October 31, 2014

Is Steam the Thing? – Washers and Dryers

In this, the fourth and final segment on steam appliances, we discuss steam washers and dryers.

In a washing machine, steam and water form a dynamic duo. Steam complements water in the cleaning process by keeping the fabrics soft and wrinkle-free. One patent filed by LG Electronics, the company that put out the first home steam washer, explains the different advantages that steam can offer when applied in three different stages of a washing machine cycle:

* Pre-wash phase: While the water loads into the wash tub, the steam works with the water to help soak the fabrics more thoroughly.
* During the washing phase: If added while the detergent is mixed with the water, the steam increases the temperature of the wash tub to improve the cleaning power, which also helps to activate the detergent. It does this by dissolving the detergent more effectively, to get the most out of it as possible.
* Post-wash phase: Steam added after washing lends more high temperatures to the tub to sterilize the clothes. It also softens the clothes to remove hard wrinkles that formed while the clothes tossed in the tub.

Steam washing machines use less power and consume less water than conventional models. A little bit of water can produce a lot of steam, which expands to take up more volume.

Nebraska Furniture Mart salesman Scott Price wanted to replace his own top-load washer and dryer, so he chose Whirlpool models that were each $150 more than machines that don’t use steam. He likes how the steam cycle on his washer gets out tough stains . He uses the steam dryer to de-wrinkle his clothes.

“I’m the type of person who throws a load of clothes in the dryer overnight,” Price says. “So the de-wrinkling cycle touches them up in 10 to 20 minutes in the morning.” The dry clothes look better, he says, when he de-wrinkles one item at a time. Price’s observations are in line with Consumer Reports’ test results.

“We found that with washers, the steam does improve the performance somewhat,” says Emilio Gonzalez, senior program leader in the appliance division at Consumer Reports. “With dryers, it’s mixed. They’re great at alleviating odor buildup, so you can freshen up clothes. But they’re not always great with wrinkles.”

Not all steam dryers are the same. They apply different steam in different ways. Maytag models don’t release a stream of pure steam, but rather a fine mist to the clothes. The heat in the dryer then raises the temperature of the mist to turn it to steam. Other dryers use a steam generator to release pure steam to the clothes.

Steam can potentially dry fabrics too. An advanced drying technique involves using superheated dry steam, which is steam that doesn’t contain any liquid water. This kind of steam is purely gas and invisible to the human eye, as opposed to wet steam, which suspends visible water droplets. By super-heating dry steam to a high enough temperature, machines can use steam to dry items. The very hot steam effectively heats moisture to the evaporation point . Then, the dryer circulates the resulting evaporated moisture out of the system and repeats the process. Though intended for industrial dryers, perhaps the technology of super-heated steam dryers will eventually make its way into mass-produced home dryers.

Is Steam the Thing? – Ovens

Here we have part three in our “Steam” series – Ovens.

Steam ovens harness the power of super heated steam to quickly cook foods without drying them out. Use a steam oven to create healthy flavorful meals while using less fat. Most steam ovens will allow you to adjust the humidity level inside the cooking chamber to create the right environment for the individual foods you’re cooking.

New steam ovens on the market offer conventional dry baking. Users also have the ability to defrost, warm up leftovers and even simulate a high heat grill to finish meats.

“It’s a way to make nutritional food that tastes like it came from a restaurant,” says Portfolio Kitchen & Home in Kansas City owner Geri Higgins. “You don’t have to add butter or sauce to it to make it more moist or flavorful.” The design center demonstrates its Gaggenau steam-convection combination oven and in-counter steamer.

The steamer and the oven are self-cleaning; condensation needs to be wiped up after cooking. For an integrated countertop steamer, a plumber hooks up water and drainage lines. Because calcium can sometimes clog water lines, many models contain water cartridges. Ovens come with detachable water reservoirs and don’t typically require plumbing.

On a recent day, Portfolio made asparagus (3 minutes) and salmon with lemon and herbs (10 minutes) in an in-counter steamer. The texture was moist but not water-logged.

Portfolio baked bread in a Gaggenau combination oven using dough from the grocery store. Steam is misted on the dough toward the beginning of the cycle to create a flaky brown crust on the exterior with the goal of retaining moisture inside.

Steam-combination ovens cook fast, too. A 14-pound turkey takes 90 minutes.

Some opt to reheat food with steam instead of using a microwave. Leftover pizza, for example, tastes like it’s fresh out of the oven.

“You’re starting to see steam ovens as a second oven above a conventional one,” Higgins says. “Instead of a microwave.”

Is Steam the Thing? – Dishwashers

Here is the second in our steam cleaning series – Steam dishwashers.

Conventional dishwashers produce steam in the drying cycle when leftover water is converted into vapor. But steam dishwashers use steam in the washing phases.

“One of the main reasons you’re seeing more steam dishwashers is because detergent manufacturers have eliminated phosphates,” says Stephen Wright, appliance manager at Nebraska Furniture Mart . “So (conventional) dishwashers aren’t as good at breaking up debris, especially the caked-on stuff.”

According to How Stuff Works, steam dishwashers don’t exclusively use steam as a cleaning method, the user has the option to add a steam cycle to clean a load of dishes. But steam dishwashers can use steam differently and at various times. For instance, some steam dishwashers, such as LG’s models, have a special setting that uses steam to clean fragile dishes. Because steam doesn’t need to use force to get dishes clean, it’s a great tool for cleaning fine china and other easily breakable items. Adding a steam option to other, more rigorous cycles also will help it clean more effectively. It’s like adding an extra boost of cleaning power to the traditional cycle.

Consumer Reports is lukewarm on steam dishwashers. They found the addition of steam does make dishes cleaner, but only a little bit. In fact, they found that the spray jet features of some dishwashers worked more effectively than steam, as long as the dishes were loaded to face the spray. A downside: they take a lot longer to get through a wash cycle, adding as much as 45 minutes. The upsides: they’re quiet and energy-efficient.

Is Steam the Thing? – Steam Mops

Keeping the house clean – or at least clean enough – is a challenge we all face daily. Sometimes adding a new tool to the arsenal against dirt can give us new energy to face the task. This is the first in a series reviewing steam use in appliances.

Looking at tests conducted by Consumer Reports which added the Steam Mop category in 2010, the results are not stunning. A dozen items that often fall to the floor—including ketchup, mustard, olive oil, syrup and baby cereal—were allowed to harden on vinyl floor tiles before testers tackled them with steam mops.

Consumer Reports called the H2O Mop ($100) and Eureka Enviro Steamer 313A ($70) “good” and the others “mediocre.” The nonprofit, independent testing agency identified a recurring flaw: When there’s a large amount of soil, more gets pushed out of the way than picked up by the pad. It also cautions that steam and water could damage wood floors and might void the warranty.

“A $15 squeeze mop proved comparable, if not better, at floor cleaning,” the magazine says.

Steam-mop manufacturers have recently addressed concerns through vacuum/steam mop combos that eliminate the need for a mop, bucket, broom and dustpan. As far as potential floor damage, the mops’ moisture levels can be adjusted for different types of floors.

“With floors that are a little more delicate, for example … you can put it on the steam-dusting setting,” says Dann Provolo, vice president of marketing for Euro-Pro, maker of Shark steam-cleaning products, which introduced its next generation of Steam-Pocket Mop. “Regardless, a traditional mop with water can leave standing water on a floor, which could damage it. Steam quickly dries.”

Portable steam systems with wedge- and cylinder-shaped pads can be used to clean countertops, tile grout, mirrors, windows and upholstery. Steam kills staph, E. coli, mold, mildew and dust mites. A steam unit also can kill bedbugs, with a caveat.

“A steam cleaner should be a tool within a variety of methodologies,” Provolo says. “It shouldn’t be the entire solution.”

Is a Central Vacuum System Right for You?

If you are considering installing a central vacuum system, you probably have visions of carefree vacuuming- is that an oxymoron? You will no longer lug your vacuum up and downstairs or try to maneuver through doorways, banging the walls as you go. Well before you spend the $1000 or more, read on to see if your vision can become a reality.

From DIYlife.com:

HOW DOES A BUILT-IN CENTRAL VACUUM SYSTEM WORK?
Unlike standard portable vacuums, central vacuum systems don’t require you to haul a heavy unit around the house to clean. With built-in central vacuum systems, you need only carry a lightweight hose and power brush. Dirt and debris is sucked up and sent through tubing located in the walls and sent to a power unit/receptacle, which typically installed in a garage, crawlspace or basement.

Inlet valves are located throughout the house, and PVC tubing is installed in the walls and under the floor connecting back to the central vacuum. The lightweight hose connects to the the inlet and can reach up to 35 feet. So instead of plugging a portable vacuum in and out of of pre-determined electrical outlets, you just need to move the hose from inlet to inlet when operating a central vacuum. Like standard vacuums, central vacuum hoses have a variety of attachments with added features, such as wet interceptors that pick up liquid.

BENEFITS OF A CENTRAL VACUUM SYSTEM
Central vacuums are not as pricey as you may think, relatively speaking. In recent years, several portable vacuums have hit the market complete with high-tech features that take all the (human) work out of vacuuming. These advancements have begun to equalize the cost between portable vacs and central vacs. With price becoming a smaller factor, here are some great benefits to central vacuum systems:

- Healthier Air
Central vacuum systems are the only virtually dust-free way to vacuum. Traditional vacuum cleaners collect dirt and dust in a cup, paper bag or reusable cloth bag. Even with HEPA filtration, fine particles are exhausted back into the air. With a central vacuum system, the dirt and dust are collected in a receptacle located away from the living area. Homeowners can exhaust their units outside, thus eliminating any dust or odors recirculating. This is a very important feature for people who suffer from allergies.

- Powerful Cleaning
Traditional vacuum cleaners are meant to be portable, and thus need to have extremely lightweight motors. Such is not the case for central vacuum systems, which can accommodate larger, more powerful motors: about three to five times more power than traditional vacuums. Not only are central vacuum motors larger, they have built-in cooling fans (for longer life), as well as greater airflow and suction.

- Versatility
With portable household vacuum cleaners, an upright machine is superior for cleaning carpets while a canister vacuum is superior for cleaning bare floors, cars, upholstery, etc. With a central vacuum system you get an all-round superior cleaning, there’s no need to switch models for different tasks. Inlets can be strategically placed anywhere in the house or garage, and a lightweight 35-foot hose can cover the distance between sockets. Because of the long hose, you can easily go right up your stairs without having to carry a heavy unit up and down. The long hose and inlets make it easy to get into every area, including the garage to clean car interiors easily. Wet interceptors allow you to pick up water with your central vacuum system too. Furthermore, you can install automatic vacpans that allow you to sweep dirt right into the system.

- Longer Lifespan
Central vacuums have considerably longer life than portable household vacuum cleaners. With average use most central vacuums will last 20 years. By contrast, a standard chain store vacuum will last about two years.

- Added Home Value
According to CentralVacuum.com, a central vacuum system can add around $2,000 to your home’s resale value.

DRAWBACKS OF A CENTRAL VACUUM SYSTEM

With all the benefits, there are some noteworthy disadvantages of central vacuums:

- Cost
If you do the installation yourself, a central vacuum system can cost as little as $500. Yet this is still a significant cost, and a portable household vacuum cleaner is certainly your best choice if budget is main concern. Also, there is an added energy consumption factor. If you ran the vacuum for an hour every day, you’d consume about 20 cents more electricity per day with a built-in central vacuum system.

- Installation Obstacles
It is extremely difficult to install central vacuum systems in apartment and condominium buildings. Houses without a basement, crawlspace or attic to house the vacuum center are better off with a standard vacuum. Other limiting features include poured concrete walls. These factors makes installation difficult and costly. In such cases opt for a standard vacuum and avoid the headache.

- Physical Limitations
Homeowners who have disabilities that make emptying the relatively large canister a challenge are better off with a standard household vacuum.

FIXING AND MAINTAINING YOUR BUILT-IN CENTRAL VACUUM SYSTEM

In most cases you can manage your own troubleshooting as well. From unclogging the tubing, to changing the motor brushes, central vacuum maintenance and repair is very DIY-friendly, with an abundance of resources and troubleshooting tips available.

With the average life of a central vacuum system being 20 years, they are bound to require repairs eventually. Attachments will need to be replaced every 5-8 years at a cost of about $150-$500 depending on what you need. Also the carbon brushes in the motor may need to be replaced after about 10 years at a cost of $15-$20.

While some motors last 20 years, others may go sooner. If they do you’re looking at a cost of about $200. When considering the options, be aware of an emerging trend in the central vacuum industry, a movement toward throw-away power units. These types of central vacuum units have either sealed motor pods or the manufacturer doesn’t offer replacement parts.

Cleaning a central vacuum in most cases is as simple as emptying the canister and occasionally reaching up and removing any dust that accumulated and got trapped above the container. Central vacuum bags and canisters need to be emptied on average once every three months.

INSTALLING A CENTRAL VACUUM
The average person can install and maintain their central vacuum system.

However, there is some degree of difficulty: determining the layout requires planning. You can often get guidance from the store where you purchase your vacuum.

There are lots of resources available with general installation instructions. You’ll want to review the specific instructions for your unit, consult with a professional, and check to make sure that a non-professional installation won’t void your warranty.

The ease of doing-it-yourself depends on whether you have easy access to the area where you plan to store the system and that no major hurdles in the home require professional troubleshooting. Once you’ve reviewed the instructions, if you decide that you don’t have the necessary skills, time or interest to install it yourself, you can always hire a professional. Either way, the resources are plenty.

FINAL VERDICT: For homes that are less than 1000 square feet, a central vacuum system is simply not worth the money. But when your home and your budget can manage it, built-in vacuum systems are definitely a desirable choice.

Rating the Latest Appliances – JD Powers Results

The 2010 Laundry Appliance Satisfaction Study and 2010 Kitchen Appliance Satisfaction Study from J.D. Power and Associates found that awareness of Energy Star certified appliances has increased among U.S. owners of new appliances since 2009 and so has the percentage who purchased an Energy Star appliance.

According to appliancemagazine.com, 86% of 2010 dishwasher buyers reported buying an Energy Star certified appliance, for an increase of 5% from 2009 and a 9% increase from 2008.

Satisfaction with appliance performance is strongly influenced by the owner’s perception of the appliance’s water and/or energy efficiency, the study found. Customers who report that their appliance is Energy Star certified are more likely to be more satisfied with their appliance than customers who do not indicate that their appliance is certified.

The Laundry Appliance Satisfaction Study measured customer satisfaction with clothes washers and dryers based on performance in six factors:


• ease of use
• features (such as the number of settings available and appliance capacity)
• performance and reliability (including energy efficiency, noise level, and how well the appliance functions)
• styling and feel
• warranty
• price

CLOTHES WASHERS: Samsung ranked highest for the second year in a row when it came to satisfying clothes washer owners, with a score of 832 on a 1000-point scale. Samsung performed particularly well in four of six factors:

• performance and reliability
• ease of use
• features
• styling

Other brands that broke the 800-point mark in the clothes washer rankings included:

• Kenmore Elite (817 points)
• Electrolux (816)
• LG (811)
• Maytag Epic (802)

CLOTHES DRYERS: Samsung scored 833 and was No. 1 in the clothes dryer rankings – the third consecutive year it’s been in the top spot. J.D. Power reported that Samsung did particularly well in four of the six factors:

• performance and reliability
• ease of use
• styling
• features

Only two other brands scored more than 800 points in the study:

• LG (814 points)
• Kenmore Elite (809)

Kitchen Appliances Study
Customer satisfaction was measured based on performance in six factors:

• performance and reliability (including how well the appliance functions, noise level, and energy efficiency)
• features (such as the number of settings available and appliance capacity)
• ease of use
• styling and feel
• price
• warranty

REFRIGERATORS: Samsung – for the sixth year in a row – ranked highest in satisfying refrigerator owners with a score of 803. Samsung performed particularly well in:

• ease of use
• performance and reliability
• features.

Samsung was followed by LG (781 points) and Kenmore Elite (776 points).

DISHWASHERS: Miele ranked highest in customer satisfaction in dishwashers with a score of 806 and performed particularly well in four of the six factors:

• performance and reliability
• styling and feel
• features
• warranty

Bosch also cracked the 800-point mark, scoring 801 points.

COOKTOPS/RANGES/OVENS:
Wolf ranked No. 1 in cooking appliances with a score of 812, and performed particularly well in five of six factors:

• ease of use
• performance and reliability
• styling and feel
• features
• warranty

Samsung ran a close second in this category, with a score of 809, and was the only other appliance brand to top the 800-point threshold.

The Studies

The 2010 Laundry Appliance Satisfaction Study was based on responses from more than 5100 consumers who purchased clothes washers and more than 5100 consumers who purchased clothes dryers from a retail store or received one through other means (such as a new-home builder or a gift) during the past 24 months. The study was fielded between March and April 2010.

Best Stores for Buying Appliances

When you’re shopping for a new appliance, you want a store that will provide good prices, helpful staff and ease of service along with a good selection.

Unfortunately, two surveys from the Consumer Reports National Research Center show that no one retailer seems able to provide it all.

CR did find some cause for hope. Abt Electronics, in the Chicago area, and independent local stores garnered high praise from shoppers who bought a major appliance in the past year. For small appliances, independents also rated highly, along with Costco, though the standout was Amazon.com, as in past years.

CR’s rankings for shopper satisfaction came from more than 21,000 respondents to its 2009 Appliance Shopper Satisfaction Survey. It also commissioned a separate, nationally representative Home Gripes survey of 1,405 homeowners about their experiences shopping at home stores.

Only Abt Electronics scored better than average on price for major appliances. For small appliances, Amazon.com and Costco got readers’ highest marks for price for the second year in a row.

Here’s more from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Consumer Reports:

Besides price, the expertise and manner of a store’s sales staff were key reasons for choosing a major appliance retailer, according to the CR Shopper Satisfaction Survey. But respondents to the Home Gripes survey cited difficulty in finding a useful salesperson at all as one of their chief shopping annoyances. Salespeople who were arrogant or even nasty were especially bothersome for women.

Independent retailers, Abt Electronics and Pacific Sales in California received top marks for having salespeople knowledgeable in major appliances. The trio also stood out for service rendered; Best Buy scored below average for its staff. For staff expertise and service in small appliances, independent local retailers scored best. Among major retailers, only Lowe’s stood out; and for service, Sears scored above average.

Around a quarter of major- and small-appliance shoppers chose retailers based on their reputation for high-quality products. Retailers varied significantly on both counts. Poor selection was a complaint for less than 5 percent of respondents to CR’s Shopper Satisfaction survey. But almost a quarter of small-appliance shoppers at Sam’s Club complained that the store had too few brands or models available for selection. For major appliances, no store scored better than average for shopping ease.

For major-appliance product quality and selection, Abt Electronics and Pacific Sales scored best; for selection, Home Depot scored below average. For small-appliance purchasing, Amazon.com and independents stood out for quality and selection. Shopping for small appliances in stores was more varied, with independent retailers getting top marks for shopping ease, followed by Sears, Lowe’s and Best Buy, which all scored above average.

Stores that push extended warranties were among the top annoyances in CR’s Home Gripes survey. In the Shopper Satisfaction Survey, respondents who bought a major appliance were much more likely than those buying small appliances to be hit with an extended-warranty offer.

For small appliances, Amazon.com’s storage of shipping addresses and payment preferences might have contributed to its high score for checkout ease in the Shopper Satisfaction Survey. Independent retailers also received top marks, followed by Costco. For major appliances, no retailer scored worse than average. But Abt Electronics and independents fared best.

Crock-Pot Wonders

I’ve owned a few crock-pots over the years. Right now I have two- both of them the large six quart models made by Rival. They are both basic models that have a simple central knob for choosing a low or high setting. I prefer my appliances simple and these are perfect for me.

Many people are discovering or rediscovering the humble crock-pot or slow cooker. They offer convenience, and economy. A slow cooker and turn a tough (and cheaper) cut of meat into a tender main dish, ready for dinner when you return home after a long day. Today, about 83% of American households own a slow cooker, according to the NPD Group, a leading marketing research firm. Of these households, almost half used a slow cooker within the past month.

While I heartily recommend my style of slow cooker, the folks at the Los Angeles Times, took a look at a few newer, sleeker models out there and offered these comments:

West Bend’s 5-Quart Oblong Slow Cooker promises an all-in-one slow cooker and griddle, with an insert advertised to be safe for the stove top and oven; it also comes with its own carrying case. The adjustable temperature control has five settings.
What we thought: The model promises a lot and delivers little, if anything. The model automatically starts warming as soon as it’s plugged in — there is no “off” setting — which could lead to burns if you’re careless. Although it’s marketed as oven- and stove-top-safe, in the manual’s fine print there are limitations to how high the thin insert can be heated. Only plastic or rubber utensils can be used with the insert, as metal can scratch the coating. The lid does not securely cover the insert and easily falls off. The model takes forever to heat up, as does the griddle (it took us 45 minutes to fry three pieces of bacon and 10 minutes to fry an egg with the griddle on the highest setting). About $55.

The KitchenAid 7-Quart Slow Cooker is big in capacity and power. It heats quickly with its 400-watt heating element and boasts an accurate and responsive “electronic temperature management system.” It offers 10 hours of programmable cooking time, automatically lowering the heat to warm when the timer is done. The settings: buffet, simmer, low, high and auto.
What we thought: Everything about this unit is big; there’s even a bumper at the back of the unit. The 7-quart ceramic insert is heavy and awkward on its own; filled, it requires a good amount of strength to move. However, it has large — and very convenient — level indicators, so you know the volume of contents you’re cooking. The big digital cooking display is easy to read. The lid does not always sit flush against the top of the insert. The unit heats up very quickly and adjusts throughout to maintain consistent temperature. The insert and lid are dishwasher-safe. About $130.

The All-Clad 7-Quart Deluxe Slow Cooker offers a cast-aluminum insert that is oven- and stove-top-safe (both the insert and lid can function on the stove top as a Dutch oven). The programmable timer automatically switches to warm when cooking is complete. The model features a stainless steel exterior.
What we thought: This is one massive and expensive showpiece. The exterior is big and impressive, but after a couple of uses we found the stainless steel hard to keep clean and almost unbearably hot. The stainless steel lid prevented us from being able to check on contents as they cooked; the lid itself was very thin and lightweight and the handle got so hot a potholder was required. The cast aluminum minimizes mess and eases cleanup. About $280.

And their favorite:

Cuisinart’s 3 1/2 -Quart Programmable Slow Cooker includes a ceramic insert that is stick-resistant and dishwasher-safe. The model comes with a 24-hour LCD countdown timer that automatically switches to warm when contents finish cooking. Four settings: high, low, simmer and warm.
What we thought: This slow cooker was one of our favorites. The programmable timer is a big plus, allowing the cook to set the cooking time in half-hour increments. The ceramic insert offers consistently reliable heating and cooking. The insert and lid are dishwasher-safe. About $60.

One of my favorite cooking sites, allrecipes.com has a highly rated recipe for chicken and dumplings you can try next time you want a comforting meal ready right away when you get home.

You can read all the reviews here.