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A Hard Day's Wash, Part 2
They don't make them like they used to—in more ways than one
Last week, I wrote about my washing machine breaking down, and having a repairman come look at it. He determined it was badly broken and needed a repair more expensive than a new machine. Since I have a home warranty plan, we had to see what the warranty company would recommend and what they would cover. I asked him to communicate that I wanted the machine fixed, not replaced, since it was such a sturdy and reliable unit. he said he would tell them that, but he was doubtful they’d cover a major repair on a 20-year-old machine.
He was right. A few days later I got a call from the warranty company, telling me they would cover a replacement, and would identify a model in a few business days. Two or three days later, they sent over a model number. It was a nice machine—this one. It retails for over $1,000, and it’s got a spacious interior capacity. There was only one problem (that I was aware of—actually there were two): it’s 32 inches deep, whereas my old broken-down washer was only about 26 inches deep. Those extra inches existed in my space, but they were the clearance for the water hookup, and as it was my old washer came right up to the doorway into the kitchen. So this new model was going to stick out a good bit into my doorway. This is what I’m talking about, with the old washer pictured:
However, I wasn’t absolutely positive that it couldn’t be made to fit, so I figured I’d go ahead and see what it would take to stack it with my existing dryer, which still worked great (and which was gas, which presented yet another kink.)
I went to Home Depot, partly to see if there was a more fitting replacement model, and partly to ask about installation. Oh—the replacement unit would be covered in full, but would be shipped to my door, and I would be responsible for finding a contractor to install it.
As for alternative models, nobody really makes them anymore. My stack was part of the “Spacemaker” line, which is discontinued. They were small overall, but they were detached machines and had relatively large capacities given their exterior dimensions—3.1 Cu for the washer. The closest thing GE, or basically anyone, makes today with similar exterior dimensions is only 2.4 Cu. Unless you want to splurge on the LG “Wash Tower,” which is over $2,000 and is still 30 inches deep, despite being marketed as a tight-space unit.
So I found a salesman to ask about installation. After boasting about Home Depot’s lack of an appliance return policy, he informed me that Home Depot “won’t touch” an existing appliance—i.e. my existing dryer that needed to stack with the new washer—and that they also wouldn’t install an appliance bought anywhere else. No dice.
He did, however, enter my name into a contractor referral system, which yielded one call from an installer. He would install a unit, and he would stack the dryer, but he couldn’t tell me for sure whether the new washer could be stacked with the old dryer. “You’d have to ask the manufacturer about that,” he told me.
So I got GE Appliances on the phone, gave them the model numbers of the old dryer and the proposed new washer, and asked what I’d need to stack them. After a couple of minutes of looking, I was informed that the two machines used different “stacking kits.” That meant, in essence, that they could not be stacked, or at least that most installers wouldn’t attempt to stack them.
Silly home warranty company. Why didn’t they pick a unit that would stack? “Ok, which washing machines would use the same stacking kit as my dryer, then?” I asked. But I had misunderstood. The proposed replacement didn’t use the old stacking kit because no currently manufactured GE appliance used the old stacking kit.
So: planned obsolescence, but not of the sort that adds new functionality. Rather, GE had effectively rendered my well-made, perfectly-working dryer useless, given that I had no space to unstack it. They made almost nothing that would even fit in my space, and nothing at all that would allow me to keep my dryer. I’ll show my cards: in my view, this is the sort of consumer-hostile policy that should verge on being illegal. It’s the sort of thing that made Ralph Nader a household name, and that made consumer advocacy a distinct movement.
However, I had two ideas. One was that perhaps, whatever GE told me, it was in fact possible to stack the old and new machines. For the next week, my life revolved around a simple but tricky question to answer—was there any way to safely jury-rig these different stacking kits or machines? What I was looking for was an expert installer who’d been in the business long enough to have come across this problem, and have experience with both stacking kits.
That took fruitless forum searches and a slew of calls to appliances stores (all of which didn’t offer installation on units you didn’t both from them, too). Finally, I called up a long-running appliance store in Flemington, New Jersey, which I knew of because my parents had bought several appliances there over the years. He gave me the answer I needed, but didn’t want: it might be possible, but not advisable, and he wouldn’t do it himself (not that he could, because he was in Flemington and I was in Virginia.)
But I said I had two ideas. The second idea was to locate a used washing machine that used the old stacking kit, and to then find an installer who would pair it with the existing dryer. That meant another call to GE, to get the model number for the old stacking kit. I explained the situation to the customer service rep, and he looked up the model of the washing machine to find the associated kit.
“Hmm…that’s interesting,” he said. “We still make the stacking kit,” he said, a little surprised. A ray of hope! “Do you think that means there is still a washer that uses it?” I asked, excited. “Let’s see,” he said, scrolling through his system. “Your model was discontinued in 2010…I don’t see anything else in production that uses it.” Damn. But he thought there might be a more recent model that did, such that it would be possible to find a used one in good condition.
And the search was on again. “Used appliances Northern Virginia,” I googled. Nobody had decent reviews online, but then almost no appliance store had good reviews. I messaged a place in Woodbridge, and asked another simple but difficult question: “Do you have any GE washing machines in stock that use stacking kit model X?” The almost immediate response: We only sell used machines from a year or two ago, mostly returns, open-boxes, stuff like that. Nothing from the 2010s.
However, the next day, the same fellow called me up and asked for more details. He did a more thorough search, and seemed interested in helping, but still came up with nothing. He recommended another store—also with poor reviews—which he thought might have a wider used selection. But they too had nothing. As far as I could tell, units using the old stacking kit had been out of production for awhile, and would be difficult to source from a dealer (as opposed to something like Craigslist). Why the kit itself was still made, I have no idea.
However—there was one more possibility. What about revisiting that expensive repair on the washer? It might be cheaper to buy a new washer, but it might not be cheaper to buy a new washer and dryer. I called up the contractor who’d originally come out to look at the broken-down washer to ask them what they would charge if I just had them come fix it. I got an interesting answer: “Our agreement with the warranty company doesn’t allow us to disclose that.” But the repair would, I was assured, cost significantly more than an average-priced new machine.
At this point, satisfied that I’d exhausted my options, I called the home warranty company to explain everything, and see if they’d cover anything more. After 45 minutes on hold, and a bunch of automated messages discouraging me from trying to get in touch with a real person, I finally got someone. She gave me the repair estimate herself, which is a funny thing if those numbers are supposed to be proprietary.
Sit down. For the parts alone, minus a good deal of labor: $1,756.30, including the spin basket, front tub, rear tub, tub seal, bellows, shock absorber, springs, and bearings. You’d basically be looking at two grand to fix a 20-year-old machine that probably retailed for $700 or $800. There’s no scenario where that makes sense, not even one that allows me to keep the dryer.
Now, how much do those parts actually cost, as opposed to what they’re sold for? Are they expensive because they’re simply not produced in large numbers these days? Because the parts suppliers are gouging consumers? Because the quality is just that good? Who knows, but I have a feeling the middle option is pretty explanatory. This gouging has a two-fold purpose: to drive up profits in the cases where someone does buy a part, and to steer consumers towards new machines.
There’s also not that much of a junkyard trade for appliance parts. Of the handful of technicians I spoke to, all used new parts. How different, really, are these parts from model to model? Probably not that different, but just like nearly every laptop uses a different battery and charging socket shape, nearly every washer or product line has its unique set of parts, which will be discontinued or sold at exorbitant markups within a few years. This is the same sort of thing as John Deere or Apple restricting affordable third-party parts and repairs. It isn’t as flashy, but it affects just as many people, and it similarly lacks any real justification.
But back to the warranty company. They told me that I could opt for a new washer of my choice, with a cash reimbursement of about $900. While the new unit they offered retails for over $1,000, $900 was what they pay for it wholesale; therefore they were paying out the same thing, even though the value to me was less. They put me on hold after I asked about increasing the coverage since it was impossible for me to keep the existing dryer. After a few minutes, I was told that because they were separate units, they couldn’t cover anything related to the dryer, even though it was impossible to unstack them in my home. They also would not offer a different replacement unit. It was the unit that didn’t fit, or an inferior, all-in-one “laundry center.” And in any case, it was throwing away my working dryer at my expense.
So, laundry centers. Those are the awkwardly shaped units common in apartments that look like this. This is the model I ultimately ended up with:
So, what about changing from a gas dryer to an electric one? Electric models are a little cheaper, after all. Yet another diversion. It turns out that our condo has always had a gas dryer, meaning there’s no 220 volt hookup for an electric dryer back there. That would cost hundreds to wire in. But my small, aging breaker box probably couldn’t handle the extra power, so that would need to be upgraded too—more hundreds.
The problem with gas, though, is that in addition to costing more for the actual unit, it also costs almost $300 to install (versus free for electric from most stores), plus a $70 permit from the county. Still cheaper, but not fun.
I’ll finish up quickly now: I checked out Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Best Buy, decided on Best Buy, and ordered the laundry center. They sent someone to look at the space and he confirmed that the laundry center was the best, and virtually the only, option. It would be installed in a couple of business days.
The new machine arrived, and the first thing I learned was that my gas valve was not up to code and that the exhaust vent was improperly installed. I’d need a new valve, and a hole cut in the wall for a proper vent, totaling an extra couple hundred on top of the nearly $300 for the gas installation itself. Then the installer noticed that he’d ripped a gash in my linoleum floor with the foot of the washer, and promised to tape it up. (I was able to spot an old-fashioned linoleum floor underneath that had simply been covered over, which was cool, but I’d rather not have been able to see it.)
A couple of hours later, the unit was finally installed, and the installers were test-running the washer and dryer. Everything worked, and the fit was alright. The new unit was a little deeper, a little narrower, and had a little less capacity. It stuck out a bit into my doorway, and it left a gap by the dishwasher, exposing the side of the dishwasher directly. Hey, at least when the dishwasher starts leaking, I’ll know right away.
I asked the installer about the dearth of machines that would fit my space. He told me that stacked units were “less popular” these days, and that manufacturers didn’t make much of anything for this sort of tight space. What are you supposed to do if that’s the only space you have? Buy a kinda-sorta-fitting laundry center, or seek out the one or two smaller-sized stackable sets that are still made. And that’s about it.
There was one final coda. That evening, when I went to start a batch of laundry, the washer made a bunch of noises for a few minutes and then clicked off. Uh-oh. Was it broken right out of the box?
No—Best Buy sent over a Geek Squad technician, and he identified the problem. The installers had somehow, after running a test cycle, turned off the water. With a turn of a valve, my washer filled and spun up. Finally. I’ve never wanted to do laundry so badly.
I know the TLDR usually goes at the top, but thank you for reading, and here are the three most important takeaways from this saga:
A whole category of very useful laundry machines—medium-sized, with large interior capacities, and stackable—is no longer manufactured widely, and by most companies, not manufactured at all. This leaves people in older buildings with few or no 1:1 options for new laundry machines. Why doesn’t one company make a really good set like the one I had, and clean up the market? My guess is they cost a lot to produce, but I really don’t know.
The use of proprietary stacking kits—unique to each manufacturer, and then updated from time to time, without backward compatibility—is sort of boring and wonky, but it’s an incredibly consumer-hostile practice, and I doubt there’s any genuine engineering or design reason for it. Because GE changed the design of a few brackets, I had to throw away a perfectly working dryer. It is a disgraceful corporate practice.
The used appliance market is weak and lackluster, with little of the choice you see in used cars or electronics. Used appliance parts are also difficult to come by. Repairs are very expensive, and it’s obvious consumers are steered towards replacement. Maybe this is inherent in the fact that appliances are heavy and bulky, and simply aren’t worth warehousing after they’re more than a few years old. But maybe this is also tied to the practice of replacing an entire suite of appliances at once, when only one is usually broken down. What happens to the scores of perfectly good appliances that are discarded because they’re the wrong brand or finish? There might be a serious market here, for people like me who put functionality ahead of sleek design or stainless steel exteriors.
There’s a lot here, and while it wasn’t fun replacing this set of laundry machines, I learned a lot more than I thought I would about the consumer issues in the appliance market. Obviously, many folks know a lot more. If you’re one of those people, leave a comment, tell a story!
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