Washing Machines, Free and New (July 10, 2009)
A discussion of washing machines ends up touching on all sorts of issues: quality, efficiency and the abundance of free goods in the U.S.
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Buying new appliances has one major payoff--much higher efficiency. A "life-cycle" analysis of any device which uses power and water (inputs which cost money) calculates the total savings gained over older less efficient models, which can be quite substantial. But such an analysis should also recognize the energy and material cost of manufacturing the item. An old item which lasts a long time has a lower life-cycle cost than one which breaks down in a year and must be replaced (especially if it cannot be readily repaired.)
This is the ultimate problem with cheap furniture from Ikea and poor-quality stuff from Home Cheapo: it may look nice for a few months before it rusts/pulls apart/breaks, but once it goes to the landfill it's true life-cycle costs were very high: non-renewable resources were invested in an object which had a short-lifespan of actual utility. Maybe the price tag indicated it was "cheap," but how cheap was it when compared to a more costly higher-quality item which lasts five, ten or fifty times longer?
Then there's the issue of repair. Older appliances, autos, lawn mowers, real wood furniture, etc. are typically repairable. Not so many new machines with electronics which fail. The entire device is always dependent on the weakest component. If that component is prone to fail and costly/impossible to replace, then the lifespan of that machine will very likely be far shorter than that of an older, better engineered and better-made equivalent.
How many times have you heard this story? The electronic board on a car goes out and the replacement costs $800 or even $1,200. How much is the car worth? Maybe not much more than the replacement cost of the electronics parts. So the entire vehicle is junked.
Ikea-type particle board furniture looks very nice when first assembled, but once the screws pull out of the particle board then it's impossible to fix without going to a great deal of trouble. Once the super-thin veneer peels off, revealing the particle board underneath, the once-chic item is quickly reduced to shabby junk--perhaps its "natural state" given the poor quality of the materials used in its construction.
These three reader comments each address these issues from a different perspective:
Soon after I moved in to my condo (with a laundry room) in SF back in 1998 a friend bought a home in Mill Valley that still had the original "avocado" green Maytag washer and dryer that the original owners of the home bought in 1968.
Regarding the replacement of washers and dryers: My family returned from vacation (celebrating our twentieth wedding anniversary, thank you very much!) to discover that our 14-year-old washer was broken (again). We'd known that both it and our 20-year old dryer were not long for this world, so we were already prepared to replace them at the next breakdown.
Free stuff does exist. It is a little section of Craigslist. That good used washer from Wednesday's entry is easy to replace for the cost of a little time and effort. By watching the ads and answering in a nice and polite form there are probably several chances a week at a good working replacement for the cost of picking it up. When my wife and I moved from Texas to north Virginia, we gave away most of our big furniture and misc. items. We condensed our things to one car and one small-bed Ranger. Later when we had a 3 bedroom place for a while, every room was nicely furnished with free stuff. We got TV's, beds, couches, tables, chairs, a portable convection oven I adore, and dishes, etc.
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