In October, the US Federal Trade Commission announced a new set of rules that would require appliances to ship with repair instructions. The repair community applauded the move—access to manuals is a core part of the Right to Repair. But when we reached out to appliance repair experts to better understand the proposal, they said that repair manuals alone won’t truly lead to more appliance repair. That’s because fixing modern appliances—so many of which are loaded with “smart” tech—often requires access to software and equipment that prices out independent and DIY repair.
The appliance repair community says that the FTC rules should require access to service bulletins and required board updates: These things alert technicians to recalls, help align parts to required tolerances, and make it possible to complete repairs. Right now, often this data is locked within proprietary manufacturer software, and without it, repair techs say the FTC won’t solve the real problems preventing mass appliance repair.
Here’s what the holdup looks like in practice:
Let’s say one day, the ice maker in your fridge stops making ice. You find the replacement part you need to get it working again online, get it shipped, slot it in—and ice cube cereal is back on the menu. But a few weeks later, the ice maker stops working again. What gives?
The ice maker may have shaken itself to death because you failed to reprogram the motherboard with the correct tolerances using the manufacturer’s special software. This sort of unpleasant surprise is all too common for DIY and independent repair technicians, explains Matt Zieminski, Vice President of Repair.org. You want access to the special software that will allow you to calibrate the new part with your fridge? Get ready to shell out hundreds of dollars a year—access to GE’s SmartHQ Service costs $919 per year, including $199 for a cable that lets your tablet talk to your fridge. You can buy a whole new fridge for $919.
If that sounds like too much for a single repair, well, yeah. That’s the point: It’s in GE’s interest to make you decide it’s not worth the effort to fix the fridge yourself and call a technician instead. And they want to make sure the technician you call is from their own service network.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with GE preferring their own technicians, but authorized service isn’t always the best option and it certainly shouldn’t be the only option. For one thing, some customers live a long way from an official tech. For another, manufacturer networks often get overwhelmed during recalls. After a large batch of LG refrigerator compressors went bad at once, for instance, lots of customers complained about problems getting timely manufacturer service.
One LG fridge owner relates their experience:
Now, even if you wanted to go with a manufacturer’s pro, if the wait time is too long to save your Thanksgiving leftovers, you might call an independent shop. But even if your fridge shows an error code, or even if you’ve got simple diagnostics via the free version of a manufacturer’s app, that often isn’t enough to complete a repair. Dean Landers, owner of Landers Appliance Repair in Baltimore, Maryland, says sometimes an error code masks a required board update, available only to techs who have paid the $919 for the app and dongle.
“If you don’t have that device and can’t do a board update, you’re going to think that board is defective,” Landers explains. “You’re going to tell the customer the repair will be the cost of the board. You won’t know it needs an update—and that’s all it needs, even though it shows up defective.”
Error codes only tell part of the story, and if the tech at the independent repair shop isn’t paying $919 per year for the app and dongle, solving your problem might be literally impossible.
Now, for many repair shops, a single annual fee of $919 might not be such a bad business expense if it were the only equipment they were servicing. But think about how many kitchen appliance brands there are out there, and then multiply.
A source within a home warranty company says their technicians service 143 different appliance brands. If technicians had to pay $919 for every brand they serviced, each would be paying $131,417 annually for that access. Most of these technicians are one-person shops already operating on thin margins. If GE’s model of giving service information access were to keep spreading across the industry, it could quickly put them out of business.
When we push manufacturers to make their documentation more open, they often argue that their products are too complicated for people without fancy manufacturer-provided training to repair. We take apart a lot of complicated gadgets, and we haven’t found one that seems beyond the repair powers of someone with the right screwdriver and the right documentation.
But we’d never taken apart a fridge at all, let alone a smart fridge. So we figured we’d tackle one now, with the question in mind: Is there anything about this smart fridge technology that suggests only people with special manufacturer training should attempt a repair?
Short answer: No.
We didn’t find anything more dangerous than some big capacitors (no touchy). What we did find: Lots of easily replaceable parts. A handful of control boards, with a much more spacious pin arrangement than we’re used to in phones and laptops. And a really buggy diagnostic app that only talked to our fridge about half the time.
The FTC making repair documentation available will be a boon to DIY and independent repairers around the world. But if they really want this regulation to make appliance repair more open, they need to include software access as well.
We’ve found that manufacturers tend to be reluctant to give up their monopolies—so regulators need evidence to push back against them. The FTC is calling for public comment now. Have you ever had an appliance repair gone wrong? Might more documentation or software availability have helped? If so, drop the FTC a line (or comment on this post, and we’ll put your thoughts into our own formal comment submission).