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Published Columns: May 2007
Curbing Your Consumption:
Repair or Replace?

By John Ford

When you bought an appliance a few decades ago, it was almost for life. They were built for heavy domestic use, and parts were easily replaceable. Not so true today.

When an appliance stops working the way it should, there is a temptation to order a new one, and send the old one to landfill.

Don't be too hasty. There are some questions to ask first. Can the appliance be repaired? Does it make sense from an economic view to repair or replace, and can I recoup those costs from the reduced energy consumption? What is the effect on the planet?

In a previous column I looked at the increased efficiency of appliances as sold in the last few decades, and the loss of efficiency over the years of use, such as the failure of refrigerator insulation and seals. But the quality has declined. More products use fewer durable steel parts, and more plastic parts. A dishwasher today may have few servicable parts, and may be a throw-away item.

Most new refrigerators and freezers will earn their keep with energy efficiency in only a few years. However, their lifespan can be as little as a quarter of the appliance they replace.

The new front-loading washing machines are now available in a range of quality price points, from equal to the cost of top-loaders, to over four times the cost. They are incredibly more efficient – both in energy and water use – and spin at a high enough speed to almost eliminate the use of a dryer. The change from top to front loading may be well worth the replacement costs.

Except for the whiz-bang timers and electronics in a new stove/oven, the new ones still work the same way, the efficiency is virtually the same, but the quality is lacking. I have also mentioned before that I listen to CBC's appliance repair call-in with Steve Brannan. He mentioned again just recently that new stoves are built just to reheat food, and he sees them fail when used for heavy use such as all day canning projects. Parts are still available to repair older stoves, which is very economic, and can easily be a DIY project.

There are also other considerations for replacement. When my fridge was replaced a few years ago, I had to measure the exact height front and back to ensure it would fit in the space. It slid in with just 1 mm of clearance on top. Wouldn't it be nice to have your appliances re-furbished with the latest high-efficiency innards so that little or nothing was sent to landfill? While it might seem more costly to do this, wouldn't it be cheaper in the long run?

What we really need are form factor standards for appliances, which use modular standard components. That way we get choice and value, along with increased efficiency as the technology improves.

John Ford is a technology consultant, owner of a small energy conservation business, and the Energy Advocate for the Green Party of Ontario.