Major appliances: brand names, model numbers, Consumer Reports...

Error message

by Todd Frederick

As the owner of a small major appliance repair company that thinks big, I was asked to write a post about appliances, so I thought I would start with some big ideas that may come as a surprise to some readers: the incredible amount of brand engineering within the industry, and just how few models there really are out there.

Brand engineering is the art of assigning multiple brand names to a particular machine. Whirlpool has this down to a science, and that means that the same machine can show up in various stores under different brand names that they own, such as Whirlpool, Maytag, Jenn-Air, Kitchenaid, Admiral, Amana, and many others.  And for all you Canadians, Inglis is just Canuck for Whirlpool.

Whirlpool also sells their machines under private labels. At one time, Costco sourced their Kirkland brand from Whirlpool, and even now Ikea sells...

many appliances that are made by that company. All Kenmore appliances at Sears are made by other companies, and the source can easily be determined via the three-digit source code that is part of every model number (ie: 110 is Whirlpool laundry, 417 is Frigidaire).

And not only is there brand engineering, but model names change as well. I haven't studied current names, but at one time Whirlpool's front load washer appeared as the Whirlpool Duet, Maytag Epic, and Kenmore HE3. In other words, when the brand changes, the name of the model will change too.

Brands are used for various purposes. If a machine is sold as a Jenn-Air, it is being represented as a high-end item, while the same machine marketed as an Amana is being sold as an entry level machine. Sometimes a manufacturer will reach back into their library of brands in order to offer an exclusive name to a particular merchant, such as Admiral at Home Depot, and that makes it hard to comparison shop between retailers.

Occasionally brand engineering even takes place between manufacturers, most often when a company doesn't have an assembly line for a particular type of machine, but it still wants to offer it in their lineup. For example, in years past, GE put their name on Whirlpool laundry systems and Frigidaire front load washers and dryers because they didn't have an assembly line for these machines. And when there was a strike at GE years ago, they put their name on Speed Queen machines for a period of time.  I was at a store the other day where I was looking at a high-end brand called AGA Marvel—I actually hadn't heard of this before—and the refrigerator was clearly sourced from Whirlpool. One downside of brand engineering between manufacturers is part prices. For example, it is cheaper to buy a Whirlpool part than the equivalent GE part, but I can substitute one for the other if I can figure it out.

The other issue that I wanted to discuss is how few machines there really are out there. For example, Whirlpool has just two assembly lines where they make their top load washers. In other words, they make just two washers (and if you want to get wonky, they are the newer small ones, and the older high efficiency big ones). But no matter the brand name, under the hood it is all the same stuff: the same gears, the same motor, the same wires, the same everything; the quality does not change just because you paid more for the machine, or it has a fancy brand name. What does change is the appearance, capacity, and features, and sometimes the warranty between the brands.

Finally, a word about model numbers. Model numbers are like fashion: they change with the seasons, but not by much. If you change the color of a knob, that creates a new model  number, but under the hood it all stays the same. I have never figured out how consumer rating providers like Consumer Reports can rate one machine higher than another, when it is the same machine.  Even then, a particuar model will likely be gone by the time the report is published, supplanted by a newer machine with just a color change.

So the next time you are at a retailer looking at an appliance and the one next to it looks eerily similar, you can crown yourself the big know-it-all of major appliance brands.

In the next installment: Innovation that has soared high or crashed and burned in the world of major appliances.

* * *

Todd Frederick is the owner of a major appliance repair service in Denver, Colorado. I asked him to write some on major appliances and this is his first contribution. Yes, it's not our normal fare, but I find it interesting and we're hopeful some readers will find it helpful, also. Thank you, Todd.

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!