacturer didn’t get the regular revenue so they cut corners so people would replace such products with a new one every 3-4 years, which on the face of it, appeared to be more immediately profitable for the companies concerned, whilst at the same time selling more units in the shorter term.

A bit of a dilemma I guess, for both companies and consumers.

Thanks RJF. We certainly do tend to remember the products that last well and forget those that failed prematurely. The reasons for failure of household products has fascinated me since I was a teenager and modern products tend to be much more complicated, typically more reliable but less reliable.

Many people would like to believe that you get what you pay for and like to prove their belief by comparing expensive products with the cheapest available. Sometimes mid-price products can offer better value for money. What amazes me is that people will scrap products that are still working well, for example when buying a new kitchen.

You could ask why people scrap the kitchen, not just the appliances, when it still functions. You can refurbish to different degrees – paint, new handles, new door fronts, worktops. It is because, in many cases, people have the disposable income available to make a change, and chucking out appliances is of no consequence to them.

Not a lot different to throwing out perfectly usable clothing and adding more new stuff to over-stocked wardrobes.

I suspect in the next year or so there will be less of this behaviour as belt-tightening kicks in. Maybe we will become more interested in looking after what we have and trying to repair when necessary.

A revival in local appliance repairers would be welcome but labour costs will still be the inhibitor. So perhaps someone should take the initiative and put together a library in one place of common repairs we can do for ourselves including where to source the parts.

We could stop the unnecessary replacement of kitchens if we could bring an end to status symbolism.

The kitchen has become the showcase of the home. People want the latest trends whether it is gigantic islands with bar stools around them, mortuary-style taps on long hoses, walk-in fridges, Italian marble surfaces, thematic lighting rigs, ballroom floors, and all the other style statements that will be out of date in a few years’ time. If only the culinary results matched the investment.

This is all totally unsustainable and I am hoping that Malcolm is right and that enforced belt-tightening will curb this behaviour. Then workers can catch up with more essential functions like building new houses, we can cut excess carbon emissions through the transport of heavy materials, stop the embedded carbon waste of disposing of serviceable goods, and reduce our energy consumption.

John wrote: “People want the latest trends…” Not everyone.

When I moved into my present house in 2016 a friend who had helped me view various houses in the area suggested that I had the kitchen replaced. It seemed fine to me apart from inadequate lighting and several cupboard hinges required replacement. I updated the lighting and replaced the hinges.

John Ward: “We could stop the unnecessary replacement of kitchens if we could bring an end to status symbolism.

I don’t think that will ever happen under the current political system. How many people now use expensive Personal Contract Purchase (PCP) finance so they can get a new car every three years, simply to have the latest model and show off to the neighbours. It doesn’t make economic or environmental sense and it amazes me how many modest semi-detatched and terraces houses have a newish Range Rover or Audi Q parked in the driveway. Of course it is all financial trickery to give the illusion of wealth and status.

Many people replace a kitchen as part of general house remodelling. There has been a big trend towards open plan living. Kitchens get replaced when the footprint of the kitchen area no longer matches the original. Some bathrooms too. There are insufficient or unsuitable cupboards. All the countertops need reconfiguring and maybe the plumbing has moved, requiring a new sink.

I blame the housebuilders, stamp duty, estate agents and the planning controls in the UK for this waste, due to the very high cost of new builds and moving home. Nearly every house here has some kind of extension, be it a garden room, kitchen diner or loft conversion. In many other countries, people don’t add onto their house when it no longer meets their needs, they move on to something that does. In the French countryside, some older houses are simpy abandoned and bought up by “les Bretons fous” who renovate them as second homes.

There is an awful lot of building waste created by extensions, not just kitchen cupboards and appliances. But it is not all about status; the needs of families change as children grow up, again later when they leave home and finally when the parents become infirm with old age.

Marc says:
2 May 2022

Electric toothbrushes are another good example of modern consumer devices that are intentionally designed to be redundant after a few years. Their batteries typically fail after about three years and manufacturers don’t offer a battery service facility. It would be great to see Which price this in as part of the cost of ownership – it’s a hidden cost for owners and the environment at present.

Electric toothbrushes must be water-resistant but there is no reason why they could not have a screw-on end cap with a seal and a user-replaceable battery.

To maximise battery life, don’t leave a toothbrush on charge continuously – whatever the instructions suggest.

My electric toothbrush, used twice daily, is now 10 years old and going strong. But we should make all products – including mobile phones – in a way that allows the user to replace batteries. My 2004 Tom Tom satnav would require extensive dismantling just to replace a failed battery. My Samsung S4 phone is dead easy – just snap the back off – but new models are sealed.

I would campaign to ban all standard batteries and require us to use rechargeables. Are there any downsides to that, in the materials used? According to Business Waste we throw 600 million away each year in the UK, and 3 billion in the US. Seems not only a huge waste of material but as most, presumably, go to landfill, not great for the planet.

Rechargeable batteries are ideal for many uses but there are many applications where they are not the best solution, for example products that consume low power such as clocks, remote controls, smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, car key fobs and anywhere where an inexpensive battery will last for years.

It seems logical to use rechargeable batteries in kids’ toys but there is often a warning not to do this. If there is a short circuit as a result of rough handling this can result in overheating or a fire.

https://www.batteriesplus.com/blog/power/alkaline-vs-rechargeable-batteries
Rechargeable batteries voltage reduces slowly when in later stages of discharge, but maybe that can be mitigated by replacing with a fully charged one earlier. The waste from discarded primary cells seems unacceptably high.

I think our household could function quite well without using batteries at all except for the DECT phone handsets. I do use some battery-powered tools but have mains-powered alternatives. Our manual toothbrushes have batteries in the handles to impart agitation to the heads as and when required. We might have to replace a couple of clocks and get up to change channels on the TV. Our bank card readers might also have to be replaced with an alternative authentication process not energised by batteries.

“Rechargeable batteries voltage reduces slowly when in later stages of discharge, but maybe that can be mitigated by replacing with a fully charged one earlier. The waste from discarded primary cells seems unacceptably high.”

That is not correct if you are referring to nickel metal hydride rechargeable cells, the type that can often be used as a direct replacement for non-rechargeable cells. The voltage remains fairly stable (around 1.2V) for a long period during use and then drops rapidly soon before it is exhausted. That is why NiMH rechargeable are unsuitable for certain applications, as explained in the linked article. It also means that battery level indicators are less useful when rechargeable cells are used. Yes you can replace rechargeable with fresh ones before they are exhausted, which has long been my approach.

Another problem is the lower voltage of NiMH cells compared with non-rechargeables, which affects some products more than others.

Quite right, wavechange. I mis-stated (was that Boris or Donald) but thought the link was useful, as I think is this one from Texas Instruments https://www.ti.com/lit/an/snva533/snva533.pdf

The voltage offered by Ni** cells is sometimes used as a reason not to use them in certain applications – 1.25V instead of 1.5. However we could presumably design such applications for (or multiples of) this voltage.

The question I was asking was would we be better off getting rid of the waste created by single use batteries, or is more environmental damage caused in the production of rechargeables?

I’m very much in favour of using rechargeable cells/batteries, Malcolm, but they are not the best choice for low power devices where non-rechargeables last for years, often beyond the date printed on them. John mentioned bank card readers and the two CR2032 (lithium) cells must be about 20 years old and have not been replaced. Where products are medium/high drain they should be designed to accommodate the lower voltage of NiMH cells, but there is no requirement for this.

The early rechargebles were NiCd and I was an early adopter, before they were readily available. Unfortunately, cadmium is anything but environmentally friendly. That problem has been overcome with the move to NiMH but these can self-discharge fairly rapidly. I’m still using these type but nowadays would choose the pre-charged types that can hold a charge for an extended period.

Many people are not very organised with batteries. Yesterday I was given several packs of unused AA and AAA cells and 9V batteries – 28 in total. It was difficult to find the dates but I was able to decide which ones (most of them) were still within their date.

Phil says:
3 May 2022

It is possible to replace the battery in an electric toothbrush. I did mine earlier this year. There’s the inevitable Youtube tutorial and it does require some soldering.

Some newer toothbrushes use lithium cells but many still have AA-size NiMH cells. These are tagged cells and the price can be double that for normal cells without tags. As you say, soldering is required, which will deter many people. I have found that the biggest challenge can be to open the wretched things, but the YouTube videos hold the secret.

Frank says:
6 May 2022

Electric toothbrushes are a good example of modern consumer devices which are completly unnecessary, marketing makes you believe that they get your teeth cleaner which is complete bunkum so launching you into a world of different products and ways of powering them……..its just consumerism. A manual toothbrush does not break down and does not consume any batteries and are very cheap to replace and its up to you how thoroughly you clean your teeth, just the same as the electric version,

The jury seems to be out on this. Some say electric removes more plaque and helps better at preventing gingivitis, others say it is just down to brushing technique. There was a Which? Conversation on this topic https://conversation.which.co.uk/health/electric-toothbrushes-pros-cons-proper-use-brush-teeth-technique/

Phil says:
7 May 2022

You could say the same about brooms vs vacuum cleaners. Electric brushes do a much more thorough job in less time.

Em says:
7 May 2022

Unnecessary? My dentist and hygenist check on the state of my gums and teeth every six months. I have been using an electric Oral-B round head brush for years and I am not the most through when it comes to brushing, but I usually score a 1 on the periodontal test and get congratulated on my technique.

At least the brush heads are replaceable at fairly modest cost, even if the handle is sealed and the batteries fail after 2-3 years. Not so electric shavers, where the price of a replacement head is often about the same as a brand new shaver on offer. That is something that does need addressing! Of course, even a basic disposable razor blade is unnecessary – if you resort to a cut-throat and strop.

Interestingly, the disposable blade safety razor was one of the first business models that practically gave way the razor handle in the expectation of large profits from the consumable blades. This model was adopted in the sale of “cheap” inkjet printers – yet people wonder why the cartridges cost so much.

I use an electric toothbrush with an oscillating rectangular head twice a day. I rarely visit the dentist – sadly only when there is a problem – and when I visited a new one he asked if I used a wire brush and Vim as my teeth were in such good condition. ( H&S – he was making a joke, not recommending a technique).

I still cannot get out of the habit of making brushing movements with my electric brush, despite being told in the instructions not to/unnecessary. Presumably a Pavlov response from many years with a manual brush.

Em says:
7 May 2022

I can understand not having routine visits due to the demise of NHS dentists. A 6-monthly inspection, occasional X-rays and hygenist costs the best part of £300 per year, thankfully covered by my employer’s medical insurance.

A more Pavlovian response would be salivating when the brush timer goes off.

Crusader says:
3 May 2022

I had a calculator, one of the first LCD ones, which I got from asda in 1979, which lasted me a staggering 41 years! And the other amazing thing about it is it’s original batteries, two little button cells, also lasted an equally staggering 38 years, how about that?! And I’ve still got some other calculators even older still with the old LED digits which are British made and they still work, one’s a Sinclair, and I forget what the other one is, but they work, though the Sinclair one doesn’t always give the right answer, but then it is WELL past it’s design life expectancy. And it’s now 50 years since Clive Sinclair invented the things and released his first models. And that’s another great proud British invention where we did it first.

Somewhere I have a Sinclair Cambridge calculator bought in 1973 as a kit for £24.95, which saved £5 compared with an assembled one. I soon converted it to work on an external power supply because it had a red LED display and it used sets of four AA cells very quickly. I used it heavily before buying a Commodore scientific calculator with better buttons and including a socket for an external power supply:

I still use this one occasionally.

Kevin says:
6 May 2022

Some things never change, your pi looks good?

Is this survivor bias though?

I think I see a bottle of Wolfschmidt liqueur in the fridge door.

It has a lovely aniseed flavour and best kept in the freezer and drunk ice cold (it won’t freeze).

Marcus says:
8 May 2022

Why does the appliance industry not agree to charge more across the board in exchange for more durable appliances, cheaper in the long run as need fewer repairs and last longer. We know that while vintage appliances seem(ed) to endure for longer they were in real terms considerably more expensive. A compromise between the real-terms cost in, say, 1970, and now, raising the price of the nastiest-quality appliances by, say, 20% might make a significant difference.

For example, could the bearings on washing machines be more durable – as these are often the first things to go on an otherwise perfectly working machine, resulting in scrapping as it’s a labour-intensive job to replace (even if they CAN be, as most have sealed drums)? Alternatively, why does a new drum cost almost the same as a new machine, making replacement uneconomic? It’s not just the availability, but cost, of parts that needs addressing if so many appliances that could be repaired aren’t to be scrapped.

In any case, a washing machine, for example, should surely be tested to 2,500 cycles (c 10 years’ heavy (family) use). Most people, I suggest, would pay more for a machine they knew could be expected to last 10 years rather than half that. This doesn’t mean that nothing can go wrong, just that the mechanical durability – drum bearings; paddles; tub – are durable and more minor things can be easily replaced. Circuit boards, which not infrequently ‘blow’, need to be easy to replace and cheap enough to justify it.

Customers do not want an array of fancy programmes and wi-fi rubbish, most of which they never use, just durability, a good wash and rinse that’s efficient with water and energy. How difficult is this for a reasonable (c £4-500) – not cheap – price? Ebac have done most of this with their British made washers. Alas, Which? doesn’t rate the quality of wash, albeit the machine itself is sound. This may be because it’s attempted to use too little water and energy, insufficient to shift stains well…

Marcus — I agree with you in general but don’t think durability should only come at a premium; it should be standard provision. As you say, some of the other fancy features could be dispensed with in return for a machine with a decent life cycle.

Consumers do currently have a wide choice of appliances of varying qualities and prices [although the relationship between the two is not always as it ought to be] . Better testing would certainly identify the most durable machines but the industry is still driven by price competition and by the tendency to keep redesigning the models in response to fashion and design trends. This is not acceptable in a sustainable world . . . but will people get used to and accept the boring repetition of standard units? Planned obsolescence remains the prime objective.

There is a market for lower quality and cheaper appliances, especially in the rented and holiday homes sector and to some extent for older consumers whose laundry needs are lighter. Those markets do not need the advanced features, complex engineering, and long life expectancy of the more robust products.

Wavechange has frequently advocated the use of longer warranties as incentives for manufacturers to produce longer-lasting and more easily maintainable appliances and I support that but the industry is not moving in that direction. If they are going to produce sealed drum models then there is an obligation on them to manufacture durable and long-lasting components and to make controls and circuit boards modular across their range and easily replaceable using ordinary tools and techniques. There is possibly a case in those items for standard patterns so that common parts are available to suit multiple brands. To a large extent, brand engineering is not compatible with sustainable development and this applies much wider than in respect of household appliances to most common consumer goods and machinery including cars.

Marcus asks: “Why does the appliance industry not agree to charge more across the board in exchange for more durable appliances”?

Because that would constitute a trade cartel to fix prices and is therefore illegal. Sometimes we have to live with the consequences of behaviours we legislate against. Plus, there will always be a new entrant to the market and not party to the agreement, who is prepared to cut standards and prices to gain market share.

Perhaps with domestic appliances, it is not so obvious that customers do want “an array of fancy programmes and wi-fi rubbish”. A least some do. Otherwise, if you apply the same logic to the car industry, we would all still be driving VW Beetles, with Mk1 Golfs reserved for the luxury car end of the market. I doubt there are many new car buyers do without heated rear windscreens or even air conditioning these days.

I think it would also surprise some of us how cheaply fancy new program[me]s can be be added into an appliance to give it a mid-life kicker. The actual hardware costs maybe a fiver.

So not everyone wants there domestic appliances built like a brick outhouse, and I have pointed out above reasons why it is actually bad for the environment to over-engineer products that consume energy and water throughout their lifetime, in addition to the resources used to make them in the first place.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with sealed drums and bearings. Not so long ago, car steering ball joints had grease nipples (hope that doesn’t get blocked by the PC spell checker), that had to be regularly maintained. Even so, the ball joints then developed slack and had to be regularly replaced, as did the wheel bearings, suspension bushes and shock absorbers. I don’t remember the last time I had an MOT failure for any of these reasons on a modern vehicle.

My father, who was an aircraft engineer, was horrified that car brake cylinders – which in those days had perishable rubber seals that also needed occasional replacement – used spring circlips to hold these critical components in place. A circlip could never be used in such circumstances in an aircraft, due to the propensity to develop microscopic stress fractures and then fail unpredictably and with potentially catastrophic results.

So not everything about the good old days of designing components for servicability and repairability was a good thing.

Marcus wrote: “For example, could the bearings on washing machines be more durable – as these are often the first things to go on an otherwise perfectly working machine, resulting in scrapping as it’s a labour-intensive job to replace (even if they CAN be, as most have sealed drums)?”

It would help to have heavier duty bearings, but until that happens, users can help reduce the wear by not overloading their machines, as pointed out by Which? Avoiding the highest spin speed may help too. The front-loading washing machine is not a brilliant design because the drum has bearings at one end only, but there are benefits over top-loading machines and the move to larger diameter drums is another factor. My previous machine had a relatively small drum by modern standards and the top spin speed was 800rpm. The bearings were still in good condition after 34 years of use. Sealed drums and other integrated assemblies can lower manufacture costs but reduce economic repairability.

As Em has pointed out, I am keen on longer warranties. My reasoning is that if manufacturers are responsible for repair costs (unless there is evidence of abuse) they cannot afford to have to fund many failures, so this may lead to better build quality. Many users do abuse their appliances. For example, I destroyed the impeller on the drain pump of my old machine by carelessly leaving a coin in a pocket. The pump was obsolete, so I had to make a new impeller and it taught me to be more careful.

Manufacturers could help improve the life of products but users could help by looking after them better.

I have never seen the mechanism of a washing machine. I assumed that the front end of the drum was supported, perhaps loosely, by a ring of bearings or guides to reduce the forces of high speed and uneven loads on the motor. The drum in our machine hardly wobbles by even the slightest amount. We do, of course, abide by the Wavechange principles of loading, speed, maintenance and washload protection. I am very careful to remove the collar stiffeners from my shirts before handing them over to the laundry department. No trainers or doormats have entered our machine.

I also use similar principles to elongate the life of our washing machine. It is now just over 5 years old, no wobble and still as quiet as when it was new, so worth taking care of.

I once took the back off one when I found water on the floor. There was so much visible rust, it was deemed not worth the cost of repairing.

As far as I know, front-loading washing machines and dryers do not have any form of bearing at the front of the drum and rely on a pair of bearings a short distance apart on the rotating shaft connected to the drum. There is also a shaft seal to prevent water getting into the bearings. Once it does, the bearing will start rusting and wear rapidly.

This website has useful information: https://www.ukwhitegoods.co.uk/help/fix-it-yourself/washing-machine-washer-dryer/2766-washing-machine-washer-dryer-bearings At the end there is a link with information about the move to washing machines with sealed tanks and how this can result in a machine that is beyond economical repair. The author of these articles used to contribute to Conversation and often pointed out that failure of white goods was often avoidable with care. Even use of excessive detergent can cause problems.

John mentions that washing trainers and doormats can cause problems. This is because the load can be severely imbalanced during the spin cycle, an example of how under-loading can be as harmful as overloading.

This video shows how bearings can be replaced. There is nothing wrong with having a “cantilevered” load on bearings providing it is correctly engineered.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u7z6oRIzfV4

This will not help with newer machines because the majority of them have sealed tanks and the bearings are not accessible without splitting the tank (tub) enclosing the drum.

My post was more to show the drum/bearing construction than to address the sealed drum issue (which, if correctly engineered, should not be a problem). John Ward was not sure how the drum was supported.

Bearing failure is usually associated with water entering via the shaft seal and causing rusting of the bearing. From what I have read, this is the primary cause of failure.

Not sure it belongs here, but my gripe is the light bulbs on ovens and microwaves that are not built to last.

We have had microwave light bulbs fail and the only way to change them is taking the back off the appliance – not a good idea when the majority of us do not have the knowledge or qualifications to do it safely. I took the back off one microwave, but as more internal dismantling was required to get to the bulb, didn’t attempt to go any further. The majority of our microwaves have ended their lives operating in the dark.

Our Siemens oven light has failed for the second time in just over 5 years. It is positioned in the roof of the oven on the rear right-hand side.

The first time, although we purchased the tool to remove the glass cover, it wouldn’t budge so as we were worried it might break, called Siemens who sent an engineer who replaced it under warranty.

This time the cover came off easily and so did the bulb. Unfortunately another piece came off with the bulb. This piece that looks like a ring, is what the bulb screws into and holds in place. If you could see what you were doing and the ring did not have to be replaced upwards, it might be repairable. But as the oven sits in its housing, it is almost impossible to replace unless the oven door is removed plus you are a left-hander with extremely long arms.

My washing machine is 25 years old and still working well.
I have only used the fast spin about twice during that time. I always check pockets and make sure each item of laundry is not ‘bunched up’ before putting it into the drum, and perhaps more importantly, is spread and evenly balanced before starting the chosen cycle. About once a month I throw a cup of soda crystals into the drum and do a quick empty wash.

Apart from a broken hinge on the dispenser draw it has never malfunctioned. The sound of the starter click about 5 seconds after pressing the starter button is very reassuring, enabling me to get on with other jobs while it does what it is programmed to do.

These days I never take it for granted.

Alfa — You need a policeman to come and fix your oven light; they have the long arm of the law on their side.

With most microwave ovens it is necessary to remove the case to access the lamp. I don’t know why this is because some models have a removable cover which should make it easy to change the bulb – unless you have the same model as Alfa. 🙂

Microwave ovens have a high voltage supply and contain a large capacitor that could remain charged when the machine is unplugged, so DIY work on microwaves is not advised unless you understand the risks. Hopefully modern microwaves have LED lamps that should outlast the oven.

Beryl – Fingers crossed, your washing machine should last a few more years.

Crusader says:
9 May 2022

The transformer in a microwave oven is indeed dangerous, they’re lethal with a capital L! And have you seen what some idiots are doing with them on youtube?! Those things deliver something like 2100 volts at around 600 milliamps, easily enough to kill and cremate and that voltage is considerably higher without a full load. And there’s another deadly danger with the magnetron in some ovens, especially older ones, as they have parts made from a deadly substance, I think it’s called something like beryllium oxide, whatever it is it’s an absolutely LETHAL poison, apparently any contact with a few small particles of it means you’re dead within about a week, so beware!

Beryllium oxide is used as an insulator in the magnetron in some microwave ovens. The dust is harmful if it is breathed but this will happen only if the insulator has been crushed.

The question remains, why are ovens and microwaves designed so that light bulbs are almost impossible to replace?

I was quoted £60 a long time ago to get a microwave light bulb changed.

Perhaps Which? could ask the major manufacturers and suggest they change their designs?
– Why are light bulbs in difficult-to-get-at places like the rear and roof of an oven?
– Why can’t microwaves be designed so owners can change light bulbs themselves, such as a safe, dedicated, internal or external compartment?

This has been going on for over half a century, we need to make our appliances last longer in today’s world, isn’t it time this problem was resolved?

Would it be impossible for the oven light to be mounted within the door frame so that it would be easily accessible?

Excellent suggestion John.

The door of a microwave oven is not thick enough to accommodate the light bulb. Hopefully modern microwaves have LED lights that will last the life of the appliance.

The majority of microwave ovens have lamps that are not intended to be user replaceable. They are an example of rotten product design – one of many examples.

It’s not difficult to change a microwave lamp, but you need to understand the risks and how to do the job safely.

Putting the light in the door is a terrible idea, the door is actually a shield against the radiation and is made of multiple layers of materials with enough rigidity to make a successful seal when closed. Encouraging people to interfere with this mechanism to “change a bulb” is asking for trouble. Also the light is there to illuminate the inside which it would not do if mounted in the door every time you opened it

Here is how to replace the light bulb in a Panasonic microwave. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=A210MPwaOUY
These bulbs were underrun and, with the limited time they are on in the microwave, should not need replacing. Don’t know about other makes.

I’d suggest that making car bulbs very easily replaceable should be a topic to tackle. Having to remove bumpers, wheel arch covers, delve into places almost impossible to reach, should not be permitted when they need to be replaced as soon as they fail, almost always out on the road.

Having watched the link Malcolm, wouldn’t removing the microwave cover invalidate the terms of the guarantee?

Anyone who publishes a video showing work inside the casing of a microwave oven should highlight the large capacitor that could be a danger if it has remained charged. There should be a resistor across the capacitor to slowly discharge it. The presenter shows the oven powered up and then he opens the case. As one of the commenters on the video has pointed out, it would be better to leave it overnight before tackling the job.

I don’t know, Beryl. I would not have thought it should nor that it would be obvious that the cover had been removed unless the screws were marked.

I was more interested in showing how a Panasonic bulb could be replaced.

I agree it may not be obvious the cover had been removed Malcolm until a novice followed your link with near fatal consequences.

That’s the downside of YouTube videos. Anyone can publish them irrespective of whether or not they understand risks and how to explain them.

To interpret advice can often require a modicum of knowledge, expertise or common sense. As mentioned in another comment it might be useful if “approved” repair instructions were collated so more could keep their appliances, large and small, functioning when they develop a fault.

As we seem to be on a confluence of “built to last” and highly toxic substances found in the home, it might be of interest to learn about Americium-241 found in ionising smoke detectors, as opposed to the optical type. These alarms have a working life of no more than 10 years. This isn’t just because the lithium batteries in sealed units run flat. If you have the PP3 battery or mains powered units, you should still change them every 10 years.

Americium-241 is highly toxic and can be lethal if absorbed into the body. Never let children play with this type of smoke detector, don’t disassemble it and dispose of it responsibly. I suspect many have gone to landfill, where the relatively short half-life of Am-241 will help to ensure that there is no permanent damage to the environment, but I hate to think that these things are now being incinerated.

How long do wall mounted domestic car charging points last? Are they built to last? My first was installed in 2016, it stopped working in 2019, it was replaced. (it was not cheap) Guess what, 3 years later, this second one has stopped working. Anyone else found the same? Is it a coincidence that they both have broken after the 3 year warranty? Is this something that needs to be investigated?

Hi Janet – It might be worth posting in an EV user forum, Jane, mentioning the make and model of your charging point.

Depending on where you live in the UK you have five or six years after purchase to make a claim under the Consumer Rights Act. That would be against the supplier. It would be worth contacting them to discuss your concerns in case they offer goodwill, such as supplying a new charging point at a discounted price. If they are not helpful you could then say you plan to make a claim under the Consumer Rights Act. They are entitled to ask for evidence that the failure was due to a defect in the equipment and you could be asked to commission an independent report, which may or may not support your case. Which? has advice on your legal rights: https://www.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/advice/what-do-i-do-if-i-have-a-faulty-product-aTTEK2g0YuEy

With luck you may be able to get a free repair. Best of luck.

Crusader says:
16 May 2022

The chargers have probably got a little secret clause written into their processor’s software so that they pack up and stop working after the warranty runs out, but how can you prove such a thing, that would need careful analysis of the software. But it has been done before, as that’s what happened with the final generation of VHS video recorders, at least that’s what it looked like, as I found several of them, including two of my own, which worked absolutely fine and then just suddenly stopped working, but they would still come on and the display lit up etc. but the deck wouldn’t start and according to a fault chart I had that meant central processor failure in the last generation VCR’s. It really looked like they were programmed to fail suddenly after so many hours of use, possibly because of the switchover to digital broadcasting and digital media etc. But with the previous generations of VCR’s the processor was the last thing that ever failed, with them it was always things like belts, clutches, idlers, tension bands, pinch rollers, video heads etc. and other mechanical bits and a few transistors that failed, and the occasional motor, but never the CPU. And the final VCR’s were even designed not to be serviced as they had an all solid plastic casing over the underside unlike earlier models that had a removable cover and the circuit board was usually hinged so you could swing it out with the machine on it’s side, and you could still run it in that state and have access to the underside of the deck but not so with the last ones, no chance, they had the board fitted under the deck and all enclosed underneath with no such access.

Crusader says:
16 May 2022

When I used to fix “brown goods”, i.e. old CRT TV’s and VCR’s and I used to go to the spares outlets to get parts some of the manufacturers, like Sharp and Philips used to restrict the sale of most parts for their microwave ovens to proper authorised dealers only, because of the deadly dangers involved in the repairs. But there was still plenty of internal parts including the transformers and magnetrons available for plenty other makes, and microwave ovens need to be checked for leakage of microwave energy using a rather expensive special meter which must be sent off to a national laboratory and recalibrated at the required intervals. Also the cooking power of the oven needs to be checked using a special kit every so often as the magnetrons get tired and then they don’t cook so well and can cause serious food poisoning. And another thing that fails on microwave ovens is the high voltage fuse which gets stressed each time the oven fires up and it eventually fails and needs replacing which is not a job for anyone not competent enough. And the outer casings are often well hard to refit after repairs and it must fit properly as with some it’s possible to get it back on but not quite properly which is dangerous, not only because of the risk of energy leakage but it also exposes sharp metal edges. And a microwave oven must never be fired up with the cooking space empty as then it will cook itself and be ruined.

The high voltage fuse is indeed a common reason for failure and replacement will often fix the problem.

Timings should never be relied on when cooking food in a microwave oven, any more than you would rely on doing this in a conventional oven. Manufacturers advise users to check that food is adequately cooked.

Magnetrons do have a limited life and the power output decreases with age, but surprisingly my 1989 Philips microwave is still working well despite being in daily use.