Photo: Sinelab

When Russell Schwager, a software engineer in Boston, was preparing his house for Passover, he didn’t think much about hitting the self-clean mode on his Electrolux ovens. But that move led to a holiday headache when the range door locked and the wall oven stopped heating, rendering both ovens unusable.

“It definitely made our lives more difficult,” Schwager says. His family keeps kosher, so during Passover they couldn’t rely on takeout. Instead, they survived on leftovers from his in-laws and pizzas from kosher kits cooked in the toaster oven.

Several weeks and about $600 in repairs later, Schwager was suffering a serious bout of buyer’s remorse. He and his wife had purchased five Electrolux appliances four years before, largely because of the design and dimensions, and only the microwave had remained problem-free. “We were looking for nice stuff that was a step up,” Schwager says. “I viewed Electrolux as a brand that way, and it’s just not.”

Consumer Reports asked Electrolux for a comment, and the company said, “Electrolux takes product reliability very seriously, and we know it is a top priority for our consumers.”

Failure Is Not an Option

Major appliances are a big purchase for most people, and buyers want them to last. Consumer Reports’ surveys have found that our members rank reliability—from refrigerators to laundry machines—as more important than price or performance. “We see this in other product categories, but it’s most noticeable for major appliances,” says Simon Slater, associate director of survey research at Consumer Reports.

More on Appliance Reliability

It makes sense that reliability would be important to appliance shoppers. These are complex, mission-critical machines that can cost thousands of dollars and are so bulky that they typically need to be delivered and installed. They perform many of the basic chores of domestic life—cooking, cleaning, preserving food. Until they don’t. And suddenly the entire household is thrown off-kilter. Because when your refrigerator breaks, you need to either fix it or replace it, stat, before those Omaha Steaks at the back of the freezer go bad.

According to CR’s 2018 surveys, around 15 to 40 percent of appliances, depending on the category, will develop problems or break within the first five years. But our data show that some brands are far more reliable than others. That’s why CR is rolling out Appliance Brand Reliability Rankings. It lets you quickly compare brands across all major appliances.

Take Electrolux: It ranks second to last among 24 brands, with Poor predicted reliability ratings for refrigerators, dishwashers, cooktops, and over-the-range microwaves. The one bright spot: Electrolux washing machines earn a Very Good rating for reliability. But you can see how this spottiness would be problematic if you’re considering buying multiple appliances from the same brand. Just ask Russell Schwager.

The Quest for Quality

In recent decades, appliances have become far more energy-efficient and feature-rich. Compared with models made in 1990—three years after the first federal mandates on minimum energy efficiency in appliances—the average new washing machine uses 70 percent less energy. Refrigerators now use about a quarter of the energy they required in 1973. It all adds up to savings on your utility bills.

These technological improvements come with increased complexity, such that appliance repair technicians are now likely to carry a laptop and digital diagnostic tools along with the classic bag of wrenches. “Appliances today have sensors and circuit boards to control and monitor functions,” says Jim Nanni, director of appliance testing at Consumer Reports. “Moisture sensors in your dryer stop it when your clothes are dry; turbidity sensors in your dishwasher tell it how long to run. But all the electronics introduce reliability problems that weren’t common 30 years ago.”

That means manufacturers have to constantly evolve quality control and measures to strengthen reliability.

GE Appliances, for example, has more than 50 product evaluation labs at its Kentucky headquarters. Some are dedicated to testing how its smart appliances will stand up to real-world conditions—think blasting a washing machine with electromagnetic interference to see whether it can maintain WiFi connectivity.

Miele, which ranks near the top of our new Appliance Brand Reliability Rankings, conducts accelerated lifetime testing in a lab. Dirk Sappok, Miele’s director of product development, says that because the company positions itself as a premium brand, it prioritizes appliance longevity in a way that certain other manufacturers might not. “Your standard, run-of-the-mill appliances have tended to become more disposable vs. the luxury side of the business,” he says. Miele estimates that its products will last about 20 years, double what many other manufacturers claim.

Blake Kozak, senior principal analyst for appliances at market research firm IHS Markit, predicts that consumers will eventually benefit from advanced diagnostic technology. “The long-term objective is to alert the consumer when an appliance is needing repairs or maintenance, before a small issue turns into a huge cost,” Kozak says. In that vision of our appliance future, some complexity could improve reliability.

Repair or Replace?

Appliances were simpler machines in the 1980s, when Steven Sheinkopf started working at Yale Appliance and Lighting, a retailer based in the Boston area. “You had a Maytag washing machine, and the belt was a weak spot,” he says. Today Sheinkopf is CEO of Yale, which reports about $120 million in sales per year. “You would replace the belt—it’s a $100 repair—and there you go.” Now, he says, such a major fix for a front-load washer could set you back $500 to $600.

Appliance repair costs vary widely, and techs can’t always solve the problem on the first look. In fact, a 2016 survey by Consumer Reports found that approximately 40 percent of appliance repairs weren’t completed on the first appointment, leaving some people without an appliance that much longer. Another concern is the wait time for replacement parts. Most service providers can’t stock every part for every appliance from every brand, so after a diagnostic appointment, you might wait weeks for a part to be delivered before the second appointment to have it installed.

Manufacturers pay authorized service providers such as Yale a set rate to make repairs during the warranty period, but Sheinkopf says he loses money on in-warranty service calls. In his view, manufacturers should be performing these repairs themselves. By farming out service, they leave customers hanging after the sale. “[They] wonder why there is no real loyalty to anybody,” Sheinkopf says. “It’s because they get this piece wrong.”

Of course, when an appliance suffers a failure that can't be repaired, it eventually finds its way into the waste stream. So while you absorb the cost of a replacement, landfills and recycling plants must absorb yet another substantial hunk of plastic, metal, and circuitry.

It’s not hard to see how longer-lasting products could reduce environmental impact. And if people start choosing brands with better reliability, it may move manufacturers to prioritize reliability as much as their customers do.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the August 2019 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.