Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Industrial De-evolution

It's the Fourth of July and my microwave oven is broken again. No surprise. Three weeks ago, the washing machine went down, and a few months before that the refrigerator stopped dead. When the washer drum refused to spin, I called the Maytag repairman -- remember him? He was never busy because his appliances were always so reliable, at least in the old TV commercials.

So the guy comes to look at the washer (it had broken down before, and I had a circuit board replaced to get it going again), and he after 15 minutes or so says it will cost more to fix it than replace it. How old was it? Was it under warranty? Twelve years old, and, of course, not under warranty. Yeah, these "older" machines are a problem, he said. It cost me $140 to find all this out.

But back to the microwave, which is at the core of my rant today. When we upgraded the kitchen a few years ago, I opted for the GE Spacemaker, a fancy top-of-the-line model that did everything but buy the popcorn. It cost about $500. Right after the warranty expired (just over a year old) in 2010, the automatic venting door stopped working. I called the GE repair guy, and he said I needed a new part, and using his handheld computer, he informed that the total for replacing the "grill assembly"-- parts and labor -- would be $522.17. I had checked on line and found that the same microwave was now discounted to about $350. The good news was that I could apply the $120 for the service call toward the cost.

I told him to take a hike, and did what I do best. I wrote a very nasty letter to Jeff Immelt, GE's CEO, saying that I'd never buy another GE product ever again. Though I knew that his administrative aide would read the letter and pass it on to some division manager, I used my best exaggerated logic. I'll quote the salient part of my argument: "Imagine someone telling you, Mr. Immelt, that repairing the fender on your $45,000 Audi would cost $47,000. You’d find that somewhere between pathetic and laughable. That’s how I felt when the repairman visited."

A week later, I got a call from some hapless middle manager in the south, in the GE products division, who promptly arranged to FedEx the part overnight and have a repair scheduled at no additional charge.

Now, today, it's on the fritz again. The control touch pad on my microwave is frozen, and despite my best efforts to troubleshoot it (there are lots of suggestions for consumers online), I can't nuke anything at all. I'd welcome your suggestions, short of taking a sledge hammer to this sorry product. (Someone on line suggested I take it apart and clean the circuit board, something I'm totally unqualified to do.)

I've learned two things from this episode:

First, my advice to any young man or woman who is unemployed with a college degree to go into appliance repair work. You need no experience, and you can be a complete dumbo. Just get a good tool box with a Phillips head and flat head screwdriver. Spend a few minutes unscrewing a few panels, tell the customer it can't be repaired, and charge $120 for the "labor."

Second, American-made, or American-assembled products, which we know are really manufactured in emerging nations or China, just don't work for a long period of time any more. We no longer care about quality, and I know that "planned obsolesence" has been an industrial philosophy since the 1960s. But now, it's out of hand. Soon, warranties will be for 24 hours, and your electronic product will die in two months.

One more thing: if your grandparents still have a 40- or 50-year-old refrigerator still working in the basement, don't discard it. The upgrade will only break your heart.