Are household appliances really starting to wear out quicker?

5 March 2015, 14:16   By Samantha Smith

washing machine
Credit: Africa Studio/

PEOPLE get rid of their TVs and large appliances faster than before according to new research in Germany, but the "first life" of laptops remains a steady five to six years.

Back in 2004, just 3.5% would replace an appliance less than five years old, however this increased to 8.3% in 2012.

Built-in obsolescence - designing products to have a short life span - could be to blame.

But so could people's desire for the newest model; around 60% of TVs are replaced in favour of newer ones even though the old ones are working perfectly well.

Either way, manufacturers are in for a shake up; France has just introduced new laws to fight built-in obsolescence with similar rules expected for the rest of the European Union.


A study by the �-ko-Institut looked at the life of an appliance from purchase through to replacement; its "first life".

In 2004 people would generally hold onto a TV for around 10 years, but in 2012 the average first life of a flat screen was just 5.6 years.

Only a quarter of TVs are replaced because of a fault, pointing to a strong desire to keep up with evolving technology.

Large appliances - washing machines, dryers and refrigerators - tell a different story. 57.6 were replaced due to technical faults in 2004 and 55.6% in 2012.

Interestingly, in 2013 more people replaced large appliances within the first five years of purchase; 13% compared to 7% in 2004.

The next phase of the study is finding out if manufacturers are causing appliance faults on purpose.

By the end of 2015 researchers want to know if built-in obsolescence is real; but so far it's unclear.

No repairs

Purposely built to break or not, appliances are often designed without repairs in mind.

Many washing machine drums for example are sealed making it impossible to take them apart.

If stray items get stuck inside a drum, the entire drum needs replacing.

At a cost of around £180 for parts and labour, it's roughly the same price as a new machine. So it could be more cost-effective to scrap the old one and replace it.

Similarly, mobile phone batteries have a limited life and aren't readily replaced.

And laptops with welded together internal components can be very difficult to repair.


But it may not all be so terrible; the �-ko-Institut study didn't take into consideration what happens to machines after their first life.

In fact many do get a second lease of life when they are sold or given to a new owner. There's plenty of faulty equipment that can be relatively quickly and easily refurbished for use again.

In particular, small devices, with cheap replaceable parts can be repaired at little cost, making them good as new.

Government and charity schemes refurbish laptops before donating or selling them on at affordable prices.

And the Restart Project runs community events teaching people how to refurbish their slow or broken devices.

New laws

It's most likely a combination of factors that cause so many household appliances to be discarded.

But laws to ensure manufacturers are consistently making good quality appliances make sure people get a fair deal while hopefully reducing the number of discarded goods.

At the moment in the UK, the Sales of Goods Act 1979, says products should be of satisfactory quality, as described, fit for purpose and last a reasonable length of time, and that can be up to six years, or five years in Scotland.

And additionally, as part of the Consumer Credit Act, goods bought with a credit card are protected with equal liability on the part of the credit provider; so consumers are protected even if the supplier goes out of business.

In the rest of the EU, goods are guaranteed against faults for two years.

According to a new law in France however, manufacturers must also advise customers how long their appliances are going to last, and how long replacement parts will be available.

The new law is being introduced this week as part of the Hamon Law, specifically to encourage manufacturers to avoid built-in obsolescence.

It's now looking like the rest of the European Union could follow France's lead.

The Ecodesign Directive law is currently focused on appliance energy efficiency in the European Union.

But the European Commission is due to update this law in spring, with new standards on resource efficiency being drafted.

This is likely to include measurement of durability - how long they'll last; reusability - second lives after owners upgrade; and recyclability, with product-specific standards to follow.

However it could take over three years before these standards are introduced.

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