11/12/2016

They are All the Same?

I just spend an afternoon messing with our two year old Amana dishwasher. There are all sorts of things to learn from doing your own work on home appliances and since this particular device was dirt cheap when the bank installed it after repo'ing the house, I didn't have much to lose when it came to tearing the unit apart. So, I did.

Initially, Whirlpool (the company that owns Whirlpool, Maytag, KitchenAid, Jenn-Air, Amana, Gladiator GarageWorks, Inglis, Estate, Brastemp, Bauknecht, Indesit, and Consul brands), said this would be a warranty repair, since the dishwasher failed in exactly the same way a year after we bought the house. When the repair goofball showed up, all of that information seemed to vanish in the Whirlpool (pun intended).

After getting stuck with a $60 repair bill and a $300 estimate for a $250 dishwasher, I decided to do a little troubleshooting of my own. Pretty quickly, I discovered the pump that provides water to the spray jets was defective. After pulling the pump and applying power to the motor outside of the appliance, it was obvious that the noise we'd been living with as long as we've had this dishwasher had been coming from a poorly designed and assembled pump. The armature shaft was about 70% too small for the two end bushings, allowing the motor shaft to pound side-to-side as the motor spun. At first, I tried Whirlpool for the replacement pump, but they wanted $125 for a cheap Chinese-made plastic pump that probably cost less than $5 to build. Then, I checked all of the usual on-line suspects for a discount price and found the pump from as little as $36 to more than $100.

However, even more interesting than the range of prices was the fact that this exact pump is used in Whirlpool/Amana/KitchenAid/Maytag dishwashers that ranged in list prices from $250 to more than $1,000. That was quite a revelation! If you think paying more for an appliance is going to get you better quality, this information ought to bust that bubble.

The repair goofball claimed the problem with modern dishwashers is "the computers," but I kept finding repair blogs and DIY sites that mostly found failures exactly like mine. Dishwasher, washing machine, dryers, and other appliances use most of their power driving motors and those motors and pumps are made more cheaply and poorly in every generation. Power generates heat, motion creates vibration and heat, torque stresses materials and connections, and those three things are the prime factors for part failure in any design.

The general lack of product warranty variation is a great indicator of just how poorly made and unreliable these appliances are: universally 1 year "limited warranty" is the industry standard. You can pre-buy repairs with the add-on warranty policies, but the reputation of those policies is terrible and the contract is not made between the customer and the manufacturer but an intermediate insurance company and miscellaneous repair companies. Warranties are not designed by accident. Reliability assurance weigh the part quality, design weak points, and other factors to make a very educated guess for the mean-time-between-failures the majority of a manufactured product and a fudge-factor cost is sometimes added to the wholesale price of a product to obtain a nice round number, like 12 months, for marketing purposes. Most products have a little safe margin built into the design, which explains why so many of us have experienced product failures 1-6 months after the warranty expires. Expecting a modern product with a 12 month warranty to last 3-5 years is irrational. The product has been designed to last 12 months with normal use. You are unlikely to see much more than that.

When it comes to "getting what you pay for" with the Whirlpool company and it's sub-brands, you are buying cosmetics and "features" like rarely-used wash cycles. Why would you spend money on a stainless steel interior/exterior if you know the fatal flaw in the product is a $5 pump? Your mileage may vary, but I am going to buy the cheapest replacement dishwasher I can find and play on throwing the whole thing away in a year or two.

11/17/2016 POSTSCRIPT: Yesterday, I received a call from a Whirlpool "customer service" person who left a wrong call-back number and a breathless "I really want to resolve this" message. So, I wasted my time trying to return the call and, after a really long time on hold, I was told that since the dishwasher was long out of warranty "I can't do anything to help you." Weird. Why would you bother to call, waste my time on hold for twenty minutes while you re-discovered your company wasn't going to do anything more than I was told the first time? 

Since the faux "service call," I've pulled the pump mechanism apart and did what I did for a living doing for 30+ years: analyzed the pump failure. It was an interesting experience. The actual pump design is pretty clever: two brass bushings, a highly magnetized armature, and a washer to seal moisture from the pump motor. Unfortunately, the armature shaft and the brass bushings are a poor fit, allowing the armature to flail about until the shaft and bushings were really distorted and, finally, the motor magnet intermittently positioned itself against the motor casing where it wouldn't start. Once the motor turned, however, it ran strongly but nosily: exactly the noise we've heard from this dishwasher from the day we started using it.

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