Why is it difficult to make a reliable refrigerator?

We had a 7-year-old GE refrigerator that would fail every couple of years, requiring $400-500 in service. We got tired of throwing out spoiled food and living out of coolers for 3-4 days so we invested $2,600 in a KitchenAid (one of the few with the same dimensions as the old GE, which fit into a kitchen recess that an architect thought was a good idea).

The KitchenAid failed after three weeks, unable to keep the refrigerator side cooler than 50 degrees. (It has a separate evaporator on the freezer side, so we can live on microwave pizza.)

Given decades of experience and continuous improvements in electronics, why is it difficult to engineer and build a working refrigerator? A modern Honda or Toyota may run for three years and 36,000 miles without anything failing, despite being exposed to hot and cold temperatures and vibration. The car has myriad systems, each of which could fail independently, and yet generally these all soldier on for 5-7 years before the first failure of any kind.

“Owner Satisfaction” is terrible with all refrigerators, according to Consumer Reports. LG is the only brand that achieves a 5/10. Whirlpool and KitchenAid are down at 3/10. Compare to 9/10 for Bosch or Miele dishwashers or 9/10 for LG washing machines.

What’s the challenge with an apparently simple fridge, sitting in a kitchen that is kept within +/- 5 degrees of 72?

[We discovered during this process why modern McMansions are always built with at least two refrigerators. BestBuy refused to accept a return on the unit, citing that it was purchased more than 15 days previously. Whirlpool/KitchenAid wouldn’t answer the phone on a Sunday, but when I got hold of them on Monday morning they cheerfully described their full warranty. They would be happy to come look at the fridge and begin the process of diagnosing the failure… in October. Was that normal? “Oh yes,” said the agent on September 17, “In a lot of areas I’m scheduling the second or third week of October as the first available visit.”]

29 thoughts on “Why is it difficult to make a reliable refrigerator?

  1. Maybe you just bought the wrong brands? I am living in Europe, so we get different models, but I have also heard that KitchenAid appliances are unreliable. My 3 year old Samsung refrigerator is still working fine. Before that we had a Bosch refrigerator that worked for 16 years and never caused any trouble. We just sold it when we moved.

    • American Samsung refrigerators have horrible reliability here in the states. I service them and trust me… I feel bad for my customers.

  2. I bought a house with a massive special custom KitchenAide fridge. During inspections, I discovered a circuit board missing. Looking into the matter, I was told it was a control board produced by a factory that was near Fukashima, Japan, prior to the tsunami/meltdown. As one can imagine, the board is now hard to come by.

    That refrigerator was thrown out and a popular high rated nice “Honda Civic” Korean refrigerator with warranty was purchased through Costco several years ago. So far, no issues, but if any arise the parts should be a commodity or another commodity fridge can be obtained on short notice for less than the price of a Fukashima control board.

    I know people who have recently built custom homes with all sorts of fancy and exotic shaped appliances and even custom engineered door pulls. What a way to make problems for ones future self or successors in interest.

  3. My old fridge lasted >20 years, and I’ve had my current one for 10 years, without a single problem. I think you’re buying the exotic high end stuff to fit that special recess, rather than the well designed workhorses. Or you’re just getting unlucky.

    Or maybe the recess isn’t allowing enough air flow to cool the coils?

    • I suspect something about the recess as well. Only other advice I have is to get a fridge from some place else. Only honoring a major purchase like that for 2 weeks is abysmal. Costco would have taken that fridge back no questions asked. That one purchase alone would make the membership fee for the year worth it.

    • I don’t see how the recess can be an issue because there is only one compressor and the freezer side works fine. So I assume it is a problem with the fridge-side evaporator. Also, the GE fridge was in there for years and never had a problem with the compressor overheating or similar.

    • Is your Kitchenaid unit a counter depth model? Only those are designed for Tight tolerances of the recess your architect called for. Airflow is a major issue and will over heat electronics if not venting properly. If you visit the Kitchenaid website and look up your model, there’s a installation or spec sheet for your unit that will give you the minimum clearances for your unit. Although from what you’re describing, sounds like your having issues with your control board or Thermistor. It’s possible the three way valve on your unit is malfunctioning, but the tech will figure that out. Good luck with your service appointment.

    • It is not a counter-depth model. The installation instructions say that it needs 1/2″ clearance all the sides and top and 1″ clearance at the rear. The instructions actually show it placed into a recess/alcove. If the problem related to installation or heat, I would expect that both freezer and fridge sides would have failed, not just the fridge side.

  4. Longevity seems to have dropped significantly in the priorities of all of the appliance makers. I had a top loading clothes washer die after 2 years. Circuit board fried from water.
    A standard clothes washer used to last at least 5-10 years, sometimes much longer.
    I bought a Speed Queen with metal drive and mechanical timer, and plan to keep it for a very long time.
    I think it’s worse in the high end machines, frankly. More interested in advanced features/looks than reliability.

    • It is tough to get statistics on high-end versus low-end. Whirlpool makes KitchenAid and Jenn-Air, as well as its own brand. Consumer Reports shows Whirlpool as the most reliable of these, with Jenn-Air slightly lower and KitchenAid significantly lower. Yet Jenn-Air is higher-end than KitchenAid. “Owner Satisfaction” is terrible with all refrigerators, according to Consumer Reports. LG is the only brand that achieves a 5/10. Whirlpool and KitchenAid are down at 3/10. Compare to 9/10 for Bosch or Miele dishwashers or 9/10 for LG washing machines. So it seems that there is a challenge in making a refrigerator that people will be happy with.

  5. We’re staying in a place with a SubZero that died. The repairman who looked at it quoted $2,000 – $2,500 to fix the failing compressor, “but that’s a lot cheaper than the $12-15,000 required to replace it.”

  6. About 10 years ago, when I remodeled my house, I got Samsung RF266ABRS refrigerator from Sears for $1,699.99 (I still have a price break down of the project). It is still going strong with no issues. I looked for top rating and quality for all major appliances as such I ended up having each appliance from a different vendors vs. all from one. All of them are still going strong.

    Here is my list:

    Refrigerator: Samsung RF266ABRS at $1,699.99
    Ranger: Frigidaire GLGFZ386FC at $1,048
    Dishwasher: Bosch SHE33M0[5]UC at $698
    Range hoods: Broan 893004 at $379
    Microwave oven: GE JES1651SJ at $154
    Garbage Disposal: Waste King 9980 at $109

    As a side note, I still have my washer and dryer from 25+ years ago, still going strong. They are a Sears brand. I had to change the belt on the dryer twice over the years, that’s all, which I did myself.

    • Smart shopper. I agree every manufacturer has their best and worst appliances. If you went with the ice dispenser version of your refrigerator you would gave run into problems by now. The problem with reviews these days is that there aren’t any much long term ones out there. So they’re in essence, performance reviews, not reliability reviews. Solid choices on your other units though. Your Bosch may need a control board or new pump at some point.

  7. Ten years ago, I bought a used Kenmore refrigerator for $100 from some guy that kept it in his garage for his beer (he was selling everything, losing his house, and moving back up north after getting laid off in during the “Great Recession.”) It’s worked flawlessly.

    Another appliance that seems to need repair at least once per year is the residential central AC system. My 82-y/o father just had a $300 repair job done on his 5-y/o system, fortunately it was covered under the $700 7-yr extended warranty plan he bought. Unfortunately, the AC technicians took advantage of the situation to sell my elderly father a $1200 “Ultra Violet light mold remediation” gimmick.

    • I bet that Kenmore it’s a whirlpool built unit. Those are solid units! Just make sure you clean out the condenser in the bottom for many more years of service!

  8. We have a Samsung refrigerator in our house since 2008 and it is still going strong. It did need a compressor service of around $200, about 2 years ago.

    I would not trust KitchenAid, our KitchenAid stove burns its controller board every two years. One of the relays fails and then the controller board stops working. The board heats up to a temperature and the solder starts to melt just before the relay fails. KitchenAid wanted $600 plus $200 labor. So I removed the controller board, replaced the relays and put the board back into service. About $15 dollars in relays and about 2 hours of my time.

    • You must be running the self clean feature… Solder joints cracking isn’t unique to Kitchenaid ovens. Even high end wolfs have this problem. I encounter repaires that require reflowing solder joints on many different kitchen appliances in my line of work. This will go back to appliances to from the 90’s. Bosch dishwashers even even burn the traces on their circuit boards. Welcome to the digital era.

  9. Because the finance guys are making the decisions instead of engineers. Glad it doesn’t happen in aerospace, cough cough 737 Max…,

    • 😂 crap happens. Don’t forget even Toyotas were unintentional accelerating. Airlines can’t use the last rows on some airbus models. If only Boeing was subsidized by our government like airbus is in Europe.

  10. Interesting experience you’re having. I service appliances for a living and I can tell you there’s no other brand worse than Samsung. They fail and you simply can’t fix the units. They’re even going through a class action lawsuit for their refrigerator evaporators freezing up and ice makers failing. The thing is there’s no fix for this. I’m surpriseed you’re having issues with your Kitchenaid, they’re on my top list for aesthetics and reliability. Whirlpool being the parent company is definitely hands down the most reliable in my experience. Consumer reports recently did a survey for long term reliability, and I believe whirlpool was top 5 , Kitchenaid was lower and Ikea of all brands was top 3. I will say though, the higher end you go, the more picky people get. By the way, whirlpool builds Ikea appliances. The Kenmore mentioned in an earlier response is most likely a whirlpool built unit for Sears. In all honesty though, every brand will have they’re best and worst units. Samsung and LG happen to only be good in the laundry department (LG is more reliable than Samsung). Good luck on your next service, although Kitchenaid has excellent customer service from what I’ve heard. Unfortunately we live in the 5-10 year life cycle of appliances. Gone are the 20 year old units. I would hands down pick reliability over efficiency.

  11. I am in to my elbows replacing a little 1/4 hp condenser fan on my ac outside unit. I had accepted the $649 price for a $75 motor, then the tech couldn’t get the fan off the old shaft. The quote was additional $435 to install a new $75 fan instead of moving the old one to the new shaft. I choked on that and ordered the parts, just on principle.

  12. Last weekend I had to buy another new $300 GE 8000 BTU window unit AC from Home Depot. This is the third one in six years.

    This weekend, I’m replacing the solar powered attic fan that burned out after two years, with a hard wired one.

  13. My previous fridge was about 12 years old, and it required service every few years for something. Then the compressor died and I was told it was going to cost as much as a new refrigerator to fix it, so I got a new one instead.

    My garage freezer is a Montgomery Ward I got off craigslist for $40 years ago. It is at least 30 years old, and has worked perfectly with no issues. I guess they don’t make ’em like they used to.

  14. With regards to repairs cost and longevity, the same can be said about cars those days.

    All that complex technology and various amenities that go into them adds to the cost of repairs when they go bad and bad they go more often. A friend of mine has a Mercedes and it pains me how much he spends on it when things go south (I see the same to almost any German car, even your low end VW Jetta).

  15. From the Alexander Baldwin Sugar Museum on Maui, here is a refrigerator from the 1930s built by GE in upstate New York. It still works!
    Now I grant you, there’s no ice maker, but still, “keeps a licking and keeps on ticking”!
    I also had a frost free refrigerator in my apartment in San Francisco in the 1990s that I swear was from the 1950s, based on the design.
    I think high end appliances these days are like buying a luxury European car. Yes, it looks good, and perhaps even feels good, and sure some people will be impressed. That said, it is definitely going to cost you, and it also will be in the shop a lot.
    Not my cup of tea, but to each their own.

  16. I would guess it is largely because of two factors.

    1: “automotive grade” standards are significantly higher than design and manufacturing standards for appliances, and the consequences for manufacturers of cars if mistakes are made are much higher.

    2: Appliance controls are getting very complex with many things having to work perfectly to ensure proper operation, so despite the general reliability of electronics over electromechanical controls, the net effect is lower reliability, because the electronics are not made to very high reliability standards.

    An example : ice maker on our modern freezer was a standard type used for many years in older designs that had a built in electromechanical cam timer to regulate how much water was used to fill the tray. It is an inaccurate system, but simple. Our modern freezer overrode it with a microprocessor and solid state relay, which made better ice when system was new. Long term result ? Ice maker stopped working due to small failure of central, very complex computer. Required replacement of expensive central computer vs. cheap ice maker.

  17. I don’t want to type out my sob stories with appliances. After 25 years of home ownership, I’ve concluded that everything you can buy in a home store is rubbish, and will not live longer than 10 years, at the very outside, no matter how much you spend. I believe you could get appliances that last, basically, forever, if you buy commercial brands, but they usually don’t fit well in a modern suburban home, in either size or style. Therefore, I’m resigned to just buy the unflashy garbage, and plan on replacing it in 5-7 years.

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