As consumers, we've all probably held some unexpected funerals for our purchases. Maybe it was the refrigerator with the smart cooling system that died far too young. Or the self-cleaning double oven, which was so shiny and full of promise when you first met. You tried to tell yourself that everything happens for a reason, but it didn't make you feel any better about losing the dishwasher or your 42-inch television.
It isn't your imagination: Consumer products don't last as long as they used to. Here are some thoughts about why that is, and how long you can expect many of the products inside and around your home to last.
Appliances. In 2007, the National Association of Home Builders and Bank of America Home Equity released the "Study of Life Expectancy of Home Components," which included these estimates for long various appliances should last before you should think about replacing them.
- Gas range oven: 15 years
- Refrigerator: 13 years
- Trash compactor: six years
- Dishwasher: nine years
- Microwave oven: nine years
- Washing machine: 10 years
- Electric or gas dryer: 13 years.
- Food waste disposer: 12 years
It should be noted that he feels his companies' products -- all made in the U.S. -- are durable. For instance, his Omega juicers have a 10-year warranty. "We don't design failure into a product," he says.
But Asbury says that as a whole, consumer products don't last as long as they did several decades ago and beyond, "when a lot of what was produced were products that lasted forever."
Of manufacturing today, he says, "A lot of it is doing more assembly work than it was in the traditional sense, like back in the 1950s and 1960s, where you not only made the product but all of the components."
And there is plenty of incentive to make those components as cheaply as possible to stay competitive. Asbury says many of the compressors used at his ice machine factory were made in countries like Brazil, France and Korea. But those countries outsource to other countries that can make things even cheaper. "Everyone's chasing that cost reduction," he says.
Much of what drives that cost reduction is of the rising cost of raw materials, says Roger Beahm, executive director of the Center for Retail Innovation at Wake Forest University School of Business.
"Competitive and trade pressures keep the manufacturer from raising prices too fast. So manufacturers look elsewhere to find ways of offsetting these raw-material cost increases. These factors reduce product longevity and, relatedly for some products, durability," Beahm says.
Around the house. If you have an air conditioner, you can expect it to last 10 years, according to the Study of Life Expectancy of Home Components. Carpet? Eight to 10 years. A linoleum floor fares better at 25 years, and a laminate floor can last 15 to 25 years. Here are the life expectancies of more home products:
- Electric water heater: 11 years
- Gas water heater: 10 years
- Electric boiler: 13 years
- Gas boiler: 21 years
Electronics are infamous for not lasting as long as consumers would like, but they probably break down less than one might think. According to a December 2013 issue of Consumer Reports, if you buy a flat-screen TV, there is a 3 percent chance of it dying within the first four years of ownership, and if you purchase a laptop, there's an 11 percent chance it will give out within three years. It's not a good thing if you're among those 3 or 11 percent of buyers, but generally, Consumer Reports says electronics are reliable enough to make an extended warranty unnecessary.
Still, while your TV will probably last longer than four years, you'll be lucky to have it in, say, 14 years. "As manufacturers try to keep costs and pricing down to compete, the product life on our core categories -- appliances and electronics -- has shortened significantly," says Jon Abt, co-president of Abt Electronics and Appliances in Glenview, Illinois. "Customers who come into our store to replace their 20-year-old refrigerator are surprised when we tell them the average life expectancy of a new one is seven to 12 years."
Incidentally, if you've noticed that stores are pushing extended warranties just as products' standard warranty time seems to be shrinking, that may have nothing to do with the quality. Asbury says many manufacturers are reducing the time due to warranty fraud.
"People will buy a computer, use it a month because they needed it to study through final exams, and then return it," he says. "There are all kinds of abuse out there."
Your house. The aforementioned "Study of Life Expectancy of Home Components" report states that a typical roof made of asphalt shingles should last about 20 years. Roofs made of fiber cement shingles should last 25 years, and roofs made of wood shakes are typically good for 30 years. If you have a roof made of slate, copper, clay or concrete, you can expect it to last 50 years.
The foundation and frame of your house should last a lifetime if they were properly built. And while the walls should also last the lifetime of the house, aluminum windows are only expected to hang around for 15 to 20 years. Wooden windows should last as long as 30 years.
Your garage door opener won't have as lucky of a fate, however. Expect it to last 10 to 15 years.
Let's say you buy a garage door opener today. Perhaps when it conks out in 15 years, consumer products will have turned a corner, and the next one will last 30 years. That's doubtful, according to Chip Manning, director of The University of the South's Babson Center for Global Commerce in Sewanee, Tennessee.
"Planned obsolescence isn't a new concept in business but an ever-evolving and important one," he says. "Any manufacturer of goods wants your loyalty but also wants you to keep buying product."
Asbury doesn't buy that view. He says every manufacturer he knows is passionate about delivering the best product it can. From an environmental standpoint, he says it's immoral to do otherwise. But he isn't too optimistic that the country will see garage door openers with 30-year life spans.
"I think some products will improve," Asbury says. "I think the American automobile manufacturers make a much better product than they used to as a result of the shellacking they took throughout the 1970s into the 1990s. I think that's a good example of quality levels improving because of competitive requirements. But that might be the outlier. By and large, there are always going to be a huge pressure by the American consumer for manufacturers to drive their costs down."
So it's our fault. But who can blame us? We need to cut costs after replacing all of our appliances and electronics and making payments on our more-durable but expensive cars.