THE ELECTRONIC CONTROL DILEMMA – A SERVICER’S VIEWPOINT

By Dean Landers, Landers Appliance

Electronic controls have taken over the appliance industry!  Even the most inexpensive appliances are now coming equipped with electronic sensors, monitor switches, infrared devices, wireless features, thermistors, motor controllers, modulating compressors, etc.  If you were a service technician and happen to have fallen asleep in the early 1990’s and awoke today and had to read a wiring diagram in order to diagnose a broken appliance, you would be lost because of the degree of complexity due to the electronic control board integration throughout every appliance product category.  The amount of information required today in order to make even the most cursory diagnosis and repair can make your head spin!  Back in my service days (70’s & 80’s) simply having and knowing how to read a wiring diagram was all a technician needed in order to determine a root cause of failure with any appliance.  Life was simple and good!

Today’s technicians have to understand and know specific Fault Codes for each and every appliance! On the surface fault codes seem like a very helpful tool in order to quickly determine the malfunction. So when you see the common fault code “PF” you know it is widely used to describe a “Power Failure”. All a home owner or technician has to do is check to make sure there is power supplied to the appliance.  No problem. But …

There are at least three issues that have risen with the proliferation of electronic controls and their fault codes. First, there are no standard codes across all the various brands. Each brand can basically make up their own codes, even changing the meaning of the codes between their own product offerings. As an example, an F9 on an electric range means one thing but something entirely different on a refrigerator of the exact same brand!

The second issue with fault codes is accessibility to the various definitions.  Not all manufacturers include the fault code definition list with the appliance AND some technicians are in the habit of removing the fault code flow chart from the unit when they are working on the appliance.  Some manufacturers have even started to restrict accessibility to this information on their web sites, only making it available to a handful of authorized service providers, severely restricting our free market capitalist system.

The third, and in my opinion biggest issue, is the lack of definitive meaning of a specific code and the effect this has on repair prices. Here is an example:  An F1 fault code displays on a control panel. The customer calls and requests a price to repair their appliance. Our service manager researches the meaning of the fault code and finds that it points to a main control board.  There is, however, an asterisk that states something to the affect “if the control board does not solve the problem, then replace the membrane switch / touch pad” (or other associated electronic parts).  We would then inform the customer that there could be three potential repair scenarios with their broken appliance.  The repair might require a control board. If that doesn’t fix the problem it may require a new membrane switch / touch pad. And in the worst case scenario, it may require both parts. There is no way to really know without starting out by replacing the control board, which means incurring significant costs. And therein lies my biggest complaint.  Repair prices! What is a service company to do?

As you can imagine in reading the scenario I’ve laid out above, if having to replace both the control and the touch pad, it is often cheaper to replace the appliance instead of making the repair.  No one can definitively tell you the actual repair costs until the control board is replaced since it is listed as the most probable cause on the fault code chart.  You MAY experience success once the board is replaced. Great! However, we are finding that is not the case in a growing percentage of related repairs.  What is going on in our industry?

Appliances are now being replaced prematurely because homeowners aren’t able to know for sure what a repair will cost them and many are not willing to take the risk on replacing the control board only to find out that additional parts (AND more of their money) are required in order to complete the repair. (Note to manufacturers: your reputations are being severely affected as a result of this situation!) How can the EPA be so overly concerned with energy efficiency standards, which is the primary reason why companies have gone to the electronic control platform and forget that these units don’t last as long due to the rising cost of repairs as a direct result? We are using a lot more precious natural resources in manufacturing and replacing these appliances (not to mention the energy needed to operate the manufacturing plants) than we are ever going to spend in running these appliances over a normal, or I would now say “former” life expectancy.

As if all that I’ve mentioned above isn’t enough, there is also an ongoing issue with inconsistent pricing on electronic controls.  One manufacturer can raise their replacement part price 30% or more in a matter of days. A part that cost $100 last week now costs $130. Or as is more often the case, the part is now $350 instead $260! Outrageous!  I have listened to all the explanations for the rise in the parts prices but find them extremely hard to believe since there is such a wide swing in prices from brand to brand. Some imports are selling their replacement electronic controls for less than $100 and yet domestic brands for the same type of appliance are selling theirs for $250. What gives? Are the foreign brands dumping their products here creating an unfair price advantage ? Possibly. I hope the various government agencies responsible for oversight are paying attention and working to address these issues. The American consumer should not be left holding an empty wallet.

Service companies must be honest with our customers. We have to explain the risks involved in attempting various repairs, especially a board replacement. Our customers deserve and are expecting our professional opinion and we need to give it to them. Check with other servicers to confirm your own findings about problems with particular brands and products. ChatUSA is an excellent resource to gather helpful information from other servicers who may have run into the same model with similar failures. The USA Service library is another extremely helpful resource whenever a fault code chart or diagram or any other helpful service tip is needed.

BTW – Hopefully you have noticed I have left out any mention of specific brand names. I have done so intentionally. The problem I’ve described is universal throughout the appliance industry.  Every manufacturer has some degree of culpability so I see no reason to call one over the other. They are all responsible for the problem AND the solution.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Robert says:

    Dean I could not have stated the problem better. You are spot on with your entire assessment.

    Thanks

    1. Jack says:

      Right on the nose: I though I was the only one thinking that way. I feel bad for my customer when I tell them the bad news and what it may cost. Lost a lot of jobs. You do not make money walking out with just the service charge.

  2. Harry Frantz says:

    If you could put it to music, it could become our anthemn. sadly it will only get worse. speaking only of the lines directed towards the middle of the market; they build this stuff with their fingers crossed that it’ll survive the first year W. after that it’s just a win win if it breaks down. sell a $$$ part[s] or new appliance or treat the consumer as an idiot for not buying an extended W. since this is spread across all the manf- each gleefully cashs in. the ‘new’ American consumer is slowly being conditioned to ‘just buy new’! what can we as servicers do about all this? nothing! Sales drive everything. as long as market share is maintained or increased-there’s no incentive to build a future old betsy. would the new consumer even really care? it’s all about the sizzle not the steak. to survive today and into the future a servicer has to be totally on top of his game technically and professionaly. then just ride the wave of each engineering screwup. as to going green; there’s a course in college titled common sense-landfills and global warming. it’s an elective so everybody elects not to take it.

  3. benz says:

    Being an electrician, I can easily relate myself with this post. I totally agreed with you on the fact that technicians have to understand and know specific Fault Codes for each and every appliance these days. Gone are the days when, a simple circuit diagram, is all we need to understand in order to fix the respective appliance.
    Reference : http://electricians-dublin.ie/about-clarke-electrical-contractor/

  4. dwain says:

    Well, you could provide some study material on control boards and electronic control troubleshooting. There is very little information on appliance control boards and troubleshooting. Even for someone who has electronic knowledge.

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