How can I tell if my large appliances are at the end of their life?

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We have all been there—you pull the milk out of the refrigerator and it feels slightly warm or the day when your clothes come out of the washing machine dripping wet instead of nicely spun. These are moments that are inevitable in the life of a homeowner, but there are many precautions you can take to keep your large home appliances in working order as well as signs and symptoms that warn you they may be on the decline.

One of the best all-around tips in early detection is to check your energy bills. If there is a sudden spike, it may mean that one of your machines is not running properly and drawing much more energy to operate than it has in the past.

Of course, no machine will last forever. Large appliances have something called an “average useful life.”The following includes information from the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM) and the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) as well as expert care tips on what you can expect. And to tantalize you with what's new if you're in the market for new appliances, feast your eyes on introductions from leading appliance manufacturers, including Thermador (above) and Dacor (right).

The Refrigerator

According to the AHAM, refrigerators have an average useful life of 20 years. The biggest tip to remember with refrigerators is to keep the condenser coils clean. Refrigerators draw air across condenser coils as they cool your food. This movement of air collects dust and household debris on the coils. Coils are located either under the fridge, behind the base grille, on the back of the refrigerator or on the top.

Dirty coils reduce the refrigerator's ability to maintain optimal temperatures or operate at maximum energy efficiency, say experts from GE. If you begin to notice that food feels warmer than it used to when you take it out or if the thermometer on the refrigerator is higher than normal, it may be a sign that your refrigerator needs servicing.

The new black: The striking Jenn-Air Obsidian refrigerator

The Dishwasher

The NAHB estimates that dishwashers have about 9 years of useful life. Dishwashers maintain and clean themselves through the regular use of cycles. The experts at GE recommend a citric acid detergent additive. This can help break up soap residue and build-up that is likely to happen with a dishwasher during normal use.

If your dishes are not coming out as clean as they have in the past, it may be a sign that the internal mechanisms are beginning to wear down. Dishwashers are also very audible so noticing any changes in sound when the washer is running can be helpful in early detection of problems. Any leaking water or soap coming from the bottom or sides of the washer is often a sign that you will need repairs soon.

Pictured: Thermador's Star-Sapphire dishwasher

The Oven & Stovetop

The NAHB has gas stovetops lasting around 15 years and electric stovetops lasting around 13 years. It also says that ovens have around 16 years of useful life. Early detection is pretty simple with these appliances. With an electric stovetop, the pace at which your food heats at different temperature intervals can be a good indicator that your stove is or is not working properly. The same applies with the oven. A gas stovetop that stops lighting efficiently, especially if you have to light the gas manually, may indicate a deeper problem.

The Jenn-Air 5-burner cooktop

The Washing Machine

The NAHB says that front load washers have around an 11-year life while top loaders have a 14-year life. There are many clues that your washing machine may not be running properly. If you detect a leak, notice that your clothes are not as clean as they used to be or see any other visible problems, it's a good idea to check the different parts of the machine to see if they are in need of repair.

If the leak is coming from the back of the machine, it is likely the hose connection. Look at the hose and make sure the clamps that hold it are screwed on tightly. Examine the rear connection hose for any cracks or holes that could cause a leak. Also check the gasket; located around the top of the tub of the machine, it seals the door shut so that water cannot leak out and is usually held in place by clamps. If you see that it's loose, it may be time to replace it.

Another sign that your washing machine may be breaking down is clothes that are come out wetter than they have in the past. This may mean that the centrifugal mechanism that spins the water off the clothes may be compromised.

The Dryer

The NAHB gives dryers about a 13-year lifespan. According to the experts at GE, the vent should be cleaned regularly and checked for any obstructions to get the best operation from the dryer and prevent a fire from lint combustion. Inspect the vent coming off the back of the dryer and check to ensure that the vent pipe has not kinked or collapsed. You can also check the wall cap outside for any obstruction.

If your clothes are taking a longer time than usual to dry, there might be a problem with your heating element. This can be due to lint build-up or one of any number of problems. A repair professional can usually diagnose the issue by removing the back panel of the dryer.

Repair or Replace?

It's important to weigh the cost of repair—parts and labor—and the cost of buying a new appliance. Compare repair estimates and the age of your appliance before making a decision. To find a local repairman, visit’s database, which provides reviews and listings for contractors in your area.