Belonging

A Lesson From Laundry

Our very competence as parents, as employees and as citizens is judged in large part on our appearance - but at what cost?

By Michelle Martin
Published July 06, 2009

In our house, we really have no choice but to reduce, reuse, recycle, repair and repurpose. Some months, we have to add a sixth "R": renounce.

Unfortunately, the washing machine cannot be renounced. Right now, it needs to be repaired. Can't afford a service call, so it's in pieces on the basement floor while my husband teaches himself what to do. Two weeks later, he's still at it.

The last machine we had was an old top-loader, run with a timer, a motor, and a transmission -- quite fixable by an amateur who could have it up and running again pretty quickly, even back in the days before step-by-step instructions could be found online. However, when it needed replacing three years ago, we decided to do the environmentally responsible (and more immediately expensive) thing. We bought an energy star-rated, water-saving front loader.

Trouble is, it's full of electronic components which are difficult to test individually when a repair is needed. However, Stephen is nothing if not determined when it comes to home maintenance. Renaissance man that he is, he's taught himself to run diagnostics and use a multimeter correctly (not bad for an English major).

The online message boards have been of some help. On one of these, an appliance repair guy in Texas took pity and gave him a couple of useful tips. He even saw a web page where someone used an old 386 computer to work as a washing machine control panel, via the printer interface (somebody should tell this guy about ThinkHaus).

We just don't have the time to try something like that right now, as much of a genius at repurposing as that 386 fellow is. Besides - imagine the dark corridors you might find yourself wandering through after such a seemingly innocent innovation. First the washer starts flashing an F24 error message, next thing you know it's all "Stop, Dave, I'm afraid," as you open basement door after basement door...

When the clothesline in our backyard snapped in two, it was repaired in under an hour, and cost less than twenty bucks to fix. As I trip over piles of unwashed clothes, I am sorely tempted to go the low tech route for washing as well. Let's see...ten kids, ten washboards, a trip down to the lake. I could bribe everyone with the promise of a triple scoop at Hutch's.

Or maybe we should just pick up another old top-loader, used. The cost would probably be equivalent to what we've already spent at the laundromat.

But, no. It seems the control panel is being replaced. The part is expected to arrive by Monday (UPDATE: the part has arrived; we tried it out and it didn't work). It took the purchase and replacement of two other components to get to this point. A very helpful fellow at an appliance parts store up on the mountain told Stephen that this is a common experience, even among repair professionals. He also said we've done very well, going three years without a major repair considering the use it gets in our house (ahem - no doubt due in part to my fanatical pickiness about laundry methods). In his experience, six years total is normally what you get out of these babies- it doesn't necessarily matter which brand.

Our family could start railing against planned obsolescence, or arguing about the relative ecological footprints of water-hogging top-loaders versus machines that are more efficient but which don't last as long, and whose replacement parts are shipped from China.

For now the priority is, as it always should be, to focus on the first "R": reduce. Water-saving websites remind us that we can reduce laundry by wearing aprons when cooking, and dust jackets or coveralls when cleaning or doing yard work. We can spot-clean, when dirt is confined to one spot, without laundering the entire item. Our ancestors did these things simply because laundry was such hard work for them.

I'm normally pretty ruthless (there's another "R" for you) about not washing clothes that aren't actually soiled anyhow. When my kids throw clothing into the wash after only one wearing, in the absence of any real dirt or stains, they'll find themselves fishing it back out of the dirty laundry if they wish to wear it later in the week. Adolescent boys generally deal with this problem by spraying the offending item down with body spray, presenting a dilemma for the disorganized teen who is both eco- and self-conscious: wash clothes too often, or fill landfills with aerosol cans?

I joke, but that's part of the problem, isn't it? This self-consciousness that isn't entirely confined to teenagers goes beyond "keep up with the Joneses" worrying. It's more that our very competence as parents, as employees and as citizens is judged in large part on our appearance. And the standards for neatness and cleanliness have steadily risen with the advent of so-called labour saving devices, along with expectations concerning just how much we can cram into our day. It was all well and good when washing machines lasted for twenty years, were cheaper to repair and could be quickly fixed by an enterprising do-it-yourselfer. This is clearly no longer the case.

Moving from a global economy to a local one may be part of the solution- we will likely be forced into this despite ourselves. But it's probably time to re-think our whole laundry paradigm and not just in terms of energy use. We're all familiar with the slow food movement. Perhaps it's time for a slow laundry movement, too.

Michelle Martin lives in Hamilton where she and her husband are watching their 10 children fly the nest, one by one. She has been published in both the Hamilton Spectator and Raise the Hammer, as well as in the online edition of the National Post and, more recently, in the Canadian Urban Transit Association's Urban Mobility Forum. Michelle is coordinator of the Community Access to Transportation program. She was formerly on the writing/copy editing team of the original Crown Point hub paper, The Point. However, the opinions she expresses in Raise the Hammer are her own. She sometimes tweets @deltawestmom

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By shaddupsevenup (registered) | Posted July 07, 2009 at 07:44:37

I applaud your efforts. I had no idea those machines were short lived, but it makes sense to me. I bought a front loader washer and dryer when I bought my house two years ago and I've already had to have the dryer fixed (luckily by a friend who only required payment in sushi dinner.) Technology doesn't always enable us in the long run I guess.

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By frank (registered) | Posted July 07, 2009 at 08:29:22

Whenever you buy an appliance like a washer or dryer buy a long term service agreement with it. It will undoubtedly save you headaches in the future.

I wouldn't suggest going down to the lake to wash clothes either... It's not the cleanest lol. Maybe asking a friend if you can bring some laundry in exchange for a meal or something like that. Also, instead of using body spray, use febreeze. They'll be a bit picky about the smell but the cans are recyclable. :)

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By madmatt (anonymous) | Posted July 07, 2009 at 09:03:07

I feel your pain. I've been an electronics technician for 25 yrs and they really don't make equipment to last anymore. The cost of repairing a machine can be more than the cost of replacing it. Take the simple task of replacing the ink cartridges on your home printer; $30-$45 per cart or a new printer for $49.99. Troubleshooting can be very frustrating as the fault could be on one of several pricey boards: individual parts are rarely available. It seems planned obsolescence is the manufacturers best marketing campaign.

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By Dcept905 (anonymous) | Posted July 07, 2009 at 11:06:04


Wow... I had just written up a huge reply (took up about 2-3 lenghts of this "Post Comment" window) and it was rejected by a content filter thinking I was a bot because it had "H.T.T.P." in it from a link I posted to MAKE magazine. I don't have the energy to re-type it, but it would be great if this site would at least let you edit your original post instead of discarding a multi-page post over a freakin' hyperlink....

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By Willem (anonymous) | Posted July 07, 2009 at 12:23:54

When buying front wash loaders go with European brands. It might sound very snobbish, but they have been making them for decades. North American brands (like with cars) are not good at combining fine technology with durability. I suggest that if you ever look into a new washer browse brands like Miele, Bosch, or Siemens. The Germans now where it is at.

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By Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted July 07, 2009 at 13:25:06

Way to go with fixing your own stuff. Fixing things that aren't supposed to be fixed is the best way to stick it to the man.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted July 07, 2009 at 19:18:07

Slow laundry. I love it. (She said as she stared at the pasta sauce she just splattered all over herself because she doesn't have an apron.)

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By frank (registered) | Posted July 08, 2009 at 09:09:26

Dcept905, sign up as a registered user and your links won't be rejected.

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted July 08, 2009 at 20:26:25

I will agree with anon Willem, to go with a Euro- pean brand machine in the future. Our front loader was the first of its kind introduced in Canada ab- out 12 years ago. It is a Frigidaire Gallery that was purchased at Sears for about $1300. All manual controls, no fancy pants digital readouts or time wasting features, twinkling lights or bells and whistles.

The machine began to breakdown at about the tenth year but was still doing its job so we left it al- one. Last year the noise from the disintegrating bearings became intolerable and I decided to try and fix it myself. I had no clue what to do but the design was simple and it was so well built, I had no trouble replacing the worn out motion guides. My cost was $32 from Canadian Bearings.

The most important thing to remember when you attempt to DIY, is to label EVERYTHING you take apart and to clean each part thoroughly before reassembly. Detergents are corrosive and many a times it is simply a matter of poor electrical contacts.

If you decide to get a used machine, I suggest visiting Lou at Mr. Appliance on Barton Street, a couple blocks from Lottridge as you're heading towards the hospital. He and his wife have the nicest cleanest used appliances anywhere in this city. We got a dryer and a fridge from them at a very reasonable price and they're still going strong.

Best of Luck to you and yours May you not be hampered by pile-up too long.

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted July 08, 2009 at 21:26:30

I agree on the European brands.. you pretty much can't go wrong with anything made by Bosch especially.

Even the amount of clothing that we "need" is ridiculous. I remember well how my grandmother had one good dress and two everyday dresses, and that was all she needed. I have a relatively small wardrobe, but even that is many multiples of what she had.... and how much of that is truly necessary, even taking situational appropriateness into account?

Someone I know from Toronto was commenting how the garbage strike was making him and his friends reconsider how disposable their items were and the amount of packaging they use... I hope that's one of the wider-spread effects of the strike.

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted July 09, 2009 at 07:43:42

Meredith wrote:

Even the amount of clothing that we "need" is ridiculous. I remember well how my grandmother had one good dress and two everyday dresses, and that was all she needed. I have a relatively small wardrobe, but even that is many multiples of what she had.... and how much of that is truly necessary, even taking situational appropriateness into account?

I know exactly what you mean, my girlfriend and I are preparing for a move at the end of the month, and going through all our stuff has been such an eyeopener. I thought I kept a fairly small wardrobe as well, but the amount of stuff in my closet that I haven't worn in ages was staggering. (It doesn't help that my family seems to be genetically predisposed to being pack-rats.) On the up side though its quite freeing to simplify things, not to mention the added bonus of the bounty of goods going to the local goodwill.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted July 09, 2009 at 18:06:07

Meredith wrote:

Even the amount of clothing that we "need" is ridiculous. I remember well how my grandmother had one good dress and two everyday dresses, and that was all she needed. I have a relatively small wardrobe, but even that is many multiples of what she had.... and how much of that is truly necessary, even taking situational appropriateness into account?

Lots of home organization tipsters will tell you to cut down on clothing inventory to save on laundry-- the more you own, the more frequent your unnecessary clothing changes...

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted July 14, 2009 at 12:39:30

Every appliance should come with the landfill costs prepaid by the manufacturer, which would encourage more design for repairing and less disposal of three year old major appliances!

Just a correction, european appliances might be more reliable, and actually pay attention to design feature like noise. But their automobiles are actually less reliable.

In fact, unknown to most, for over a decade average reliability has been japan > north america > europe. (see consumer reports, but they aren't online for free). I think this is driven in major part by volkswagen's consistently poor reliability (but fantastic marketing) and bmw / mercedes - high end cars with lots of fancy features to break. The big three have been improving steadily and quietly through that time (though Chrysler continues to suck even more than VW)

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted July 15, 2009 at 13:54:12

When one replacement part costs more than an entire replacement unit, there is something very wrong.

Any open source designer, when faced with the fast pace of development in the automobile or appliance sectors would design modular platforms that allow newer parts to be used in place of older, out of production ones. Or at least parts from other similar (but not identical) older models.

This really speaks to the need for us as consumers to reign in the producers of goods, or to become them ourselves. If my mom's last set of washers lasted over two decades, why can't ours?

In the meantime, may I suggest one of those 5-gallon buckets from the U-brew places with a hole in the lid, and a plunger? Either that, or youtube "bicycle powered washing machine" - it sounds like you've spent more than enough time to build one.

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By deb (anonymous) | Posted October 17, 2013 at 08:59:17

They only get away with planned obsolescence because we let them - kudos for trying to fix things instead of giving up and buying new. I remember my parents' first washer/dryer pair. After ten years my dad needed to fix something once in a while - he kept the washer going close to 20 years, and the dryer lasted for over 30. I try to limit use of the dryer, it's hard on the clothes anyway (oh but wait, people throw those out after one season...) I hang everything on hangers to dry in the basement except sheets, towels and underwear. Eliminates a few steps too. In the right season this helps offset the fact that the furnace humidifier constantly breaks down (another piece of planned obsolescence) and in the wrong season the basement dehumidifier takes care of the moisture they create. But with ten kids... yeah, a dryer.

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