Appliance despair and repair

Local service pros warn: Don’t neglect your machines.


I knew it was coming—the day my family would wake up and find nothing but freezing cold water for our morning shower. Yep, I was pretty certain that day would come in the dead of winter. On a weekend. Of course, that’s exactly what happened this year.

I had been warned months previously by our plumber that the water heater was on its last leg. The telltale trickle of leaking water on the basement floor foreshadowed icy baths to come. Loathe to pay the $1,000+ to buy and install a replacement, I tempted fate and let it succumb to a slow death instead of fixing the issue while we still had enough hot water for showers, dishes and laundry. Then one day, the inevitable happened: Our water heater made no more hot water.

Any homeowner knows that appliances are costly to purchase and fix, and totally vital to a certain standard of living.

But many homeowners don’t know—or avoid the fact—that every appliance requires some regular attention to keep them working well and prevent an unnecessarily early demise.

Anything that moves air or water through its system inevitably becomes clogged with the particles that, if not cleaned out regularly, prevents the machine from running smoothly. Ignoring and misusing appliances not only shorten their lifespan, it also wastes an incredible amount of energy because these large machines aren’t working efficiently—and energy costs are a huge part of any household budget.

A neglected appliance also can wreak costly havoc if, for example, water floods from a gunked up malfunctioning valve or seal. Yep, been there, done that, too.

And the kicker: Local repair services, plumbers and handymen say they’re often called to fix problems that simple maintenance would have prevented. Or in my case, fix a problem before it reaches crisis level. (Trust me, cold showers in the winter are a crisis.)

Steve Richetto, co-owner of Grebe’s in Wausau, has some simple advice about appliances and keeping them working for the long haul: Use only as directed by the manufacturer, and read that instruction manual.

Consider one couple I know who found they were replacing their basement dehumidifier every other year or so. Finally the wife took a close look at the most recently deceased one and found the air filter completely clogged with an inches-thick layer of dust, grime, lint and pet hair. The motor had burned out as a result. When she asked her husband if he had ever cleaned the filter, his reply, “There’s a filter on the dehumidifier?” solved the mystery.

Here are some basic tips and common pitfalls:



Steve Richetto of Grebe’s: His repair service department sees a lot of malfunctions caused by erroneous use or neglect, like toothpicks jamming a dishwasher or dirty refrigerator coils

One of the biggest culprits of a dishwasher’s demise is too much soap. “You should use maybe one to two teaspoons,” Richetto says. People tend to think more soap means cleaner dishes. That’s not the case. “Too much soap builds up scum and suds, which over time has an impact.”

If scum does build up inside the dishwasher, he recommends running a cycle with a dishwasher-specific cleaner to help chew away the residue that’s preventing the dishwasher from doing its job.

Food particles and oils trapped in the mechanisms also can result in unclean dishes. That’s why Richetto suggests giving dishes a little rinse before putting them into the dishwasher. Leaving them full of food will cause problems over time. (Use cold water so you’re not wasting energy with this step). “If you have a whole plate filled with beans and corn, get that off before putting it into the washer.”

Richetto has been to a lot of service calls where people notice the water isn’t being pumped out of the washer drum. The typical culprit: toothpicks, popcorn kernels, cellophane, and broken glass that are jamming or clogging the dishwasher’s parts.

“If that happens, clean them out,” says Richetto. “But you shouldn’t be putting things like that in there to begin with. Dishwashers aren’t a hard food disposal. People think they can run anything through there and then they plug the pump.”


One of the biggest troublemakers is simple dust buildup on and around the condenser coils and fan. Dust bunnies grow into monsters behind and under a refrigerator, hampering the air flow required to create the cold inside this appliance.

It’s a pretty simple task to keep your refrigerator running longer (and not sounding like a helicopter), says Richetto. “Once a year pull the fridge out from the wall and clean the coil area where hair and dust and lint collect and under and around the fridge. A household with animals or a lot of dust may need to be cleaned out more often.”

If the motor can’t move air easily, it runs hotter and isn’t as efficient.

And don’t fall for the misconception that a fridge that isn’t cooling properly just needs more Freon. “That’s not the case. If it is low on Freon you would have to find where there’s a break or leak in the sealed system,” Richetto says.


They aren’t that expensive, but you don’t want to replace it every other year, either. They’re easy to maintain: Just check and change the filter, says Richetto. Again, reading and going by the instruction manual will help lengthen the life of a dehumidifier, and give tips on cleaning, so you don’t end up with mold and mildew.

Laundry dryer

Dryers are fairly simple machines, and mostly all a homeowner needs to keep an eye on is the venting system. Clean the lint trap after every use to maintain air flow and prevent buildup from reaching outside vents and hidden recesses of the appliance.

“Many people don’t clean the lint trap out after each load, and they find that their clothes aren’t drying,” says Richetto. “When people call us to repair their dryer, much of the time it’s a venting issue, where people have either kinked their venting, not cleaned it out, or plugged it.”

He recommends regularly checking and cleaning the exhaust that runs from the back of the dryer to the outside. “I check mine every couple weeks.”

Washing machine

As with dishwashers, using too much detergent is the cause of much washing machine angst, says Richetto. “Nowadays many detergents are concentrated, a little soap goes a long way. And it will save you a lot of money in the long run on buying detergent.”

Sure signs of residue buildup are odors and/or suds when it’s not running through a cycle. Like with the dishwasher, Richetto recommends running a cycle with a machine specific cleaner.

Furnaces and air conditioners


Dan Brandenburg of Dan’s Service Plus: An improperly working furnace can be dangerous, and is definitely not a DIY tinkering project.

Aside from replacing the air filters—and make sure you do that at least once a year!—a furnace is one thing that most homeowners aren’t qualified to maintain themselves.

“Furnaces manufacturers request that they be cleaned professionally every year,” says Dan Brandenburg, owner of Dan’s Service Plus in Wausau.

Furnaces have a lot of intricate parts to be checked like the motors, heat exchangers, and igniters, says Brandenburg. “A furnace is a life safety issue,” says Brandenburg, who does not recommend people tackle issues by looking up how-to videos on YouTube.

As with most appliances, tinkering with a furnace yourself can void the warranty and Brandenburg says in order to keep that intact, the service record has to be shown if warranty repairs are needed. “It’s like buying a car. If you are not changing the oil ever and the engine blows, the warranty is going to be void,” he says.

Brandenburg says his crew checks the draws on amperage of motors, heat exchanger, and safety, he says. Since furnaces can produce deadly carbon monoxide, all those levels are checked annually as well, he says.

Because all the output benchmarks are written down, it’s easy to see if the furnace is running as it should or is trending toward failure. At that point, “the homeowner can start budgeting for a replacement down the road,” says Brandenburg. Usually the life span of a furnace is 12 to 15 years, he says.

Water heaters

Water heater life spans depend on use and care of the unit, but Brandenburg says they can run 10-15 years. Water quality can also be an issue. “Acidity causes water heaters to fail or to leak,” he says.

To clear out sediment and buildup that can shorten the lifespan of the tank and reduce efficiency, flush the heater once or twice a year and test the valves.

Brandenburg suggests having a professional inspect the water heaters at the same time as the furnace checkup.

Sink food waste grinders

Food waste grinders (or as most of us incorrectly call them, disposals) are for food waste only, says Brandenburg, and should be used sparingly.

The best thing you can do for your drain system is to compost food waste, not send it down the drain, he says. “So be smart about what you put into it,” he says. “Potato and carrot peelings can slide by the grinder because they are so thin; they can float past the grinder and build up into drainage pipes.”

After time, build up can cause a blockage, and a blockage can cause major damage to basements or kitchens. “With water then comes mold and mildew, so it is imperative to have it cleaned and dried quickly,” he says.

Never put rice down the grinder, because “rice will keep expanding with water,” he says. “And grease should never ever go down a sink.”

Vacuum cleaners, carpet shampooers

Vacuum cleaners can range from inexpensive to very pricey. But no matter what kind you own, those machines are a morass of hoses, tubes, filters, gaskets, brushes and detachable parts. Getting it checked yearly or even twice a year helps keep it functioning properly, says Jim Litzenberger owner of Ken’s Vacuum Center on Thomas Street in Wausau.

There are, of course, easy things you can do yourself.

Any filters that can be removed for cleaning should be cleaned regularly—take a good look and you might see a filter you didn’t even know existed but has been wanting for your attention. I’ve owned a Dyson Animal for over a decade and it’s still running. But I’ve rarely cleaned it, so I know I’m pushing my luck.

Empty waste canisters, and change bags regularly. “Don’t overfill those,” Litzenberger says. “They will lose suction and won’t move as much air around.”

The correct height setting also makes a big difference in wear and tear on machines, says Litzenberger.

“And, overall, keeping the machine clean, like cleaning the filters and bringing them in to have them looked at can lengthen their lives,” he says. “It’s kind of like taking care of any other aspect of your life, you need TLC once in awhile.”

When to replace or repair a vacuum depends on the value of the machine. “If you can buy a brand new one for $40 why stick money into filters and maintenance,” he says.

As with most things, buying a higher quality machine does matter in the long run. “They function better, last longer, and are more repairable,” Litzenberger says.

Carpet shampoo extractors are very needy and must be cleaned and stored dry after every use so they won’t mildew. “You can’t just use them and put them away dirty. They must be cleaned and dried properly,” Litzenberger warns, otherwise “it’s just like putting a wet rag in the closet.”

When appliances fail hard: You shoulda been watching

If you’re lazy about watching or maintaining your appliance, heed my warning: One day my dishwasher decided to give up the ghost and unbeknownst to me, leaked water under the floor behind the kitchen counters, into the living spaces, and into the basement. I discovered the leak only when the laminate flooring in front of the washer buckled and warped. The entire kitchen, living room and dining room flooring had to be replaced. Plus we had to hire a professional cleaning crew to remediate the soaked subfloor to prevent the possibility of getting any dangerous mold growth.

In his 28 plus years in plumbing, Dan Brandenburg has seen some pretty significant water damage happen when pipes clog or an appliance fails. “The number one insurance claim for water damages is from water lines to refrigerators,” he says. Dishwashers and wash machines are also common water damage culprits.

He recommends homeowners purchase a small leak detector (a small button, with a moisture sensing wick) to alert them if an appliance leaks water. “I have them in my house, cabin and shop,” he says. “I have them by the water heater, fridge and basically anywhere a leak could happen.”

Any moisture hitting the detector sets off an alarm. Some devices works with wifi, and can also send an immediate alarm to your phone. “We carry them for $100 to $125 installed,” he says. Some home security systems also offer the product and vary in prices and quality.

When appliances fail hard, that’s when someone like Andy Radies comes in. He owns RestorU restoration services in Rib Mountain, and warns, “Most common to our restoration work are the leaky pipes or water lines that pertain to wash machines, dishwashers, and refrigerators,” he says. “All are significantly different, but all have the same devastating effects.”

To limit damages, Radies advises homeowners to be vigilant and perform periodic inspections of their appliance and surroundings. “In addition, make sure an industry professional performs all appliance installations and maintenance service,” he says.

Repair yourself? Or replace?

While many people have the tools and skill to tackle minor appliance repairs on their own, the time, frustration and risk might not be worth the savings.

When do you need to hire a guy (or gal) to come help?

Anytime you feel uncomfortable, says Wausau handyman Dan Brodhagen. And call before taking the whole thing apart. He has come to the aid of many folks who started their own repairs and realized they were over their head “once they’ve gone past the point of no return.”

“After they’ve taken it apart, you have no idea what’s even wrong with it,” he says. “You’d have to completely reassemble it to figure out what is wrong.”

A local sales and repair shop like Grebe’s or Dan’s Service Plus have specialized technicians for complicated projects. But a handyman can help with minor troubleshooting. “Water lines to refrigerators, sinks, garbage disposals, those are pretty basic,” says Brodhagen.

A good handyman can fix many things but both Brodhagen and Dan Brandenburg recommend a licensed professional to repair or install anything major, like furnaces and air conditioners. “They are just too specialized and they change so much,” Brodhagen says.

According to Consumer Reports, “People who used independent repair shops were more satisfied with the repairs than those who used factory service, which is consistent with what we’ve found previously. And repairs cost less, too.”

When might you try fixing a problem yourself? It’s worth at least doing some research. If an appliance is running, but just not doing a good job, there’s a good chance the problem is a clog, or jam, or gunk buildup. For example, if you’re not diligent about cleaning your clothes dryer, the moisture sensor might be too dirty to work properly.

The prevalence of how-to videos on YouTube, and other sites “makes repairing even complicated appliances a much less formidable challenge,” Consumer Reports says. “But if your product is under manufacturer’s warranty, you’ll need to use a factory-authorized repair shop or risk voiding the warranty.”

The cost of appliances is trending downward, says Richetto, which makes a decision to repair versus replace a harder one.

“Dishwashers start at around $200 and can go up to around $1200,” says Grebe’s co-owner Steve Richetto. “By the time a repair person can come over and look at the appliance, get the parts and then add in the cost of labor, it may just make more sense to invest in a new one.”

Consumer Reports advice on repair threshold: no more than 50% the cost of a new replacement.

For example, my laundry dryer went out because of a faulty circuit board. Installing a new one would cost upwards of $400 and still leave me with a 10-year-old dryer that likely will have more issues in the coming years. A new comparable dryer unit sells for around $650. So the best bet in this case is invest in a new replacement.