If you’ve ever tried to fix a washing machine, dishwasher, or other appliance in your home and struggled to find a service manual, you’re not alone.
We recently surveyed the availability of appliance repair manuals with PIRG: We attempted to acquire service manuals from 50 appliance manufacturers, surveyed and interviewed 37 appliance repair professionals, and reviewed a wide range of academic research on appliance repair. In short, we found that manuals largely aren’t available. When they’re available, they’re often prohibitively expensive. Worse, sometimes they’re wrong or incomplete.
Today, we are releasing a report of our study [PDF download here] and submitting it to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is considering updating its Energy Guide labeling system. Energy Guide features bright yellow stickers placed on appliances at the point of sale that estimate an appliance’s annual energy costs.
When the Energy Guide system was established in 1975, Congress gave the FTC the power to require that appliance manufacturers make repair information available. The FTC has not yet acted on that power. But now, it has announced a rulemaking that would ask appliance manufacturers to make appliance repair manuals available to consumers. We undertook this study to help the FTC understand the gaps in appliance repair information and what documentation specifically would be helpful to consumers and professionals undertaking repairs.
86% of Appliance Companies Won’t Provide Service Manuals
The proposed Energy Guide rule has the potential to dramatically improve the landscape of appliance repair—which, right now, is pretty dismal.
We looked for manuals from a wide variety of products ranging from dishwashers to ice makers to televisions, from 50 different appliance manufacturers. The vast majority (86%) of the appliance companies we surveyed do not publish their service manuals and would not provide them when we asked.
Some companies would not respond to our requests at all. Others explicitly told us that they do not provide service information to customers, because they “do not recommend self-service.”
Of the 7 products for which we did access service documentation, 2 were available from the website, and the other 5 we received after making a request to customer service.
89% of Technicians Can’t Find Manuals, and 94% Can’t Find Schematics
It’s not necessarily any easier to get the repair documentation you need if you’re an appliance repair professional. We surveyed 37 appliance repair professionals and found that 89% of them have at least occasionally been unable to find manuals when they’ve looked. Even more (93.5%) reported difficulty finding necessary schematics.
Some information is available to in-network or authorized servicers exclusively; other information is only available via software that is prohibitively expensive for small shops. Many appliance companies charge hundreds of dollars annually for access to diagnostics and service information that they give to their in-network or official servicers for free; GE, for example, charges $919/year. Consumers won’t pay that much for a single repair, of course, but lots of small appliance repair businesses can’t afford it either, especially if they service appliances by many different appliance brands (one group of technicians we talked to services 143 brands).
Even when technicians do subscribe to these services, however, they frequently find that their service manuals are missing important information for repair, such as schematics or wiring diagrams. The information is especially lacking for repairers who want to perform component-level repairs, not just swap large expensive parts.
Ultimately, consumers bear the burden of these expenses and limitations. Repairs cost more, because independents struggle to compete with manufacturer authorized repair. Repairs are riskier, because consumers and professionals are lacking the information they need. And so things stay broken longer.
Appliance Repair Is Good for the Planet
The report also summarizes some academic research on the environmental benefits of appliance repair, since the Energy Guide program aims to reduce US energy consumption.
Research shows that before appliances arrive on the showroom floor, they have already consumed a significant chunk of the energy they will ever use—and contributed as much as 50% of their lifetime greenhouse gas emissions. Replacing individual components in an appliance is far more energy efficient than replacing the entire unit. Many commonly replaced components (including the bearing, pump, and belt pulley) account for less than 3% of an appliance’s overall environmental impact. With those numbers, it’s no wonder energy labeling is interested in accommodating repair.
As the world moves toward renewable energy sources, device-level efficiency matters less. With fully renewable energy, dishwashers would need to last 34 years for replacement to offset the costs of their manufacturing energy. Energy Guide and other similar programs have already succeeded in pushing appliances toward energy efficiency; to make big energy-savings, we now need to focus on keeping hardware working longer.
Recommendations to the FTC
Manufacturers’ counter-arguments are generally unsound. For instance, they tend to raise unfounded concerns about safety, despite the fact that the majority of appliance repair is already performed by consumers or independent shops, without major incident. Professional appliance repair is safer than the average job, nationally.
We call on the FTC’s Energy Guide repair information requirement to include everything people need to repair all—not just some—appliance repairs: Circuit schematics, wiring diagrams, pinouts, and part diagrams; diagnostic and calibration software; service bulletins; and computer-aided design files. To enable the widest potential for repair and give consumers the opportunity to consult repair documentation at the point of sale, we propose that this information be made available at no charge to the consumer.
The FTC would do well to include access to repair information directly on the Energy Guide label, through QR codes, URLs, or both. Wider public access to appliance repair information would boost the feasibility of do-it-yourself repair, increase competition in the repair market, and ultimately benefit both the environment and consumers’ wallets.