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Want a reliable appliance? Do your homework

You’ll probably spend a lot of time considering color and style when choosing a new home appliance. Just don’t forget to find out about reliability. By ConsumerMan Herb Weisbaum.
The new Maytag repairman, Clay Jackson, will be busy fixing front-loading washers and top-freezer model refrigerators. The Consumer Reports reliability survey found Maytag to be among the most repair-prone models in those two categories.PR NEWSWIRE

You’ll probably spend a lot of time considering color and style when choosing a new home appliance. My wife and I did. Just don’t forget to find out about reliability. Trust me ... it’s important.

My under-the-counter oven, an expensive model made by a high-end manufacturer, broke a few weeks ago. A minor soup spill damaged the circuit boards. The repairman says it could cost us as much as $800 to replace them. That’s just crazy!

“The more bells and whistles you have, the more there is that could go wrong,” says Walt Dews, who owns an appliance repair service in Seattle. Dews tells me high-end appliances can cost a lot of money to fix because they use leading-edge technology — such as those circuit boards I need replaced — that you don’t find in less-expensive brands.

According to the May issue of Consumer Reports, we’re not the only ones who’ve had repair problems with this brand of electric oven.

Consumers rate products
Consumer Reports tests product performance in its labs. But it gets reliability data from consumers who respond to its yearly reliability survey. By combining this data — performance and reliability — you can find products that are most likely to work well and be trouble-free.

I always check Consumer Reports for reliability ratings before making a major purchase. But two years ago when we remodeled the kitchen, the magazine did not have reliability ratings for electric wall ovens.

This year’s survey results are based on responses from more than 950,000 readers who rated 30 different types of products, including ovens, washers, dryers, dishwashers, ranges, refrigerators, televisions, lawnmowers, and automobiles.

The survey found that brand name alone does not guarantee reliability. A manufacturer’s reputation, “could be something that’s mostly created by the marketing department,” says Senior Editor Amanda Walker. “It isn’t necessarily what you experience when you get that product home.”

For instance, it seems the Maytag repairman has been busy fixing front-loading washers and top-freezer model refrigerators. The Consumer Reports reliability survey found Maytag to be among the most repair-prone models in those two categories.

It’s hard to do everything well
The survey also shows that most manufacturers don’t get top scores across product lines. For instance, Amana makes reliable dishwashers but its electric dryers have a higher-than-average repair rate.

Consumer Reports says Whirlpool, Kenmore and GE are “safe bets” for major appliances. Between 2002 and 2006 they tended to have relatively low repair rates across the board.

Sony is called a “safe bet” for electronics. Its products were among the most reliable brands in many categories including camcorders and picture tube TVs. The magazine says Sony also shows “promising reliability” for plasma, LCD and microdisplay TVs. 

Price, reliability not necessarily related
“The pricey brands very often are the most repair-prone,” says Greg Daugherty, Executive Editor of Consumer Reports magazine.  “So spending more doesn’t get your fewer headaches; very often it gets you more headaches.”

When it comes to major cooking appliances, the magazine’s readers rated high-end brands such as Viking, Thermador, Dacor, and Jenn-Air as the least reliable.

The survey finds that 33 percent of Viking gas ranges and at least 15 percent of Viking, Thermador and Dacor gas cooktops “have been repaired or have had an un-repairable problem during the last few years.”

“These pricey gas appliances have a lot of cachet and may even add value to your home, notes the magazine’s Amanda Walker. “But in the end, they don’t perform over time and they actually tend to be toward the bottom of our ratings charts as well.”

Upscale Sub-Zero refrigerators are a designer favorite. Consumer Reports lab tests show Sub-Zero delivers “superior food preservation.” But the editors say, based on reader feedback, Sub-Zero models are repair-prone.

During the last few years, 24 percent of all Sub-Zero models needed to be repaired, the survey shows. Compare that to the results for Whirlpool, whose refrigerators needed the fewest repairs — 14 percent for side-by-sides and 7 percent for top or bottom-freezer models.

Is the reliability survey reliable?
It’s natural for anyone who gets a sub-par rating to challenge the validity of the survey. So I was not surprised when Paul Leuthe, corporate marketing manager for Sub-Zero, told me, “The numbers are not accurate.”

Sub-Zero is the only built-in refrigerator on the survey. “So it has a lot more potential for problems than a free-standing refrigerator that is just plugged in,” Leuthe says.  “Someone who buys a $5,000 to $8,000 refrigerator is less tolerant than other customers,” he adds.

But Leuthe admits there could be another reason why this top-of-the-line brand rated at the bottom of the reliability survey. He says about four years ago they got a bad batch of copper tubing. It was used in the evaporators for models made from 2003 to 2006.

That tubing is now rusting and causing leaks. “These evaporator problems could be skewing the ratings,” Leuthe says.  He points out with some pride that Sub-Zero is making free repairs with no questions asked.

Automobile reliability rating
Consumer Reports readers also provided 1.3 million ratings on cars, trucks and SUVs. The magazine’s Mike Quincy calls that “a survey size that is surely unmatched.”

Once again, Honda, Subaru and Toyota were the most reliable vehicles. Jaguar, Land Rover and Mercedes-Benz were at the bottom of the list.

Based on the latest car reliability survey, Consumer Reports says an average 10-year-old Honda or Toyota “had the same number, or fewer problems than a 4-to-5 year-old from Hyundai, the domestic automakers or Volkswagen.

“When a car is built right from the beginning it tends to stay pretty reliable throughout its life, relative to other cars of a similar age,” Quincy says.

It doesn’t take long to notice that nine of the top 10 most reliable vehicles are from Asia. Quincy says he believes Asian manufacturers take reliability “more seriously” than other automakers.

But he quickly points out that some of the most reliable vehicles with Asian nameplates are now made in the USA. “American workers can build great products,” he says.

Consumer Reports resources: