two men look over appliances - how long should appliances last?Doing the math on whether to fix an old appliance is fairly easy: If the repair cost is more than half the cost of a new appliance, and the item is more than half-way through its useful lifetime, then it's time to buy a new one.

No sense in spending money on repairs for a machine that will likely only last a few more years anyway, which we've covered before at WalletPop. But how long should a large home appliance last, given regular usage? You'd think much more than four years, especially since they cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, along with many dollars each month to run.

The Consumerist recently reported that a woman paid $3,000 for a KitchenAid double oven that broke after four years of use, only to find that Whirlpool (KitchenAid's parent company) doesn't make the replacement part anymore.Simple maintenance tips are easy to find to help appliances run their full life cycle and not break as often, but probably one of the best things to do is set up a relationship (business, not personal) with a repairman who knows your appliances and how to fix them fast and easily, said Angie Hick's, owner of the consumer rating service Angie's List, where ratings on contractors and other workers can be found.

"I think a lot of times we forget to take care of our large appliances," Hicks told WalletPop in a telephone interview.

The average price of a service call is $60 to $100 before parts and labor, and many companies will deduct their call charge from the bill if you hire them, according to Hicks. Some companies, such as Sears, will give customers a voucher for most of the cost of a service call to be used toward buying a new appliance if theirs can't be fixed.

Her website has a list of 10 questions to ask to determine if an appliance should be repaired or replaced, among them:

  • Is it really broken? The trouble may be a short in the plug, a tripped circuit breaker, or a bad surge-protector outlet. Check the troubleshooting section of the unit's instruction manual for the most common problems and solutions.
  • Have you had trouble with the unit before? If it's performed well, it might be worth fixing instead of replacing with something unproven.
  • How much will it cost to repair the unit?
  • What would a similar appliance cost?
  • Are there any hidden costs to purchase (removal, installation, disposal, tax, etc.)?
  • What energy savings will I get with the new appliance? Will they offset the cost of a new appliance vs. repair?
  • What tax credits are available for purchasing an energy efficient unit? Will they offset the cost of a new appliance vs. repair?
Until the repairman arrives, here are some guidelines on how long your appliances should last to help you determine whether you should repair or replace:

Refrigerators and Freezers

They should last 10-15 years, according to Hicks. These suck up a lot of energy, so buying a new one will save you money over time. Many utilities offer free in-home pickup, with a reward check of $25 to $50. Recyclers such as Arca and Jaco Environmental take old refrigerators, and Jaco's website will let you search by zipcode whether your local ultility company is offering such a reward. The utilities benefit because the program removes older refrigerators that use up to three times more power than newer models made to tighter energy-efficiency standards.

Rental property owner Mike Arman, who buys a few appliances each year and fixes old ones instead of throwing them out, recommends buying from aftermarket appliance repair companies for refrigerators or other appliances with a lot of electronics inside them. Googling "Whirlpool refrigerator defrost timer," for example, will show it costing $50 or more from the manufacturer, or $15 by mail from somewhere else.

Dishwasher

Ten to 15 years, Hicks said. Dishwashers use less water than you'd think, as a WalletPop Savings Experiment found out, although recalls last year over fire hazards may put you back in front of the sink.

Washer, Dryer

Ten to 15 years, according to Hicks. If it takes more than 30 minutes to dry clothes, something is probably wrong with the dryer vent, not the dryer itself, certified dryer exhaust technician Alisa LeSueur told WalletPop in an email exchange. While not sure how long dryers should last, LeSueur said that from her experience, older dryers last longer because they have fewer parts to break and the ones that do are cheaper to replace.

"If the vent is not clear, the dryer will have to run longer to dry clothes, effectively shortening its life" LeSueur wrote in an email. "Many homes have laundry rooms in the middle of the house so that the vent pipe runs inside the wall up to the ceiling and then either out the roof or over to a side wall. These pipes are 12'-35' and collect lint which builds up over time and causes the clothes dryer to work harder/longer. It is also a huge fire hazard (12,000 clothes dryer fires annually). These pipes are cleaned out professionally and extend the life of the clothes dryer. Imagine a typical situation: Clothes take over an hour to dry with a clogged vent. With a clear vent, they take 30 minutes. The dryer wears out twice as quickly, or burns out a heating element requiring a large repair bill."

Ovens, Ranges

Ten to 20 years, Hicks said. Don't allow heavy grease buildup on the oven interior. Electric stoves and other appliances that have a lot of digital displays and controllers are extremely sensitive to electrical surges, many of which are caused by turning on or off high currents, Arman said. He suggests getting a whole house surge suppressor installed at the electrical service entry. They cost between $70 and $300, and you need to pay an electrician to install them (and some municipalities will require you to pull a permit to remove and replace the electric meter).

Water Heater

Ten to 20 years, said Hicks, who recommends draining a quart of water from your water heater tank every three months to remove sediment that slows down heat transfer and lowers the efficiency of your heater.

Central Air-Conditioning Unit

Fifteen to 20 years, according to Hicks. After heating a home, keeping it cool is the most expensive appliance cost, so keeping a home airtight is a sure way to lower heating and cooling costs.

As for the woman who had her oven last for just more than four years, one way to prevent that is to research the appliance before you buy it see how long the manufacturer plans to have parts available for it, suggested James Vallejo, president of the Vallejo Corp. General Electric offers 10 years on parts, limited to the original owner, Vallejo said.

Unfortunately, there's no lemon law on appliances, making an extended warranty an extra purchase to consider when buying a new appliance.

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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