Before you buy, consider: Do you need a new product at all? Increasingly, consumers opt to toss belongings out before their useful lives are truly over. Rapidly changing technology is one reason for this trend — we want new products with new features. But often items are discarded because they are difficult to fix when broken.

Consumers Union’s reader surveys indicate that consumers repair broken major appliances, electronic items, lawn mowers, and tractors about half of the time, and are much less likely to repair small appliances. In part, this is because highly automated production and solid-state assemblies make many products less expensive but also make them more difficult, if not impossible, to repair. For products that can be fixed, spare parts are often costly or unavailable, and labor to make repairs can be pricey.

Do I dare to fix a fridge?

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Shorter product life spans lead to more use of energy and materials to produce new products, squandering natural resources, polluting the air, and warming the climate. The production of new coffee makers in 1995 alone used approximately 21 million pounds of polypropylene, 8 million pounds of glass, 4 million pounds of aluminum, and 600,000 pounds of copper. (Still, there can be significant environmental benefits to replacing an old product with a new, more efficient one, particularly with products like refrigerators and automobiles, which consume a great deal of energy while being operated.)

As people toss items rather than repair them, discarded products take up increasing amounts of space in the waste stream. Approximately 700,000 tons of small appliances were thrown out in 1995. Some countries are trying to reduce the waste generated by large household products by holding manufacturers responsible for their disposal. Proposed legislation in Germany and Japan would require manufacturers to reuse, recycle, or dispose of used appliances, electronics items, and office equipment. Consumers Union believes that similar legislation should be considered in the U.S. to motivate manufacturers to design durable products that can more easily be repaired, reused, and recycled.

Our product testing often uncovers ways that manufacturers and retailers have made tossing more convenient, more attractive, and in some cases much cheaper than fixing items when they break. For example, in our recent testing of vacuum cleaners we found that with some cordless models, the nickel-cadmium battery could only be replaced by the manufacturer for a price that was nearly as much as a new machine. Time delays are another problem. For example, our staff waited almost two months for replacement vacuum cleaner motors at two different repair shops.

What is an eco-conscious consumer to do? Before you replace or repair an item, ask the following questions:

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Consulting the troubleshooting guide in the owner’s manual may reveal an easy fix such as unplugging and re-plugging the device. Manufacturers often offer helpful phone service to diagnose problems with appliances or computers and walk you through some do-it-yourself repairs. Such services are available for products from Sears (800.469.4663) and General Electric (800.626.2000), for example.

Living with a minor or cosmetic problem like a burnt-out light or a cracked knob may be preferable to buying a new product when you weigh the cost, hassle, and environmental impacts.

You may be able to get more life out of most products than you think. Based on manufacturers’ information, major appliances like washing machines and refrigerators are made to last about 11 to 18 years, with minor repairs. Audio/visual products have a five- to 15-year life span. Lawn mowers and tractors can last anywhere from seven to 20 years.

Besides the environmental issues, you may want to compare the features of the old and new products. The simplicity and familiarity of an old item may make it worth a repair. On the other hand, a new item may offer advantages such as improved energy efficiency and features that save other valuable resources like paper, water, and time.

Financial considerations are personal and everyone attaches different values to different features. That said, Consumers Union offers one possible rule of thumb: Consider a repair if it costs less than half the price of a replacement. (Until true environmental costs are reflected in the price of materials, repairs will tend to face a considerable economic disadvantage.)

When you do decide that it’s time for you and your product to part ways, contact your state or local environmental agency or look in the yellow pages under “recycling” or “charities” to find a place that might put it to good use. Repair shops will refurbish some products for resale. The National Cristina Foundation can help find a home for your old computer. Except for old energy-guzzling appliances that should be scrapped, most products can have a whole new life in another home, or their parts can help extend the life of other machines.

Routine maintenance can minimize the need for repairs and extend products’ life spans. The table below offers guidance for specific products we test. (More details on getting things fixed are available in the May 1998 issue of Consumer Reports.)

Product Care Tips Repair or Replace?
Computers Turn off computer and monitor before you dust or clean screen. If possible, back up data from hard drive before having computer repaired (data was entirely lost on all but one computer we sent out for repair). Periodically vacuum keyboard with soft brush, and remove and wash mouse’s track ball. It may not pay to invest heavily in a computer’s repair since obsolescence comes quickly and PC prices have dropped. One Consumers Union survey found that most people kept their PC an average of four years, and usually replaced it out of a desire for new features and advanced technology rather than because it was broken.
Dishwashers Keep silverware away from spray arms. Most big-ticket repairs to units six or more years old are questionable, given that new models are more frugal with power and water as well as much quieter.
Dryers Clean lint filter after each use to prevent exhaust duct from clogging, which poses a fire hazard. Often a toss-up for major repairs. Dryers tend to be relatively inexpensive to both fix and replace, and the least expensive replacement models have little to offer in the way of new features.
Refrigerators Dust coils under or in back of unit. Inspect gasket around door seal for leaks, and keep gasket and surface it mates to free of debris. A new model will be kinder to the environment by consuming less energy, at least $250 less in power over its lifetime compared with older units.
TV sets N/A For all but the smallest repairs — replac
ing the remote or a cosmetic part — getting a TV fixed may not pay unless the set is fairly large and fairly new. A new set in almost any size will probably cost less and offer more than the one it’s replacing.
Vacuum cleaners Watch what you vacuum up — hard objects like coins can damage fan blades, and string can snarl the agitator. Avoid vacuuming outdoors or on any wet or damp surface. Vacuuming over the cord can fray it and expose you to live electrical wires. On an inexpensive model, even a simple repair may not be worth it unless you can do the job yourself. But an expensive vacuum that has served you well should last for years, so even a major repair may be worth undertaking.
VCRs Loose tape labels can cause tapes to stick in the loading bay. Gently insert only clean and undamaged tapes, and store them in jackets or boxes. Use a dust cover when VCR is not in use. Falling prices for VCRs and the relatively high cost and hassle of repairs make major fixes a dubious investment, except to a fairly new and expensive model.
Washing machines Periodically check the screen for grit buildup where the hose attaches to the hot-water supply pipe. A major repair often makes sense. New, front-loading washers are markedly more energy efficient than old models, but they’re relatively expensive and have yet to establish a repair history.