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  • 07/10/13--20:59: Essential lawn-care tips
  • Essential lawn-care tips

    Assuming you've got the right grass for your area, lawns succeed or fail primarily on how well they are managed. The right watering, fertilizing, and mowing mean the difference between a lush green carpet and a spotty landscape that's more crabgrass than lawn.

    See our video to find out how we test lawn mowers at our 175,000-square-foot Florida test site for our continually updated Ratings and recommendations for lawn mowers and tractors.

    Learn more about lawn care, equipment, and maintenance with our Complete Lawn & Yard Guide.

    Improper watering is the culprit behind many lawn problems, especially in the West where healthy grass depends almost entirely on sprinklers. Too little can encourage crabgrass and other weeds that thrive in dry soil. Too much can invite diseases and is wasteful, especially where water is scarce.

    Hint

    Before planting grass, add compost or other soil amendment to the soil to improve its ability to hold water.

    How much water

    Most lawn grasses need roughly 1 inch of water per week through the growing season. Lawns may need little supplemental water in the humid Southeast or rainy North. But you’ll need that extra 1 inch per week of watering if you live in the Southwest where humidity is low and summer drought is common. Also remember that any lawn needs more water after a hot, dry week than it will after a cool, humid week.

    Cut your grass higher during hot spells. Taller grass shoots provide better shade for the soil beneath and require less water. Taller grass also has longer roots which can absorb more water deeper in the ground.

    Rain gauges are the most precise way to see how much water your lawn is getting. Place them where they’re exposed to both sprinklers and rainfall. Use several gauges around each sprinkler, then run the sprinklers for 10 minutes. If the water in the gauges measures one-quarter inch, for example, it will take 40 minutes to apply 1 inch of water. You can also measure how quickly your sprinklers apply water by setting empty soup cans around them and then measuring the water inside the cans.

    In rainy areas, have a portable sprinkler and hose in case of drought. Use a timer (about $25) or automatic shutoff to manage watering efficiently. For drier climes, you’ll save time and money with an automated underground sprinkler. Maximize these systems’ efficiency by using moisture and rain sensors to override an automated program.

    Avoid waste by keeping water off sidewalks, driveways, and other non-lawn areas. Use sprinklers that apply water no faster than the soil can absorb it. Different soils absorb water at different rates; sandy soils absorb it quickly, clay soils slowly. You’ll know it’s time to stop when water runs off the lawn. Choose sprinklers or sprinkler heads that are matched to your soil.

    Hint

    If your sprinklers apply water too fast, water only to the point of runoff and then stop. Wait about 20 minutes before turning the sprinklers on again.

    How often to water

    Water only when you must and then water thoroughly. Roots will grow only as deep as the soil is moist, and deep roots make grass hardier and more resilient. Deep but infrequent watering also discourages pests and disease by letting the lawn dry thoroughly between waterings. That works out to once or twice weekly through the growing season in the West and other areas where grass requires watering.

    Dial in extra water if you see signs of drought. Persistent footprints are the major one for all regions, indicating that grass blades are losing resilience. Most lawns also have one area that dries out first. Watch that area closely, using it as an indicator for the entire lawn.

    Why morning is best

    Use sprinklers in the early morning when there’s less wind to blow the water and less sunlight to evaporate it. Morning watering also discourages pests and disease by giving the lawn the rest of the day to dry.

    Water sensors can improve the efficiency of in-ground sprinkler systems. The EPA's WaterSense program includes more than 300 certified landscape professionals nationwide who can design efficient irrigation systems or perform efficiency audits on existing systems. To learn more, go to www.epa.gov/watersense.

    Pale, yellow-green grass is a tip-off that your lawn needs more nitrogen, the key ingredient in fertilizer. Using the right fertilizer at the right time is the quickest and easiest way to provide that nitrogen so that you lawn can better withstand pests and extreme heat and cold.

    Where to begin? A good first step is to obtaining the proper soil pH through a soil test. Getting the right pH level (usually by adding lime) increases the effectiveness of any fertilizer. It is better to invest in lime in the spring rather than fertilizer.

    Use a fertilizer formulated specifically for lawns and follow the directions on the label. That includes using the spreader the label stipulates so that you can use the recommended setting. But you'll still be faced with a plethora of choices. Using the wrong kind in the wrong way can hurt more than help. Indeed, too much fertilizer can pollute the ground and encourage lawn pests. Here's what's available and how to apply it:

    Kinds of lawn fertilizers

    There are three main types. The major difference is in how quickly their nitrogen gets to the grass roots.

    Natural organic fertilizers include manures, composts, and agricultural byproducts that might otherwise be wasted (see our Web site, www.GreenerChoices.org, for composting tips). Natural organics contain relatively low amounts of nutrients that are released slowly, so using too much probably won't damage the lawn. But you'll need to apply more of them. What's more, some may include weed seeds. Those that don't include alfalfa, blood meal, and soybean meal.

    Slow-release chemical fertilizers are more concentrated than natural organics and easier to apply. They're also unlikely to damage lawns if applied too liberally. Half or more of the nitrogen in brand-name lawn fertilizers is typically in this form, called water-insoluble nitrogen (WIN). These fertilizers don't produce an immediate effect, but that's usually better for the grass.

    Fast-release fertilizers are one way to green-up your lawn quickly. They're relatively concentrated, inexpensive, and easy to apply. But putting down too much or spreading it over a damp lawn in warm weather can burn the grass. Because their nutrients are used quickly, you'll have to apply them more often.

    When to fertilize

    If you fertilize once a year, do it in September for cool-season, Northern grasses, and early June for warm-season, Southern grasses. Otherwise, make two to three applications in fall, one month apart, and one in spring for cool-season grasses; three applications are needed during the summer for warm-season grasses.

    How much

    Lawn fertilizers contain nitrogen and, usually, phosphorus and potassium in that order. You'll know how much a fertilizer contains by checking its label. A 100-pound bag labeled 20-0-0 has 20 pounds of nitrogen, and no phosphorus or potassium, for instance.

    Lawns typically need only 25 percent as much phosphorus and 50 percent as much potassium as they do nitrogen. So don't apply phosphorus or potassium unless it's needed. A soil test is the only way to tell (search the Web using the words "soil testing [your state]").

    Recommendations for lawn fertilizers are usually given in actual nitrogen over a given area. Experts recommend no more than 1 pound of actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet for each application. Once you know a fertilizer's nitrogen concentration, calculate how many times that first, nitrogen-percentage number in the fertilizer mix goes into 100, then apply that many pounds of fertilizer per 1,000 square feet.

    For example, figure on using 5 pounds of 20-5-10 fertilizer, 10 pounds of 10-2 1/2-5 and so on. The total actual nitrogen applied per year should be 3 to 5 pounds. To double-check your calculations, use Purdue University's Turf Fertilizer Calculator (www.agry.purdue.edu/turf/fertcalc/Fertilization%20calc.html).

    Hint

    Returning mulched clippings to your lawn rather than bagging and disposing of them reduces the need for lawn fertilizer by 30 to 50 percent. That equals roughly 2 to 2.5 pounds of fertilizer per year to put down 4 pounds of actual nitrogen.

    Calibrating a drop spreader

    Fill the spreader with fertilizer, note its setting, and operate it over 50 feet with a collection pan or strip of plastic sheeting beneath it. Weigh the amount of fertilizer that fell on the pan or strip. Calculate the square footage you covered (50 feet times the spreader's width in feet). Then use that as a guide to how much the spreader will deliver over the 1,000 square feet specified on fertilizer labels. For example, if the spreader dropped 1 pound of fertilizer per 100 square feet, it will drop 10 pounds per 1,000 square feet at that setting. Increase or reduce the amount delivered as needed.

    Proper mowing plays a significant role in the health of your lawn. Mowing often enough at the right height encourages deeper roots that can better withstand drought, pests, and weed invasions.

    The most critical tip: Avoid mowing off more than one-third of a grass blade's height at once. For example, if you want a 3-inch mowed height, mow when the grass is just over 4 inches tall.

    How often

    Mowing once each week may be easiest for most homeowners. But doing it every 4 to 5 days during peak growth and every 8 to 10 days during slower growth reduces stress on your lawn and helps keep it at its peak. Cool-season grasses grow fastest in the cooler temperatures of spring and fall, when they need more frequent mowing. Warm-season grasses grow fastest during midsummer and need more mowing then. (See grass guide and zone map.)

    How high

    Taller grasses typically have deeper roots. But mowing too high often looks messy, while mowing too low starves the lawn by removing too much of its nutrient-producing leaf surface. Cutting below the green leaf blades into the brown grass stems, called scalping, weakens the grass plant and leaves it vulnerable to aggressive weeds or pests. (See grass guide and zone map for optimal mowing heights.)

    Suppose you miss a mowing session. Adjust your mower upward to reduce the height gradually without taking off more than a third of the grass blade with each mowing. Then readjust your mower to its normal height.

    Which type of mower

    Reel mowers cut with a scissorlike action and are best when mowing lower than 1.5 inches on even ground--typical for golf greens and sports arenas. Rotary mowers and riding tractors cut with spinning blades and work best at 2 inches and higher. Most homeowners prefer rotary mowers because of their speed and ability to cut taller grass and weeds. Nearly all now include a mulching mode that returns clippings to the lawn. (See our continually updated Ratings and recommendations for push mowers, self-propelled mowers, and lawn tractors.

    Hint

    Be sure blades are sharp. Mow when grass is dry, since wet mowing leaves clumps and clings to the blades and deck. Also try mowing at 3 or 4 different angles on consecutive mowings to spread out wear and compaction from the mower wheels.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Healthy food choices for students on the go

    Raiding the refrigerator is a cinch when you want a late-night snack at home. But when you’re living in a dorm without a full kitchen, it can be slim pickings. Fortunately, there are plenty of good, healthy choices that take little or no preparation and can be easily stored in a dorm room or compact refrigerator. Here are some breakfast foods, snacks, and frozen entrees that received high marks from the food testers at Consumer Reports.

    Frozen waffles
    Frozen waffles are a good breakfast choice for students with a shared refrigerator or a compact fridge that has a reliable freezer. Trader Joe’s Multigrain frozen waffles topped our tests and at $2.00 per serving, are a CR Best Buy. For a dollar more, the 365 Organic Everyday Value Homestyle from Whole Foods is also a good option. But the waffle that scored best for nutrition was the Kashi 7 Grain, though at $3.90 per serving costs even more.

    Cereal
    High-fiber cereals have come a long way since Consumer Reports first tested them 14 years ago and said they tasted more like straw than grain. In our cereal taste tests, one granola, Bear Naked Fruit and Nut, scored excellent for taste but its overall nutrition was just fair.  Four cereals were tasty and nutritious based on calories, fat, sodium, sugars, iron, calcium, and fiber: Kellogg’s All-Bran Original, Post Grape-Nuts The Original, Post Shredded Wheat Original Spoon Size, and Post Shredded Wheat ’n Bran Spoon Size.

    Snack bars
    Snack bars are another quick breakfast choice but our experts, who tried 24 snack bars in chocolate, peanut, and strawberry flavors, found that not all of them are good for you. Snack bar names and descriptions can include such healthy sounding words as cereal, granola or fiber but there are big differences in nutrition. Calories can range from 90 to 270 per serving, fat from 2 to 9 grams, and sugar from 2 to 20 grams. Our winner for best taste and nutrition was Clif Crunch Granola Chocolate Chip, which costs $3.11 per package. Market Pantry Peanut Sweet & Salty Granola Bars sold at Target for $2.10 are another great pick. See the full snack bar report for detailed nutrition information and more choices.

    Greek yogurt
    Thicker and creamier than traditional yogurt and high in protein, Greek yogurt is taking over the dairy aisle. In our Greek yogurt taste tests, our food experts found three that are worth a try, including two varieties of Dannon Oikos and one of Stonyfield Oikos. We also liked Fage Total 2% with strawberry, which has 140 calories, 2.5 grams fat, 16 grams sugar.

    Frozen pizza
    Again, if your student has access to a kitchen, frozen pizza can sate those late night food cravings.  In our pizza taste tests, our food experts tried five chicken pizzas, a less traditional type that’s becoming more popular, and found one to recommend. It’s the Freschetta Chicken Club, which has a flavorful, yeasty, Italian-style crust; béchamel-style sauce; smoky bacon; and flavorful chicken chunks; plus fresh-tasting spinach and tomatoes. We also tasted 16 cheese pizzas and pepperoni pies and found three brands that were very good overall: Home Run Inn, Red Baron and DiGiorno.

    Frozen entrees
    Forget those TV dinners of the past, today’s frozen entrees are more appealing in taste and appearance. In our taste tests of 18 entrées made with either chicken or shrimp we named one a CR Best Buy, the Birds Eye Voilà Chicken Florentine. Nine others scored very good overall for taste including Contessa World Cuisine Sesame Chicken, $2.50, the highest scoring Asian chicken meal, and Bertolli Chicken Florentine & Farfalle, $3.37, the highest among Italian chicken meals. Wanchi Ferry Shrimp Lo Mein, $3.58, was the best among the Asian shrimp group and Bertolli Shrimp Asparagus & Penne, $3.35, was the best of the Italian shrimp meals.  

    Beef jerky
    Beef Jerky will never make anyone’s list of health foods but it can be a quick protein pick-me-up and has fewer calories than meat sticks. In our beef jerky taste tests, we found Oh Boy Oberto Original beef jerky to be a tad spicy with well-blended smoke, brown sugar, garlic, and fruit flavors. Pacific Gold is sweeter than most and has a distinct black-pepper flavor. It was also the best value among the tastier choices. But keep in mind that some of these dried meat products have very high sodium levels.

    —Izabela Rutkowski

    Food and beverage guide

    See what other foods our experts like including taste tests of fast food, ice cream, wine, and beer in our food and drink reviews.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    CPSIA has had big impact over the last five years

    At a time when partisan gridlock seems to dominate the discussion in Washington, we at Consumers Union, the policy and adviocacy arm of Consumer Reports, think it’s important to celebrate bipartisan legislation that has made a real difference in the marketplace and the everyday lives of consumers.

    Next Thursday (Aug. 14) marks the fifth anniversary of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, or CPSIA. The milestone safety law, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in both the chambers of Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008, includes strong product safety reforms that revitalized the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a small agency with jurisdiction over the safety of more than 15,000 different types of products.

    The CPSIA was Congress’ response to the recall of millions of toys and children’s products for excessive lead, ingestion hazards, and other serious risks. Consider these numbers: In 2007, there were 473 recalls of children’s products, including millions of toys that contained dangerous levels of lead paint and other toxins. And in 2008, consumers fared even worse with 563 recalls, including nearly 8 million toys.

    To combat those risks, the law includes many vital improvements to our safety net, including lowering lead limits, issuing strong mandatory standards for infant and durable products ,and requiring third-party testing of children’s products. The law also directed the CPSC to create the SaferProducts.gov database, where you can report and research safety hazards experienced with a wide variety of consumer products.

    Many consumers might have been surprised that these rules didn’t already exist. Before the CPSIA, you would probably assume that someone was looking out for consumers and ensuring that the products they bought their children were already tested and determined to be safe. But too many kids fell victim to unsafe products in their homes.

    Consumers Union and other like-minded groups believed that our children should not be the guinea pigs to test the safety of a product. The passage of the CPSIA was groundbreaking in that it required independent third-party test before children’s products such as toys and cribs are available on store shelves—the best way to prevent unnecessary and costly deaths, injuries, and recalls.

    The creation of SaferProducts.gov also gave consumers a new place to turn to make smarter, more informed purchasing decisions, and an outlet to take action when it comes to product hazards. Consumers are able to search SaferProducts.gov to see whether other consumers have experienced hazards with a product, such as a stroller, that they are looking to buy.

    Additionally, consumers who experience a risk of harm or an injury caused by a product can now quickly and easily share that experience with the CPSC. The CPSC may then, if warranted, open an investigation into the product hazard. Since the database went live in 2011, more than 15,500 reports have been posted on SaferProducts.gov.

    As a result of the CPSIA, the U.S. now claims the strongest crib-safety standards in the world, a big improvement over previous standards, which had resulted in too many cases of infants being trapped by crib railings and other dangerous parts. And the law continues to be the gift that keeps on giving: the CPSC is currently considering mandatory safety standards for strollers, soft infant carriers, and other nursery products.

    While there have been efforts to water down or weaken parts of the CPSIA, the law remains strong and intact to better protect consumers. Consumers Union is a strong supporter of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. This month we celebrate all that the law has already done for children, and what it will continue to do as all of its parts go into effect.

    This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the public-policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

    Read other installments of our Policy & Action feature.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Electric chain saws need the right extension cord

    Corded-electric chain saws are fine for minor storm cleanup and other small jobs and many homeowners prefer them to gas-powered models that need fueling, pull-starting, and maintaining. But you can't use an electric chain saw with just any extension cord. As Consumer Reports discovered in its latest chain saw tests, eight electric models varied in their tolerance to extensions cords of different weights and lengths.

    Like other wires, extension cords are classified by gauge, which might be labeled as “AWG”; the lower the number, the more heavy-duty the cord. The length of the cord also matters—there's more consistent voltage across a 50-foot cord than a 100-foot. In other words, if you use a cord too thin, too long, or both for a demanding product like a chain saw, your saw will cut more slowly. You could even overheat the equipment, which happened during our tests.

    The typical orange extension cord sold for outdoor use is 16-gauge (middle plug in photo), which was appropriate only for the Remington RM1635W, the slowest corded-electric saw we tested. With 50-foot cords, most of our tested models required at least a 14-gauge cord (lower plug)—except for two models, the Craftsman 34119 and GreenWorks 20032, which required a 12-gauge (top plug). They cost about $20 to $50.

    At 100-foot lengths, the requirements get more demanding and more expensive. Craftsman and GreenWorks recommend that you not use a cord longer than 50 feet. With the Remington and the two top-scoring models, the Worx WG303.1 and Worx WG304.1, a 14-gauge is fine. The Makita UC4030A needs a 12-gauge. The manual for the Homelite UT43122 specifies a 10-gauge extension cord at 100 feet. Heavy-duty cords aren’t merely tough; they’re also much heavier—and more costly. A 100-foot, 14-gauge cord costs about $40; the same length in 12 gauge is closer to $75. And would anyone pay $130 for the 10-gauge cord needed to run the $75 Makita?

    Where you’re plugging in the extension cord can also be an issue. If you’re using an outlet on the side of the house, you should be fine. But an outdoor receptacle situated away from the house could pose voltage issues, especially if it wasn't properly installed, even if the extension cord is the proper gauge and length. Not sure? Have the receptacle’s voltage tested; a meter costs about $20. And if you’re in doubt about the gauge of the cords you have (it’s not always printed or stamped on the cord), do yourself a favor and buy a new one. You can always use it for other outdoor power equipment such as a leaf blower.

    In addition to the eight electric models, we have 14 gas and two battery-powered models in our chain saw Ratings. Before you start chopping, check our buying guide.

    For more news and information about outdoor power equipment and other products, subscribe to our Home & Garden feed.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Do credit report inquiries affect my credit score?

    I've been told that every time someone checks your credit score—a potential lender, an employer, an insurance company—it lowers the score. How much lower does it go for every check, and does it go down less if, say, a potential employer checks it vs. a potential lender?—Name and address not disclosed

    Most credit scores are not affected when you shop for a car, mortgage, student loan, or even an apartment within a short time period—say, 45 days—says Anthony Sprauve, director of public relations for FICO, the company that invented credit scoring. Typically, it's treated as a single inquiry. Checks by potential employers or by lenders interested in sending you marketing materials also don't affect your score. But applications for new credit or for an increase in your credit limit will ding your score. The average amount it will drop is usually fewer than 100 points. But it will rebound within a few months.

    Should you buy credit scores? Your FICO score isn't what car dealers, mortgage lenders, and others use, so don't get fooled into buying useless credit scores. Plus watch our video about credit score gotchas to be wary of. 

    —Consumer Reports

    For more news and articles, subscribe to our personal finance feed.  



    More from Consumer Reports:
    Top-rated home appliances
    Best and worst products for your home
    Expert Ratings and reviews

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Generator Ratings in time for peak storm season

    Peak hurricane season is upon us and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is forecasting that it will be a be an active one, with the possiblity of up to five major hurricanes. With memories of Superstorm Sandy still fresh, Consumer Reports has tested another batch of generators, including three large ones that can handle all your household needs. Of the 27 models in our generator Ratings, 14 performed well enough to make our list of top generator picks.

    The three large stationary models from Kohler, Generac, and GE can deliver up to 14,000 watts, enough for the usual essentials plus a midsized central air conditioner and an electric range and dryer. Also called standby models, these install permanently outdoors and start themselves when needed, running on natural gas or propane from a large tank. Of the trio, the Kohler 14RESAL, $3,700, was best and, like most of the stationary units we tested, comes with a transfer switch for a safe connection to your circuit panel.

    A new star among small stationary models is the Generac 6237, which at $2,250 costs nearly $1,000 less than the top-ranked Kohler 8.5 RES-QS7. Like the Kohlers, it was notable for power delivery and the smoothness of the power. And like other stationary models, the Generac periodically starts itself and diagnoses potential trouble between power outages. It also includes a transfer switch that’s sold separately.

    If you just need to power a few essentials, including your furnace or boiler, sump pumps, and lights, a portable generator could suffice—and most cost far less. The catch: You need to start it regularly, so it’ll be ready when you need it, and to perform other maintenance such as changing the oil. You'll also need to stock up on fuel, since most portables use about 12 to 20 gallons of gasoline a day. A few models, such as the $800 Generac LP5500 we just tested, use propane. For these, you’ll need four to eight 20-pound propane tanks.

    The best performers among portables include the 7,000-watt Troy-Bilt XP 7000 30477 and Briggs & Stratton 30470, CR Best Buys for $900 each. Both machines offer electric start, fuel shutoff (which protects the engine from gasoline as it deteriorates during storage), low-oil shutoff (again, to protect the engine), and a fuel gauge. To be safe, you should also have an electrician install a transfer switch.

    For full Ratings and recommendations, read the generator buying guide.

    —Ed Perratore

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    10 cost-saving steps to a great kitchen

    Get ready for sticker shock: Even a minor kitchen remodel now costs more than $19,000, on average, according to Remodeling Magazine’s annual Cost vs. Value report. The average for a midrange major remodel comes in at more than $57,000, while an upscale redo with all the trimmings costs a whopping $110,938. Those are rich figures by anyone’s reckoning. But you can pay far less and still get the kitchen of your dreams. You simply have to know how and where to cut. We asked the experts for their best money-saving secrets. Use them, and get more dream kitchen for less.

    Stick with the existing footprint
    According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average cost for new construction is about $80 per square foot. So if you add just 5 square feet to a 10x10 room, you’re spending an extra $4,000 before you even begin finishing the space or buying cabinets and countertops.

    Whether you add on to the space or not, think carefully before changing the location of the plumbing, wiring, and ventilation. “That one decision could save you thousands,” says Mark White, a certified kitchen designer and owner of Kitchen Encounters in Annapolis, Md. And think twice about expanding into another room. “Removing a wall can be well worth it,” he says. “But you’ll have to deal with patching the floor, the walls, and any existing molding—all jobs that add expense.”

    Feel free to negotiate
    Especially in today’s economy, it isn’t bad manners to counter an estimate from a contractor or subcontractor—a plumber or electrician, for example. In fact, it’s espe­cially effective if you have a competing bid from another pro (you should get at least three anyway) to offer up in comparison. If your schedule is flexible, “find out if there’s a better time of year to hire the professional,” White says. Contractors might be more willing to give you some wiggle room on price during their slow season.

    And don’t forget to haggle at appliance retailers. In a recent Consumer Reports survey, readers who did just that saved about $100 per appliance.

    Do the dirty work yourself
    Demolition is one do-it-yourself project even inexperienced homeowners can tackle successfully. But before you grab a sledgehammer, talk with your contractor to make sure your schedule and the project’s start date are in sync (and confirm whether the savings are worth your time and sore muscles). Are your old cabinets and appliances in reasonably good shape? Make some extra cash by selling them on Craigslist or donating them to Habitat for Humanity’s ReStores (habitat.org/restores). Or give them to Green Demolitions (greendemolitions.org), which will remove and transport your donated materials, saving you money.

    Go bargain hunting
    Buying last year’s model or one that’s overstocked can yield big savings. Consumer Reports found bargains on flooring at ifloors.com and lumberliquidators.com. For discontinued appliances, we found good values at Searsoutlet.com and BestBuy.com. If you don’t mind pre-owned items in good condition, you might consider Habitat for Humanity’s ReStores. For example, a KitchenAid double wall oven was recently offered for $350 in the Mt. Vernon, N.Y., location. New double ovens can easily cost more than $3,000.

    Pick standard-sized appliances
    Restaurant-sized equipment is tempting but it costs much, much more. And the added expense doesn’t stop at the price tag. “If you replace a traditional four-burner range with a six-burner, pro-style model, the new appliance will require a wider opening, so you’ll have to cut out some cabinets, and 8-inch ductwork instead of the original 6 inches,” White says. Larger, more powerful cooking appliances also tend to use more Btu, which means investing in a larger vent hood and living with higher energy costs.
    Appliance store Ratings and recommendations.

    Look for energy rebates
    Check the website of the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (dsireusa.org). According to a recent survey, Consumer Reports readers saved about $150 with rebates alone.

    Get something for nothing
    People now post listings offering such items as leftover building materials, nearly new appliances, and extra plumbing fixtures free. Check sites such as craigslist.com, freesharing.org, and freecycle.org. Finding recycled items will save you hundreds of dollars and keep otherwise discarded goods out of landfills at the same time.

    Keep what you can
    Remodeling around your existing appliances will save you from $1,500 to $5,000, according to the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. So if your equipment is in decent shape, focus instead on creating a fresh look with cosmetic changes. White suggests adding an island or updating the one you have, and painting cabinets and even appliances if the “guts” are fine but the finish is faded. Making over cabinet doors by replacing the center panel with glass is another cost-saver that adds function and style.

    Consider counters carefully
    “Laminate is still the most affordable counter material,” says Leslie Cohen, a San Diego certified kitchen designer. Laminate counters, which run about $10 to $40 per square foot, will save you hundreds over granite or quartz counters, which go for $40 to $100. If your heart is set on granite or marble, there are thrifty ways to get what you really want. When buying stone, go directly to the fabricator rather than the kitchen retailer, says White. “Depending on the shape, they may have a remnant that will work in your kitchen.” Thinner counters can save you money, too. Opt for ¾-inch-thick counters instead of 1¼-inch thickness, he says. Or, use the thinner material on the perimeters and a thicker piece for a high-impact spot like an island. “Reserve splurges for places with more wow factor,” says Lisa Stacholy, of LKS Architects in Atlanta.
    Countertop Ratings and recommendations.

    Fake custom looks
    Everyone knows that stock windows, doors, and cabinets cost much less than custom-made alternatives. But that doesn’t mean you have to pay big bucks—or settle for an off-the-rack-look—for your kitchen. To get a custom look without the custom cost, “consider hiring a carpenter to spruce up ready-made components,” Stacholy says. “For example, you could line up three tall stock windows on the bottom and three smaller ones on the top and have a carpenter trim them out to get the look of expensive custom glazing,” she says.
    Window Ratings and recommendations.

    Adapted from Consumer Reports Kitchen Planning & Buying Guide.

    Kitchen planning guide

    For more expert tips and reviews of top appliances, check our Kitchen planning guide.



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    Small dehumidifiers score big in latest tests

    In past reports on dehumidifiers, Consumer Reports has advised a bigger-is-best approach, since dehumidifiers that remove 65 to 70 pints of water per day have always been more efficient than models claiming 30 to 40 pints per day. Based on our latest dehumidifier Ratings, that advice may be changing, as the effects of new federal efficiency standards start to be felt.

    The new standard, effective for the 2013 season, calls for efficiency increases of 13 to 35 percent, depending on the size of the dehumidifier. The steepest increase applies to the smallest units, which also generate the highest sales. In 2012, for example, nearly 60 percent of the 2 million dehumidifiers sold were 30 pints or less, according to Ipsos, a market-research company. That's probably due to the fact that small dehumidifiers typically cost $50 to $100 less than larger models.      

    We just finished testing two 30-pint models, the Danby DDR30A2GP, $170, and the Frigidaire FAD301NWD, $190. The results are encouraging, with the Danby earning excellent scores for energy efficiency and the Frigidaire scoring very good. Compare those results with our 2010 report, when efficiency scores for small dehumidifiers ranged from average to poor. The gains in efficiency can save you $50 in annual energy costs, assuming you run the unit six months of the year. What's more, the Danby and Frigidaire were both superb at removing moisture in our tests and their frost controls prevent evaporator coils from freezing—a good thing if room temperatures get chilly. 

    We're in the process of testing three new small dehumidifiers from Sears, Soleus Air, and Sunpentown. If we see similar results for efficiency and performance, small dehumidifiers will become more prominent on our recommended list, especially for everyday use in smaller living spaces that can get damp. In more extreme conditions, such as big basements with high levels of moisture, we'll continue to recommend larger models, including our top-rated Haier, a Walmart exclusive that sells for under $200. Fortunately, the new efficiency standard applies to these units as well.

    Daniel DiClerico

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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  • 08/12/13--13:59: Ease arthritis pain safely
  • Ease arthritis pain safely

    If you have arthritis pain and have suffered a heart attack, heart failure, kidney failure, stroke, or ulcer, or are at risk for them, you should choose your pain reliever carefully, according to our new Best Buy Drugs report. Common medicines such as ibuprofen (Advil and generic) and naproxen (Aleve and generic) can help relieve aches and minor injuries, but they can also cause or worsen cardiovascular and gut problems.

    Our review of the pain relievers known as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, found that all of them are equally effective but that some may be safer than others. For example, naproxen doesn’t appear to pose the same heart attack and stroke risk as the other NSAIDs do (except for heart-protecting aspirin), and celecoxib (Celebrex) is easier on the stomach.

    Options in treating arthritis pain

    If you have: Consider these, in this order:
    No or low gastrointestinal risk and no heart or stroke risk

    • Generic ibuprofen, naproxen, or other NSAID

    • Acetaminophen (4,000 milligrams daily maximum)

    Gastrointestinal risk but no or low heart or stroke risk1

    • Acetaminophen (4,000 mg daily maximum)

    • Lowest effective dose of ibuprofen or naproxen (or other NSAID), plus a stomach-acid reducer2

    Celecoxib with or without stomach-acid reducer

    • Topical NSAID

    Heart or stroke risk but no or low gastrointestinal risk1

    • Acetaminophen (4,000 mg daily maximum)

    Naproxen

    Aspirin plus a stomach-acid reducer2

    • Topical NSAID

    Heart or stroke risk and gastrointestinal risk1

    • Acetaminophen plus aspirin for heart protection, with a stomach-acid reducer2

    Naproxen with a stomach-acid reducer2

    • Topical NSAID

    • Stay alert for signs of an ulcer: burning stomach pain, blood in stool, or black, tarry stools

    • Use lowest effective dose of each drug

    Kidney disease or failure • Avoid NSAIDs
    1. People with an elevated risk of bleeding or cardiovascular problems should talk with their doctor before taking an NSAID.
    2. Such as lansoprazole (Prevacid 24HR and generic) or omeprazole (Prilosec OTC and generic).

    People at high risk of a heart attack, stroke, or bleeding should first try acetaminophen (Tylenol and generic), which is a different type of pain reliever and doesn’t cause those conditions. If that doesn’t ease your pain enough, naproxen might make sense. It’s one of our two Best Buy Drugs picks. (The other is ibuprofen.) If you have an increased risk of intestinal bleeding, you might consider celecoxib after acetaminophen. It has a lower risk of serious ulcer complications compared with other NSAIDs.

    NSAIDs applied to the skin—diclofenac gel (Voltaren), drops (Pennsaid), and patches (Flector)—may be worth a try if you have heart or intestinal problems. Studies suggest that they cause less internal bleeding. And because there are lower levels of the drug in the body, they might pose a lower risk of heart attack and stroke. But more studies are needed to confirm this.

    These materials are made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by the multi-state settlement of consumer-fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin).



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    Keep pets safe in the dog days of summer

    A heat wave is hard enough to take as a human, but it can be just as dangerous—or more so—for pets, as I was reminded in a recent e-mail alert from my vet. Cats and dogs lack the sweat glands we upright creatures rely on for cooling. And some dogs may keep running and playing right into the advanced stages of heat stroke, which can cause brain damage, organ failure, and even death.

    So it's up to pet owners to take steps to protect our furry companions during hot, humid weather. These tips come from the American Red Cross and my own excellent vet in Brooklyn, N.Y. (who reports having already treated an unusually large number of pets for heat-related illness this year):

    • Never leave pets in the car. As with children, it's unsafe and potentially deadly to leave an animal in the car—even for a few minutes—on a hot day. The inside temperature of the vehicle can quickly reach 120 degrees, regardless of whether the windows are cracked.
    • Avoid activities (even long walks) during the hottest time of the day.
    • Know the signs of heat stroke, including heavy panting, brick red gums or tongue, rapid pulse, staggering, seizures, bloody diarrhea or vomiting, and an inability to calm down, even when lying down. If you suspect your pet has heat stroke, take his or her temperature rectally. If it's above 104 degrees, cool the animal using a water hose or by applying wet towels to the paws and neck. Avoid using ice water, which can constrict blood vessels and impede cooling, but do offer your pet ice cubes to lick. Get to the veterinarian as soon as possible.
    • Be extra cautious with high-risk pets. Dogs with short noses or snouts, like bulldogs and pugs, are especially prone to heat stroke. So are any pets who are obese, have very thick coats, or have upper respiratory problems such as laryngeal paralysis or collapsing trachea.


    Learn which cars are safest for road tripping with pets.

    I'm lucky to have a retired racing greyhound who's long of nose and would rather snooze the day away in front of the air conditioner than set one paw outside in a heat wave, let alone chase a ball. But even on our brief daytime walks I can see the toll the heat takes, leaving him panting and exhausted. So I've been restricting our longer jaunts to early morning and late evening, keeping the AC cranked all day despite what it will mean for my electric bill, and avoiding the dog park until milder temperatures return. You can't be too careful with your best friend.

    Source:
    "Keep Your Pet Safe As Temperatures Rise" (American Red Cross)

    Jamie Kopf

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  • 08/13/13--08:59: Samsung OLED TV review
  • Samsung OLED TV review

    It's not often that we get an up-close look at a truly new TV technology, but that's exactly what happened when we brought the Samsung KN55S9C OLED TV into our labs. OLED promises to be a game-changer that could one day push current TV technologies to the sidelines. It combines the best attributes of plasma and LCD sets: the deep blacks, high contrast, and unlimited viewing angles of plasma TVs with the bright images, super-slim designs, and energy efficiency of LCD sets.

    That's a winning combination, judging by our tests of the Samsung KN55S9C. It's arguably the best all-around TV we've ever tested, with the highest overall picture-quality scores and no major shortcomings—except, perhaps, its steep $9,000 price. Still, that's much less than the $13,500 price disclosed when it was introduced earlier in Korea, and significantly below the current $15,000 retail price tag of LG's comparably sized 55EA9800 set, which we're hoping to test shortly.

    This isn’t the first OLED TV we've seen. The Sony XEL-1 wowed us when it was introduced a few years ago. But it cost $2,500 and had a tiny, 11-inch screen, making it unsuitable for use as a main TV. Manufacturing larger sets has been a challenge, but Samsung's was worth waiting for, though panel lifetime and screen burn-in are yet to be determined.  

    Will the future of TV be curved?

    Samsung’s new OLED TV is a striking-looking set, with its elegant, slightly curved screen perched within a rectangular metallic stand. While it's likely that the curved screen—a design characteristic also shared by LG's OLED set—is primarily an aesthetic touch to differentiate the TV, Samsung claims the curve helps create a more immersive viewing experience, giving viewers a sense that the TV is actually larger than its actual screen dimensions. From the viewer's seating position, you can sense the curve from the outer profile of the frame, which has a bowed contour at the top and bottom of the screen, much like a Cinerama projection screen in a movie theater.

    We also noticed that the TV is angled back a bit on its stand, so it faces slightly upward. This means the preferred position for this TV is at or below eye level to the screen. Because of the curve, there is an implied viewing sweet spot that limits the optimal seating position to the two or three viewers directly in front of the screen. But unlike that of many LCD TVs, the KN55S9C’s picture doesn’t look washed out as you move off angle from the center of the TV, though at wider angles the curve introduces some subtle non-uniform image geometric distortion to the picture, and at more extreme angles the edge of the TV can actually block the image. (A regular flat TV, by comparison, maintains the image geometry over the complete 180 degrees.)

    Still, at normal viewing angles, most viewers probably will not find the curve distracting. But there is one other consequence of the curved screen: This TV can’t be wall-mounted.

    Like other OLED TVs we’ve seen, this one is incredibly thin—perhaps half an inch thick— though it's not quite as noticeable due to its positioning within the stand. All connections, such as a cable box or Blu-ray player, are made to the TV via a separate media module, which includes four HDMI inputs, a USB port (there are two additional USB ports on the TV), an Ethernet slot, a component-video input, and an antenna input. The module then connects to the TV using a single proprietary cable, reducing visual clutter. The only other cable is the TV's power cord.

    As you'd imagine of a TV at this price, the S9C is loaded with features, including Samsung's Smart TV 2.0 Internet platform, with a quad-core processor, built-in Wi-Fi, a full Web browser, access to apps, and streaming movies and TV shows from several online services. The set also has the company's Smart Interaction feature, which allows control using voice and hand gestures, and 3D capability. (The set comes with four sets of unique 3D/Multiview glasses—more on that later—that connect using 2.4GHz and 5GHz wireless RF technology.)

    One benefit to the TV's stand is that it provides some extra space to house a multiple array of speakers. Though we haven't completed our sound tests on the SC9, based on our early evaluation the TV can produce very good sound quality, at sufficient volumes to fill a medium-sized room.

    How OLED technology works

    Before we get into our test details, it might be helpful to understand what makes OLED (organic light-emitting diodes) different. All TVs use three primary colors—red, green, and blue—to create images. In a so-called LED LCD TV, light is produced by an LED backlight, which shines through red, green, and blue color filters to create images. (The LCD crystals change position to either block light or allow it to pass through.)

    Plasma TVs are more like OLED, in that they are self-illuminating, meaning they generate their own light; they don't require a separate backlight. In a plasma TV, colors are produced when pockets of gas are ignited, exciting red, green, and blue phosphors.

    On an OLED TV, the image is created by using a film that contains thousand of organic LEDs—each with red, green, and blue subpixels—across the panel. The organic (carbon-based) material is sandwiched between two electrodes; when electricity is applied to the material, it generates light, illuminating each pixel’s red, green, and blue subpixels to produce colors. Unlike plasma TVs, which can be a bit dim, OLED TVs offer LCD-like brightness, but without the need for—and shortcomings of—a separate backlight.

    Get more information on OLED from our CES 2013 TV coverage, and read "Forget 4K Ultra HD TVs: I want an OLED TV."

    Performance highlights

    All this is great in theory, but how did the TV actually do on our test patterns and real-world video?  In a word, brilliantly.

    We were wowed by the seemingly effortless, accurate reproduction of high-definition programs and movies viewed on Samsung’s OLED set. The TV delivers on all key image quality attributes, including image brightness, deep black levels, full 1080p picture detail, accurate colors, and unparalleled 3D performance. We’ve often seen TVs that match some of these key performance benchmarks, but what makes the SC9 unique is that it hits them all. There was none of the screen nonuniformity or degraded viewing angle performance we’ve seen on LCDs, and no coarse contouring (banding) on smooth shades, or visible graininess on dark shadow detail that we see on some plasmas.

    The set’s naturally deep black levels were the best we've seen, though only marginally better than the best plasma sets we've tested, such as the Panasonic ZT60-series models. (This is a testimonial to the ever-improving blacks we're seeing on top-performing plasma sets.) And OLED TVs require none of the local-dimming tricks or dynamic backlight adjustments we see with LED-backlit LCD sets. Yet the OLED set's images were very bright, well above what we’ve seen from any plasma TV, so you get an unparalleled contrast range that makes images pop off the screen.

    For our tests with real-world video, we cued up "The Avengers" Blu-ray disc to the Black Widow fight scene, which takes place in a dark warehouse. We were instantly impressed by the scene's well-defined shadow detail, thanks to the OLED inky deep black level, as well as the ease with which the brighter highlights were reproduced. The contrast on dark scenes was superb.

    On a brighter daytime battle scene, the OLED showed equal dexterity, not just by its ability to drive the image to comfortably high brightness levels—critical if you intend to use the TV in a bright room—but by its capacity to clearly anchor shades of gray to that deep black level, guaranteeing great depth and nuanced tonality to the image. This is the best contrast range we’ve ever seen.

    Add spot-on, realistic colors and full 1080p resolution to the mix and the overall viewing experience seemed to almost go beyond HD. We tried numerous best-mastered Blu-ray titles in our collection, and they'be never looked as good as they did on the Samsung OLED TV.

    If we want to be very picky, the color temperature at the darkest levels was a tad on the cool side, and near-black detail was also a bit too dark at the best black level (brightness) setting. We could raise the brightness level to address the issue, but it would come at the expense of the deep blacks, so we played with different gamma options. Ultimately we put our picture settings back at where we started.

    Theoretically, OLEDs have very fast response times, faster than LED LCDs and even plasmas. This should mean that OLEDs, like plasma sets, can handle motion without noticeable blurring. But in our tests with the TV's Automotion feature turned off, motion blur was surprisingly LCD-like: only fair, and greater than what we typically see with plasma TVs. With the Automotion feature activated, the set's motion-blur reduction improved to the level of excellent, with no noticeable over-smoothing (the "soap opera" effect) we see in some LCD TVs that makes film look like video.

    3D gets an A+

    We know that 3D isn't everyone's cup of tea, but we'd be remiss not to mention that this set's 3D performance is stunning, simply the best we've ever tested. In fact, we were quite surprised to see the OLED deliver near-perfect scores on our 3D ghosting tests.

    On our special 3D test patterns, ghosting was nonexistent, whether we were watching the screen head on, tilting our heads, viewing from above or below eye level, or viewing from the sides. Even the better plasma and LCD TVs exhibited at least some degree of ghosting, and very rarely earn an excellent score. LCD 3D TVs that use passive technology tend to have viewing-angle issues with ghosting and reduced resolution due to the polarization process they use; when used in the 3D mode, plasmas tend to be on the dim side.

    Samsung's OLED TV uses "active" 3D technology, which works with active-shutter glasses that yield full 1080p resolution, with a surprisingly bright image and deep blacks. When we swapped out our test patterns for 3D feature films and videos, we were wowed by images that seemed to jump off the screen, with none of the usual distractions that tend to mar the effect. Again, "effortless reproduction" is the phrase that comes to mind.

    The glasses that are included with the TV aren't your run-of-the-mill 3D glasses. They're lightweight models with built-in stereo earphones that enable a unique feature called Multiview, which allows two viewers to watch and hear two separate programs simultaneously on the same TV.  For example, one person could watch the movie "Titanic" on cable (connected via one of the HDMI inputs) while another family member watches "The Avengers" from a Blu-ray player (connected to another HDMI input), but only when using the special glasses, so each person only hears the audio track for their program. A small switch on the glasses lets you choose one program or the other.

    In our tests, Multiview worked very well, with a nice bright picture that was free of any interference from the other program, mainly due to the OLEDs lack of 3D crosstalk. On the negative side, the picture adjustments aren't accessible in the Multiview mode, so we couldn't optimize the picture and found it to be over-sharpened. We were also surprised to see that resolution was visibly reduced when watching a 3D movie in the Multiview mode.

    Find the right television for your needs and budget with our TV buying guide and Ratings.

    Bottom line

    It should be obvious that we were impressed by the performance of Samsung's first OLED TV, though we should note that the set was likely optimized for best performance. We hope that all retail models will offer similar performance.

    But all OLED TV manufacturers face formidable challenges before these sets can become a mainstream choice for consumers. One is that OLED is hard to manufacture, especially in larger screen sizes. Yields right now are relatively low, so a large percentage of sets that come off the manufacturing line aren't up to snuff and can't be sold. There's also a question about longevity, since the blue OLEDs have a shorter life expectancy and lose brightness at a faster rate than the other colors.

    And there's also a possible issue of burn-in, where the set retains ghosted images of persistent images, such as station logos, that are left onscreen. In a preliminary test, we displayed our special "burn-in" test pattern, which uses a dark, flat, gray field of video, on the screen and checked every 10 minutes for image sticking.

    We did see subtle image retention on some of the plasmas in the room in as little as 10 minutes, but it took a full hour before the OLED showed any effects of the test pattern, and even then it was very subtle. As a result, we're cautiously optimistic about OLED burn-in. We'll just have to wait to see if OLED TVs can maintain their image quality over the long term.

    But based on our evaluation of the Samsung SC9 TV, OLED TV is off to a promising start, taking the best attributes of current TV technologies while overcoming their main limitations. We'll soon be getting the LG 55EA9800 OLED TV—which uses a slightly different OLED technology (white OLEDs and a color filter)—to see how these two sets compare. Keep checking back for our head-to-head comparison.

    OLED vs. LCD/LED

    OLED has:

    • Deeper black levels
    • Better motion handling (with Automotion turned on)
    • Better viewing angle
    • Comparable brightness levels
    • Better 3D performance
    • Power consumption generally on par with LCD/LED
    OLED vs. Plasma

    OLED has:

    • Better black levels (but only slightly deeper than our reference Panasonic ZT60 plasma)
    • Better image brightness
    • Better 3D performance
    • Comparable viewing angle
    • Better power consumption

    —James K. Willcox and Claudio Ciacci

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    GE wall oven is a champ even without the Wi-Fi

    More Wi-Fi enabled appliances are turning up in Consumer Reports’ labs. The sales pitch often goes something like this: We know your life is hectic and you’d rather be doing something else, so here’s how to be in two places at once. The GE PT9050FSSS electric wall oven, which can be controlled from a smart phone, comes with that promise. Here’s what our tests found.

    Baking, broiling, and self-cleaning on the GE PT9050FSSS was impressive, and oven capacity is large, making this $2,600 wall oven very good overall and a recommended model. The convection feature can cut cooking time, especially for large roasts, and the big window and temperature probe let you keep a close eye on what’s cooking. GE wants to engage you, so a horizontal red light pulses during preheating and progressively lights up as timed cooking progresses. You get an idea of how much cooking time remains with just a glance.

    The GE is the only recommended wall oven that lets you control oven functions from a smart device. We found the app was easy to download on our smart phone and made it possible for us to preheat, set and monitor cooking times, and change settings. The remote control works with your home's Wi-Fi network, not from some coffee shop. That’s a safety measure that makes sense. The GE video touting this wall oven doesn’t make sense. The woman uses her phone to remotely control her wall oven while she and her family play in what looks like a park.

    CR Take: The GE’s performance and Wi-Fi capability is impressive, and handy if you want to preheat your oven while folding laundry or check remaining roasting time while you and the kids are in the backyard. But at $2,600, it’s the most expensive single wall oven in our list of top picks. Other top picks were even better in our tests and cost less, such as the Maytag MEW9530AW, $1,400, a CR Best Buy. Take a close look at our wall oven Ratings of single and double ovens to find the best wall oven for your budget.  

    —Kimberly Janeway

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    A chain-saw alternative for the squeamish

    You don’t have to watch horror movies to be afraid of chain saws; they cause roughly 30,000 accidents a year. Electric loppers, which mount the cutting apparatus two feet away within a pair of jaws that shield the user, are a good alternative. Consumer Reports recently tested two but both limit you to 4-inch branches and only one is worth a second look.

    The Black & Decker LP 1000, $75, is the better of the two. It’s faster than the $120 Worx WG307 and, at just 7 pounds, weighs about 2 pounds less. That difference in weight could mean a lot if you have to reach to make a cut, especially if you’re using the five-foot extension pole sold as an option (about $36) for the Worx. We also found the Black & Decker’s scissor-like action more elegant than using the Worx, which requires you to push toward what you’re cutting.

    With both models, it’s safe to cut above shoulder level—an otherwise risky move that's never recommended with traditional chain saws—or strip a limb of its smaller branches. And since these models’ 6-inch blades retract, they’re very safe for storage.

    But even the Black & Decker is slow compared with a regular chain saw. Its tiny bar-oil reservoir requires frequent stops for refills. And getting to the recessed chain for service is a challenge on both.

    The bottom line? Consider the Black & Decker LP 1000 if chain saws give you the willies and your work is strictly light-duty. But if you sometimes need to cut larger pieces, a corded-electric chain saw like the Worx WG303.1, $100, would be a better choice. Whatever you’re considering, be sure to read our buying guide before viewing our Ratings of two dozen chain saws.

    —Ed Perratore

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    6 frivolous smart phone features

    Smart phones have lots of features that make our mobile lives easier. I love being able to jump directly from a locked screen to the camera or a text message, for instance, and who doesn’t want features that conserve battery life or block annoying calls?

    But some bells and whistles, nifty as they may first appear, seem more like half-baked solutions to problems that don't exist. Others seem to have been created just to annoy you. Here are a few on my list:

    Indestructible 'bloatware'

    This is a big problem on Android smart phones, particularly those from the larger carriers. I don't begrudge a carrier's right to rake in a little dough by prominently preloading some of its own apps or those of its partners. But once your customers decide they're not interested, at least give them the option to delete the app from the phone. For example, I will NEVER use Verizon's VZ Navigator as long as the excellent and free version of Google Maps is available. So let me take it off my phone, please!

    While you can’t completely delete these annoying preloads, you can make them disappear from your desktop and app drawer (if the version of the OS your phone runs allows you): Under Settings, select Apps and scroll down to the offending app. Select Disable and uncheck the "Show notifications" box.

    Back-talking assistants

    I appreciate the great strides in accuracy that phone-based search engines have made in recent years. And I like asking intelligent personal assistants such as iPhone's Siri and her Android counterparts to look things up, place calls, send messages, schedule appointments, and even make reservations—all in plain English. What I'm not keen on is having them talk back to me. It can be embarrassing in public, especially if your assistant surprises you with an inappropriate reply, such as a sexy retort when you ask for the current weather conditions in Chicago.

    And there can be unexpected consequences to forgotten settings. Once, when I was in a meeting, my Android assistant began reading a personal text message from my wife while the phone was in my pocket. The hallmark of a smart assistant is knowing when to remain silent.

    Untouchable touch screens

    Phone makers keep coming up with new ways to interact with a phone's touch screen without actually touching it. Some hands-free features are great. On the Samsung Galaxy S4, for instance, Air View lets you peek inside, e-mails, calendar appointments, videos, and more just by hovering your finger above them. But in my many informal trials, other "touchless" controls were much less reliable than the touch-screen interaction they replace.

    For example, the Smart Scroll on the Samsung Galaxy S4, which allows you to scroll up or down a page by tilting the phone in the appropriate direction, didn't work unless my hands were almost perfectly still and my eyeballs were perfectly aligned with the screen. I don't see how this is preferable to flicking your thumb on the screen.

    Find the right smart phone using our cell phone buying guide and Ratings.

    All-wet phone cameras

    Sony encourages us to take its cool, water-resistant Xperia Z into the pool to shoot underwater videos. There’s no question a water-resistant phone has many advantages, including protection from accidental plunges not covered under warranty. But under water, the Z's camera is all wet. When the phone is submerged none of the camera controls work, so you can't stop or start video recording (you have to start it before you take the plunge). Also, forget about shooting a still picture. Dear phone makers: If you want your customers to play Jacques Cousteau with your smart phones, give them the controls to do it.

    Insane insets

    Found on late-model Samsung and LG phones, dual shot or dual recording mode lets you capture videos and still images simultaneously on the front and rear cameras, so you can appear as an inset within a video or still image. Maybe it's just me, but as my family's primary photographer, I've never felt compelled to glue my picture into the corner of any shot I've taken. Also, sometimes there are good reasons for being behind the camera.  

    Not-so-smart tags

    Smart tags are programmable stickers or medallions that use NFC, or near-field communication, technology to transmit instructions to your phone with a quick tap. For example, you could affix one to your refrigerator and tap it with your smart phone every morning to launch your calendar and turn-on Wi-Fi. But today's smart phones are already savvy enough to deliver these and a host of other conveniences based on your location, time of day, calendar schedule, and even movement. Besides, do you really have room for another sticker on your refrigerator?

    I could go on, but you've probably had enough of my curmudgeonly rant. We'd love to hear about phone features that you find useless or annoying. Share your thoughts with us on this Facebook post. Screen shots welcome.

    —Mike Gikas

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    New rule gives consumers better access to car and motorcycle recall information

    In an effort to give consumers easier access to car recalls, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has announced a rule requiring automakers and motorcycle manufacturers to provide a free online tool to allow recall information to be searched by a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). 

    The move will make it easier for consumers to find out immediately whether a vehicle is subject to a recall and if it has received the appropriate fix. This latter function will be helpful for used car shoppers looking to see if the vehicle they want to buy is or was subject to a recall.

    Automakers must provide the information on their website and update the data weekly. Some automakers already have the VIN search functionality; others will have until a year from now to comply with the rule.

    The search feature will also be available on NHTSA’s website: www.safercar.gov. Currently, car owners can only put in the make and model year of their vehicle, but a VIN search feature will be added.

    Also, manufacturers are now mandated to share the type of powertrain and crash avoidance technologies vehicles have with the agency, so NHTSA can look at potential defects, trends, or safety issues related to those systems.

    Combined, these measures will better inform consumers and could help raise automotive safety overall.

    Consumer Reports currently provides an online tool for car owners to search for recalls by make and model year. There you will find not only the official description, but insights from trained mechanics that explain the recall and its impact.

    Recalls can be searched from the main landing page, or browsed from the respective car model page.

    –Liza Barth

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    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    5 products are at their deepest discounts in August

    If you're wondering what products are typically at their lowest price this month, wonder no more. Consumer Reports product research experts, who track prices all year long, have compiled a list of items that are typically discounted most deeply in August.

    Many items are discounted toward the end of a season. With fall on the horizon, you're likely to find great deals on outdoor furniture. Some well-made sets are resonably priced, but you do have to know what to look for. 

    If you're still feeling summer's heat, you'll be relieved to hear that retailers also consider this the end of the season for air conditioners. Just keep in mind that while prices are low, inventories are likely to be thin, so you may not find a wide selection. Our air conditioner guide (Ratings available to subscribers) will help you spot the right model for you.

    Just in time for back-to-school shopping, backpacks also tend to be on super-sale in August. When you're picking one out, keep comfort, convenience, and safety in mind. Features to look for include wide, padded, contoured shoulder straps, an abdominal strap, and reflectors or reflective fabrics on the pack to add visibility when kids travel to and from school at dusk or dawn. These additional shopping and fitting tips will help you find the right backpack for your child.

    August is also the month when you can find great sales on dehumidifiers, which can take that sticky feeling out of a damp basement or crawl space. Humidity is not just uncomfortable; levels above 50 percent can breed dust mites, mildew, and mold, which may worsen allergies and asthma. Our dehumidifier buying guide (Ratings available to subscribers) show that the best ones aren't necessarily the highest priced.  

    If you like to plan ahead for winter's white stuff, you can find the best deals on snow blowers in August. There are many handy features to look for when you shop and saftey tips to keep in mind. For example, it's a good idea to check out floor samples. Make sure you're comfortable with the height of the handle and with the chute adjustment. Look for a critical safety feature that stops the spinning auger or impeller when you release the handlebar grips. For more, see our snow blower buying guide (subscribers will also find a link to our snow blower Ratings).

    Want to know what's on sale the rest of the year? See our calendar of deals.

    –Mandy Walker

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    The best time to buy things, month by month

    Every day you probably get e-mail, texts, tweets, and circulars announcing great sales. The days of watching the calendar and buying products at the time of year when prices are lowest would appear to be over.

    Or are they? Consumer Reports' product-research experts, who monitor prices, have found that deep discounts for some things still go by the calendar. Some sales are tied to the introduction of new models, while others are long-standing traditions, like January white sales.  

    Use the month-by-month information below to see when you can typically find the best prices on a variety of products. But keep your eye on your apps, e-mail, and Sunday circulars, too, because there will always be exceptions. And bear in mind that the best time to save money isn't always when you'll find the best selection. Sales on some items occur when a season is coming to an end and inventories are thin.

    January

    Bedding

    Linens

    Swimwear

    Toys

    Treadmills and ellipticals

    TVs

    Winter clothing

     

    February

    Humidifiers

    Indoor furniture

    Treadmills and ellipticals

    March

    Digital cameras

    Humidifiers

    Small consumer electronics (MP3 players, DVD and Blu-ray players, etc.)

    TVs

    Winter sports gear

    April

    Laptop computers

    Computers

    Digital cameras

    Lawn mowers

    Spring clothing

     

    May

    Athletic apparel and shoes

    Camping and outdoor gear

    Carpeting

    Cordless phones

    Lawn mowers

    Small consumer electronics

    June

    Camcorders

    Carpeting

    Computers

    Indoor furniture

    Small consumer electronics

    Summer sports gear

    Swimwear

     

    July

    Camcorders

    Indoor furniture

    Outdoor furniture

    Swimwear

     

    August

    Air conditioners

    Backpacks

    Dehumidifiers

    Outdoor furniture

    Snow blowers

    September

    Bikes

    Digital cameras

    Gas grills

    Lawn mowers

    Shrubs, trees, and perennials

    Small consumer electronics

    Snow blowers

    October

    Bikes

    Computers

    Digital cameras

    Gas grills

    Lawn mowers

    Winter coats

     

    November

    Baby products

    Bikes

    Camcorders

    Gas grills

    GPS navigators

    Toys

    TVs

     

    December

    Bikes

    Camcorders

    Gas grills

    GPS navigators

    Home appliances, large and small

    Small consumer electronics

    Toys

    TVs

    Want an even better deal? Haggle, haggle, haggle.

    In a Consumer Reports National Research Center survey of 2,000 American adults about their haggling habits, 89 percent of people who said they haggled received a better price at least once.

    To increase the odds you can negotiate a better deal, remember that nothing is off limits. You should always be polite. And make sure you know what constitutes a fair price before you start. For more tips on becoming an expert haggler, read our tips on effective bargaining.  

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    The best LEDs from Consumer Reports' tests

    When the federal government announced in late 2007 that most screw-in incandescent bulbs would be phased out by 2014 because they use too much energy, it seemed light years away. But come January, remaining stock of the popular 60-watt bulb can be sold and then they're gone. Here's a look at some of the best 60-watt replacements for lamps and ceiling fixtures from Consumer Reports' latest tests as well as ways to save.

    Pay now, or pay later. Incandescent bulbs are a bargain, until you turn them on. LEDs use about 80 percent less energy to provide the same amount of light and last much longer. Toss your 60-watt incandescent, screw in an LED, and save about $125 over the LED's 23-year life. A $20 LED pays for itself in about three years.
    Consider these bulbs.
    The top-rated Samsung A19 60-Watt Warm White LED, $30, casts a warm yellow light. The Utilitech A19 13.5 60-W Warm White LED is $20, provides a white light, and can also be used in enclosed fixtures. Both LEDs are dimmable.

    Keep an eye on price. New LED brands have increased competition and are helping to lower prices. Manufacturers told us that more $10 LEDs are coming next year.
    Consider these bulbs.
    The dimmable 3M LED 60W gives off a white light and is $20. The new $13 Cree 60-watt replacement instantly provided a bright, warm yellow light in our initial tests and has an unusually long 10-year warranty. We'll add the Cree to the Ratings when testing is done.

    Look for rebates. Check for offers from your utility and manufacturers. Many of the recommended LEDs and CFLs are Energy Star qualified, so search the Energy Star website for updates. The Star matters if you're looking for utility rebates.
    Consider these bulbs.
    The Insignia A19 60-Watt Dimmable LED, $20, is also a top pick and casts a white light. Prefer a warmer light? The Great Value 14W 60W Soft White CFL from Walmart offers the warmest yellow light of the recommended bulbs, but it isn't dimmable and as with all CFLs, takes a moment to fully brighten. But CFLs use about 75 percent less energy than an incandescent so this $1.25 CFL can save you about $60 over its 9-year life.

    LEDs and CFLs that make our recommended list offer impressive performance after 3,000 hours of testing—that's almost three years of the bulbs being on for three hours a day. We also test LED and CFL replacements for 75- and 100-watt incandescent bulbs, which have already been phased out, along with energy-saving flood/reflectors for recessed and track lights and outdoor lights. Our lightbulb Ratings show that some LEDs and CFLs are much better than others, so take a look.

    Kimberly Janeway

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Samsung Sodastream refrigerator sparkles in tests

    Four-door refrigerators, which typically feature a middle drawer that serves as an additional fridge or freezer compartment, are a versatile option for busy households. Unfortunately, none of the ones tested by Consumer Reports performed well enough to make our recommended list—until now. With an impressive overall score, the Samsung RF31FMESBSR, $2,900, holds its own with all French-door bottom-freezers, and it's the clear favorite among four-door models. It's also the first refrigerator to feature a built-in sparkling water dispenser.

    Novelties aside, the Samsung RF31FMESBSR made our list of recommended refrigerators by excelling at the important stuff. Temperature control is superb and its dual evaporators should help keep food fresh by maintaining optimal humidity levels in the fresh-food section. The Energy Star model also earned an excellent score for efficiency, so it will help keep operating costs in check. Inside, the refrigerator offers a roomy 19 cubic feet of usable capacity, made greater with such features such as adjustable shelves, gallon door bins, spill-proof glass shelves, and LED lighting that helps you find what you're looking for fast.

    As for the middle compartment, this one features four temperature settings ranging from 29° F for meat to 42° F for party platters. Then there's the sparkling water dispenser, the results of a partnership between Samsung and Sodastream. If your household goes through a lot of carbonated beverages, the dispenser could be a money saver, and it will definitely cut down on the number of plastic bottles you use. 

    —Daniel DiClerico

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    The pros and cons of alternative utility companies

    Your monthly bill may be the only correspondence you get from an electric or gas company. But if you live in one of the dozen or so states (or Washington, D.C.) that offer competitive pricing for your gas or electricity, you may have also received a phone call or a flyer dangling low promotional prices or incentives such as free gasoline, airline miles, and cash for switching energy suppliers.

    If you do, your utility will still be responsible for delivering electricity or gas to your home and maintaining the wires and lines that supply it. But the electricity or gas itself is being offered by a company that competes with the utility to offer you a better price. At least that’s the theory.

    Energy prices fluctuate, so you generally won’t know in advance whether your choice  will actually save you money. Even if you can find out which company has been the least costly, it may not have the lowest prices in the future. Certain suppliers will guarantee a flat percentage savings off whatever the traditional utility will charge, though it can be difficult to verify whether you’ll actually get those savings. That’s because you’d have to find out what you would have been charged each month had you stuck with the traditional utility, then compare. Many utility and state regulatory websites are of little help, providing little more than basic instructions and a list of approved suppliers. Even the best websites with information on current and historical rates and interactive bill calculators left us scratching our heads about whether consumers would save anything at all.

    Checking sample electric bills for 11 companies, prepared by the Public Service Commission in Washington, D.C., for example, we found that a household using 700 kilowatt-hours of electricity each month—about average in Washington, D.C.—might reduce its monthly bill by up to $5 compared with buying from the traditional electric company, a $60 annual savings. But the sample bills, according to the agency, didn’t include possible charges that some companies might impose, including the supplier that gave us the greatest savings. Just as frustrating, some of the other comparisons, which looked like they might save more, were good only for a single month because the rates are variable, making it impossible to estimate how much you’d save annually, if anything.

    Bottom line. Even if you shop carefully, you could still end up paying more than you would if you stuck with a traditional utility. If you decide to shop suppliers, check the Better Business Bureau and the Internet for customer reviews and complaints. And as much as you may not want to, you should read all the small type in the contract to make sure you’ll get the savings you expect. Here are some gotchas to look out for:

    • Low promotional rates that can climb significantly after the first month or two.
    • Variable rates that change monthly or daily with market conditions.
    • Contracts that are renewed automatically.
    • Sign-on fees or high late-payment fees.
    • Cancellation fees or any other penalties for switching to a new supplier or back to your old one.
    —Anthony Giorgianni

    For more energy-saving ideas read our Home Improvement Guide, which also has information on renovation projects and top-rated products.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2007-2013 Consumers Union of U.S.

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