Should Appliance Makers Pay To Replace Stainless Steel Appliances That Rust?

One of the more widely held beliefs about stainless steel appliances is that they will never rust. Alas, this isn’t necessarily true, as the alloy’s corrosion-resistance depends on its level of chromium and nickel. As the demand for stainless steel has risen in recent years, more customers are learning this the hard way.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune has the story of a man who recently spent $1,701 for a stainless steel Kenmore fridge from Sears. Within a few months, the freezer door began showing signs of rust.

When he contacted Sears about the problem, the solution was to offer him a replacement door for $917, almost 54% of the total price of the appliance.

“Stainless steel isn’t supposed to rust,” the man tells the Star-Tribune. And while he’s correct in that it’s not supposed to rust, as that would imply that stainless steel is intended to oxidize, he’s incorrect if he’s assuming that stainless steel can’t rust.

There are dozens of varieties of stainless steel. Austenitic (300 series) stainless steel is widely used in appliances and cookware where the steel faces wear and tear. Its higher chromium and nickel content makes it significantly more corrosion-resistant. But there are plenty of other forms of stainless that provide the desired look of stainless but don’t offer the same resistance to rust.

A stainless expert tells the Star-Tribune that some manufacturers switched to the less corrosion-resistant forms of stainless after the price of nickel soared two years ago.

It’s perhaps not surprising that you’ll see this type of stainless on a refrigerator door, as you won’t be cooking on the side of your fridge or on the outside of your dishwasher. In general, stainless steel should still offer a level of corrosion resistance that you wouldn’t get from carbon steel, but we’ve received numerous complaints from readers in the last year about their new stainless appliances beginning to rust.

In the case of the Minneapolis customer, his problem was compounded by Sears giving him the runaround, bouncing him from Kenmore, to Whirlpool (who reportedly makes the fridge for Kenmore), back to Sears, and around and around.

Sears at first only offered him a $75 gift card to the customer, who believes the store and its Kenmore brand should have made it clear when he bought the appliance that it uses the lower-grade stainless.

The store tried to blame the rust on the customer using abrasive cleaners on the steel. It included Windex as a possible culprit, but the stainless steel expert tells the Star-Tribune that Windex is the best thing he’s found for cleaning stainless. “It doesn’t have high chlorides and it evaporates quickly.”

As things stand now, Sears has agreed to pay for half of the door replacement for the customer.

Meanwhile, there is a potential class-action suit percolating.

“Here you’re selling a product that’s stainless steel, at least you think it’s stainless steel, and it … manifests a defect,” says the Illinois attorney currently gathering possible plaintiffs for a case. “And I haven’t seen anything in any of the materials that we’ve looked at that would let you know that … there’s the potential that the stainless steel would rust.”

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