Your 8-year-old clothes dryer is grinding away like a scrap metal manufacturing plant. Do you fix it or buy a new one?
Either way, the choice is often an expensive one.
"The funny thing about major appliances, people replace their cars three times as often as a major appliance. People always tend to look at the appliance and say, 'I want it to last forever,' " says Marian Stamos of the Major Appliance Consumer Action Panel, a trade association of appliance manufacturers.
Of course, buying or repairing an appliance doesn't have the glamour of buying a new Porsche.
Major appliances cost enough that the average consumer doesn't want to have to make a snap judgment about repair or replacement.
"It takes a little work for a consumer to make an informed decision," says Jack Hayes, Sacramento bureau chief for the California Bureau of Electronic and Appliance Repair in the state's Department of Consumer Affairs.
As the appliance sits there, useless, the consumer juggles a number of considerations. How much is a new one? Is it only a minor problem? Do I have to buy a replacement quickly? Who will do a good job of repairing it?
The cost of a new appliance gives you a starting point for evaluation. The repairman's call to diagnose the problem usually costs about $30, depending on the appliance. For such "traffic appliances" as toasters and toaster ovens, blenders, crock pots and mixers, "the rule of thumb is, if the repair costs one-half the value of the appliance or less, then it's repaired," says Rick Rico of California Electric Service in Santa Ana, which specializes in such repairs.
For microwaves, videocassette recorders and telephones, customers tend to have them repaired up to three-quarters of their cost, Rico says.
With the electronic complexity of such products, it may actually cost more to repair them than to replace them.
Some consumers make a lifetime commitment to an appliance. Others see one breakdown as the first of many to come, and they replace the machine.
"Some people will decide that one small problem over a 15-year period is not enough to start making plans for a new one," says Mary Gillespie, assistant director of communications for the Assn. of Home Appliance Manufacturers.
Refrigerators can force an especially agonizing decision because a refrigerator failure is a semi-emergency; a refrigerator on the blink usually stops keeping your food cold. They go out more in hot weather, when they have to work harder, says one service company employee.
"If the compressor goes bad, it's time to think about getting a new refrigerator," says a repairman at Appliance Rebuilders and Parts Co. in Santa Ana. A compressor will cost roughly $400. He adds, "I don't consider a refrigerator old till it's about 20 years old."
A refrigerator should have a life expectancy of about 15 years, as should a dishwasher, notes Hughes of the state's appliance repair bureau.
Another expensive repair on a refrigerator is a puncture in the Freon system, which could signal the end for an older refrigerator. The holes usually occur in older refrigerators that don't have automatic defrosting; someone tries to chip away the ice with a knife or ice pick and punches a hole in the system.
"It's tough to guarantee a job of that nature," one repairman says. "You'd have to flush and vacuum it and recharge it with Freon. With the new ecology law on Freon, the price has tripled since the first of the year. And you'd have a patched refrigerator."
The newer the item, the less energy it probably uses in doing its job and the less it will cost to operate, particularly if it replaces an old product.
The Major Appliance Consumer Action Panel's figures indicate that manufacturers of top mount automatic defrost refrigerators, which account for 80% of refrigerator sales, reduced the refrigerators' energy requirements from 1986 kilowatts per year in 1972 to 960 in 1988. Federal standards called for a maximum of 950 in 1990.
Dishwashers are another long-lived appliance unless they're abused. "There's no reason to replace a dishwasher unless the tub's rusted through," says a representative for one repair service.
While there's no one expensive part that will go out on a dishwasher, a common problem is that the motor will freeze for lack of use.
In dishwashers, energy use is tied primarily to hot water use, Stamos says. A standard dishwasher running a normal cycle uses about 11 gallons of water per cycle. MACAP's figures show manufacturers reduced energy use in dishwashers from 4.17 kilowatts per cycle in 1972, to 2.69 in 1989. (Washing machines dropped from 3.81 to 2.68 kilowatts per cycle. A standard automatic washer, depending on the water level, uses 24.4 to 42.5 gallons of water. Room air conditioners fell from 1282 kilowatts per year, to 900.)
Some people regard a microwave as deserving of emergency repair.
"People seem to be very helpless when the microwave goes down, even with the range sitting there," Gillespie says.