October 21, 2014

Do You Like Your Front Loading Washer?

It might not have been the most stylish, but for decades the top-loading laundry machine was the most affordable and dependable. Now it’s ruined—and Americans have politics to thank.

The above is quote from a Wall Street Journal Opinion piece by Sam Kazman. He goes on to say:

In 1996, top-loaders were pretty much the only type of washer around, and they were uniformly high quality. When Consumer Reports tested 18 models, 13 were “excellent” and five were “very good.” By 2007, though, not one was excellent and seven out of 21 were “fair” or “poor.” This month came the death knell: Consumer Reports simply dismissed all conventional top-loaders as “often mediocre or worse.”

How’s that for progress?

The culprit is the federal government’s obsession with energy efficiency. Efficiency standards for washing machines aren’t as well-known as those for light bulbs, which will effectively prohibit 100-watt incandescent bulbs next year. Nor are they the butt of jokes as low-flow toilets are. But in their quiet destruction of a highly affordable, perfectly satisfactory appliance, washer standards demonstrate the harmfulness of the ever-growing body of efficiency mandates.

The federal government first issued energy standards for washers in the early 1990s. When the Department of Energy ratcheted them up a decade later, it was the beginning of the end for top-loaders. Their costlier and harder-to-use rivals—front-loading washing machines—were poised to dominate.

Front-loaders meet federal standards more easily than top-loaders. Because they don’t fully immerse their laundry loads, they use less hot water and therefore less energy.

When the Department of Energy began raising the standard, it promised that “consumers will have the same range of clothes washers as they have today,” and cleaning ability wouldn’t be changed. That’s not how it turned out.

In 2007, after the more stringent rules had kicked in, Consumer Reports noted that some top-loaders were leaving its test swatches “nearly as dirty as they were before washing.” “For the first time in years,” CR said, “we can’t call any washer a Best Buy.” Contrast that with the magazine’s 1996 report that, “given warm enough water and a good detergent, any washing machine will get clothes clean.” Those were the good old days.

In 2007, only one conventional top-loader was rated “very good.” Front-loaders did better, as did a new type of high-efficiency top-loader that lacks a central agitator. But even though these newer types of washers cost about twice as much as conventional top-loaders, overall they didn’t clean as well as the 1996 models.

The situation got so bad that the Competitive Enterprise Institute started a YouTube protest campaign, “Send Your Underwear to the Undersecretary.” With the click of a mouse, you could email your choice of virtual bloomers, boxers or Underoos to the Department of Energy. Several hundred Americans did so, but it wasn’t enough to stop Congress from mandating even stronger standards a few months later.

Now Congress is at it once again. On March 10, the Senate Energy Committee held hearings on a bill to make efficiency standards even more stringent. The bill claims to implement “national consensus appliance agreements,” but those in this consensus are the usual suspects: politicians pushing feel-good generalities, bureaucrats seeking expanded powers, environmentalists with little regard for American pocketbooks, and industries that stand to profit from a de facto ban on low-priced appliances. And there are green tax goodies for manufacturing high-efficiency models—the kind that already give so many tax credits to Whirlpool, for example, that the company will avoid paying taxes on its $619 million profit in 2010.

If you have switched from a top loading to a front loading washer and have a definite opinion about which is better – and why – please add your comment below. Let your voice be heard – are the socks you’re standing in clean enough?

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.”

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.

Should You Fix the Old Appliance or Buy a New One?

It’s a common question – when your appliance needs repairs is better to fix it or start looking for a new one?  Often fixing the broken appliance can take days or even weeks if the parts are not available.  A new one can often be purchased and installed within hours.  But is buying a new appliance the right choice?

“We surveyed 13-thousand of our subscribers, covering more than 20-thousand broken products, and plenty of them had complaints about the repairs they got,” said Celia Kuperszmid-Lehrman from Consumer Reports.

The biggest problems were with electric cooktops and wall ovens.

“The parts were very difficult to find and the repairs often took two weeks or more to get done,” said Kupersmid-Lehrman.

When it comes to dryers, washers, and other larger appliances, the survey showed people have much better luck using an independent shop once the warranty is up, rather than a factory-authorized service center.

But Consumer Reports says sometimes an appliance just isn’t worth fixing.

“You should replace it if the repair is going to cost more than half the price of a new model.” said Kupersmid-Lehrman.

Additionally, Consumer Reports says that it is not necessary to buy an extended warranty, as the cost for repairs, if needed will likely be about the same as the cost of the warranty.

 

Will GE’s Appliances Suffer Under a New Owner?

By now, GE’s upcoming sale of their popular appliance division is common knowledge and many people are wondering what will become of one of the most popular brands in the US when it is sold.  GE appliances rank highly with sources such as Consumer Reports.  When news that GE was considering a sale of the appliance arm, the magazine reported how various GE appliances stacked up against rivals. Most did pretty well.   GE had many highly rated (though a few poorly rated, including a ‘not acceptable’ in upright freezers ) models in many product categories and across price points.

According to the Wall Street Journal’s Deal Journal, for the most part, those considered to be potential bidders for the GE business–Sweden’s Electrolux, LG Electronics, BSH Bosch & Siemens Hausgerate of Germany, to name a few–match that. The outlier? Haier. Haier’s Genesis is No. 22, or fourth from the bottom in the rankings of top-loading washing machines and dead last in both large countertop microwave ovens (No. 15) and side-by-side refrigerators (No. 34).

The obvious question? Would a Haier-GE combination lead to an improvement in Haier’s own brand or would it pull down the reputation of the GE brand? Unfortunately, the question isn’t, well, academic. The folks at consumer-satisfaction surveyer J.D. Power & Associates said studying whether or how an acquisition of a high-quality brand by a lower-quality brand affected either brand would be nearly impossible, since it would be difficult to identify what was an effect of the deal or integration as compared with the myriad other issues that affect quality, like design, manufacturing, parts/raw materials.

Of course, Haier has has been down this road before, coming close to but ultimately failing to acquire another well-regarded U.S. brand, Maytag, in 2005. Then Haier’s plan was said to follow the Lenovo way, referring to the Chinese PC maker’s slow conversion of IBM Thinkpads to the Lenovo brand after it acquired the Big Blue business. For its part, Haier declines to confirm whether it was indeed bidding for the GE business or comment on how it would handle the integration should it comsumate a deal.

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How to Save Money Buying a New Appliance

Buying a new appliance is expensive and everyone wants to get a good value for their money.  Sometimes getting less can be more.  According to Consumer Reports, some of the extra features offered on new washers and dishwashers are not needed and just add unnecessarily to the final cost.

Take new dishwasher cycles with names like “turbo zone” and “power scour.” For those, special nozzles are placed in the back of the dishwasher to take care of tough jobs.

Although those cycles do a good job, Consumer Reports testers say they are not essential.

“We find many dishwashers, using just the regular setting, do a great job cleaning our very tough challenge: baked-on brownie mix,” Consumer Reports tester Kim Kleman said.

You can also save by skipping the often-pricier stainless steel tubs and get a plastic tub in your dishwasher.

“People love the stainless steel look, but how many people are looking inside your dishwasher?” Kleman said. “The plastic tub should hold up just fine.”

Many washing-machine models come loaded with lots of extra features – such as cycles made specifically for bedding, active wear and sanitizing. Consumer Reports, though, says you should take a pass on those options.

“Stick with the regular heavy-duty, normal, delicate and white cycles. That’s all you really need,” Kleman said.

As for dryers, don’t be wowed by claims like extra-large capacity, super capacity and king-sized capacity.

“We find most dryers hold plenty, whether it says super capacity or not,” Kleman said.

Although matching washer-dryer sets look nice, they can cost more.

If you’re buying them at the same time, Consumer Reports recommends getting the best-performing, most efficient washer – one that extracts the most water from clothes.

Among dryers, get the one that has a moisture sensor.

Consumer Reports ranked its Best Buys among dishwashers, washers and dryers:

  • Dishwasher: Sears’ Kenmore 1374 for $650.
  • Washer: Frigidaire Gallery GLTF2940F for $650.
  • Dryers: GE DBVH512EF[WW] for $650; GE DPSE810EG[WT] for $500.

Keep to this strategy: Don’t pay for features you don’t need.

Is a Steam Appliance Right for You?

Steam is hot right now.  It is showing up in a variety of appliance and is touted as the way to sanitize, freshen and even shorten cleaning times. Consumer Reports weighed in on steam use in appliances at abclocal.go.com sharing their opinion of steam’s usefulness.

One thing to be aware of before even considering a steam unit is the cost:

Kimberly Janeway from Consumer Reports, says “Some cost twice as much or even more than the best buys we recommend, which don’t have a steam feature.”
The steam feature not only adds to an appliance’s price, it also adds time to wash cycles. For example, for the clothes washers, it added as much as 25 minutes. For the dishwashers, it added up to 45 minutes.
Consumer Reports’ Emilio Gonzalez just tested two washing machines with steam modes from Kenmore and Whirlpool. Both companies claim their steam features boost cleaning performance and remove stains better.
“While the washers did better at removing stains when using the steam setting, they still cleaned very well even without the steam,” says Gonzalez.
Consumer Reports also tested the steam settings of Kenmore and Whirlpool dryers. Testers used wrinkled shirts exposed to cigarette smoke.
“The dryers got rid of most of the odors and wrinkles from the shirts, although there were wrinkles still left on the sleeves. So it’s a refresher, but not a replacement, for going to the dry cleaner,” says Janeway.
New dishwashers made by Jenn-Air, LG, Maytag, and Kenmore also have a steam-cleaning feature. Consumer Reports put them through one of its toughest food cleaning challenges: removing baked on brownie batter.
Janeway says “Steam only improved cleaning slightly on all four dishwashers.”
So while steam may be the hot new trend in appliances, Consumer Reports says it’s an extra feature that’s not worth the extra money.

So, depending on your opinion of Consumer Reports, you have the beginnings of an answer to the question- Is a steam appliance right for you?