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January 24th, 2010

Adventures In Home Ownership…(continued)

For nearly all of my life I’ve been an apartment dweller.   I grew up, and grew into young adulthood with neighbors above me, neighbors below me, neighbors to my right and left.   The daily rustlings and occasional arguments heard through the walls were part of my normal experience.   Mind you, we lived in reasonably nice apartments.   You didn’t hear every little thing.   The walls were solid and the floors firm.   But you always knew you had neighbors living all around you.   You heard the sound of water moving through the building pipes when they turned on the tap water, heard their toilets flushing through the sewer drains.   Sometimes, you heard a door slam, or something drop.   I suppose my friends who grew up in their family’s own homes would think they had ghosts.

One routine of my apartment life was scouting the building washing machine room on the morning of laundry day to see if there was anything free.   If the machines were all in use I would try to judge from the cycle how much longer before one was free.   But this was an iffy prospect because some neighbors wouldn’t go fetch their laundry from the washer for hours, which would make me furious.   To this day I have a built-in mental self timer for how long it takes a wash load to run.   Also, on my dresser, a box which I put my spare change into every night: a habit born of necessity where you were always needing coins for the weekend laundry.   When people ask me what I like best about home ownership, or what motivated me to take the leap and buy a house of my own, I tell them instantly: my own washer and dryer.

It wasn’t until I moved to Baltimore that I discovered that some apartment complexes offer washers and dryers right in the apartment.   In Cockeysville, the Baltimore suburb I moved to from Rockville, my first apartment (my First apartment!) had the usual communal laundry room.   But my second, the the best apartment complexes I ever lived in, had full size washers and dryers right there in the apartment.   I thought I had reached the very pinnacle of luxury.

When I got the job at Space Telescope, and decided to relocate to within walking distance of the office, I had one absolutely firm no-compromise specification for my new apartment: it had to have its own laundry closet.   Alas none of them within walking distance did.   Also, being so close to the campus, their rents were a tad outrageous anyway.   A good fifty percent more then the rent I was paying then in Cockeysville, for apartments nearly half as big.

And so, with great trepidation since I knew nothing of how to go about buying a home, I started looking at the little rowhouses clustered around the campus.   I’d actually given it some thought a few years previously, when I discovered how affordable homes were in the Baltimore area, compared to Rockville and the Washington suburbs.   But knowing nothing at all about buying a home, and getting tied up with seller’s agent instead of a buyer’s agent, I quickly gave it up.   It just seemed out of my reach.   But at Space Telescope some co-workers put me in touch with a reliable buyer’s agent and after one false start, I got the hang of it and…well…now I am a home owner.

With my very own washer and dryer! Conveyed.   They Conveyed!   I got to add a new sense of the word ‘conveyed’ to my vocabulary.   Also, Service Contract

So I had a Service Contract on the furnace and hot water heater, but not the washer and dryer because I reckoned the ones that Conveyed were old enough that I’d want to replace them anyway when they started going bad.     The dryer is a pretty simple machine and all it has needed over the years I’ve been here was one repair to replace the igniter element.   The washer though, started having transmission problems last year.   The repairman I called in gave me a quote of about 4-500 dollars to repair it.   Well…that’s the cost of a new one just about, so I decided to just keep that one running until it failed.

Failure came a week ago Friday.   Well…not so much failed, as became not at all well.   It still washes, but to get the spin dry cycle going I have to open the lid, defeat the interlock, reach in and yank the tub around to get it going.   When it stops after the cycle is over, I can hear the bearings grinding.

So I get my trusty back issues of Consumer Reports out, and the annual Buyer’s Guide, and start investigating.   I wanted a nice front loader, since those are more water and energy efficient, and it’s a proven design.     I got my tape measure out and jotted down not only the dimensions of the space around the washer I had, but the doorways and stairwells the old and new machine would have to navigate on the way down to the basement utility room.   Then I started looking around the net for complaints.   Well…I got an eyeful.

It was the same problem I ran into when I needed to replace the old fridge.     Every make out there, even the ones Consumer Reports said were less likely to need repairs then the others, had problems.   Reading over the complaints, you get a sense of which ones were outliers, and which were endemic.     Mold was a persistent issue with the front loaders…all of them.   Some had vibration problems and would try to walk all over the laundry rooms whenever the spin cycle started.   Some had persistent problems with gasket tearing and leaking.   The new electronic control boards were a constant source of problems for all models.   When they weren’t failing altogether, they were causing problems with correct water amounts and temperatures.     An appalling number of people were saying to stay away from anything with an electronic control board.   Just get a cheap all-mechanical one instead, was the advice.

It was going around to the stores and looking over the models first-hand that I discovered the problem that forced me to give up a front loader.   I have two possible paths of entry into the basement…the front door or the back kitchen door and then down the basement stairs, and through the door to the utility room in the back of the basement…OR…through the back basement door and right into the utility room.     The catch is: 1) the door to the utility room has only 25-1/2 inches of width, and while the back basement door has 27 inches there is a deck the previous owner built over the back basement doorway and I only have a three foot crawlspace there for someone to carefully wheel something into or out of the basement.

I know that can be done…Casa del Garrett once had two full-size fridges (they Conveyed!): the second one being located in the utility room where it was used by the previous owner for storing ice and cold drinks for the club room he’d made of the front of the basement, and which I am now using as an art room.   I gave the second fridge away and some friends wheeled it carefully out the back basement door on a hand truck, tipped it on its side and slid it out under the deck.   But that path only has 27 inches at it’s narrow point, which is the back basement doorway.   And the deck only gives you three feet of clearance to wheel something out from under it.   You had to figure in the size of a hand truck, plus the size of the washer.

So as it turned out, the only front loaders I could get into my house were the smallest of the small ones…something you’d buy for a condo with a tiny laundry closet maybe.   It would only be able to do small loads of clothes but not large towels or the sheets and mattress cover on my queen size bed.   For those I’d either be back to doing the communal laundry room thing again or just dropping them off at the cleaners.   I figured if I was paying several hundred bucks for a washing machine the only time I should need to take anything to the cleaners was if I needed something dry cleaned.

So with regret I started looking at the top loaders.   Even the largest of those could get down the basement steps and through the utility room door.   Once again I saw the same complaints about machines that were mainly controlled by electronic motherboards.     I also saw a number of complaints that the new high efficiency top-loaders didn’t actually get clothes clean.   I suspect those were mostly from folks who were shocked to see how little water is used by the new machines, and don’t understand how detergents work.   I looked over some YouTubes of these machines in action and…yeah…they don’t look like they’re using nearly enough water.   But no washing machine is a scrubbing machine.     Really bad dirt always requires attention by hand scrubbing and cleaning it first.   It’s the same with dishes and dish washers.

I settled on a GE High Efficiency model that Consumer Reports recommended.   It’s supposedly going to be delivered tomorrow.   In the meantime I had a whole ‘nother gallon of Costco liquid laundry detergent I hadn’t even opened yet that I gave to a neighbor, because the new machine requires the new High Efficiency detergents.   I noted when I went to Costco for some, that the regular Kirkland brand liquid detergent isn’t even being sold anymore…just the High Efficiency stuff now.     I guess that’s where it’s all going now.   But if it cuts down on the amount of detergent going down the drains every day that’s for the better.

I have to say I’ve never seen a top loader with nothing but a little impeller device at the bottom of the tub.   It makes the tub seem huge.   Supposedly the machine will determine the correct amount of water itself, and before it goes into spin cycle, do a little self-balancing act.   I am told though, that once I fill it with clothes and turn it on, opening the the lid and adding something I missed like a stray sock is problematic because it confuses auto water level system.   I can theoretically override the auto water level, but I would need to do that before I start it up.   I’m also told to expect it will be substantially quieter then the old machine, so I can’t just listen to it from upstairs to get a sense of what it’s up to.   I’ll likely have to reprogram my internal sense of how long a wash load takes because these machines take a bit longer on the wash.   That may take some doing as my mental model of the laundry room work flow is about fifty years old.

3 Responses to “Adventures In Home Ownership…(continued)”

  1. Tavdy79 Says:

    I’m reading that and I’m like “WTF?” because I couldn’t imagine the problems you were listing – mold, “walking”, control board problems, it seems like American-front loaders are in the dark ages compared to British ones. I’ve never even heard of mold being an issue before, and the last walking washer I saw was a late ’60s Meile that my parents finally had to give up about eight years ago – and even then, only because the house had been flooded and the Meile wrecked by river water.
    Also, a lot of people can develop skin rashes and other health problems from the detergents used in washing powders, especially biological powders, so a machine that rinses thoroughly can be quite important – and that means using more water.

  2. Bruce Says:

    My hunch regarding the mold problem is either people here in the states aren’t that familiar with front loaders and aren’t taking care of them properly, or they sell different ones over here that are more susceptible to it because of design issues.  The front loaders you see available for sale over here now come from U.S. makers as well as some European makers and Korean makers.  But from looking things over on YouTube believe it or not, what I’ve seen pretty clearly is the models for sale here verses there are very different.  For one thing, most European makes are smaller capacity and fit in smaller spaces.  I’m told it is common to fit the washer under a counter in the kitchen over there.  I’m also seeing drum type washers where you access the drum via a drawer you pull out.  I’d never seen such a thing before, and there is nothing like that over here that I could find, even though I’m told they are made by brands that are familiar names over here.

    I’ve seen complaints about noise and vibration on Bosch, Electrolux, and Korean makes LG and Samsung,  though not as many as with Maytag, Whirlpool and Frigidaire.  I see the mold issue being complained about on all of them, but some more then others.  I suspect it’s a care taking issue, but it might also be the design of the larger capacity models.  Also, the climate of our southern states may be contributing to it.  If you are comfortable in your English summers you probably do not want to spend one here in the Washington/Baltimore area.  The heat isn’t so bad compared to the tropics, but the humidity east of Texas and south of the Mason-Dixon line is really ugly.  I was told once by an English guy I knew for a while, whose folks worked at the embassy here, that before air conditioning was installed the U.S. was considered a hardship post.  To deal with front loader gasket mold people here are being told they need to leave the doors open after running a load through, to wipe down the door gaskets after each use, and to once a month run a cleaning cycle through the washer.

    As for the walking issue, I think that’s a set up problem although some folks insist they had their units balanced properly when they were installed, and repeatedly balance them when the problem manifests itself.

    There was no Miele seller anywhere near Baltimore I could find, other then their vacuum cleaners which are considered upscale trendy here.  Bosch seems to be the favored European brand of the trendy American well-to-do yuppie set for front loading washers and one of the small ones I looked at that could have actually fit into my little Baltimore rowhouse was one of those…but it was 1400 dollars and I am not so trendy I want to spend close to two grand after taxes, delivery, setup and service contract for a washer.   Also, it wouldn’t have come close to fitting one of my mattress covers inside.  Interestingly, the larger Bosch that couldn’t fit into my house cost much less.  If there are other European brands I should have checked out I probably don’t even know of them.  Our “mega size chain store” style of capitalism here pretty effectively limits your choices in household appliances to what the mega chains are selling these days.  The local individually owned and operated appliance store is largely a thing of the past here.

    They say the GE I bought rinses well for the water it uses and you can tell it to give things a second rinse if one is not enough.  You have to use the “HE” labeled detergent in it though.  This will be my first experience with that.  Some body soaps give me a rash but that seems to be associated with scented soaps and I have avoided those for over a decade now.  The “HE” detergent I bought at Costco was labeled as being scent and dye free.

  3. Bob Cutler Says:

    I think these days, if you get 5 years out of about ANY appliance,  then you’ve come out ahead of the game. Its half planned obsolescence, and half crappy manufacturing.
    Any 80 year old house (Like ours) Or even newer was not designed for much more then carrying canned pickles and peaches up and down the basement stairs.
    I avoid the washing machine by simply showering with my clothes on.

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