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Build a better mousetrap

Marcy O’Brien

The washing machine bit the dust a few days ago.  Actually it was more like it choked, drowned and broke the dam.  I knew there was something different about the laundry room almost immediately after stepping into the inch of water.  I’m a quick study.

To be honest, it had leaked a few other times, but this was the Big Kahuna of leaks. This was a room with a melted ice skating rink. Hoo boy.

This machine didn’t owe me anything, though. It was only the second one I ever owned.

We had been married four and a half years before we bought our first washer and dryer in 1971. They were installed in the basement of our Marblehead, Massachusetts rental, just a week before the arrival of the world’s most perfect child.

Frankly, it wasn’t until the installers left that I thought, well, that’s it. I am finally and truly married. This long date is over. We own a washer/dryer.

One might have thought that being nine months pregnant, with a baby who eventually made her entrance at well over nine pounds, might have given me a sense of the permanence that I’d signed on for. But nope, I finally became domesticated the afternoon the Sears guys delivered my work partners.

I had decided that to be the perfect mother meant that I wasn’t going to buy any of those new-fangled, packaged, pretend diapers. MY CHILD was going to wear cloth diapers, perfectly washed in gentle Ivory Snow. My new machines were certainly up to the task of a load of baby clothes and diapers every day, all pre-rinsed, of course.

When I went back to work five months later, I bought my first box of those pretend diapers. The old-fashioned baby sitter wanted only new-fangled diapers. Within a week I was cutting Pampers coupons and the washer/dryer worked only every other day. And then also for the next 24 years.

Both kids were well out of college before I bought our second washer/dryer combo. And since the original set was Sears Kenmore, made by Whirlpool, why wouldn’t I buy the same ones again? The only difference is that they were not 1970’s Harvest Gold, they were late 1990’s Bright Almond. The gold set had had one washer repair, the almond set, until the recent flood, had received a new dryer timer about 12 years ago. 48 years, four machines, two repairs. Jeesh.

The machines were like members of the family except they didn’t require second helpings, dessert or emotional support. I just loved them – reliably willing to work any day. Unfortunately, this illness was terminal.

I had been looking at washers for a few years, trying to wrap my head around all the electronics that operate them. These babies are no longer mechanical, they’re micro-chipped like everything else in our beep-beep world.

I’d seen pairs that sold in excess of $4,000. When Dear Richard and I went to search for real it was with a great deal of trepidation, armed with info from the latest Consumer Guide.

Our final decision took the bulk of the evening. We arranged payment, order time, and delivery. Then they offered the warranty for purchase. The saleswomen had been helpful throughout the process but before we weighed the warranty decision, we asked what the life expectancy was. We received a shrug with the answer that it could be six or eight years, maybe even ten. WHAT? What happened to my 24-year work partners?

Last year we had to buy a replacement refrigerator in an emergency. The expensive, stainless, French-door beauty died two days before we were expecting a houseful of company for a long weekend. The repairman sensibly told us that he’d be happy to replace our compressor but in the end we’d have spent many hundreds and still have a 13-year old fridge. He actually thought that the fact we got 13 years out of it was great!

The salesman who sold us the new refrigerator speculated that ten years would probably be a good run. How did we come to this? How did we go from a country that makes 24-year appliances to only eight or ten? At first I thought it’s because most new appliances are imported. That is true.

Wait a minute. It seems that these electronically run machines require a lot of repair. But the auto industry figured it out. Cars now last for a couple hundred thousand miles. And car companies don’t offer 10-year warranties with purchase if they couldn’t stand behind it. Oh, and the warranty comes with the car, it’s not a separate purchase.

So logic tells us that we should have Toyota and Honda making washers and dryers. After all, they taught the reliable car-making gig to the American auto industry. Now, finally, most new cars do much better than they used to.

It was Longfellow, the dead poet, who is attributed to saying “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” The appliance section needs a better mousetrap builder.

If a washing machine company builds a better model with a FREE warranty and the possibility of a reasonably long life, they’ll corner the market.

I don’t know why we have to tolerate this planned obsolescence. Have we become such a throw-away society that we are going to happily toss washers, dryers, refrigerators, dishwashers, et al, on the ever-burgeoning trash pile?

Dear Honda,

We need you to manufacture washing machines. And we need you to improve the current mileage estimates. Please. We’ll beat a path to your door.

Hugs and Kisses,

Your American Consumer.

Marcy O’Brien writes from her home in Glade Township and is a member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. She can be reached at Moby.32@hotmail.com.

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