When Donald Mele and his wife decided to replace their kitchen appliances last year, they chose Kenmore stainless-steel appliances from Sears because they thought they would last longer.
But a year and a half after the Eagan couple paid $1,701 for a refrigerator, reddish-brown stains started forming on the freezer door.
"Stainless steel isn't supposed to rust," said Mele, 67, a retired scrap metal and steel worker.
Now Mele and other appliance owners are discovering that "stainless" doesn't mean forever. It turns out that any of the 50 varieties of stainless steel can rust, although some alloys are more resistant.
The refrigerator's warranty against "defects in material or workmanship" does not cover rust. Still, Mele has tried to get Sears and the manufacturer, which he was told is Whirlpool, to take responsibility for what he calls a "misrepresentation" of what he was buying.
Whirlpool did not respond to an inquiry on Friday from Whistleblower. In a statement, Sears spokesman Larry Costello said the stains are often the result of improper cleaning chemicals, although after being contacted by Whistleblower, he said the company is offering to pay half the cost of a new door.
Mele added a stipulation to the company's offer that put it on the hook for any future door rust, but said the stipulation was not accepted.
Mele has at least one law firm that agrees that rust on appliances is an issue. The Illinois-based Complex Litigation Group (CLG) is trolling for folks with rusted stainless-steel refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers and other appliances to make a go at a class-action lawsuit.
"Here you're selling a product that's stainless steel, at least you think it's stainless steel, and it ... manifests a defect," Paul Weiss, an attorney for CLG, said. "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."
Not all stainless is equal
In recent years, appliance manufacturers switched to a cheaper type of stainless steel that's less resistant to corrosion, according to Gary Carinci, president of TMR Stainless, a consulting firm based in Pittsburgh. When the price of nickel, an ingredient in stainless steel that helps make it rust-resistant, soared to $20 a pound a couple years ago, manufacturers switched to a grade of steel that doesn't contain nickel, Carinci said.
The corrosion in stainless steel usually starts as small rusty pits. "Once pitting occurs, it's pretty hard to stop it," he said.
Mele said Sears accurately advertised the refrigerator-freezer as stainless steel, but never disclosed that the steel was of the cheaper, less rust-resistant type. Mele confirmed it by putting a magnet on it and finding it was "highly magnetic," he said. The stainless steel previously used for appliance surfaces is non-magnetic.
A Sears technician who examined the door agreed that Mele has a rust problem. He gave Mele a printout that said "found frzr door rusting out." He also provided Mele with a quote of $917 to replace the freezer door.
Instead of agreeing to pay for the replacement door, Sears initially offered Mele a $75 gift card. Mele spent hours trying to get Sears to agree to replace the door free of charge. "What I think they try to do is discourage you," he said. They referred him to Kenmore, which referred him back to Sears, which referred him to Whirlpool, Mele said.
Costello declined to say whether Whirlpool was the manufacturer, for competitive reasons. He said the company's records show Mele didn't complain about the problem until October, after which "we found the freezer door rusting."
"Our customer solutions representative explained that rust was not covered under the warranty. In many cases, customers use abrasive cleaners, such as Windex, which contains ammonia," Costello said. "This goes against the recommendation for maintenance found in the owner's manual, which recommends a non-abrasive cleaner."
Mele denies that he used an abrasive cleaner. And stainless steel industry experts give consumers far greater latitude in choosing cleaners than Sears recommends. Glass cleaner, mild abrasives and even some solvents can safely be used to clean the material, according to a pamphlet put out by the Specialty Steel Industry of North America.
"The best cleaner that I've found on this stuff, and it's not very aggressive, is Windex. It doesn't have high chlorides and it evaporates quickly" Carinci said.
A lawsuit against Sears was filed in a California district court and claims a Kenmore dryer that was advertised as having a stainless steel drum also contained some parts made of "mild" steel, which readily rusts. The plaintiff's Chicago law firm, Krislov Law, is seeking state class-action status.
CLG is currently investigating consumer claims that the stainless steel used on the exterior of Maytag and Whirlpool appliances corrodes, Weiss said. "It's a failure to disclose this problem."
Weiss said he expects a lawsuit to be filed this week.