They wash our clothes and clean our dishes with nary a complaint. But are todays appliances smart enough to tell us when they get sick?
Kevin OConnor thinks so.
When his new Kenmore clothes dryer went on the blink after just a few weeks of use, the amiable host of public televisions This Old House contacted customer service.
What happened next surprised him.
The agent asked him to give the phone to the dryer. After a few moments, he talked again to the agent, who told him the dryer has said the exhaust vent was clogged.
At first, I thought this was just another way for the appliance company to dodge honoring their warranty. Their message was basically, Its not our problem, its yours, OConnor said.
But after checking and finding that the vent really was clogged, his opinion changed.
Instead of trying to schedule a repairman to visit and wasting everyones time only to find out it was the dryer vent after all, I had an answer in five minutes and was on to a repair, he said.
Manufacturers of major appliances most of which still feature Made in the USA stickers are betting big on the smart-technology innovation OConnor experienced. Included are washers, clothes dryers, dishwashers, refrigerators, freezers, cooking ranges, trash compactors and room air conditioners.
The industry saw record sales of $22.6 billion in 2012, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, and hopes new investments in U.S. factories due in part to smart technology will lead to a continuing sales boom.
The investment is part of an effort to change how we use their products in the future. However, for several appliance makers and sellers including Whirlpool Corp., General Electric and Sears that future is rapidly becoming now. All three companies are in various stages of rolling out smart technology in their newest models.
What makes an appliance smart?
I think different people use the term in different ways, said Dave McCalpin, general manager of cross-product strategy and execution for GE Appliances.
Smart involves how the appliances perform, how we diagnose any issues they may have, and eventually how we communicate with them.
Each appliance maker is using smart technology differently.
For Whirlpool, whose brands include Whirlpool, Maytag, KitchenAid and Amana, smart appliances are connected ones. This means customers can use smartphones, tablets and desktop and laptop computers to communicate with them.
For example, Whirlpools clothes dryers with 6th Sense Live have a sensor that measures airflow, heat and moisture content, and computer chips that can communicate to their owners via text message or email alerting them to problems or notifying them when the drying cycle is completed. Owners also can set the machines to avoid running during periods when electricity rates are the highest and track how much energy the machines use, said Warwick Stirling, Whirlpools senior director of connectivity and sustainability.
The 6th Sense Live was introduced this year and is available on only a handful of Whirlpool appliances, including a top-of-the-line front-load washer and dryer and a medium-level side-by-side refrigerator and dishwasher, Stirling said.
Another reason for the advent of smart technology in appliances is reliability.
Were moving from the electro-mechanical to the software-driven space, Stirling said. Weve found we can get more reliability from solid-state electronics.
General Electric is taking a different approach. Rather than introduce smart technology slowly into midlevel or higher-priced appliances, GE has embedded its smart diagnostics into all its new appliances, but its not fully accessible to customers.
Right now, GEs McCalpin said, the goal of using smart technology in GE appliances is to improve the accuracy of service calls.
As we get consumer information, we can intercept parts and narrow down the problem to have the right parts with us so we dont have to come back. This eliminates repeat service visits, McCalpin said.
Sears introduced smart technology into its century-old Kenmore brand in 2011. Dubbed Kenmore Connect, the technology is widely available on all front-load washers and dryers, some high-efficiency top-load washers and many refrigerators.
Kenmore Connect allows the machines to talk to a customer-service agent using a regular or cellphone handset, said Marty Olson, manager of engineering and product development for Kenmore laundry at Sears.
When customers call a toll-free number, Olson said, the customer-service agent will tell them to press and hold a specific button and the machine will go into a self-diagnostic mode. It puts the information into a data stream and broadcasts it in an audible tone.
Kenmore Connect helps customers identify whats wrong so the problem can be resolved, said Jim Belich, vice president of the Kenmore, Craftsman and Diehard smart initiative at Sears.
If we can instruct the consumer on certain things, they can get back to running quickly. It really helps with the customer experience and reduces costs, he said.
OConnor, the TV host who had the clogged dryer vent, agreed.
My initial reaction was wrong. The company wasnt trying to dodge their responsibility, they were improving customer service, he said.