Planned Obsolescence


About ten years ago I decided to remodel the kitchen of my almost 100 year old home in the west end of Toronto. The existing kitchen was bright and spacious and had a lot of potential for being a great cooking space. I was fortunate at the time I could afford some high end cooking equipment including a 36” Thermador gas stove with grill. This was a wonderful cooktop with enough power to run the wok and an ultralow feature that could simmer the most delicate of sauces. I loved it and used it a lot. Then I had to move.
The real estate agent took one look at my kitchen and advised me to replace my serious gear with something a bit more middle of the road – the argument was it looked too serious and would scare off typical buyers. So the Thermador and a few other items were moving to the country. That is when the fun started.
Seems that while the cooktop is advertised as dual fuel – natural gas and propane, and the basic conversion between the two fuels is a matter of changing the supply regulator between two presets and replacing the natural gas orifices in the burners for propane ones. But the vendor is very coy about making these parts available after the initial sale. A small matter of the correct parts not being listed on the parts list and the part numbers being changed for the stove and its components. This took six months with little cooperation from the local high end appliance dealer (yeah, he carries Thermador but didn’t make a profit on this sale..). But after the parts showed up and we got them installed things seemed to be going good. And then one of the burners stopped lighting.
It seems that the ceramic igniter had cracked and needed to be replaced – problem is that the part numbers have been changed again so just finding out what the right thing to order was another long, drawn out deal. But when parts were finally identified and ordered and installed, allowing for the mandatory special tools and so forth. So far, so good, so I thought. Then, a few months later, another cracked, and then another. And then the spark control module became erratic and was replaced. And then the electric gas valves started to act up. And now, after three and a half years of regular service calls to replace failing parts my service provider tells me that the part numbers have changed again and he is finding it hard to locate the components for my now ten year old cooktop. Which needs the year old spark control module replaced – again. And even better, the last batch of ceramic igniters had the same part number as the old ones but were of a different design that doesn’t fit the stove.
So this expensive piece of semi-industrial equipment is starting to look unmaintainable – seemingly by design. Oh, they have a 1-800 customer ‘support’ number to be sure. Seems like it is run out of Quebec because the ‘welcome’ dialog is all in French. Don’t know who owns Thermador these days – I think it may be Bosch but it could be some other too big to care conglomerate. Anyhow, I finally get to a person who (I think) speaks English and ask about parts for my unit. The story is that everything shows on her computer so how could there be a problem? I explain the issue of the changing style of igniter and she passes me to the answering machine of her ‘manager’, also with a French message. Leave a long message but no call back. And am too bummed out by the effort of getting through the first time to want to try again. I don’t know too many French swear words – maybe I should learn. Service guy is still getting the runaround from the parts folks.
So here we are – the cooktop that was once a point of pride is semi-functional. One of the ultralow burners is reliable, the other can be humored to light with some manual assistance. It is starting to dawn on me that once it started to act up it should simply have been ripped out of the counter and thrown away. The money I have spent on almost annual repairs would have gone a long way towards buying a new one of some type from somebody. My theory is that these too big to care appliance manufacturers have been buying up all the boutique appliance makers and replacing their once industrial components with stuff from the back alleys of some Asian country. It still looks impressive but is no longer designed for long service life. Guess that cuts into their unit sales goals. The same thing happened with automobiles – a lot of prestige marques got bought up by Ford or GM or Volkswagen and redesigned to use common components. Their distinctiveness got replaced with a sort of corporate sameness – although I am sure the parts number games were played to keep the prices differentiated for the different end markets even though the components were just the same.
I guess that is where we have ended up – playing at making quality gear and charging prices that were once associated with it but shipping the same old homogenized corporate junk. Clearly this 200 pound chunk of stainless steel and cast iron is now just playing at being a cooktop. And if I replace it, what with? Pretty much all the serious looking cook gear is now being made by one or another corporate behemoths – so regardless of how it looks and cooks in the first six months or so it probably is not made for the long haul anymore.
Some of my most prized tools were originally from my father or grandfather. Over the years the handles take on a smooth polish and the steel acquires a muted glow. Even my fathers cameras were like this – solid pieces that just did their job year in and year out with little complaint. They had been made well and built to last. I used to think that my Thermador stove would provide a similar experience over my lifetime – but that seems not to be. In the search for higher corporate profits and the famous quick buck I think the manufacturers have lost their way.

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