Economics

The Loneliness of the Maytag Repairman Is Now a Universal Existential Condition, and Thank God for That, Too

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Every revolution has its casualties, and this fascinating Wash Times article points to a quiet, barely-noticed increase in the quality and longevity of household appliances. And a corresponding decrease in the fortunes of folks who would repair same. From the story:

"It's a dying trade," said Scott Brown, Webmaster of www.fixitnow.com and self-proclaimed "Samurai Appliance Repairman."

The reason for this is twofold, Mr. Brown said: The cost of appliances is coming down because of cheap overseas labor and improved manufacturing techniques, and repairmen are literally dying off….

In the next seven years, the number of veteran appliance repairmen will decrease nationwide as current workers retire or transfer to other occupations, the Department of Labor said in its 2007 Occupational Outlook Handbook.

Whole thing here.

A graphic accompanying the print edition of the story notes that the average electric range lasts for 18 years; washing machines, clothes dryers, and dishwashers each have 14 year average lifespans; and personal computers stick around for seven years on average.

It strikes me that the vast increase in performance and longevity of basic household consumer goods–even or especially at the low end, which is where virtually all my experience is–is generally an underappreciated story (though not at Reason; go here and here for examples).

And throw in cars, too, when we talk about machines that are just so much better these days than in those of yore. Those of us who came of age during the Era of the Vega/Pinto/Etc can vaguely recall occasional block parties when somebody's car flipped its odometer at the 100,000-mile mark. Now, you don't even change the spark plugs until that milestone is reached.

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  1. Why is it that the lifetimes of hot water heaters has decreased?

  2. Just a guess Joe, but I bet it has something to do with insullation. Older forms of insulation are virtually indestructable but terrible for the environment.

  3. Meanwhile, my great aunt bought a refrigerator in 1959 at Sears for 125 dollars. It lasted, with only periodic recharging, until two years ago, when it finally gave out. You’d be surprised at how long an appliance can last if you’re kind to it.

    She also, fortunately enough, bought the insurance for 85 dollars. The model they were forced to give her was worth 800 dollars. Keeping paperwork is a very good idea.

  4. all good points in this post but the other side of this is that most appliances/electronic bits are no longer capable of being serviced. when our old rca b&w tv went on the fritz, a tv repairman could change out a tube or two, maybe replace a capacitor for about 5-10% of the cost of a new set. when my current tv decides to release some smoke, the only things inside are proprietary potted modules, irreplaceable, unavailable, and priced (when the manufacturer deigns to sell them) at a level that only encourages replacement.

  5. One of the reasons that appliance repairmen are a dying breed is that it has become more cost effective to simply replace an appliance than to have it repaired. Skilled, trained labor is expensive! Oh, one might save a few dollars by having something repaired, but one will only have what is basicly an old, nearly worn-out machine. For not much more one can have brand-spankety-new and shiney. And think of all the time and effort one saves because one doesn’t have to take care of things anymore: why bother – just junk it for a new one.

  6. Good title, Nick. And good point, edna.

  7. Sherm,

    Lucky for your Aunt that she bought that fridge from Sears and not Monty Wards.

    We had an old 50s era Frigidaire in our garage as a kid that was still running when my parents got rid of it about 10 years ago. Thing must have weighed 400 pounds and the motor rumbled like a small car but it kept stuff cold.

  8. edna

    “the only things inside are proprietary potted modules, irreplaceable, unavailable, and priced (when the manufacturer deigns to sell them) at a level that only encourages replacement.”

    Manufacturers don’t want you to repair their products – they want you to buy a new one. Not only helps to keep them in business, but they make more money that way.
    But that has always been true. I have seen old tools (sixty years or more) that could have just as easily been made with off-the-shelf parts but were made with proprietary hardware (special screw thread sizes,etc.).

  9. Hey Shem:

    If she had bought a new periodically, it likely could have paid for itself in energy savings each time, depending on how expensive electricity is in her area.

    Interesting fact about early fridges… Up until the 70s, they usually died because the doors were poorly constructed. If they were ever slammed they would get out of rack, and the fridge would no longer seal properly, causing cool air to leak out and the compressor would have to work overtime, eventually killing it. Sometimes the doors got messed up from simple repeated use, they didn’t have to even be slammed.

  10. This is good news, considering I’m on my 3rd DVD player since 2002. Not off-brands, either.

    I do, however, have a cheap Korean TV that I have managed to “repair” from complete nonfunctionality twice in its 10-year-and-counting lifespan by opening up the shell and blowing the dust out.

  11. the Era of the Vega….

    The Vega was a piece of crap and GM knew it from the get go. You cannot build an engine with an aluminum block, no cylinder sleeves, and steel piston rings and expect it to do anything different than what happened to the Vega.

    But I have to say that in the old days, 80k was a lot of miles and generally meant a full engine overhaul. Even if you kept the oil changed.

    The thing I cannot accept about modern cars is this: If you want a fat, high performance cam in your engine you change the computer chip. That is just WRONG.

  12. Hot Water Heater? What’s that? A relic from the cave man days?

    All the really cool eco-friendly guys have installed a tankless heater that heats on demand and saves buckets of cash because the water is only heated when it’s needed. Good for the wallet. Good for the environment.

  13. I too lament the demise of repairable goods. My father was valued and respected as the neighborhood handyman wherever he lived. I guess I kinda inherited a certain contempt for people who are afraid to take the covers off.

    [aside]He was a master of home repair. He maximized that ethereal quantity that’s half craftsmanship, half budget, and half time to completion. He always knew how to do a job “the right way” but he also knew how to substitute parts for what was on hand (and he kept a surprising inventory) and he knew exactly what was sacraficed in the way of safety, durability, etc. with every shortcut[/aside]

    The unrepairability of goods today only encourages the PFM mentality. Nobody knows how anything works anymore, and they could care less. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it allows a lot of sloppy thinkers to labor under delusions of adequacy. There’s nothing like a trying to make a technology work, as a true and objective test of one’s expertise.

  14. “Hot Water Heater? What’s that? A relic from the cave man days?”

    That is so condescending.

  15. Edna, but that old RCA never worked for crap, you always had to fiddle with the knobs, the rabbit ears,and the tubes were always blowing out. Fortunately you could buy tubes at Sav-On Drugs and once blown, they turned black so you could find them.

    A few trips out for the repair guy and your maint cost was more than a new TV and God help you if the tube went south.

  16. That is so condescending.

    No it isn’t, it was a joke. And it might show the limitations of this medium given that you took offense.

  17. Joe, one thing that kills hot water heaters is debris. You have to flush them out every six months or so, especially if you have mineral laden water or lots of alkalai. Over time they just fill up with scale, mineral deposits, crud, & rust from galvanized pipes until a 40 gallon house tank literally narrows down to a 15 or 20 gallon capacity, which makes it constantly run.

  18. TWC, I think joe is making a joke along the lines of the Geico ads where the website is “so easy to use, even a caveman could do it.”

  19. Appliances are more reliable these days? I would argue that point. Things are made now to be disposed of instead of fixed. It encourages consumerism (nothing bad about that).

  20. Sounds like someone woke up on the wrong side of the vine…

  21. I guess I kinda inherited a certain contempt for people who are afraid to take the covers off.

    Damn right. “No User Serviceable Parts Inside” isn’t a warning, it’s a challenge.

  22. VM, no, no, no, none of this is intended to be mean or snotty. And that really does show how this medium can make comments seem to be something they aren’t. I am totally screwing around and mean nobody no harm. You may have my most gracious apologies……..

    Mad, I hope that Joe meant it that way because I wasn’t intending offense to him or anyone else. Just making snarky wise ass remarks that made me chuckle. Sorry I was the only one in on the joke.

  23. Aside from modern tvs having unservicable parts, the last time I had a tv fixed by a repairman was in Norfolk and the guy worked out of his garage. The guy fixed my huge set for a whopping 25$.
    The possibility of there being a guy in Northern Virginia with the space, parts and the inclination to fix anything for 25$ is close to zero. It’s not worth the time.

  24. But we’re still gonna die, and we can’t take any of this shit with us.

  25. Oh, I don’t take back the Vega remark. Those things really were a horrible piece of engineering. Worse, GM wouldn’t honor the warranties…………

  26. By the way, it’s called a water heater, as there is no reason to heat hot water.

  27. Edward,
    That’s what land fills are for.

  28. smn
    Appliances are more reliable these days? I would argue that point. Things are made now to be disposed of instead of fixed. It encourages consumerism (nothing bad about that).

    That sort of thinking only works if you’ve got a lock on a market. Otherwise, people will peg your products as unreliable and they’ll go to your competitors. Getting people to buy the newer versions of your product is the job of marketing not product development.

  29. twc – i’m fairly sure joe was using the geico caveman commercials for a bit of humor.

  30. All the really cool eco-friendly guys have installed a tankless heater that heats on demand and saves buckets of cash because the water is only heated when it’s needed. Good for the wallet. Good for the environment.

    Those can save energy, or not save energy, depending on your pattern of use! In my condo building, it is still cheaper to heat water in a tank in the basement, as there are several hundered apartments, and so someone, somewhere is going to be using the hot water in the tank. It keeps more hotwater on hand during peak times (7AM on weekdays), and keeps less hot water on hand in off times (2AM), in order to minimize energy usage, but essentially a big hot water heater is still the way to go in a lot of situations.

  31. I hate to age myself, but the first TV, my family bought, circa 1950, was a big B/W beast. It took two good men to carry it and we knew every TV repairman in town by their first names, because it needed new tubes about once a week.
    It was nice in the winter, tho, it put out so much heat that you could warm your hands with it, and dry your gloves on it. Now you usually get a new TV, plug the thing in and forget about it.

  32. Another thing which seems to make the job of repairman endangered is the computer chips that are being put in lots of consumer goods. The equipment needed to read the signals and whatnot gets quite expensive, many times forcing a trip back to the manufacturer. And as more and more consumer goods get “smarter” via home automation and whatnot I think this will become more common.

    Cars is a good example of this. A friend of mine works on cars in his spare time, but the newer cars are harder and harder to diagnose without the proper tools to read the computer.

  33. You may also note liability concerns in making things non-serviceable. If someone can open it up and start poking things, he can get electrocuted, stabbed, mangled, burned, etc. Yes, Bob tried to fix a running lawnmower with his bare hands, but do you want to be the big corporation defending itself against the grieving widow? If uncovering the dangerous bits in your machine requires using a screwdriver with seven points around a 135 degree corner, you prevent most sane people from injuring themselves or the device while providing a good argument in your defense if someone is adventurous enough to do so. (Why was the company sued? It used normal screws, so any child could open the machine up and kill himself. Tortious! It would not have cost the company any more to use its own custom screws, so why did they not take this costless step to save poor little Jessica from a lifetime of disability?!) Protect yourself from your customers and their lawyers. Add that extra warning label, unless you are worried about getting sued for having too many warning labels…

  34. “That is so condescending”

    Limitations of the medium indeed. Here, were the aim is snarky wit, I read it as a tribute.

  35. PCs stick around for 7 years?

    Am I the only one who has to get a new Mac every 3.5 years because all the software needs a faster chip and more memory?

  36. Shem:

    “She also, fortunately enough, bought the insurance for 85 dollars. The model they were forced to give her was worth 800 dollars. Keeping paperwork is a very good idea.”

    The company got the better end of that deal. Over 46 years, your aunt didn’t even make a 5% rate of return on her investment.

  37. Cars is a good example of this. A friend of mine works on cars in his spare time, but the newer cars are harder and harder to diagnose without the proper tools to read the computer.

    The flip side of that, though, is that once you have the ~$100 piece of equipment to read the OBD2 computer, you can often diagnose any problems within seconds. If your car is hesitating (one of the hardest problems to diagnose because it could be so many things), check the computer for any stored codes.
    Often you’ll have your answer. It’s not perfect, however. Sometimes problems aren’t bad enough to throw codes, so you’re back to square one and have to run tests (requiring lots of labor and other special tools).

  38. Curious:

    “Am I the only one who has to get a new Mac every 3.5 years because all the software needs a faster chip and more memory?”

    I usually upgrade around the 3 year mark, but my cast-offs go to my mom or dad, who will happily use the old PC for their email needs for twice that long, or until I send them a new hand-me-down.

    So, in my experience, the seven year estimate is probably about right.

  39. Dhex, Ummm, I missed the Geico Caveman commercials because the remote automatically changes channels for lizards. Thanks Maurkov.

    I pretty much replace my PC on average every year, but that’s because I’m really hard on them. They keep shifting down through the family. Run the recovery disk and they’re good to go. My kids are the only kids who each have their own computer. My oldest, still-running PC is a Compaq running Win-98. I use it every day, but I only run one program on it. That’s to keep the software isolated from my main computer and my secondary computer.

  40. Am I the only one who has to get a new Mac every 3.5 years because all the software needs a faster chip and more memory?

    That only pertains if you use a variety of software programs and regularly upgrade. Several members of my writers’ group use PCs that only run word processing programs, which are years out of date. Ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

    Another reason to toss instead of repair is today’s pace of innovation. Appliances tend to be obsolescent before they break, so there’s incentive to get newer and better. (Like the above Macs.)

    Since the appliances are obsolescent, so are their parts and the skills to repair them. It’s much easier for Sears and Chevy to sell you a new car than maintain parts inventories and employee skills to repair your old one. Prices reflect this.

    OTOH, my field is firearms. Completely different ballgame. Several companies are still manufacturing “modern” firearms from designs invented in the nineteenth century. And that doesn’t count the replicas of guns manufactured in the 1700s.

  41. By the way, it’s called a water heater, as there is no reason to heat hot water.

    Sigh. You are correct, but the rest of the world has gone mad. “Hot water heater” is acceptable now.

  42. The company got the better end of that deal. Over 46 years, your aunt didn’t even make a 5% rate of return on her investment.

    Huh? She paid 85 dollars once, in 1959. Sears wound up giving up an 800 dollar appliance for 85 dollars. Explain to me how that was a bad investment?

  43. In my garage, I have a Craftsman drill-press that inherited from my father, who inherited it from his father, who bought it in 1941. I have the Craftsman table-saw that Grandpop bought in 1940. Both are still in service and working superbly with their original electric motors.

    Meanwhile; my mother has two fabric irons for which she paid a large sum, each, sitting in her sewing lab, useless. She took them to a person who works on gear like this. Later, he called her and informed her that he could probably repair them, but the parts required would cost almost as much as brand-new units. She is not pleased. They’re not three years old.

  44. Shem:
    “Huh? She paid 85 dollars once, in 1959. Sears wound up giving up an 800 dollar appliance for 85 dollars. Explain to me how that was a bad investment?”

    Time Value of Money.

    What the $85 in 1959 was worth by 2005:

    at 6% interest: $1,240
    at 8% interest: $2,930
    at 10% interest: $6,815

  45. And compounded at the 28.8% rate that Sears charges on its credit cards, the $85 in 1959 would be worth $9.67 million in 2005.

  46. That assumes that she wouldn’t have used the money in the interim time period. She probably wouldn’t have held onto it; our family wasn’t rich enough to leave that kind of money lying around. Given that, it was a pretty good deal.

  47. That assumes that she wouldn’t have used the money in the interim time period. She probably wouldn’t have held onto it; our family wasn’t rich enough to leave that kind of money lying around. Given that, it was a pretty good deal.

    Shem,

    The principle of the time value of money won’t be invalidated had your parents spent the money back in 1959. The $85 they might have spent on something other than the warranty back in 1959 would have been worth more than the $800 refrigerator today (at anything greater than a 5% discount rate). Your comment that your family wasn’t so well off back in 1959 makes the point stronger if utility is taken into account.

  48. Curious

    “PCs stick around for 7 years?

    Am I the only one who has to get a new Mac every 3.5 years because all the software needs a faster chip and more memory?”

    I’m more or less a computer troglodyte.

    I just replaced my Pentium II based machine last year (bought that one in ’95 – notice I omitted the first two years of the date) and I still have it plugged in.

    I also still have my old IBM PS2, bought in ’90, also plugged in.

    It’s people like me who bring the average up.

  49. arrrgghh!

    “first two DIGITS of the date”

  50. Russ R

    You didn’t discount for the tax on the interest. At a total marginal tax rate of 20%, the $85 @ 6% = $770. [=$85*(1+(.06*.8))^47]

  51. There is a down side to machines that fail to fail. I was raised to use a thing up, to replace a thing only after it became irreparably worn or broken. The cost of the increase in the durability of goods is enduring longer periods living with obsolete technology. I drive a 1988 Mazda 626 with 300K+ miles (no cup holders!); I have a simple cathode ray tube television which will most likely keep me from enjoying Flat Screen HiDef for many years to come; my wife wants a new rice cooker with all the latest bells and whistles, but the cooker we’ve used for the last twenty three years is still fine. Clearly there is an opportunity cost to all this durability.

  52. Hey – I just happen to be married to the Samurai Appliance Repair Man mentioned in the article! Major appliances have *not* improved over time in terms of longevity and reliability like cars have. Just because an appliance has a “lifespan” of umpteen years does not mean it hasn’t needed repairs at $150-$300 a pop. Most of our calls are from people with appliances in the single-digit age range. It is extremely common to get calls on a 2 or 3 y.o. appliance – regardless of brand. That’s why we started a DYI site – to empower the appliance owner to take care of it him/herself!

  53. Aresen,

    Aren’t capital gains taxed at cash-out rather than upon accrual? If the 20% tax is applied at the end (when the investment is sold to buy the new refridgerator), the value is $1052. [=($85*(1+.06)^47)*.8]

  54. That’s why we started a DYI site

    Is that like “Do Yourself In?” 😉

  55. Zubon

    I was assuming the funds in some form of deposit account. Depends on the nature of your investment.

    OTOH, if the money to buy the warranty is borrowed from a non-tax-deductible source, the value is $2545 [=85*(1+(0.06/0.8))^47].

  56. TWC,

    I guess you don’t get the Geico ads out there.

    One of the earliest showed an announcer saying, “So easy, a caveman could use it.”

    Cut to two cavemen, in modern dress in a modern living room, watching that TV. One says, “What?”

    The other says, “That is so condescending.”

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