Sears Kenmore HE3 Washer Drum: The Rot

Corroded Aluminum Spider - Overview
Corroded Aluminum Spider – Overview

Our Kenmore HE3 washer emitted a dramatic KLONK that had all hands racing for the Cancel button. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, some Web searching, and a few hours of teardown, I determined that the washer had failed in the usual HE3 way: the cast aluminum spider connecting the back of the lah-dee-dah stainless steel drum to the shaft had corroded and fractured.

Now, class, let’s review our chemistry. What do we call a pair of dissimilar metals in an ionic solution?

Very good. Can you spell “battery”?

Bonus points: what happens to the battery electrodes as the current flows?

Excellent! I’m sure you can spell “corrosion”, too.

The stuff that looks (and feels!) like cheese is aluminum corrosion filling every nook & cranny in the back of the spider. The fact that the drum spins at 900 rpm tells you it’s rather tenacious gunk, but evidently we’ve been washing our clothes in corrosion products for several years.

If you have a Sears or Whirlpool HE washer, so are you.

Mary noticed the washer made a strange noise during the spin parts of the cycle, starting a few weeks ago, but it wasn’t anything you’d tear down the washer to diagnose. I’ll have more to say about that in a bit.

The KLONK happened when a third fracture finally disconnected the drum from the shaft and it started whacking against the outer tub. All that’s holding the shaft in place is the remaining thickness of the spider casting and the interlocking fracture pattern; I can move the shaft, but not easily.

Here are closeups of the three sections near the hub between the arms. Anything that looks like a crack really is one…

Corroded Spider - Fracture 1
Corroded Spider – Fracture 1

The next section has a nice crack running along the circumference, too…

Corroded Spider - Fracture 2
Corroded Spider – Fracture 2

And the third section…

Corroded Spider - Fracture 3
Corroded Spider – Fracture 3

I hauled it to the driveway and hosed off the corrosion. There isn’t supposed to be that little hole where the sun shines through…

Corroded Spider - After Rinsing
Corroded Spider – After Rinsing

The washer is six years old and cost $1100 new.

Needless to say, We Are Not Amused.

More on this as I sort things out. Search for HE3 and you’ll find more than you want to know (at least after I’ve gotten it posted).

21 thoughts on “Sears Kenmore HE3 Washer Drum: The Rot

  1. Thanks for the post… i know what has happened to our HE3 washer. The machine had a catastrophic failure of the drum last nite. It all started about a week ago when the drum began to rub on the plastic ring around the outside of the drum. Then it would not pump out the water….pulled the bottom front panel off to check the strainer and it was full of this gunk(which i now know is the corrosion that you spoke of). I intend on doing a teardown to see what happened but I believe I know now after reading your post.

    1. Although the drum is allegedly covered by a “Limited Lifetime” warranty, the drum has probably rubbed nearly through the plastic tub surrounding it and that is not covered. I have more posts showing what’s going on inside coming up in the next few days… it’s not pretty.

      You can get a drum for $200 and the front half of the plastic tub for $175 from the usual non-Sears sources; use the part numbers found in the manual stuck inside the washer. If you’re handy in the shop, you can do the teardown & rebuild yourself, which will put you back on the air in a few days at about $400.

      Not an enjoyable experience, though…

      1. Thanks for the info…..doing the work myself wouldnt be an issue…..was going tear down the unit and see what parts i need to repair it then check and see if it would even be worth it or not. This unit is a little over 6 years old. I did notice the manual taped to the side wall of the unit…..was wondering if that was a parts list. Again…thanks for all the info…..

        1. if it would even be worth it or not

          As nearly as we can tell, it works perfectly apart from the craptastic designed-to-self-destruct drum spider, so shoveling a few hundred bucks into it made more sense than buying a new one.

          We’ll see how long the new drum lasts…

          1. OK…..did the tear down today after work….drum spider was completely separated from the shaft….near as can tell the only parts that i need our those of which you spoke about….drum and front outer tub….thanks again for the info…..looking up the parts rights now..

            1. Our drum was covered by a “limited lifetime” warranty. We wound up buying one; I’ll tell the story in more detail after I calm down. This could take quite a while…

  2. We investigated a bunch of front loaders before buying one, and the HE3 didn’t make the cut. We ended up buying a $900 Asko, as the Miele was about $2000. Several years and a move, and it’s still going strong. It looks like a little bitty thing, but it has plenty of capacity and does a good job. I did have to run a special 240V outlet for it (it heats its own water), but that wasn’t a big deal.

    1. buying a $900 Asko, as the Miele was about $2000

      Rumors from the usual unreliable sources indicate that all the horizontal-axis washers have the same aluminum-alloy spider behind the drum. I have no way to verify that, but given the limited number of real manufacturers, it makes a certain dismal sense.

      If it didn’t require a complete teardown, I’d encourage you to peek in back there to see what’s happening. We had absolutely no symptoms until the spider finally snapped.

      One could argue the odd smell characteristic of these washers has something to do with the corrosion products. Who knows?

  3. [Ed: Readers take note!

    This exact comment shows up as a reply in several other blogs & forums, nominally from a variety of authors. I generally delete non-unique comments as spam, but there’s enough worthwhile information here to let it stand.

    With that in mind, here’s the comment…]

    Many posts on many sites claim that the corrosion of the spiders is due to galvanic action. I do not agree, I believe it is primarily chemical corrosion or, perhaps more correctly, ‘micro galvanic corrosion’ as per Gaute Svenningsen. Just ‘Google’ Gaute Svenningsen Corrosion of Aluminium to see a very readable one page paper on the subject.

    Should the corrosion have been galvanic between the stainless steel drum and the aluminium spider the majority of the corrosion would have been at the junction of the two metals i.e. at the ends of the arms. I have seen no photographs of spiders corroded in such a manner, nor read of any similar descriptions.

    Aluminium is corroded when immersed in an aqueous solution with a pH value above 9.0. All detergents have to be above about 8.0 or they would not work. The Material Safety Data Sheets put out by Proctor and Gamble state that the pH for one of the liquid ‘Tides’ is 8.0 and for one of the ‘Tide’ powdered detergents as 11.0. Bleach, (sodium hypochlorite) is also very corrosive to aluminium. I should add that for corrosion of the spider to take place these levels are considerably above the levels found in a washing machine during the wash/rinse phases of the cycle.

    Sodium carbonate, borax, sodium hydroxide, and sodium percarbonate are found in some laundry aids are also corrosive to aluminium, provided the required concentrations are reached.

    I believe the mechanics of the corrosion are as follows.
    Even after the fastest spin small quantities of water will remain on the shaft and towards the centre of the spider. Any recesses in the spider close to the centre will aggravate this situation. This water will contain very, very small quantities of laundry aids used, soil from the laundry and chemicals from the ‘tap’ water. Should this water be allowed to stand the water will evaporate until such time as sufficient has gone to allow the pH of the remaining mixture to rise above the threshold at which corrosion will occur.

    Additionally the retained water will quickly become foul smelling leading to, I believe, many of the complaints about mold and mildew.

    1. Should the corrosion have been galvanic between the stainless steel drum and the aluminium spider the majority of the corrosion would have been at the junction of the two metals i.e. at the ends of the arms.

      That’s not how galvanic corrosion works. Consider the example of a sacrificial aluminum anode in a water heater: it corrodes uniformly over the entire length, not at the screw fittings near the top. Ditto for anodes on salt-water sailing ships: the whole thing rots away. The reaction is between the entire surface of the drum and the entire surface of the spider, with ions conducted through the wash water between them.

      The wash cycles immerse the spider and drum in a wonderfully conductive solution, which is when the corrosion takes place. The agitation ensures all parts of the spider get plenty of contact time. The rinse cycle clears out the detergent, leaving a film of water in place; I’d expect the corrosion to continue at a lower pace simply because the ions have further to travel and more difficulty getting there.

      Should this water be allowed to stand the water will evaporate until such time as sufficient has gone to allow the pH of the remaining mixture to rise above the threshold at which corrosion will occur.

      As nearly as I can tell, the water behind the drum never evaporates: with the door closed, there’s no air circulation in there and the sump in the bottom is full of standing water. The washer doesn’t stand idle long enough for any substantial evaporation to take place.

      So I contend the aluminum spider is a bad material for the expected environment.

      Unless, of course, the washer is designed to fail and require replacement after the full warranty period on the drum, with repair parts and labor priced to make buying a new washer seem like a good idea…

  4. To Ed
    Thank you for letting my post stand, and thank you for your comments/opinions. Yes I have made several similar posts under different names. I have generally tried to alter them to reflect the theme of the thread or blog whilst maintaining the underlying message, which is that the vast majority of laundry aids we use have the potential to corrode these aluminium spiders.

    There is a very good paper on galvanic corrosion at ‘ corrosion’, view the power point version or you will miss the diagrams. I would very respectfully suggest that you read it. [Ed: the link to the PPT file]

    Now on to your comments about galvanic corrosion: –
    I believe you will find that the sacrificial anode used in water heaters is a magnesium alloy as magnesium is lower in the ‘galvanic series’ than zinc the principal constituent for galvanizing steel. Please see pages 29 and 45 of the above paper. You are correct when you say that this sacrificial anode will suffer general corrosion all over. Whilst it is very slightly anodic to the zinc galvanizing it is much more anodic to the copper of the pipes connected to the water heater, and is actually there to protect the zinc.
    On to your comments about the sacrificial anodes affixed to the hulls of steel vessels operating in seawater. Being a retired Marine Engineer I am very familiar with this subject. Would you believe that you are both correct and incorrect at the same time? It actually depends on how the anode is fixed to the vessel. You are correct if the anode is totally isolated, from direct contact with the steel of the hull, this is achieved by bolting the anode to the hull with electrical insulators holding it off from the hull and also isolating it from its mounting stud and securing nut. This is an expensive, and in my experience rarely used method. I have to agree that when viewing
    a wasted anode secured by un-insulated studs and nuts it is difficult to appreciate that the anode has wasted faster at its securing points. Please see pages 41 and 42 of the subject paper above. In my experience the second method of securing the zinc anode, by steel flat bars cast into the alloy with their ends protruding from the ‘anode’ which are then welded to the vessel’s hull, allows a much better appreciation of the increased rate of corrosion of the zinc alloy immediately adjacent to the securing flat bar.

    I am afraid I have to totally disagree with your paragraph concerning when the corrosion takes place. For your theory to be valid the corrosion of the spider would be more or less even, would you not agree?
    The spider I removed from our 7.5 year old Frigidaire built Kenmore machine had very little corrosion at the outer halves of the spider arms (unfortunately I cannot post a photograph of it on this site) there are photographs of failed spiders at ‘ (mine is not included), (I hardly need add that I wrote the piece at the end of the photographs disagreeing that it is galvanic corrosion). Additionally please see page 36 of the above referenced paper and you will see that the authors believe that the oxide film on stainless steel is not a very good electrical conductor, as the authors are considerably more knowledgeable than I on the subject I would therefore conclude that the stainless steel drum could not act as a cathode to the anodic spider.

    Many of the manufacturers of these front-loading machines are now recommending that the door be left open to allow the machine to ‘dry out’ to prevent foul odours.

    I look forward to seeing your further comments/opinions

    1. I have some must-gotta-do stuff to get done in the next few days, but early next week I’ll haul the corpse of that drum into the Basement Laboratory Autopsy Room for analysis. A quick glance, however, shows there’s little corrosion near the ends of the spider and plenty around the hub where the cracks and voids show in the pix.

      Painful though it may be to contemplate, I might be about to learn something new!

      I’ll excerpt bits of this discussion into a new post, with more pix, and lay in some crosslinks…

      For the record: three pairs of Torx T30 screws secure the spider to the drum. The first one came out hard, so I’m dribbling PB B’Laster around the heads. A few days of that ought to simplify further proceedings…

  5. This sounds more like stress corrosion failure. While stainless and aluminum are dissimilar they are often used together in very acidic systems such as anodizing tanks. The aluminum in contact with high pH detergents along with the high stress of high speed spinning and constant wet/dry cycles seems more likely to cause failures at the hub. The die cast aluminum alloys have high concentrations of copper, zinc and silicon to make them cast better. These alloying metals also reduce corrosion resistance dramatically.

    1. more likely to cause failures at the hub

      The major cracks and missing chunks lie along the high-stress sections of the spider, but all the edges seem chewed, too. There’s a lot going wrong in there all at once…

  6. I largely have to largely agree with the two previous posters. Whilst I can agree that stress corrosion likely will have played some part in the failure I do not believe it is the major contributor. The alloying elements mentioned certainly alter the corrosion resistance.

  7. Please forgive this slightly off-topic post.

    We have a front-loader that didn’t make it to the “drum spider corrosion death” because it died from “bearing failure”. There are lots of sources of bearings on the internet, but our particular model has a difficult (impossible? for those of us not in the know) to replace seal…

    The question: Can a Thing-O-Matic extrude a substance that is rubbery enough to construct a seal for an inner bearing? (Just looking for an excuse to get one! :)

    If so, I’m trying the Rust-o-leum spray on galvanized zinc coating on the 2 year old drum spider (which only shows minor signs of corrosion so far), and we’ll see if I can get this sucker to last a decent lifetime.

    1. it died from “bearing failure”

      After only two years! That’s exactly one year longer than the warranty, so I’d say the design is nearly perfect… [wince]

      extrude a substance that is rubbery enough

      As nearly as I can tell, the stock hardware will work with ABS and PLA and that’s all.

      I vaguely recall seeing somebody doing (something like) silicone rubber, but it seems to me that’d be so sticky and gooey that the nozzle would drag it along.

      Perhaps you could cast a seal in the right shape from automotive gasket rubber?

  8. Two points.
    1. The guy at the following site claims to have bearings and seals available for most models. I have never used them (him) so can comment no further except should you fit the bearings yourself DO NOT fit them like he does with a block of wood. Just ask and I will give further advice.
    2. Should there have been any corrosion of note on the spider it is mainly aluminium(aluminum) oxidewhich is the same hard, gritty, abrasive material used in ‘sandpaper’. It is vitually insoluble in water so any that does not adhere to the donor, the spider, will be carried into the water and act as a ‘lapping compound’. How long will the delicate lips of the spider shaft seal last with this there?

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