Ryan Finlay writes in They Used To Last 50 Years:

Let me start with an example: for top loading washers and dryers two of the most expensive parts on the machines are the timer and motor. For decades there were rarely issues with these two parts, but over the past 10 years there has been a plague of washer and dryer timers and motors that fail and have to be replaced. This has been a huge step backward for the appliance industry. On the off chance a person pays someone to come out and diagnose the issue, they find out the part will be over $100 and the repair total often comes to a few hundred at the minimum. When people find this out, they usually replace the machine. The quicker a part breaks, the quicker the consumer buys a new appliance. Motors last about 1/3 to 1/4 as long as they used to.

Is it true that those machines now break much sooner?

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    Keep in mind that old models weren't near as complex as today's machines. A old Nokia phone could outlast any modern iPhone, but it was also made with a much simpler tech. Complexity often comes with fragility. – T. Sar Mar 24 '17 at 19:27
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    @stijn It did advance a lot, actually. Modern electric engines are a tad more efficient and safer than older ones. Also, you didn't had that many electronic parts in washers back then - nowadays you can even find washers that connect to the internet. They became computers that wash clothes. – T. Sar Mar 24 '17 at 20:11
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    I spent 10 minutes looking for data, and came up empty. In order to really answer this, you would need two data sets taken at least a couple of decades apart. Each data set would have to survey the whole consumer market and the two survey methods would have to be similar enough to be comparable. This seems unlikely. After seeing so many questions put on hold for being too broad, maybe this one is too specific. You are more likely to find solid data to answer the question if you broaden the question. – BobTheAverage Mar 25 '17 at 5:37
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    We went into some detail with this when we bought our new washing machine. Quoting from the back of my head, premium models today have an all-steel construction that doubles as baseplate, sump, and mounting for the engine. That's also how they were usually build "back then". Cheaper models (among other cost-related differences) use plastics for some or all of these parts. So it's not necessarily the motor that dies, but the mounting, or the lower weight of the machine leads to more vibration and thus lower motor life. So, the motor is not the only point of failure. (t.b.c.) – DevSolar Mar 25 '17 at 15:23
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    (ctd.) So, are you asking strictly about the motor's MTBF (mean time between failure), or the washer as a whole? – DevSolar Mar 25 '17 at 15:24

There's a study by the Umweltbundesamt (German Federal Environment Agency).

They find that 75% of laundry machines break at their first owner, and for those machines the average age went down from 12.5 to 11.6 years from 2004 to 2012/13. The fraction of laundry machines that breaks within the first 5 years has increased a lot (6 -> 15% of those that break, i.e. 4.5 -> 11.25% of all laundry machines).
They explain that early failures are typical for issues with quality control.

In contrast to that, they also cite findings of Stiftung Warentest that indicate that overall laundry machines last longer (in terms of runs/cycles) now than 10 years ago - but that there are huge differences between cheaper and more expensive models.

The press release linked above says:

Large household appliances
The study also claims that even the average first useful service life of large household appliances such as washing machines, clothes dryers and refrigerators decreased by one year to 13 years. One third of the purchases replaced appliances that were still working, but consumers wanted a better device. Some two thirds of purchases were necessary because of technical defects in the old device (57.6% in 2004 and 55.6% in 2012/2013). The proportion of devices which had to be replaced within five years due to a defect rose quite sharply, from 3.5% in 2004 to 8.3% in 2012.

The intermediate report is available in German: http://www.umweltbundesamt.de/en/publikationen/einfluss-der-nutzungsdauer-von-produkten-auf-ihre-1 and the final report at http://www.umweltbundesamt.de/sites/default/files/medien/378/publikationen/texte_11_2016_einfluss_der_nutzungsdauer_von_produkten_obsoleszenz.pdf

Here's what I gather about laundry machines:

First of all, most of the data measures how long the first owner of such an appliance keeps it and why they replace it. However, they cite two Canadian studies on laundry machines with the conclusion that secondary use is a significant part of the life time of laundry machines and also show some more data in full agreement with that. There's also indication that socioeconomic status correlates with replacing machines that are in working order by new/better ones on the one hand and with buying machines that break down early on the other hand.

Anyways what the German study shows is that replacements of large household appliances during the first 5 years have increased - in all 3 categories of reasons: because of defects, because the machine is not reliable and because they wanted a better one. This latter category has increased for all 3 timespans the summary (up to 5, up to 11, 11 and more years) and is responsible for about 30% of the replacements.

Between 2004 and 2012/13 the average lifespan of laundry machines that were replaced by their first owners because they were broken (75% of all laundry machines) went down from 12.5 to 11.6 years, while the average age of laundry machines that were replaced because the first owners although they were still working well basically stayed at 13.2ish years (earlier numbers are not so accurate because of smaller sample size). Again, there is no indication, how many of these machines are resold/reused (possibly after repair) and for how long.

There is a sharp increase in broken machines within the first 5 years (introduction says that early failure is usually connected with issues with quality control), from 6 % over 9% to 15%). There is a slight correlation of machines that fail early with young owners and low income, and those failures also correlate with larger household size (heavier use).

Finally, they cite results from Stiftung Warentest who regularly test laundry machines with a program of 1840 runs (which is thought to be equivalent to 10 years use). Test results are shown for 3 different price categories: 350 - 550, up to 700 and > 700 EUR, and they find:

  • overall, the tested machines got better, but
  • there are huge differences between the cheaper and the expensive categories: e.g. after 5 1/2 years' equivalent, 25 % of the 350 - 550 EUR machines are broken, in contrast to 8 % of the > 700 EUR machines.

These findings together with an overall increase of early failing machines hint that the proportions of cheaper vs. more expensive machines may have changed as well.

And last but not least, the study says that the age of laundry machines when arriving at the recycling facilities has decreased, but they cannot say whether/how much can be attributed to

  • decrease in technical lifetime
  • people replace them earlier although they are still working (want better machines)
  • economic influences (i.e. people buy more/earlier new machines when their economic situation looks bright)

They cite Miele engineering their machines for 5000 washing cycles or 20 years, while e.g. Whilpool, BSH and Electrolux use 2000 washing cycles and 10 years.

As a last thought, do not forget that over the last decades, the concepts of the laundry cycles have evolved a lot. E.g. a laundry machine from 1980 did maybe 400 or 600 U/min for spinning while nowadays 1600 U/min is usual. Duration of a washing cycle has probably tripled (1 h vs. 3 h), and there are spinning cycles in between now, whereas there used to be only a final one. These changes mean higher mechanical demands. On the other hand, temperature went down - which is possibly easier on the electronics.

The study above cites findings where older and newer laundry machines are directly compared, and machines from the 70s and 80s needed about 4+ times as much energy (and also much more detergent powder and water) to achieve the same cleaning results as a machine from 2004.

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