When Phil Brun del Re bought a new Kenmore Elite refrigerator, he didn’t expect it to break down three years later.
But one weekend, his daughter discovered the appliance — which Brun del Re said he paid more than $3,000 for — was leaking water onto the floor. That posed an immediate problem for the family of four, who live near Chelsea, Que.
“I have two kids, they’re into sports. We eat a lot,” he said.
Brun del Re’s first thought was: “OK, how can we get this solved as quickly as possible?”
His experience is likely familiar to the majority of Canadians who took part in a nationwide survey commissioned by CBC’s Marketplace about appliances and repairs.
The survey found that more than three-quarters of respondents have had a large household appliance break down, and 75 per cent of those products were said to be 10 years old or less.
Nearly one in three said their appliance broke down in less than five years.
When asked to recall the manufacturer of the appliance that broke down, Kenmore was named more than any other brand, accounting for 21 per cent — or about one in five — of all appliance breakdowns in Canada.
The online survey of 1,522 adult Canadians posed questions about large household appliances, with consumers sharing details about refrigerators, dishwashers, stoves, washing machines and dryers.
Big brand breakdowns
Canadians were asked to name the brands they said they experienced breakdowns with, and Marketplace ranked them according to responses.
Brun del Re struggled to find a fix for his relatively new Kenmore refrigerator. The process took nearly two months of calls to manufacturers and repair companies, he said, along with diagnostic and repair visits.
He eventually learned that the compressor, made by LG, had quit.
Based on his experience, Brun del Re said he imagines most people would have simply given up and gone to buy another fridge. “The phone calls, the making time to meet up with people, the sourcing of people, the waiting on hold … call this number, call back, call the U.S.,” he recounted.
Indeed, more than nine in 10 (92%) of Canadians said they would opt to replace an appliance if it was too expensive to repair, the survey found, with a majority (58%) saying they wouldn’t spend more than $300 to fix an appliance that originally cost $1,000.
Firm on fixing
Brun del Re estimated he lost about $200 worth of frozen food as a result of his fridge breakdown — only the beginning of a long list of expenses.
The family put what food they could into a deep freezer in their basement and dug out a small cooler to use in the meantime.
“It was almost like camping,” he said. Though he had no idea he’d be living like that for weeks.
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Brun del Re was determined to get his refrigerator fixed — or to at least try.
“Part of me thinks about what my father would do,” he said. “If something is broken, repair it. Why replace the whole item?”
Brun del Re hoped the fridge was covered under warranty. But if not, he said he was willing to spend a bit of extra money to avoid tossing “hundred pounds of metal” into a recycling depot.
Right to repair
Across 27 countries, the European Union actively promotes repair over replacement for household appliances with recently adopted legislation known as the “right to repair.” It will come into effect in March 2021.
The new rules state that manufacturers must make spare parts available for a minimum of seven years after purchase. For some appliances, like washing machines and dryers, it’s a minimum of 10 years. Manufacturers must also deliver spare parts within 15 working days of when a repair technician calls to order a replacement.
What’s more, any replacement parts must be compatible with common tools and installed without permanently damaging the appliance. Companies must further provide diagnostic and repair guides to all trained repair technicians — not just their own employees.
“With all of that expertise and technology, why do we keep making appliances that last shorter and shorter and shorter lifespans? I mean, something has gone wrong,” said Nathan Proctor, a consumer protection advocate working to bring these laws to North America.
“If you want products that last longer, that are better for the environment and cost less to maintain, you should want ‘right to repair.'”
“Even if you never take your product to anyone but the manufacturer for repair, you should still want ‘right to repair,’ because these laws keep the manufacturers from overcharging you or misleading you about whether something can be fixed.”
Proctor said such legislation will prevent monopolies from forming and will empower repair people.
The new EU law will also create more employment and spinoff industries, said Per Bolund, Sweden’s minister of financial markets and a champion of consumer rights.
“The idea is to really make it the affordable and the sensible way,” he said. “To use your money … to repair what you have, rather than just throwing it away and buying something that is brand new.”
While no such laws exist in Canada yet, some provinces have floated the idea.
In Quebec, Bill 197 was introduced last April to amend the province’s Consumer Protection Act to allow for greater sustainability of consumer products. While the Consumer Protection Office has held consultations on the subject, nothing has moved forward.
In Ontario, a private member’s bill was put forward, aimed at making tech repairs easier. The bill made it to a second reading before it was voted down in early May 2019.
According to the Marketplace survey, only one in 10 Canadians said they knew about right to repair legislation. But once given an explanation, 88 per cent of Canadians said they supported the idea.
A Canadian right to repair law would have made a big difference to Mehul Dholakia, whose $1,900 LG fridge died about six years after he bought it.
Like Brun del Re, Dholakia’s compressor quit.
Dholakia was willing to pay for a new part, and LG says customers can buy replacements directly on their website. But when the Brampton, Ont., man tried to do that, the part wasn’t available.
Marketplace also tried to purchase the same type of compressor. We were initially able to order the part, but a couple of hours later, we received an email from LG cancelling the order. “We are not permitted to sell compressors, please contact LG directly for assistance,” the notice said.
In the end, Dholakia ended up buying a new fridge.
Kenmore no more
When Brun Del Re bought his Kenmore refrigerator from Sears in 2016, he said he paid for an extended warranty through the retailer. But about a year later, Sears went bust and announced that all of its extended warranties would be null and void.
According to the Marketplace survey, of the Canadians who experienced a breakdown, only 14 per cent said their appliances were still under warranty.
Kenmore products are no longer for sale in Canada, but Sears Holdings Inc., which sells the Kenmore brand, still operates in the U.S. and sells these appliances there.
Brun del Re’s paperwork showed that his compressor had a 10-year manufacturer’s warranty. But when he called the U.S. company, he said he couldn’t get a clear answer on how to have the repair costs covered.
“So much time has been spent calling — on hold, press one, press three, don’t call us, call that person, back and forth, back and forth,” said Brun del Re. “I was almost ready to call it a day and just go to an appliance store and buy a new fridge.”
He eventually reached LG, which makes the compressor in his Kenmore fridge, after making five phone calls in a single morning. “I was being transferred all over the place,” he said, noting that by this point, he cared less about the warranty and just wanted to find out how to fix his fridge.
It was “a little too soon” for a major component to break in a three-year-old fridge, he said. “And to, of course, leave us scrambling to find a solution, which unfortunately has not been easy.”
The fridge was ultimately fixed by an LG certified technician — but not before the Brun del Re family said they spent more than $1,000 in labour, parts and service visits.
In a statement, LG told Marketplace its policies are clear: Though the broken compressor was manufactured by LG, the company wouldn’t honour the 10-year warranty because it was inside a Kenmore product.
“For Kenmore fridges that require service, Kenmore products have no warranty directly with LG. The entire product is warrantied through Sears/Kenmore,” the company said.
Both Kenmore and Sears Holdings declined repeated requests for an interview and did not provide a statement.
Marketplace also reached out to Sears Holdings with general questions about extended warranties and the repairability of its appliances. The company declined to comment.
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Many other Canadians told Marketplace about their struggles with repairs, including a woman in London, Ont., who waited six months for GE to replace a brand new dishwasher after the machine arrived defective.
According to Marketplace‘s survey, only about a third of consumers said they were satisfied with their experience in dealing with the manufacturer of a broken appliance.
Marketplace contacted the top brands named by our survey respondents. All declined requests for on-camera interviews. Samsung and GE also declined to give a statement.
Whirlpool, which owns Maytag, said the company stands by its products, but it also said it sincerely apologizes for the issues faced by those Marketplace spoke with.
Frigidaire, owned by Electrolux, wrote that the company takes reliability and repair seriously.
And LG said in a statement its customers could purchase spare parts on their website, despite Marketplace‘s unsuccessful attempt to buy the compressor Dholakia had needed.
Some of the top brands also deferred comment to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM), which represents all of the brands except Kenmore. That group also declined interview requests until Marketplace went to its head office in Washington for an unscheduled interview.
Jill Notini, AHAM’s vice-president of communications and marketing, said the association has conducted its own survey on home appliances, finding that appliances last, on average, 10 years and that appliance lifespans have remained “relatively unchanged” in the last two decades.
In a statement, AHAM also said its research shows customers are satisfied with the lifespan of their appliances.
“I understand that there is a group of people that you’ve spoken to that have had negative experiences,” Notini said.
“And in those cases, our industry wants to do better. They’re taking steps to do better. It’s important to our manufacturers that they have a positive relationship with their customers. But overall, people are satisfied with the duration of their appliance length.”
AHAM opposes right to repair regulations, Notini said, noting there are health and safety issues in allowing consumers access to parts and the ability to choose who repairs their appliances.
The online survey was conducted between Dec. 10-15, 2019, among a representative sample of 1,522 English-speaking Canadians 18 or older, who are members of the Maru Voice Canada panel. For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of this size would yield a margin of error of +/- 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.