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Monitor Board of Contributors: When good appliances start to go bad

Sixteen years ago my husband and I decided to rebuild an old farmhouse. We pulled up flooring, rebuilt the chimney and learned how to put up sheetrock. After the walls were painted and the cabinets were installed, we were ready for the appliances. From the fridge to the furnace, everything was purchased and installed within a month.

It didn’t register at the time, but the installers all told us, “This (insert expensive item here) will probably last about 15 years.” Sure. Fine. Whatever.

We passed the 15-year mark and most everything was still functioning. We’d replaced the dishwasher soon after its arrival (“only the good die young” does not apply to dishwashers) and a few years back our microwave started to buzz. However, the big stuff – the critical stuff – still kept us warm, our food cold and our clothes clean.

A few months ago, though, the prophecies came true. The first to go was the washing machine.

In 1997, I was satisfied with High, Medium and Low water levels. I thought Hot, Warm and Cold would adequately address my soil issues. I was under the false and naïve impression that most clothes were “Normal.”

I believe the instructions on my new front-loader imply that you should rarely use the “Normal” setting.

These days I can choose a “steri-cycle” in case I want to use my son’s socks as bandages. There’s a “bulky items” setting, which the instructions say is for oversized bedding, although I intend to use this for my saddle pads during shedding season (Don’t tell my husband, but I believe the saddle pads were a contributing factor to the demise of the first washer.). A half-dozen other choices also appear on my well-lit dial.

Despite all the new settings and fancy flashing lights, what I really need is a “poison ivy” setting, which could handle my son’s outfits after he and his friends crawl commando-like through the pasture. I’d also like a “shrink sensor,” that actually rejects clothes that shouldn’t be in there.

Apparently, the new washer is more energy-efficient, although how something that runs more than twice as long as its predecessor can use less energy is a mystery to me.

The second appliance to die was our water heater. Although replacing something like this is never a fun way to spend money, I have to say that it didn’t break my heart to see the old one hauled away. For years, its behavior had mystified every plumber who came through the cellar. We would describe how it would only give hot water after we ran something that used hot water. It’s like it needed a wake-up call and some time to, well, warm up.

These things never break on a Tuesday or Wednesday. No, ours died on a Thursday night before a holiday weekend. Four days without hot water.

Shockingly, we survived. The laundry piled up and we had to scrub the dishes extra hard. My teenage daughter was put out that she couldn’t shower, but my son hardly noticed.

The furnace was the third appliance to quit. For days our house smelled like an auto shop and black smoke poured from our chimney as if we were choosing a new Pope. When we woke up one morning and saw our breath, we knew it was time to call for help.

When the technician arrived, I cheerfully greeted him.

“You’re full of energy,” he said. He probably doesn’t often have a positive greeting from someone who has been cold for six hours.

After tinkering for a while, the technician called me down to show me the problem. Soon after I heard words like “valve” and “coil,” I tuned out.

He must’ve seen the blank stare because he politely asked, “Do you want to hear about what broke?”

“Not really,” I answered, “I trust you.”

We compromised, and he gave me a rudimentary lesson in furnaces.

All I can recall is that my furnace is really just a big, empty metal box with a little heater in it. The little heater required three hours of Jake’s time and a couple hundred dollars’ worth of parts, but thankfully the whole thing didn’t need to be replaced.

I have to say that every technician who has ever come to my house has been pleasant and knowledgeable. These people know their stuff.

They always offer to remove their shoes before coming into the house, but I let them track mud wherever they need to go.

It’s the least I can do, as their work is often dirty or uncomfortably hot or cold, and I empathize – especially if I haven’t been able to bathe or my house is a balmy 47 degrees.

It’s been at least six months since our last appliance replacement and, so far, my ice cream is still frozen and water is coming out of the faucets. Still, I know I’m on borrowed time. It’ll be 17 years this fall, and I swear my food isn’t cooking right.

Well, maybe that’s just operator error.

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