Sunday, June 5, 2016

Long Live the Fridge

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I've been wanting for several years to replace our old refrigerator. Ever since we first bought it along with the house, it has annoyed me in a whole bunch of little ways: its clunky produce drawer, its awkwardly placed light, its tiny freezer with no internal organization. It was way back in 2009 that my in-laws gave us a check toward the purchase of a new fridge as a Christmas present (in a rather amusing package), and we've been shopping for a new fridge off and on ever since—but years went by and we never found one that we were really happy with. There were certain basic requirements it had to meet:
  • It had to be a top-freezer model, which is not only the cheapest type, but also the most space- and energy-efficient and the least repair-prone.
  • It had to be Energy Star qualified, meaning at least 9 percent more efficient than the current federal standards. (We knew a new fridge was never going to pay for itself just in reduced energy bills, since our old fridge didn't use that much electricity, but at least we wanted to make sure the new one didn't use more.)
  • It had to get good ratings for performance in professional tests, and good marks for reliability from users.
  • It had to be at least as large as the old one, and preferably larger.
  • It had to be available in white, to go with our other appliances. None of this modern stainless finish (which costs extra and shows every fingerprint) for us, thank you.
  • There were a few basic features it absolutely had to have: adjustable shelves, two crisper drawers, a deli drawer, and a shelf in the freezer. These were the things whose absence bugged me most about the old fridge. Another requirement was separate temperature controls for the fresh food and freezer compartments, because I kept seeing complaints about fridges that lacked this feature saying it was impossible to keep the frozen foods frozen without also freezing some of the fresh ones. There were a few other features we thought would be nice, including glass shelves (rather than wire), adjustable door storage, humidity-controlled crispers, and a light in the freezer, but they weren't absolute requirements.
  • There was one feature we absolutely did not want: an ice maker. As far as I'm concerned, these stupid things are a complete waste of precious freezer space. They have to be hooked up to a separate plumbing line, which is an expensive process if your kitchen doesn't already have one, and they're one of the likeliest parts to break on any refrigerator. Plus, they make a lot of noise, and they take up a lot more room than a simple, low-tech set of ice cube trays, which honestly aren't that hard to use. So we were looking for a fridge that didn't come with a factory-installed ice maker—or, at minimum, one that came with one that was easy to remove.
To me, this didn't seem like all that much to ask—but the more we shopped, the more it seemed that it was actually too much to get. Year after year, I'd check the latest ConsumerSearch report on refrigerators, only to find that the top-rated top-freezers were all too small, too inefficient, not reliable enough, or missing one or more of our must-haves. And since our old refrigerator, though annoying, was still functional, there was no point in spending hundreds of dollars to replace it with something we still wouldn't be really happy with.

But this year, that finally changed. One of the top-freezer fridges listed in ConsumerSearch, the Kenmore 70623, was an almost perfect match for our requirements. It wasn't covered in Consumer Reports, but it got good ratings at and acceptable ratings from users at Sears; it was Energy Star certified; it was nearly 2 cubic feet bigger than our old one; it was available in white; and it had all the features we were looking for. The only downside was that it came with an ice maker, but a quick search revealed that the Kenmore 60622 was the identical fridge without the ice maker. Perfect!

When we went to Sears to have a look at it, however, there turned out to be one more snag. The description on the website indicated that this fridge's height, 68.25 inches on the rear side, was just short enough to fit into the space cut for it in our kitchen. However, when we took a look at it in person, we noticed—or rather, Brian noticed, because he's a foot taller than I am—that the top of this refrigerator isn't completely flat; it bows upward slightly in the middle. And that was a problem, because the space we had to squeeze the fridge into was a bare 68.5 inches from the floor. Brian convinced the sales clerk to bring us a straightedge, so he could lay that across the top of the fridge and measure from the floor to that, and it came out to exactly 68.5 inches. So the new fridge might fit into the space, or it might be a hair too tall.

After discussing the point, we decided that this was the first refrigerator we'd found in over six years of searching that met our needs in every other way, so it was worth taking the plunge. If we found that it couldn't quite squeeze into the space we had, Brian was prepared to shave a millimeter or two off the bottom of the upper cabinet to make it fit. So we ordered the new fridge with instructions to the delivery team not to force it into place if it didn't quite fit. And this turned out to be a wise precaution, as the new fridge was in fact just a smidgen too tall for the space. So the night after it was delivered, Brian pushed it out from the wall, slipped in under it, and started shaving off the bottom of the cabinet with his plane. After several rounds of trimming and testing, leaving a good-sized pile of shavings behind each time, he was finally able to squeeze the new fridge into place. So the bottom edge of the cabinet is now a little uneven, but with the fridge wedged right up against it, you can't tell.

When Sears set up the delivery of the new refrigerator, they offered to haul away our old one for an extra $25, but we declined. We already knew we could get a better deal from the state of New Jersey through its Flip Your Fridge program. If we turned in our old, still working refrigerator for recycling, not only could we get it picked up for free, but the state would also pay us $50 for it. (We could also have gotten an additional $50 to $75 rebate on a new Energy Star fridge if we'd picked one of the qualifying models, but ours isn't on the list.)

So we just asked the delivery team to move the old fridge to a spot next to the window, where we could keep it plugged in until the new one was cold enough to receive its contents, and once that was done I contacted the state to arrange to have the old one picked up. Or at least, I tried to. When I tried to set up an appointment on the web, it said, "There are no appointments currently available for your area," so I called the toll-free number instead and a rep told me she would have to "put in a request" for a pick-up, and I should receive a call about it within a week. So for the time being, we have two refrigerators crammed into our modestly sized kitchen while we wait to hear back from the state.

The new fridge, however, is already in service, and I can say without doubt that it's much better than the old one. We have plenty of storage in the door now for all our condiment bottles, tall and short; the deli drawer holds all our cheese and extra boxes of butter and spread, and it even has room left over for other short and flat items, like tortillas. The water pitcher, milk jugs, and other tall containers all fit on the top shelf, with no bulky light fixture to squeeze them to one side or the other. We're still figuring out the optimal way to organize the space, but even in its haphazard interim state, it's much easier to use than the old one ever was.

And the freezer has so much room! Meats, veggies, loaves of bread, ice cube trays, ice cream, stock bag, extra pound of butter, last summer's rhubarb—it all fits with plenty of room to spare. So if we actually get a bumper crop in the garden this year—and I must say, it's off to a promising start—we'll have no shortage of space to store our surplus.

Our new refrigerator isn't perfect, of course. But so far, we've only uncovered three problems, all of them fairly minor:
  1. This larger fridge is not only taller than our old one, it's also a good deal deeper. So to make full use of the space inside it, we'll need to store some things behind other things, where it's no longer possible to see them at a glance when the door is opened. That means we'll have to be more vigilant about keeping track of the contents so that good food doesn't end up being buried in the back until it goes bad. (Fortunately, the shelves on this new refrigerator can slide forward a few inches, making it somewhat easier to see and reach all the contents.)
  2. In the photos above, you can see that the fridge is standing wide open without anyone holding the door. This wouldn't have been possible with our old fridge, which was balanced so that the door would close on its own if it was left open. In theory, it should be possible to adjust this one to do the same thing, but unfortunately, it's so tightly squeezed into the enclosure that there's no way to raise its front up any more than it is already. So we'll just have to be careful about making sure we close the doors completely, instead of just nudging them.
  3. The one problem with the fridge that really bugs me is that the finish on the doors scratches really easily. I discovered this the first day we had it, just an hour or so after we'd removed the shrink-wrapping it came in. We hadn't transferred the food to it yet, because we wanted to give it a full 24 hours to come down to temperature and make sure it was working properly, but I figured I could at least go ahead and put back the magnets we'd had on the old fridge holding our shopping list and so on. So I started transferring these to the fridge door, and when I tried to move one of them, it slid across the surface and left a three-inch scratch right on the front of our brand-new fridge. We'd had it less than one day, we didn't even have food in it yet, and it was already damaged. This wouldn't have bothered me so much if there had been any warning whatsoever in the manual about putting magnets on the door, because then I would have known not to do it—or, if I'd chosen to do it anyway, I would have had only myself to blame. But all I'd done is use the fridge in a perfectly normal way, the same way I'd always used my old one, and that was enough to cause visible damage.
I was annoyed enough about this last problem to try and contact Sears about it, but they sure don't make it easy. When I clicked on "Contact Us," it didn't provide an actual phone number or e-mail address for the store, but instead sent me to a searchable FAQ and then asked, "Did we answer your question?" When I clicked on "Give us Feedback," it sent me to a web-based survey about my shopping "experience"; I complained about the problem there, but I was pretty sure no one would ever read it. And when I searched the manual for a customer service number, there was none to be found. It gives information about the warranty, but none at all about what you should do if you ever want to actually use the warranty.

Finally I went back to the "Contact Us" page, typed in, "How do I get repair under warranty?", and got directed to the repair page. There I was able to initiate a chat session with a rep who listened to my problem and sounded at first like he was happy to help with it—but it turned out that he was under the impression the fridge had been damaged when it was delivered. When I explained that it actually became damaged the first time I tried to use it, he warned that if the damage was due to "mishandling the appliance, physical damage or incorrect installation," I would have to pay for the repair myself. I argued that if using the fridge in the normal way was enough to cause damage, it was defective and should be replaced. He said that he could send a technician out to my place to evaluate the damage, and if it was found to be covered under warranty, the service would be free—but if not, I would have to pay for the repair out of pocket. Moreover, even if I declined the repair, I would still be on the hook for the $95 service call. Given that he'd already implied Sears was inclined to look on any sort of damage sustained at any time after delivery as being the fault of the customer, I decided it wasn't worth risking $95 on a problem that we could fix reasonably well ourselves with a $5 can of appliance paint. It wouldn't be as good as new—which I still think I have a right to, given that it is new and hasn't been misused in any way—but it would be presentable.

So I told him thanks, but no thanks, and said I would "take the matter up with corporate." And I mean to follow through on that threat; I tracked down an address and phone number on this website, and I'm planning to send them a polite but chilly letter about what I think their warranty is worth. But it's more for my own satisfaction than because I actually expect any results. In the mean time, we've simply covered up the scratch with a different type of magnet—a flexible one that can't damage the surface—which is a small-scale reproduction of a modern painting. So until we get it touched up, it doesn't look too obviously damaged.

On the whole, though, I'm happy with our purchase. Considering how long we spent looking for a fridge that met our criteria, I think this one was worth snapping up when we found it, even with its minor problems. It only set us back a total of $750, including the tax (we got free delivery on it because I signed up for a Sears credit card, which I figured was worth the minor hassle for the sake of the $70 savings), and if I'd passed it up, we could easily have spent another six years looking for something acceptable. So if I had it all to do over again, I'd still buy this fridge; I just wouldn't put any magnets on it.
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