Saturday, June 27, 2009
My $863 Refrigerator Repair
Four weeks ago, I found that the ice dispenser of my refrigerator had run out of ice. Here's my long story, but you can cut to the end for my conclusions from this experience.
My ice maker had stopped making ice once last year, so I went through my records and recalled the answer the helpful Kitchen Aid customer service people gave me. I tried the old solution to no avail - still no ice. Then I realized that though the refrigerator side was okay, my freezer had warmed up from its normal -5° to +30°!
I called the Kitchen Aid 800 number and was quickly told I needed a service call. They said Capital City Appliance Service in Columbus was my locally authorized service provider. I called them and they arranged a service visit for the next day. My service guy, Mike, told me I had a slow leak somewhere in the system. He recharged the freon, saying that would get my freezer cooling normally again, and said he'd need to return with a dye injector which would show where in the hundreds of feet of cooling system piping the leak was. He said that since my refrigerator (a 36" side-by-side built-in) was 11 years old, parts were still covered by Kitchen Aid's 12-year warranty, but I'd have to pay for labor (confirming what Kitchen Aid customer service told me over the phone). I paid $177 for that first visit for his hour's time plus the freon.
The next day, I got a call from Mike's office. A woman there told me it would cost me $800 for my refrigerator repair. I asked how much time it would take and she said it would be about 3 hours. Well, since parts were covered, I asked if that meant I would be paying almost $200 per hour for labor (given the charge for freon). After getting inadequate explanations to my questions about the seemingly unreasonable charge, I asked her to schedule the next service, but told her that I'd shop for a new refrigerator to consider replacing rather than repairing it and would call her back the next day.
I went to my local Home Depot and Lowe's hardware stores and saw regular refrigerators that might fit in my space, but no built-ins. (I was also surprised in this economy how hard it was to find anyone to ask for help on such a high-priced item!) I realized that with regular refrigerators, I would't be able to have custom cabinet panels on the doors, so it would't look good in my kitchen. I then went to the Great Indoors store and there found built-ins and sales help. Instead of the $1500-2500 for regular side-by-side refrigerators, a new Kitchen Aid built-in would cost over $5000 (confirming my recollection of what I paid for it when I bought it for my new house 11 years ago). In the context of $5000, an $800 repair didn't seem too bad.
I called Capital City back and after getting the same woman who couldn't explain why I was paying so much for labor, I asked to speak with a service manager. He explained they were required to charge according to a schedule of national standard service charges for types of repair. Further, I'd have to pay for a 2nd entire recharge of freon since federal regulations didn't permit them to reuse the freon they just put into my refrigerator until it had been cleaned. Before calling Capital City back, I had checked Angie's List and called Kitchen Aid again to see what alternatives I had, but found that although Capital City had many customers who were unhappy with their service, the alternative service company's ratings were even worse. So, I was stuck.
The service manager told me he advises customers to consider repair vs. replacement cost and expected refrigerator life. If the repair is more than 1/2 the replacement cost, he suggests buying a new one. He also told me that the expected life of a regular refrigerator is 10-12 years, but that of a built-in is 20 years, so my 11-year old unit still had plenty of life left. He said the work had a 90 day warranty and the parts warranty would run out with the 12-year warranty of my unit. When I expressed concern that inadequate repair of a slow leak may not show up until after the 90 day warranty had expired, he assured me that they would consider such instances on a case-by-case basis. I thanked him for his patience and explanations and told him to go ahead with the repair.
From there, things went smoothly. Mike came back to put in the dye injector (with a service charge of $77.55), and 3 weeks later, after the parts came in and my schedule permitted, found the expected slow leak. He replaced the parts, taking the predicted 3 hours. Mike had originally told me to empty my freezer, since everything would thaw during the repair. So in the intervening weeks, I've been trying to eat up my frozen foods (they had survived the few days of warming from -5° to +30°). I hadn't thought that all I needed to do was to put the frozen food into cooler chests during the repair, but I realized this once Mike came for the final repair.
So that's the story. My freezer's running fine again (so far) - I have ice! Mike confirmed that the leak wasn't anything I had caused; it was in a sealed part of the freezer. I was charged $785 for the final repair, less $122.60 I paid for the initial visit, so my total cost was $862.55 for 5 hours of labor and freon.
Most significantly, I've learned that I really don't need to keep much in my freezer. Fortunately, my side-by-size refrigerator doesn't hold all that much as it is, and one freezer bin is filled with coffee beans (since I've stopped drinking coffee, drinking tea instead). So I'll continue to eat up my frozen food and be more aware of what I put in there (which should be mainly for last-minute entertaining). I should also invite more friends over for coffee!
I'm concerned that the federal government and industry have created a situation where customers are stuck with unreasonable charges. I can understand regulators wanting to ensure that freon is properly recycled for reuse. But why can't we have our own freon put back into our own refrigerators? Also, while diagnostic-based charges may help prevent unscrupulous overcharging for repairs, what assurance do customers have against unreasonable "standard" charges? These may be examples of unintended consequences of government policies (far preferable to being examples of government-industry collusion to bilk customers); I'll have more to say about unintended consequences in a future blog.
Still, I'm happy that here in Columbus, I continue to be able to find service people who can help promptly and courteously (and, hopefully, competently).