The North American appliance repair business isn’t what it used to be. With prices dropping lower and lower for new appliances like vacuums, many consumers are opting to discard, not repair.
The wastefulness of this move away from repair was not lost on Solid Waste and Recycling magazine columnist and environmental lawyer David McRobert, who recently paid a visit to Allan Dunn Vacuums in Peterborough, Ont., a city mainstay since 1947.
McRobert had his classic vacuum repaired for just $50 [see below, left].
After a conversation about the changing business landscape, several problems immediately became clear to McRobert. Firstly, vacuum parts have become few and far between for those consumers who may actually want to repair their favourite hoover, as opposed to buying a new one. A long list of popular vaccuum makers have actually stopped making parts available: Shark, Infinity, Dyson (newer models) and Black & Decker (screws can’t even be removed), to name a few.
McRobert also learned that about five years ago, vacuum motors stopped being able to be rebuilt.
“Now these motors are manufactured with bearings that are pressed in and can’t be taken out. The armatures and carbon brushes are not available for purchase,” says McRobert. “These [repair shops] are unable to compete with cheap products available at big box stores.”
Other anti-repair moves from vacuum companies include epoxied rechargeable batteries in cordless vacuums that can’t be removed or replaced, and plastic housings that are not cost effective to replace even if available.
Vacuum filters, too, have run amok by offering far too many options. An example would be the Dirt Devil models that have over 70 different types of filters. By contrast, Panasonic models have only two.
“If filters are not in stock, they can take up to two weeks to get in. People don’t want to wait and are replacing entire vacuums,” says McRobert, who adds that new Dirt Devil vacuums can be had for as little as $60 from bargain stores like Wal-Mart.
Dunn’s explained to McRobert that about twice a month they take a cargo van filled with old, unrepairable vacuums to the landfill. They have to pay for disposal, but the copper, which is all that is worth salvaging, is stripped and scrapped for about $100. The remaining vacuum parts are divided into three bins: one for metals, one for light plastics, and one for heavy plastics.
Dunn’s used to reserve two rooms in its basement for refurbished vacuums. At the beginning of summer, they would sell them to cottagers and vacationers going through town. In the fall, they would sell to the students that came to town. Now, because everything is so cheaply made and sold, Dunn’s used or refurbished inventory is next to nothing.
Filter Queen, Electrolux and Kenmore models, however, are still very serviceable models, according to Dunn’s. These companies are still producing vacuums and parts.
McRobert, with the help of Peterborough paralegal Meghan Robinson, decided to dig a little deeper into the vacuum issue. Together, they found that good warranties can be hard to find — a big part of the problem.
“North American and Asian appliance producers should have longer warranties for their products,” suggests McRobert. “Good examples of more durable vacuums are Sebo and Miele, which are manufactured in Germany. These companies offer 10-year warranties, a smaller selection of models and a fewer number of filters.”
McRobert and Robinson also want to see standardization for sizing replacement parts, much like the computer industry has accomplished. North American companies use a mix of metric and imperial measurements for filters, belts, bags, others parts, etc. The parts for some popular vacuums and filters are labeled and exported to Canada from Denmark and Germany.
Perhaps most of all, in the name of preventing unnecessary wastefulness, McRobert and Robinson want to see legislation that could ensure vacuums and other small appliances are made from higher quality parts and more durable plastic. Small appliances should also have motors that allow bearings, armatures and carbon brushes to be replaced.
*The preceding article is a condensed version of McRobert's presentation from the Zero Waste Conference in Orillia on Aug. 11, 2014. His full presenation can be viewed in the right-hand column under DOCUMENTS. Also, Check out the new Zero Waste blog from SWR editor Guy Crittenden.