Tuesday, June 16, 2015

What I learned while appliance shopping -- Refrigerators

I recently had to go shopping for a refrigerator and have learned quite a lot over the last couple of weeks.  I thought I'd put some of these learnings in a post.  In general I was disappointed with what I found because most fridges are loaded with features that I will never use but have questionable durability.  About 5 years seems to be the average life nowadays before one is faced with a cost-prohibitive repair.

  • Free standing or built in:  The average house can only accommodate a free standing unit.  Most of the premium brands (e.g. Miele, Sub Zero) only offer built-in units.
  • Door style: Can be 2 door top freezer (the old style), 2 door bottom freezer, side-by-side (fridge on one side, freezer on the other), french door with one or more freezer drawers, and 4-door french door (both fridge and freezer have french doors).
  • Finish: Can be white, black, stainless, or other color.  Some of them offer finger-print resistant finishes.  Only high end refrigerators have the sides finished in stainless steel.  Most run-of-the-mill fridges have plastic sides even though the front may be stainless steel.  High end refrigerator will often offer the option of wood paneling on the doors.
  • Depth: Can be counter depth or standard.  Counter depth models won't jut out but are pricier even though they are smaller.  Go figure.
  • Air filter: Keeps the air fresh getting rid of any odors (including that of the plastic that the fridge is made of).  No need for baking soda or "airing out" the fridge.
  • Water filter: Needed especially with those that are equipped with a water dispenser, however some models use a water filter when creating ice.
  • Lighting: Most used energy efficient LED lighting.  Lighting may or may not be offered in the freezer.
  • Easy open handles on freezer drawers: Like the name suggests, these make it easier to open the freezer drawer.  I have only seen these on Samsung and LG units.
  • Automatic pulling out of top freezer drawer: This partially pulls out the second-to-bottom freezer tray.
  • Folding shelves: This allows the creation of space to store tall objects.
Quality of construction
  • Hinges: Really only different on very high-end built-ins.
  • Drawer operation: Smoothness of opening and closing drawers.
  • Bins: Quality of the plastic used for the bins
  • Shelves: Glass or plastic and ease of adjusting.
  • Odor: The odor of the plastics used in the interior.
  • Noise: The ambient noise of the unit.
  • Consumer Reports magazine.
  • JD Power & Associates.
  • User reviews on the manufacturer website and/or dealer sites.

Most of the mainstream stores sell several brands.  Most of the brands are made by a small handful of manufacturers.  Think of the cereal box model--there is an illusion of many choices, in reality there are only a few.

Here are the various manufacturers, the brands they make, and my thoughts on them as I shopped for a french door with single drawer bottom freezer.
  • Whirlpool.
    • Makes Amana, Whirlpool, Maytag, KitchenAid, Kenmore, Bosch.
    • Overall decent quality.  Assembled in America.  This means final assembly was done in the US using imported parts.  
    • The quality is good but most models lack an air filter.
  • Electrolux.
    • Makes Electrolux, Frigidaire.
    • A European brand that makes most of its units in Mexico.  
    • Makes some of the best looking fridges.
    • Lots of options with air and water filters.
    • The quality of the interior was lacking--cheap plastic and the drawer mechanisms.
    • For some reason, most sales folks tried to steer me away from this brand.  It also seemed to have higher than average negative reviews.
    • Luxury end is Electrolux Icon.
  • LG.
    • Makes LG, Kenmore Elite.
    • The units are made in either Korea or China.
    • Overall a great product, but very limited options with an air filter.
  • Samsung.
    • The units are mostly made in Korea.
    • Similar to LG in terms of quality and features, but I felt the LG was slightly better designed.
  • GE.
    • Recently acquired by Haier.
    • Felt like quality inside and out, but could not find a model that had an air filter.
    • Luxury end is GE Monogram.
At the high end, there are brands like Miele (German), Liebherr (German), Sub-Zero (US), Thermador (German), Viking (US).  I didn't spend much time researching these because they were not suitable for installation in my house.

Getting questions answered

Misinformation abounds with most floor sales folks.  They either don't have the information or haven't bothered to look it up, but emphatically provide their best guess.  For models they do not have on the floor, you typically get incorrect answers for country of manufacture and various other features.  Sometimes the information can be gleaned from the manufacturer website.  But if not, it's unlikely that contacting the manufacturer will yield anything useful.  Emails to their customer service often go unanswered.  Calls to them usually receive a response of the type "the only information we have is what is on our website" or "please contact an authorized sales center for that information."  And authorized sales center doesn't have that information.  So trying to get information can be an exercise in frustration.  The best way I found of getting accurate information is through discussions in various online forums.

This, by the way, is not something limited to refrigerators.  The same is true of most appliances and even other products.  Why is this so?  My conjecture is that the people fielding these questions have no interest in the product.  They are in jobs that are likely short term roles and they are trained to look up whatever information may already be on the company website and no more.  Unfortunately many of the company websites have flaws--links to download documents are stale, information about authorized sellers is outdated, etc.

This is perhaps the most frustrating part of appliance purchases.

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