Towels should last x months.
January 13, 2009 5:21 AM   Subscribe

What's the typical usable life of common household items?

I was thinking specifically about textiles when I was mulling this over - how often should one replace sheets, towels, pillows, etc? My question is more along the lines of, "At what point does a towel simply not dry you well enough to warrant getting rid of it?" rather than "How long will a towel last before it disintegrates?"

As I don't own my own home, I'm sure there are other household items that also need to be replaced on a regular or semi-regular basis - air filters? water heaters? windows? What about more mundane things like undergarments, sponges, dish rags, sneakers? Anything you could think of that is household-related, I'm interested in what its typical lifespan is.
posted by backseatpilot to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
It varies a lot on how well-made they are to begin with, how well they are cared for, and whether or not you are married. I have many towels and sheets that are over a decade old that are still in good shape. Here is an article on the subject.
posted by TedW at 5:40 AM on January 13, 2009

More here and here.
posted by TedW at 5:44 AM on January 13, 2009

Also remember that just because something no longer functions as its first purpose, it can be repurposed. In my house,

Fancy dish towels become
Less fancy dish towels become
Cleaning rags become
Disposable, when they're more hole than fabric.

The whole process can take years or months, depending on how hard you are on it.
posted by fiercecupcake at 6:06 AM on January 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

Depends on the make. My experience shows that pillows should be replaced every 3 years. Decent quality towels and sheets last for 5 years-- after that they do not look great but are still usable
posted by ivanka at 6:19 AM on January 13, 2009

So much of a 'usable lifetime' is dependent upon the original quality of the item, how it's used, and how it's cared for that it's hard to give a typical lifespan.

I have 10 year old bath towels that are better (looks and usability) than my MIL's year old towels, and bath towels are usable far longer than kitchen towels, even though I have a lot more kitchen towels in the rotation. Sheets on kid's beds don't last as long as sheets on adult's beds, and the sheets on the guest bed last even longer than that. Flannel sheets don't last as long as percale/broadcloth sheets. Blankets last until they're irrevocably stained or until the critters put a hole in them, at which point they go into the car or the camping gear (stains) or get cut up for padding for other things (holes). MrR goes through socks faster than anyone in the house; the kid wears out underwear; the teenager wears out jeans; I wear out shoes. The sponge in the laundry sink lasts a lot longer than the one in the kitchen sink. etc.
posted by jlkr at 6:55 AM on January 13, 2009


Sponges aren't permanent. They should be replaced as they get dirty. After all, dirtiness defeats the purpose, which is to clean things.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:30 AM on January 13, 2009

Quality kitchen knives can last a lifetime.

My grandfather has an amazing set... Must be 50-60 years old. When the wooden handles disintegrated in the late 60's, he used 'Bondo' to form new handles and is still using these knives today (though you can see how they have very dramatic thinning/curving from sharpening) - is this a testament to quality, or my 'cheap-ass' grandfather? I'll let you decide...
posted by jkaczor at 8:43 AM on January 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

Leather Furniture:

Usually lasts 2-3 times as long as fabric. (This is in a house with 2 kids, 2 dogs)

With care, can last a lifetime (especially if you get classic styles which are similar to classics still kicking from the 20's/30's/40's...)

Wood furniture - solid (not veneer):

Real wood furniture can be sanded/re-finished - it's worth the investment.

Air filters:

You can get re-usable ones - big initial cost, but you just vacume/wash them once every few months.
posted by jkaczor at 8:48 AM on January 13, 2009

Wood floors / tile:

Again - last far longer than installed carpet.

Though, if you live in a cold-climate, you may want to get throw/room carpets - and unfortunately (2 kids, 2 dogs) we go through those pretty fast (3-4 years for the living room, 1-2 for the dining room, no matter how frequently they are vacuumed/beaten/wash (or infrequently - we've tried both)).
posted by jkaczor at 8:51 AM on January 13, 2009

I still have and still use two towels that my mother bought for me to take to boarding school, almost 35 years ago. They still dry efficiently and do not look in any way threadbare. Buy well, buy to keep.
posted by Hogshead at 9:16 AM on January 13, 2009

I think replacing pillows is more of a priority than replacing towels or even sheets, for the bacterial/ick factor.

I'm using sheets and blankets that have been in my family for probably 15 years. I'm using towels I received as a gift five years ago. I will use both (for their intended purposes, then as rags) until they literally fall apart in my hands. I have never heard of a towel "not drying well enough". When it gets holes in it, it becomes a rag. It still works.

I replace pillows every two years or so. The ones I buy can't be washed, and that just grosses me out.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 9:42 AM on January 13, 2009

I've wondered about this too but I'm inclined to feel that household stuff (linens, etc.) tells YOU when it's dead. I tend to put holes in my sheets with my feet and after that's happened I get rid of them (of course as fiercecupcake says it can all be repurposed.) I don't know if this would be considered unhygienic (sp?) but I would usually keep a pillow until it was too flat to be comfy...and then I'd use it for a dog bed or something.

If it still works, basically, I use it. If it doesn't, I try to use it for something else. If one works and the other doesn't (eg if 1 sock has a hole in the sole and the other doesn't) I save the good one for the inevitable day when one of another pair of those things doesn't work and they can be used together.

But seconding what others have said, buy good quality stuff. You can keep most of it forever.
posted by supercoollady at 10:35 AM on January 13, 2009

To represent the other side of the spectrum here, I guess, I've been thinking about it pretty hard and I can't even say for sure where any of my towels came from. There's some green ones that I think my parents bought for me when I went off to college (in 1994). There's some blue ones, which who knows. And some pink and yellow ones that have someone else's name on a little tag sewn on them. So, conclusion: bath towels simply appear from somewhere, without your having to do anything to cause it. They descend from the bathosphere late at night, perhaps.

We have one bath towel of known provenance, which is a large and quite fuzzy one that belongs to my wife, and has belonged to her since middle school (so going on 20 years plus, now). It's getting pretty ragged, but it was very big to begin with, so I generally just cut off the longest trailing strings every few months. I assume that it will eventually decrease in size to normal-towel, then on to the hand-towel and facecloth spectrum, before someday ending it's life as a piece of floss. But at its current rate of decrease, that towel still has several hundred more years of useful life in it.

I have never in my life (a life, as you might imagine from the above, that has been more than normally replete with old bath towels) thought "This towel is so old that it is not capable of drying me anymore!" I don't think that happens. Eventually (in theory) a towel that's old enough would be composed more of holes than fabric, so maybe it's drying power would be reduced by that lack of existence. But if you can see it, if it is made of towel material, it will still dry you.

Dish towels, I find, work better as they age. A new dish towel tends to be too tightly woven, and just pushes water around a plate. My best dish towels are the ones (you may begin to sense a theme here...) which I don't know where they came from, but appear to be quite a lot older than my children. I do recall buying a few dish towels, but they're always disappointing when new, and I always reach for the old ones first. So if you must buy dish towels, my advice is haunt the goodwill and the yard sales and look for some old ones. Also, they will cost you approximately zero dollars.

Sponges get pretty nasty after a couple weeks, when you use them for all your dishwashing. If you have a dishwasher, a sponge should last quite a bit longer than that, although still not more than a month or so. The big sponge killers are friction from crusty dish and pan stuff grinding them away to nothing, and mold stink because your in every other way absolutely adorable and perfect spouse simply refuses to squeeze the goddamn things out when she's done washing dishes.

Your level of personal squeamishness apparently determines how often you need to replace pillows. It never occurred to me pillows would need to be replaced at all, unless, like, the cat peed on them or something. I've only bought pillows once, purely because we had no pillows. My current nightly pillow is one that we inherited with our house. It is a very funny yellow-brown color, but I use pillowcases, so that doesn't bother me. It has just the right thickness and fluffiness-to-solidity ratio for me, and that's pretty hard to find. I have no idea how old it is. Probably older than me. It is probably 90% dead mite carcasses by weight. But them's some comfy carcasses.

Because no one's really mentioned them yet, water heaters will last 10-20 years, depending on how well built they are. Tank type heaters always come with a rating, expressed in years that they're supposed to last. This rating is pretty accurate. If you buy a house, your water heater will need replacing immediately. No matter how new it should be, as soon as a house changes hands, the water heater silently mutates into one whose expiration date is six months after the new owner moves in. Scientists are looking into how they do this. You'll know when it's time to replace your water heater when you hear a faucet running somewhere one night, and search for it until you realize the sound is coming from the basement, where you will see a powerful jet of hot water shooting out the side of your (now ex-) water heater. You can prolong its life somewhat by draining it and flushing water through it for abut a half hour once a year.

If you have a hot air furnace, you need to change the air filter every month during heating season. The last person who owned the furnace changed it once a year (whether it needed it or not!) so you'll also need to have your furnace cleaned, and there will be several parts that fail in the first few years you own it. Usually when it gets really cold.

Windows can last hundreds of years. They can also crap out after ten years. Windows are a huge case of getting what you pay for. If you have to replace windows, buy the most expensive ones you can find. Marvin are the best, Andersen are an acceptable second-best. You can repair very old windows, the all-wood kind with sash weights and single panes. Replace the glass, replace any rotten wood parts, get new sash cords, and give them a good painting, and they'll be as good as they ever were. They'll never be as weathertight or insulated as new windows, but repairing them is a hell of a lot cheaper. Get new storms and put heat-shrink plastic on them in the winter.

If you have the spring type of sash windows and they won't stay up, the springs are shot and you'll have to replace the whole thing. Don't get new spring-type windows. They suck. Those last about 15 years.

Inexpensive furniture falls apart in a matter of years. Three, maybe four. On the other hand, if you have a hard-on-furniture environment (kids, pets, etc), they'll wreck any furniture you buy anyway. Good furniture is really expensive. You'll turn into a monster trying to defend it from the kids and the pets, and is that really worth it? Buy good furniture when you're old. Meanwhile, take any free couch that's offered, and just replace it every three or four years. Slipcovers are also your friend.

Chances are you'll get tired of your stove before it will stop working. For several years, in a rental house, we had a gas stove from the fifties. The stove we had in the apartment before that was from the forties. Both worked fine. People replace stoves because they want a fancier stove, not because there's anything wrong with theirs.

Refrigerators do conk out, and there's never any warning, and you need to get a new one right away. They also last a random number of years, from 10 to 40. There is no way that I know of to predict how long any given fridge will last. Price has no apparent relationship to longevity.

It is little known, but clothes washers and dryers can be repaired pretty easily, with cheap parts and very minimal tools. There's a lot of information online about that, if you just think to look rather than get rid of your broken washer or dryer. Also, they tend to wear out in the exact same ways -- for instance an average electric dryer has two drum roller wheels, a belt, and a belt tensioner which are always the first things to wear out. You can buy these replacement parts online in a pre-assembled kit that costs $15. You can find instructions for taking apart and fixing nearly any make and model of washer or dryer.

Also, there is no such thing as an energy-efficient electric dryer. Sadly.

Um. I think that's probably anough to get started with... :-)
posted by rusty at 10:39 AM on January 13, 2009 [13 favorites]

Rusty, I think we might be related. And if we're not I wish we were so we could exchange tips on using things FOREVER.
posted by supercoollady at 11:25 AM on January 13, 2009

My favorite and very best single tip on using things forever: There is so much stuff out there already that you rarely actually have to buy anything. I buy things because I need them right away, or because I want to and can afford to, or if I have some super-specific requirements for a given thing.

But for most things that you sort of want but not in any really urgent way, or that you know you need but hate to actually spend your own money on, all that you need to do is be aware that you are looking for that thing, and wait for it to show up. And it will show up, if you are patient, and keep in mind that you want it.

Things I have gotten for free by being patent:

* A very nice gas grill (dump)
* A very nice front door (also dump)
* A four-foot tall handmade Queen Anne Victorian dollhouse for my daughter (friend with small house and no little girls)
* Just about all of our children's clothes (relatives, friends, gifts, etc -- kids clothes simply do not need to be purchased at anything except a severely steep used goods store discount)
* Decent fold-out couch (neighbor)
* 8 foot by four foot solid maple butcher block trestle table (former library study table, sold off for $1 by my wife's former employer. This is the desk I'm sitting at right now.)
* A car (Subaru, from in-laws. Later re-gifted to a friend when we got a better car)
* Lots of tools (from relatives, friends, neighbors, etc)
* All of my towels (as far as I know -- see above)
* Lawnmower, weed whacker, various yard-care tools, chainsaw (uncle, uncle, uncle, and father in law)
* Neoprene kayak spray skirt (one-time co-worker who was on the off season from the local kayak guide outfit, to whom I mentioned that I wanted a neoprene spray skirt but they were pricey. He showed up after lunch with one they were about to throw away. I've been using it for going on five years now.)

That's my top of the head list. Nothing is too expensive or obscure to be found for free. Nothing. Get to know your neighbors and be patient, and it will come to you. There is so much consumer junk floating around America that we could all live a comfortable middle-class life on stuff someone else was going to throw away forever.
posted by rusty at 12:04 PM on January 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

jkaczor got me with the knives. It took seeing them in a kitchen store in their original form to realize that those knives had been sharpened over and over for 50 years or so, each one was different, they're all still there. Towels, I've been using the same ones for 10 years now, 4 in rotation, snagged them from resort, can't tell the difference since the day they came home. Tools can last practically forever, gramps plowed his fields with hoes and a push plow that were probably from the 1800s. I must go easy on stuff or have good luck... haven't had to get anything new in 10 years or so.
posted by zengargoyle at 6:27 PM on January 13, 2009

Damn, you guys are all skinflints. Not exactly the answers I was thinking of, but definitely useful and amusing!
posted by backseatpilot at 5:36 AM on January 14, 2009

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