A few weeks ago, I was participating in a meeting on Ecodesign where we discussed regulations for washing machines. Around that same time, something interesting happened: the display on my own washing machine started to fail. A few years ago, those two things wouldn’t have had anything to do with each other. Environmentally friendly products and repair were seen as two different things. Now, policy-makers are starting to recognize that they are two sides of the same coin.
Ecodesign, as a concept, now incorporates something we call material efficiency—which is a fancy way of saying that valuable resources (like appliances) shouldn’t wind up in the rubbish heap before they have to. Over half of the footprint of a washing machine comes from manufacturing it and getting it to your door. A washing machine with a short lifespan is just as bad as one that guzzles tons of water or electricity.
As the EU repair policy spokesperson for iFixit, I get to be part of the discussion on how a repairable, material-efficient machine should be designed. We’re working on standards to measure repairability—like iFixit’s repairability scores but officially applicable across all of Europe, and perhaps beyond. We talk about things like the ‘ability to access components’ and the ‘availability of spare parts.’
Which brings me back to my washing machine and its broken display. It’s so typical that an unnecessary feature brought down the whole machine. I mean, what’s wrong with a mechanical program button? Broken screens kill enough phones already without adding washing machines to the casualty list. But I digress.
We bought the machine a little over 11 years ago. According to this list of expected lifetimes (PDF), that means I got my money’s worth. So I shouldn’t complain, right?
If I discard the machine now, researchers would say it reached an average age. Washing machines produced in 1988 were discarded on average 16 years later, whereas machines made in 1999 lasted less than 14 years (see this report, p. 104). My 2005 machine seems on course to follow the downward lifetime curve. And even though manufacturers swear that shorter lifespans for modern products are a myth—if I buy a new washing machine now, I’d expect it to wear out even quicker.
Tackling the Repair
But, of course, I don’t want to give up on the washing machine I already have. Not without a fight. After all, I’m a fixer. So after fuming about my broken screen, I buckled down and started troubleshooting. The LCD was flickering and fading randomly. Sometimes the display lit up when we switched on the machine, sometimes not. I assumed there was a bad contact somewhere, so I decided to take the display out and check all of the connections.
The disassembly was a piece of cake. There were only ten screws between me and the electronic interface module, which consisted of a mechanical switch and two circuit boards. One of the boards held the display. I disconnected and reconnected all of the wires and ribbon cables. But nothing changed. No amount of wire wiggling made a difference.
There had to be a faulty component somewhere in the mix. If I could replace that, I could get the whole thing working again for a few bucks. All I needed was a circuit diagram. Alas, no luck. The manufacturer doesn’t release them to owners.
In the US and the EU, we’re fighting for diagrams and service manuals to be made available to anybody who wants to fix stuff, like independent repairers, repair café volunteers, and owners. We haven’t won that battle yet. The current draft for the EU ecodesign regulation on washing machines is one of the first to mention wiring diagrams, but not circuit board schematics yet. So, of course, I argued at the ecodesign meeting to have these included. But for now, with no way for me to fix the circuit board itself, I’ll just have to replace it.
You Can’t Wash Away Sticker Shock
I jotted down the product code and went to the manufacturer’s support website. I couldn’t find my model on their site, but after some searching and emailing, I finally found a part number and a price. That’s where the fun started. Because I couldn’t just replace the bad board. I had to replace the whole interface assembly. And that sweet little assembly costs … a whopping 488,99€. The whole washing machine cost me 983.89€. So the price of the spare part is almost exactly 50% of the whole appliance. Must be a coincidence.
What’s a fixer to do? Spend half the value of the machine for a single part? How much is too much for a repair? I’ve heard from repair-minded producers that 30% of the product’s price is the limit for most customers. What’s yours? (Leave a comment and tell me.)
After some emails, I did manage to haggle the part down to last year’s price, which (for some reason) was 200€ cheaper. Apparently, washing machine spare parts age like fine wine: they get more expensive every year. What’s the part gonna cost next year? The washing machine’s German support website already lists it at 1073,28€. I’m not sure if that’s a joke, a mistake, or just the law of supply and demand. But it’s ridiculous.
In all of these policy discussions I’m involved in, prices are taboo—‘out of scope’ would be the official lingo. My washing machine story is perfect proof that that doesn’t make sense.
Pricing Out Repairs
Strictly speaking, the washing machine company met the ecodesign requirements we’ve been discussing in the forum I attended. They do offer spare parts for many years after production. But at that price, it doesn’t matter. Even a repair die-hard like myself wouldn’t pay more for the part than they would for a new machine. And neither would anyone else. As many as one out of five possible repairs don’t happen because the part is too expensive (see this report, p. 9). That’s a huge waste. We can’t talk seriously about longer lasting products without talking about the price of spare parts.
Me, I decided that I had to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. Apart from the display, the machine works just fine. So I decided to buy those two pounds of electronics for 300€ instead of adding around 80kg to the continuously growing stream of e-waste. Hopefully, I can keep my washing machine alive for 11 more years. Or until a completely repairable, upgradable washing machine hits the market.
Whichever comes first.