Rash of Rusting Appliances Has Consumers Rattled

...but rumors of stainless steel's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

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Many consumers buy stainless steel appliances for their rugged appearance, but a recent report from WPTV highlights some products that are showing signs of rust after only 10 months of ownership. Consumers tend to think of stainless-steel exteriors as everlasting kitchen protection, so why are these units dying so young? Is this another nail in the coffin for stainless appliances?

Well, the answer is probably more complicated than you think.

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A stainless-steel billet. [Credit: Flickr user "tudedude"] View Larger

We should begin by clarifying that “stainless steel” is stainless in much the same way that “Natural" Cheetos Cheese Puffs are natural. Stainless steel is not rust-proof—it's rust-resistant. A more accurate term for stainless steel would be “harder-to-stain-than-other-metals steel," but that doesn't really roll off the tongue.

More often than not, rusty stainless appliances are the result of incorrect and overzealous cleaning by owners. Tweet It

Theoretically, high-grade stainless steel can last a lifetime, provided it's well maintained. That's because the surface of stainless steel is protected by a nanometer-thin layer of chromium and iron oxides. Amazingly, that coating is self healing—but you can still fatally wound it.

More often than not, rusty stainless appliances are the result of incorrect and overzealous cleaning by owners. Abrasive cleaning detergents that contain harsh chemicals are anathema to stainless appliances and should be avoided at all costs. And while that tough steel-wool scrubber may seem like the quickest way to get gunk off your stove, using it virtually guarantees you a one-way ticket to Rustville. Steel wool cuts through the delicate chromium layer and leaves behind particle fragments that speed up the rusting process.

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Steel wool: stainless-steel's natural enemy. [Credit: Flickr user "JMacPherson"] View Larger

We reached out to several major manufacturers for comments on WPTV’s report, and received varying responses. Eloise Hale, VP of Communications & Public Relations for Electrolux, replied that the company is unaware of an ongoing issue with its stainless products. "We sell many stainless-steel appliances," she said, but rusting stainless “isn't a trend for us."

A representative from Whirlpool commented that the company has received "only occasional complaints related to this issue," and clarified that the stainless steel grades used by the company's Amana, Whirlpool, Maytag, KitchenAid, and Jenn-Air brands are corrosion-resistant "under normal home environmental conditions."

But there may be another, more quotidian factor at play: There are simply more stainless-steel appliances being sold than ever before, and thus more appliances that can potentially develop a problem. Tweet It

Spokesperson Kristine Vernier said that, "Any contamination of the stainless-steel surface by dirt or other substances (harsh or abrasive cleaners, for example) can block the protective layer and reduce the corrosion protection. We recommend that consumers use only cleaners designed specifically for stainless steel on these products."

But there may be another, more quotidian factor at play in the rise of rust complaints. In today's market, there are simply more stainless-steel appliances being sold than ever before, and thus more appliances that can potentially develop a problem. Stainless-steel finishes have only risen to mainstream popularity within the last decade, and the finish continues to be the most popular in American kitchens. What's more, that popularity isn’t limited to consumers.

According to a report in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the prices of nickel and chromium have risen dramatically in recent years, due to increasing demand from the aerospace and healthcare industries. This change in the cost of doing business could theoretically influence manufacturers to lower the nickel and chromium content in stainless appliances, thus giving them less protection from the elements.

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Stainless steel appliances look great, but more often than not the choice of trim is purely aesthetic. [Credit: Reviewed.com Staff] View Larger

Manufacturers don't provide stainless grade information to the public, and neither did the representatives we contacted, so it's hard to be sure whether they're cutting corners. Furthermore, any number of factors could influence the lifespan of stainless appliances—including chemical contamination, human error, and atmospheric conditions. Finally, this issue isn't limited to consumer products. Even industrial-grade stainless appliances—the kind found in high-end restaurant kitchens—require careful nightly cleaning to maintain their sheen.

So what does this mean for you, the potential appliance shopper? You need to be aware that rust can occur, but it shouldn't be a deciding factor in your purchase decision. Whether you go stainless or not is primarily an aesthetic choice, rather than a functional one. Plastic might be easier to keep clean, but if you've got your heart set on stainless, think of it this way: If look after your stainless-steel appliances, they'll treat you in kind.

[Hero image: James Aitchison, Reviewed.com]

Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.

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Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
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