September 25, 2018
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My ancient appliances keep on chugging

By Kathryn Olmstead, Special to the BDN

When I returned to Caribou after a week away I discovered my chest freezer had stopped operating. It’s an old six-foot-long International Harvester that must have been installed when the house was renovated in 1950 because there is no way to remove it from the cellar.

It is one of two appliances in the house that is more than 50 years old.

When I bought the house in 1992 I was warned not to disconnect the freezer or it would never work again. But two years ago it had to be unplugged to replace the outlet.

As predicted, it stopped running, and I tried to imagine the process and cost of carving the thing up to remove it.

On the off chance the freezer might have a future, I called the appliance repair shop in Caribou. Wayne Damboise saved me. This skilled technician worked several hours, replacing a relay and 10 connections to get the motor running again.

So after I discarded the warm food and bailed the water out of the freezer last month, I called Connor Appliance Repair again.

“Are you sure you want to put more money into that old thing,” asked Cindy Damboise, who took the call.

“Well, could we just see what it would take?” I responded.

This time Wayne worked less than 30 minutes and the freezer was humming again. I call him my magician.

I knew he could do it. A couple of years ago he replaced the baking element in my General Electric kitchen stove that previous owners of the house acquired in the 1960s when Caribou High School bought new appliances for the home economics classrooms.

Wayne explained the schools had a deal with Maine Public Service, which then supplied electricity to northern Maine. Every few years, the schools replaced appliances, like the 1962 stove I am still using, and residents could buy them, nearly new, at reasonable prices.

I once thought I would replace this range, but could not find one with a second smaller oven that I liked. Besides, it still works. In fact it holds the heat so long that a friend, staying in the house while I was away last year, worried that the stove had not turned off and shut it off at the electrical box until it cooled down.

“These self-cleaning models had to be super-insulated because they cleaned at 900 degrees,” Wayne explained. “You’re cremating whatever is in there.”

I remarked on how easy it is to clean under the burners and inside the stove. Surfaces look like new with a minimum of elbow grease.

Wayne said the porcelain on early models was layered on through a dipping process. Since the process caused pollution, manufacturers replaced dipping with spraying. New surfaces are not as thick as old ones, even though they could be with more layers of spray.

The longevity of my freezer and stove made me wonder when manufacturers stopped making products that would last for decades. When did they discover it made business sense to limit the life of their products so consumers would have to replace them more frequently? When did they adopt the policy of “planned obsolescence:” designing a product with an artificially limited life so it will become unfashionable or no longer useful after a certain period of time?

Adam Hadhazy, in a June 2016 article on the BBC website, traces this strategy back to the 1920s, when light bulb manufacturers worldwide colluded to artificially reduce the lifetime of bulbs from decades to 1,000 hours.

Early incandescent bulbs used carbon filaments eight times thicker and more durable than thin, metal wires in later bulbs. One such bulb, the Centennial Light Bulb, still glows, after 115 years, in a fire station in Livermore, California. (You can see it on YouTube)

Auto manufacturers also saw the light in the 1920s. Facing competition from Ford Motor Company, General Motors introduced a new concept to entice customers to replace their vehicles early: new models every year.

“It was a model for all industry,” writes Giles Slade, author of the book “Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America, a history of the strategy and its consequences.” The strategy generated long-term sales volume by reducing the time between repeat purchases. With the obsolescence of a product built into it from its conception, a consumer feels a need to purchase new products as replacements.

Anyone who has purchased a computer or a cell phone or a printer knows the feeling. There are no magicians out there for these products, and don’t even think about the environmental impact of throwing them away.

The refrigerator in my summer cottage on the coast seems even older than the appliances in Caribou. Its freezer is a small aluminum box about a foot square hanging over the right side of the top shelf. It freezes ice cubes, but not ice cream.

I don’t remember such a model in our home when I was a child, and I’m older than 50.

When I mentioned replacing it, the man who serves as my magician for the cottage protested. A modern fridge would ruin the Victorian character of the house, he claimed, and proceeded to sand down and repaint the old Coldspot so it looks like new.

What can I say? It works.


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