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    6 food safety tips for your summer cookout

    Grilling is one of the oldest methods of cooking and socializing, dating back to our cave-dwelling ancestors. We’ve advanced from the “meat on stick” mentality, but the food-handling habits of some backyard chefs still need evolution.

    For example, your risk of getting food poisoning spikes during the summer, thanks to the draw of eating outdoors and the fact that bacteria grows quickly in hot weather. Yet only 23 percent of home cooks use a food thermometer to check whether their meat is cooked enough to kill such bacteria. Another pitfall: toting poorly wrapped raw meat in a cooler, which can allow its juices to migrate onto other items.

    Thankfully, easy precautions can mit­igate or eliminate those risks. Here’s how to prep, cook, and serve so that your meal is as safe as it is satisfying.

    1. Pick the right protein

    The chef Howie Velie, an associate dean at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, recommends lean and tender cuts, which are easiest to heat evenly—filet mignon and strip steak, chicken breasts, pork tenderloin, lamb chops, and fish such as salmon, mackerel, and scallops.

    2. Prep the grill

    Use a stainless-steel stiff-wire brush to clean both sides of the grates while they’re hot. (You shouldn’t use chemicals to clean the grates; they can leave residues and cause fumes.) Then use tongs to drag a paper towel moistened with salt water over them to remove broken bristles or residual chunks of char.  

    3. Control the flame

    Heavily charred meat can expose you to the potentially cancer-causing compounds heterocyclic amines, which form when amino acids and chemicals in muscle come in contact with high heat. And other unhealthy compounds, such as polycylic aro­matic hydrocarbons, can form when fat drips off of meat into the flame. Though occasional exposure is probably OK, it makes sense to avoid those compounds when you can. Trimming visible fat and coating meat with marinade before you grill it can help.  

    4. Check for sufficient cooking

    Use a meat thermometer to make sure the meat has reached a sufficient internal temperature to kill harmful bacteria. That’s at least 145° F for steaks, roasts, chops, and fish; 160° F for ground beef or pork, and 165° F for poultry.

    5. Dish it up promptly

    Serve hot foods right away, and keep cold dishes such as pasta or potato salads in a refrigerator or cooler until everybody’s ready to dig in. They can spoil in as little as an hour when sitting in the sun.

    6. Clean and clear

    Never reuse a marinade that held raw meat as a sauce, and don’t put cooked food on a plate that held raw items. If you’re eating away from home, find out whether there’s a source of clean water to wash plates and hands. If not, bring some.  

    This article also appeared in the July 2014 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How safe are indoor bug sprays?

    Q. I've recently developed an ant problem in my home. Is it safe to use insecticide sprays to kill them?

    A. It’s better not to. Many insecticides used to kill ants, cockroaches, and other pests can also be poisonous to people if they’re inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Symptoms can include headaches, vomiting, muscle twitches, dizziness, or irritation of the eyes, nose, or throat. And inhaling chemicals called pyrethrins, found in many pest-killers, can cause breathing problems. Safer alternatives include gel baits, bait stations, and sticky tape traps, all sold at hardware stores. Even better, try preventive steps: Seal up cracks, vacuum often, and don’t leave out unwrapped food.

    Find out why pest repellents may be especially unsafe for pregnant women. Learn the best ways to prevent bug bites outdoors—including free access to our Ratings of eight insect-repelling products.

     

    A version of this article also appeared in the July 2014 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.   

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

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    New types of flooring make installation a snap

    Some of the best flooring in Consumer Reports tests makes do-it-yourself installation a snap by clicking together and “floating” in place without glue or nails. Laminate, engineered wood, and several other types of flooring can easily be put in place over almost any surface.  First, be sure that applies to the flooring you choose (check the specs on the model pages in our flooring Ratings). Then follow these steps:

    Prep the site. Sand down high spots and fill in low areas on the subfloor (use wood filler as needed). Then sweep it clean. Measure the square feet needed. Multiply the room’s length by its width. Measure odd areas separately and add to the total. Then add 10 percent to account for any surprises.

    Let the flooring acclimate. Typically, you should leave wood flooring for two to four days in the room where it’s going so that it can expand or contract as needed before it’s installed.

    Trim edges as needed. Remove wall moldings. Use a piece of flooring and the underlayment that goes beneath it to measure where to trim doorjambs to fit the new floor.

    Decide where you’ll put the short strips. Chances are that one edge of the room won’t fit the whole width of a strip, tile, or plank. Measure and cut planks as needed using a circular saw with a fine-tooth blade.

    Spread the underlayment. Some require overlapping; others should butt each other.

    Put it down. Lay lengths parallel with the longest wall, and leave a gap between edges and where the wall molding will go. Lock pieces together, staggering the edge location for a neater look. Then replace the molding.

    Leave room for carpeting. If you need to transition to a room with carpet, leave an inch between the floated floor and the carpet, and install a molding track with glue or nails.

    Types of flooring, clockwise from left:

    1. Solid wood. Installed cost: $5 to $10 per square foot.
    2.  Engineered wood.
    Installed cost: $4 to $9 per square foot.
    3. Laminate.
    Installed cost: $3 to $7 per square foot.
    4. Vinyl.
    Installed cost: $2 to $6 per square foot.
    5. Linoleum.
    Installed cost: $4 to $8 per square foot.
    6. Ceramic tile.
    Installed cost: $8 to $15 per square foot; $5 to $8 for products that can float.

    Best flooring from our tests
    Most of our top flooring picks can be floated without glue or fasteners, including the Teragren Portfolio Naturals Wheat, $7.50 per square foot—the top-scorer among solid wood flooring. Teragren Synergy Wide Plank Java, $7.00, is the highest rated engineered wood. Want the lower cost and higher dent resistance of vinyl? Shaw Matrix Regency Gunstock Oak, $2.00 at Lowe’s, is among a growing number of vinyl floors that you simply snap together, rather than glue down. For full flooring Ratings and recommendations, see our Flooring buying guide.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Keep your kitchen clear of smoke and fumes

    Nothing clears a kitchen full of guests faster than smoke or fish fumes. A range hood is the solution, especially over high-powered pro-style ranges and cooktops. The best range hoods look good and excel at containing and venting smells and smoke, according to past tests by Consumer Reports. Prices range from $150 to $3,000, with island hoods the priciest, but the most expensive weren’t the best. Although over-the-range microwaves are multitasking space savers, even the best ones we tested can’t eliminate smoke, fumes, and steam as well as a range hood. Here’s what to consider:

    Size matters. The hood should be at least as wide as the cooking surface below, and 6 or more inches wider if it’s an island hood, which doesn’t have a wall or cabinets next to it to help funnel fumes.

    Vent it outside. Keep duct runs short and straight for best results. If an under­-cabinet hood will be on an exterior wall, ductwork can be routed through the cabinet and outside, or directly through the back of the hood. Otherwise ductwork must be routed through the cabinet. Wall­-chimney hoods are mounted with exposed vent stacks on the wall. Island hoods are mounted to and vented through ductwork in the ceiling.

    Focus on features. Most hoods have three to six fan speeds; some have variable speeds. You’ll want at least two speeds, high for when you have several burners going at once or when using the range ­top and oven simultaneously, and a very low, very quiet setting for removing lingering odors. An exhaust timer is handy because it automatically shuts off the  fan when it’s no longer needed.

    Keep airflow claims in check. More airflow results in faster venting but doesn’t guarantee better capture and removal of fumes and smoke—something to keep in mind when manufacturers’ airflow claims tout cubic feet per minute.

    Best over-the-range microwaves
    None of the over-the-range microwaves in Consumer Reports’ tests got top marks for venting although the three models we recommend, which are all made by GE, got very good venting scores in addition to acing cooking tasks. The GE Profile PVM9215SFSS, $550, was excellent at defrosting and impressive at evenly heating food. It's one of the quieter microwaves we’ve tested and better at venting than most, but it's not the fastest at heating.

    For $300 less you can buy the GE JVM3160RFSS, which performed almost as well and is a CR Best Buy. While you don’t give up much in performance, this model does lack a sensor that detects when food is done. The mid-priced GE JVM7195SFSS, $400, was equally good and the fastest at heating of the bunch, but it wasn't as quiet as the other two.

    —Kimberly Janeway

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Top pod coffeemakers from Consumer Reports tests

    Ever since Consumer Reports began testing pod coffeemakers, DeLonghi’s Nescafé Dolce Gusto line has dominated the top of our coffeemaker Ratings. And although the brand hasn't been pushed from its perch, a Starbucks machine has joined three DeLonghis on the list of top coffeemaker picks. The Starbucks Verismo 600, $160, almost matched the DeLonghi models across our tests earning a place among the winners.

    We just completed taste tests of seven pod coffeemakers and the Starbucks falls in behind the $180 DeLonghi Nescafé Dolce Gusto Circolo Flow Stop, the other model that joined our top picks. That DeLonghi is an update to the previously tested DeLonghi Nescafé Dolce Gusto Circolo, $150, that replaces the older models’ joystick (for dispensing hot or cold water) with more precise serving-size choices.

    The Starbucks Verismo 600 rose in rank over the older Starbucks Verismo 580, $160, with the addition of serving-size options. With the Verismo 580, regular coffee—as opposed to espresso—was dispensed in only one size.

    Also joining our full coffeemaker Ratings with taste scores is the Nespresso VertuoLine, $300, which can also brew espresso from pods but with a separate process from conventional pod coffeemakers.

    Most products we’ve taste-tasted score passably, but some models rank among the lowest overall in our tests because they’re relative slowpokes. The Mr. Coffee BVMC-KG6, $100, was especially plodding with the first cup and offered little beyond consistently hot servings. The Elite Cuisine Dual Cup Pod Brewer EHC-233, $35, makes you wait equally long for the first and subsequent cups, as it requires a full cool-down before it can brew again.

    You’ve got many options for making java. Check out our buying guide for coffeemakers before viewing our coffeemaker Ratings of more than 30 pod machines, 76 drip models, and more.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How to remove stains from stone countertops

    The more people in a kitchen, the more opportunity for spills. Except for quartz and granite, stone counters had a hard time fending off stains in Consumer Reports tests. It’s best to deal with stains immediately, but what if you don’t notice that wine spill until the next day? Follow the installer’s care instructions, and if those don’t work, try these tips from our experts and from the Marble Institute of America for granite, limestone, and marble:

    Test first. Always try cleaning solutions on an inconspicuous spot first and check for damage.

    Blot, don’t wipe. Use a paper towel to blot the spill—wiping will spread it. Then clean the spot with a solution of water mixed with a clear dish detergent, and rinse several times. Never use products that contain lemon, vinegar, or other acids because they can etch or mar the surface. Dry with a soft cloth.

    Take action. Stain still there? Oil-based stains darken the stone. Clean with a solution of mild dish detergent and water. Then try a water-and-ammonia solution. For coffee, tea, and non-oily foods, mix a few drops of hydrogen peroxide—12 percent maximum strength—with a drop or two of ammonia, then clean. To remove water rings, buff with dry 0000 steel wool.

    Apply a poultice. Stubborn stains might need a poultice to draw out the stain. A poultice is a liquid cleaner or chemical mixed with a white absorbent material to form a thick paste that is spread over the stained area, covered with plastic, and left to work for 24 to 48 hours. You’ll find detailed instructions for a variety of stains on the Marble Institute website. If nothing works, call in a pro.

    Reseal regularly. Sealer makes the surface of granite, limestone, and marble more stain resistant. Put a few drops of water on stone and let it stand for 15 minutes. It should bead up. If it doesn’t, it’s time to reseal. Soapstone doesn’t need sealing; applying a mineral oil darkens the stone but doesn’t protect it from stains.

    Best stone countertops from our tests
    In our tests of 16 countertop materials, granite was by far the best stone and second only to engineered quartz overall. Heat, cuts and scratches didn’t harm granite in our tests and polished and matt finishes resisted most stains when properly sealed. But periodic resealing is needed to fend off new stains.

    Marble, although a classic material, was near the bottom of our countertop Ratings. It nicked and scratched easily and some stains were too tough to be washed away. And in our tests, heat damaged the marble. Soapstone fared better than limestone and although both were excellent at resisting heat, these counters both need TLC.

    —Kimberly Janeway

    Kitchen Planning Guide

    Countertop appliances for those counters. Need some small appliances for those new countertops? Find the best from Consumer Reports tests in our Kitchen Planning Guide. You'll also find advice from our experts on how to hire a contractor, plan a budget, and choose the best products for your project.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    What the pros pick when they redo their kitchens

    Ever wonder what the pros at Consumer Reports choose when they remodel their own kitchens? Michael DiLauro, a senior market analyst specializing in cooking appliances (and a professional chef to boot), recently finished a gut renovation of the kitchen in his Connecticut home. Here he discusses some of the key decisions.

    What I did
    “Like a lot of consumers, our kitchen was outdated, with vinyl floors, laminate countertops, and a wonky range hood. Plus it was closed off from the rest of the house. So our goal was to open it up and put in the appliances and finishes we’ve always wanted—now that the kids are past the age of spilled milk and crayons on the cabinetry.”

    A real chef’s range
    “The 36-inch, six-burner range offers the power and flexibility I need on an everyday basis. Its high-Btu burners bring water to a fast boil and provide searing heat for sautéing and wok cooking. The full-surface grates make it easy to move things around and fit my oversized cookware. Appearance played a factor as well. We knew the kitchen would be visible from the living area, so we wanted a range that would attract attention. So far the red knobs on the Wolf have delivered.”

    The island of my dreams
    “Knowing that the countertop would take the brunt of our daily lives, and a fair amount of abuse, we knew this was not the place to go for anything but the best. Although expensive, with prices higher than most other materials, including granite, our quartz countertops are proving durable and easy to clean. On the island we splurged on a waterfall effect, carrying the material down either end so that it’s visible from the living area.”

    Sticker shock
    “The biggest surprise was definitely the cost. We had some plumbing surprises, plus material and service costs are going up as the economy improves. You often hear that you should allow a 10 to 15 percent cushion with the budget. Based on my experience, I think you really need to allow for an extra 20 percent.”

    Easy bake (and broil and roast) oven
    “Even with a full range, I wanted a separate wall oven, since it keeps food at eye-level and makes it a lot easier to handle roasts and other large dishes. Electric ovens generally bake, broil, and roast better than ranges with gas ovens in our tests. So I ended up choosing our top-rated electric wall oven, the Whirlpool WOS92EC0AH, and so far the results at home have been consistent with our findings in the lab.”

    Mixing and matching brands
    “We went with KitchenAid for the other major appliances. Since everything is in stainless steel, the look is plenty coordinated. I wanted a cabinet-depth French-door refrigerator with an internal ice and water dispenser. This provides a clean built-in look with the added capacity of a freestanding unit, at a quarter of the price of a true built-in. KitchenAid is one of the few brands that offers the configuration. The model I selected isn't in our Ratings, but the Jenn-Air JFC2290VEP is similar and it scored very well overall.”
     
    Faithful to a favorite dishwasher
    “For the dishwasher, we wanted to stick with KitchenAid, which we had prior to the remodel. The KitchenAid KUDS30SXSS offers superb cleaning, solid energy efficiency, and many helpful convenience features, including ample flatware slots and an adjustable upper rack. Though I have noticed it's not as quiet as models at the top of our Ratings.”

    —As told to Daniel DiClerico

    Kitchen Planning Guide

    More ideas and inspiration. To find top-rated appliances, flooring, and countertops check our Kitchen Planning Guide. You'll also find tips on how to hire a contractor and make a budget.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Best ways to control mosquitoes and ticks

    Summer means mosquitoes and ticks—and the risk of getting bitten by one that carries West Nile virus or Lyme disease. And add a new worry this season headed to the U.S. from the Caribbean: A disease carried by mosquitoes called Chikungunya virus (ChikV), which can cause fever and severe joint pain.  

    So don't let your guard down while you're outdoors, says Ben Beard, Ph.D., chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's bacterial diseases branch of vector-borne diseases. "Weather patterns can have an impact on the length of the season for ticks and mosquitoes," he said. "But the reality is that people are at risk every year, from mid-May until the first frost."

    So how do you keep yourself safe from the threat of insect-borne diseases this summer? Consumer Reports' tests over the years have found that some products, especially chemical-based insect repellents, can help keep away ticks and mosquitoes. But it often takes more than one approach to rein in backyard bugs.  

    Here are some steps you can take to control insects and what to do if they bite or sting you.

    Mosquitoes: Manufacturers now sell mosquito traps that use fans, electric grids, or adhesive pads to capture and kill mosquitoes. The devices do kill some of them, but it’s unclear whether that translates into “a noticeable reduction in your mosquito population,” says Joseph Conlon, a retired Navy entomologist who consults with the nonprofit American Mosquito Control Association. Even less impressive are devices that use light, sound, or smell to lure mosquitoes. “I have pictures of the machines with mosquitoes standing on them,” he said.

    Conlon also warns people about misting systems (yes, there are such things) that spray insecticides like automatic sprinklers. “That widespread use could breed resistance to pesticides,” he said.

    Our safety experts also warn against using yard foggers, which spray repellent from a can. You might inhale the pesticides, including some compounds that might disrupt your hormone system and that have been linked to neurological, developmental, and other health problems.

    Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., executive director of Consumer Reports' Food Safety and Sustainability Center, emphasizes that you're best off doing things that discourage mosquitoes from breeding in the first place.

    Because they’re drawn to murky water, keep your yard free of containers filled with water, such as gutters, birdbaths, tires, wheelbarrows, wading pools, and swimming pool covers. Clear away ivy and decaying leaves, because mosquitoes like cool, dark places.

    Other steps you might try include using LED or yellow light bulbs (read our light bulb buying guide) on your porch and around your house, and plugging in a fan when on your deck. Citronella, in candles or in the oil in tiki torches, is a mild repellent.

    Ticks: They like tall grass and lots of shade. So keep your lawn mowed (read our lawn mower buying guide) remove leaves and other debris, and try to let as much sun into your yard as possible. Consider putting up a fence around your property to keep out deer and other large animals that can carry ticks. And don’t forget to check your pets for ticks after they have been romping in the yard.

    Stinging insects: Keep garbage cans and picnic food covered, because bees love discarded food. Most bees and wasps will leave you alone if you don’t bother them, so don’t swat at them. Nests should be removed only if they are in high-traffic areas. If you can, wait until the fall or winter, when the nests are abandoned. If you need to remove them sooner, do it early in the spring, and early or late in the day when the insects are less active.

    Insecticide powders or sprays may be necessary, but follow directions and keep pets and children away. Always wear head-to-toe protective clothing, and never remove nests if it requires standing on a ladder; call a professional instead. Traps with the chemical heptyl butyrate may help control bees.

    Mosquitoes: When you’re out at dawn and dusk, wear long sleeves, long pants, socks, and closed-toe shoes. Avoid tight clothes (mosquitoes can bite through them), dark colors, and perfume or aftershave (both attract them). You can purchase clothes treated with the repellent permethrin, or spray it on your clothes (but never on your skin). Manufacturers say that one application lasts several weeks, but our tests of treated clothing a few years ago found that permethrin didn’t work well.

    Ticks: When walking through wooded or grassy areas in the summer, wear the same clothes that ward off mosquitoes. Light-colored clothes are best, because that makes it easier to spot ticks.

    Tuck your shirt into your pants and your pants into your socks. Inspect your skin when you go indoors, and use tweezers to gently remove any attached ticks. (Remove the whole body, including the head.) Ticks have to be on your body for at least 36 hours to transmit Lyme disease. For extra protection, toss your clothes into a clothes dryer to kill ticks that might be attached.

    Stinging insects: Bees are attracted to strong scents, so if you have lots of them or wasps in your yard, or you’re headed to a picnic, avoid perfumed soaps, shampoos, and deodorants. And because sweat can anger bees, wash up before you head out.

    Mosquitoes: Cool compresses and an over-the-counter steroid cream, such as hydrocortisone (Cortizone-10 and generic), can ease itching. Applying calamine lotion or dabbing on undiluted white vinegar might also help, says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., Consumer Reports’ chief medical adviser. See a doctor if you develop a fever, a headache, body aches, nausea, vomiting, swollen lymph glands, or a rash on your torso.

    Ticks: Get medical help if you develop signs or symptoms of a tick-borne illness. In addition to the classic bull’s-eye rash of Lyme disease, tick-borne illnesses can cause chills, fever, fatigue, headaches, and muscle or joint pain. Prompt treatment with antibiotics usually cures infections and prevents complications such as acute arthritis and facial paralysis (with Lyme disease), difficulty breathing or bleeding disorders (ehrlichiosis), and widespread heart, joint, or kidney damage (Rocky Mountain spotted fever).

    Stinging insects: If you’re stung by a bee, carefully remove the stinger. Cold compresses, hydrocortisone creams, and oral antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl Allergy and generic) can help ease burning or itching. You can take an OTC pain reliever, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol and generic), ibuprofen (Advil and generic), or naproxen (Aleve and generic).

    If you’ve had severe reactions to insect stings, always carry a prescription epinephrine injector such as an EpiPen or a Twinject. And get medical help if inflammation and swelling extend well beyond the sting site.

    A version of this article also appeared in the June 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Check your generator now before you really need it

    The forecast of a calmer 2014 hurricane season due to the development of an El Niño weather pattern is cold comfort to the residents of Pilger, Neb., where a pair of tornadoes converged this week, killing at least two. But even if you’re breathing a sigh of relief about the prospect of fewer storms, any break in the weather is time to take a good look at your generator—especially since repair shops will be too busy to help you once the next storm hits.

    A stationary generator, which is installed on a fixed site on your property, should be less of a concern because it performs periodic self-diagnosis routines all year round, and it will flash alerts on its display regarding service needed. Still, you typically need to check the display for messages. A few generators we’ve tested accept optional add-on products that can e-mail or text you and a servicing dealer should service be needed—so you don't need to scramble for service when a storm is imminent.

    But with a gasoline-powered portable generator, the onus is on you to regularly put it through its paces and keep it supplied with fresh fuel, oil, and whatever else its manual specifies. So if you haven’t been firing yours up monthly, do it now. If the model has an electric start, charge its battery. Start up the generator. To test the whole system, not just the generator's engine, use your transfer switch to put a load on the generator.

    And if the generator won’t start? With no storms on the horizon, this is the best time to know that. If you left old fuel sitting in the machine without at least occasional starting, you might need a carburetor rebuild. Take it over to the shop or arrange to have the unit picked up, fixed, and dropped back off. From this point on, add stabilizer to gasoline before fueling up. Change oil annually but check its level more often, and change the spark plug annually. And if you haven’t been using the generator other than periodic startups, siphon the old gas and put in fresh, stabilized fuel.
     
    Whenever you run a portable generator, keep safety in mind. Run the machine only outdoors, at least 15 feet away from the house. Never run it in the basement or garage or other enclosed space. Reduce fire risk by turning off a gasoline-powered generator and letting it cool before refueling.  When you think you might need to run the generator to supply power, stock up on extra gasoline. A gas-powered generator uses about a gallon an hour. Store gas only in an ANSI-approved container in a cool, well-ventilated place. Adding stabilizer to the gas in the can will help it last longer.

    When it’s time for a new generator, be sure to see our buying guide for generators before checking our generator Ratings of 26 portable and stationary models, which we’ll be updating later this summer. If you buy one, be sure to take the time to install a transfer switch for a portable. For stationary models, you might also need to leave time to obtain the necessary permits.

    Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    First Energy Star dryer saves energy and money

    It happened. The Whirlpool Duet WED87HED electric dryer is the first dryer to earn the Energy Star for efficiency. It’s in stores and costs $1,000. Consumer Reports’ laundry experts are buying it now and will let you know how it does in our tests. Dryers were the most energy-intensive appliances not covered by the Energy Star program. Here’s why it took so long and what it means to you and your pocketbook.
     
    All of the front-loading washers and high-efficiency top-loaders in our washer Ratings are Energy Star-qualified. “With washers, manufacturers can manipulate wash time, hot water usage, and spin speeds for better extraction and still be able to deliver impressive wash performance with better energy and water efficiency,” says Emilio Gonzalez, the engineer who runs our tests of washers and dryers. “But with dryers there are fewer major variables to manipulate—mostly it’s drying time and the amount of heat provided.” That means low heat and longer drying times or shorter times and more heat.
     
    To earn the Energy Star a dryer must use approximately 20 percent less energy on average than dryers that meet federal minimum efficiency standards for 2015. “On average” because actual savings depend on load size and cycle used. The Whirlpool Duet WED87HED uses new technologies to deliver improved energy efficiency, says Whirlpool’s Dick Conrad. They include advanced moisture sensors that are better at ending the cycle when the load is dry. This prevents overdrying, which wastes energy and is hard on fabrics. Another advancement, using the Ecoboost setting, is an improved method for turning the heaters on and off during the cycle depending on the load, which should optimize energy use. One thing to note: The Ecoboost setting is optional and Conrad estimates that it could extend drying time 20 to 25 minutes.
     
    So what does this mean for you? The folks at Energy Star told us that you can expect to save about $18 a year in electricity costs with an Energy Star dryer. It doesn’t sound like much until you consider total savings could be about $217 over 12 years—more or less depending on what you pay for electricity—and that over 80 percent of U.S. homes have a dryer, according to the EPA. When our tests are complete, we’ll feature the results on our website. And if you’re shopping for a dryer now see our ratings of about 100 electric dryers and their gas versions too. Most of the dryers have moisture sensors, a great way to start saving energy right now.
     
     —Kimberly Janeway (@CRJaneway on twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Best iced-coffee drinks at the supermarket

    Tired of dropping $4 to $5 on a Mocha Frappuccino at Starbucks? We have some good news: The ready-to-drink options available at the supermarket are a lot easier on the wallet—and some of them are pretty tasty, too. Several of the brands we evaluated tout protein or lower-calorie content on their labels, but those claims don’t always tell the whole story. Here’s what we found from a close look at eight supermarket mocha coffee drinks:

    The calories in these drinks—up to 180 in 9½ ounces—predominantly come from milk (or cream) and sugar. In some cases, you’d get almost as much of the sweet stuff as you would in a can of soda. For instance, a 12-ounce can of cola has 40 grams of sugars. A 9½-ounce bottle of Starbucks Frappuccino Mocha has 31 grams, or almost 8 teaspoons. Even if you take the natural sugars in milk into account, you’re still getting approximately 6 teaspoons of added sugar in the coffee drink. There are lower-sugar options that hover around 100 calories; some of them contained artificial sweeteners.

    Cut calories and fat when you order your next iced coffee. And find out which coffee to brew in your new coffeemaker.

    Starbucks Frappuccino Mocha, Starbucks Frappuccino Mocha Light, and Bolthouse Farms Mocha Cappuccino supplied at least 20 percent of your daily needs for calcium. Bolthouse boasts that its product has 7 grams of protein, but that hardly gives it an advantage over the others; most range from 3 to 6 grams per serving. Plus it’s packed with 28 grams of sugars. By comparison, a 3½-ounce container of Chobani Bite coffee with dark chocolate chips Greek yogurt has 8 grams of protein and 12 grams of sugars. (Check our earlier review of Greek yogurts.)

    Bottom line. There’s no need to spend more at a coffee chain to satisfy your iced-java craving. And if you choose carefully, you won’t do too much damage to your waistline, either. Starbucks Discoveries Caffè Mocha rated Very Good and has just 120 calories. International Delight Iced Coffee Mocha Light is the least expensive and received a Good rating.

     

    This article also appeared in the August 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Sweet deals on kitchen appliance suites

    Seven in 10 respondents to Consumer Reports recent kitchen survey said that if they could replace all of their kitchen appliances, they’d like the coordinated look of a single brand. In addition to style, appliance “suites”—which typically include a dishwasher, range, and refrigerator—can simplify the purchase and maintenance processes, because you’re dealing with a single manufacturer and retailer. Plus rebates and discounts often sweeten the deal on suites.

    The big downside: It’s tough to find brands that combine top performance and reliability across all three categories. Kenmore and Whirlpool are relatively safe bets, based on our latest data. If you have to go off-brand on any one appliance, the dishwasher probably makes the most sense, because it has the least visual impact on the kitchen.

    We searched the websites of major appliance retailers for kitchen suites in which all three major appliances did well in our tests but came up short. At Sears we found suites from Kenmore and Samsung in which two of the large appliances were recommended in our tests. And because Best Buy lets you put together your own suite of Bosch appliances, we were able to find three winners there. Here’s the details.

    Sears
    Kenmore Elite. Sears teamed up a French-door refrigerator with a dishwasher and gas range. The refrigerator and dishwasher are winners in our tests but the range didn’t make the cut. The package sells for $3,816 compared to a combined cost of $4,900.
    The refrigerator. Providing French-door styling in a narrower housing, the 33-inch-wide Kenmore Elite 71032 bottom-freezer, $2,600, could be the perfect fit for smaller kitchens. It’s also quiet and delivers solid energy efficiency.
    The dishwasher. The Kenmore Elite 12773 dishwasher, $1,100, is similar to the Kenmore Elite 12783 that we tested. Top-notch washing paired with stellar energy and water efficiency are chief strengths of this dishwasher. It has extra rear-mounted sprays and a turbo cycle and was also among the quietest models in our tests.
    The range. If you don’t broil much, the Kenmore 75232 gas range, $1,200, with a single 30-inch oven may be a viable choice even though it didn’t make our top picks. It has impressive cooktop and baking performance, a large capacity oven, and a very good self-cleaning function. But broiling is only so-so.

    Samsung. Sears is also selling a four-piece Samsung suite that lets you choose your own refrigerator and range. The refrigerator choices include our two top-rated four-door French door refrigerators. The ranges include one of our electric range picks. The dishwasher and microwave missed our picks but have their plusses. Depending on what components you pick the cost of the suite begins at $5,540 compared to a combined cost of $6,000 to $6,600.
    The refrigerator. The Samsung T9000, $3,500, is our top-rated four-door model, thanks to its superb temperature control and energy efficiency. It features a fresh-food section behind traditional French-doors and two side-by-side bottom compartments that let you adjust the overall fridge-to-freezer ratio. And it’s big—nearly 23 cubic feet. The 36-inch-wide Samsung RF31FMESBSR, $2,900, boasts superb temperature control and energy efficiency. Its temperature-controlled middle drawer can go from 29° F for meat to 42° F for party platters. This is also the first-ever refrigerator with a built-in sparkling water dispenser from SodaStream.
    The range. The Samsung NE58F9500WS, $1,800, electric smoothtop range is a slide-in model, offering a built-in look with controls on the front. Simmering was superb and cooktop heat was fast. The large oven was very good at baking and excellent at broiling, and the convection option can trim cooking time.
    The dishwasher and microwave. The Samsung DW80F800UWS, $800, dishwasher's claim to fame is a "stormwash" zone in which you place your most soiled items. But overall, you can get better performance for around the same money and Samsung is the most repair-prone dishwasher brand. The Samsung ME21F707MJT, $500, over-the-range microwave has very good heating evenness and was excellent at defrosting. And although it was a bit noisier than other microwaves we tested, it has some convenience features that are worth considering.

    Best Buy
    Bosch. Best Buy is offering 10 percent off a suite of three or more Bosch appliances. You can choose from many models and we found a refrigerator, cooktop, and dishwasher worth considering. With the discount, they are $4,275; individually they add up to $4,750.
    The refrigerator. The 36-inch-wide Bosch Linea 800 B22CS80SN[S], $2,700 is a cabinet-depth, side-by-side, which delivers the flush-to-the-countertop, streamlined effect of a built-in for less. The refrigerator performs well with solid temperature performance and energy efficiency and exceptionally quiet operation.
    The cooktop. Among 30-inch gas cooktops the Bosch NGM8054UC, $1,100, tops the Ratings with excellent simmering. But its high-power burner wasn't among the fastest in the group. Features include five burners that automatically relight if they go out, continuous grates, center-mounted knobs, and a stainless-steel surface with a pro-style look.
    The dishwasher. The Bosch 800 Series SHE68T55UC offers top-notch washing and drying, plus quiet running and energy efficiency. Pluses include a soil sensor, stainless-steel interior, time-remaining display, flexible racks, and delayed start.

    Lowe’s
    Three of the appliance suites advertised on Lowe’s website have refrigerators worth considering but the other items in the packages either fell short or were not included in our testing program. The refrigerators include the Samsung RFG298HD[RS], $2,800, the LG LFX31925[ST], $2,900 and the Samsung RF323TEDB[SR], $3,300.

    More appliance suites
    Some manufacturers offer their own promotions such as these rebates from GE on appliance packages and Thermador’s one-two-free offer. You can also find appliance suites on the websites of Costco, Home Depot, and the regional retailers HHGregg, and Abt Electronics. Before you buy check the results of Consumer Reports appliance tests.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell on twitter)

    Kitchen Planning Guide

    Where to buy appliances. Find out the best places to buy appliances plus get remodeling tips from the experts at Consumer Reports in our Kitchen Buying Guide. You'll find the results of our tests of refrigerators, ranges, dishwashers and more.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    The glamorous job of watching paint dry

    They say beauty is only skin deep but when it comes to paint, you might want a little more coverage. That’s our take on Ace Hardware’s new video ad on YouTube, which touts an array of Clark+Kensington and Valspar interior paints with the sexiness of a cosmetics commercial. Complete with a pouty model, the ad’s voiceover purrs, “helpful is beautiful” in its portrayal of pros in the Ace Paint Studio helping customers pick out the right hues for their home.

    We at Consumer Reports have no beef with Ace’s claims that gorgeous interior paint is as close as your nearest Ace Hardware store. But testing paint? Maybe not so glamorous.

    In our tests, Ace’s upscale Clark+Kensington made our picks in all three finishes. The Clark+Kensington Semi-Gloss Enamel, $33 per gallon, is the top-ranked paint for trim, doors, and windows where you want a finish that contrasts with the walls. It hid contrasting coats superbly and was great at resisting abrasive cleaners.

    The Clark+Kensington Satin Enamel, $32, and Clark+Kensington Flat Enamel, $30, didn’t beat out the reigning Behr Premium Plus Ultra Satin Enamel, $34, and Behr Premium Plus Ultra Matte, $32, sold at Home Depot. But they weren’t far behind. Unfortunately, we can’t comment on the Valspar Optimus paints in Ace’s ad; our tests on Valspar focus on the company’s Signature line, sold at Lowe’s. Of those, the Lowe’s-exclusive Valspar Signature Matte, $32, and Valspar Signature Semi-Gloss, $35, made our list of picks.

    Before giving in to a pretty face, check out our paint buying guide. Then review our paint Ratings to learn which interior paints are really worth taking home.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    14 ways to make your home more secure

    More than 2.1 million burglaries were reported in the United States in 2012. That’s one every 15 seconds, according to the FBI, proving just how easy it is for burglars to gain entry. But before you make a big purchase on a security system, take a good hard look around your home. A few simple, low- or no-cost measures will significantly deter a would-be thief from targeting your home.

    “The goal in home security is to make it so that the casual burglar will be deterred,” Chris McGoey, an independent security consultant in the Los Angeles area, said. “It’s impossible to make your house perfectly secure, but there are low-tech measures that will do 90 percent of the job.”

    Choose a coming weekend and go over these 14 steps—which range from low-effort, no-cost chores to more-involved, pricier projects—to improve your home’s security.

    1. Hold a household meeting

    Make home security a habit, with every member of the household—including kids—agreeing to a routine that should include such simple rules as:

    • Use door and window locks. It costs nothing and takes little energy. Make it a habit to lock every door and window when leaving, after entering, and before bedtime.
    • Do not open the door to uninvited or unwelcome visitors.
    • Close and lock the garage door.
    • Secure your home even if you’re doing work around the house and yard.
    • Use your alarm system all the time, even when you take a quick trip to the store or visit next-door neighbors. (Learn about important alarm contract clauses.)

    2. Call on the police

    Many municipal police departments offer complimentary home inspections. An officer walks through your home and recommends simple, cost-effective changes to tighten security.

    3. Organize a burglary

    This is a fun, useful exercise to do with a trusted neighbor or friend: Allow your neighbor to roam through your house for three minutes, find as many small valuables as possible, and remove them from your house. Let the ersatz burglar demonstrate how easy it is to find valuables. Then hide them from real burglars. That might mean buying a small safe that bolts to the floor, renting an off-premises safe-deposit box, or stashing jewelry and cash in unorthodox places. You can return the favor for your neighbor.

    4. Remove the 'hidden' house key

    The key under the mat, inside the mailbox, beneath a rock—everybody hides a house key. Problem is, burglars know your hiding places. Instead, give it to a trusted neighbor.

    5. Place keys and garage-door remotes in a smart spot

    Don’t leave car and house keys and remotes near the door or otherwise visible inside your house. Secure them inside a cabinet or a drawer to keep them hidden.

    6. Add foreboding signs

    Post security-company signs or window stickers near all entryways—whether you have a security system or not. Maybe you have signs/stickers on hand from a previous contract with a security firm, or maybe you can get some from a friend. In addition, post a few “Beware of Dog” signs in visible spots, say at the front of the house or on a gate to the backyard.

    7. Lock up the ladder

    Don’t store a ladder outside. A burglar, perhaps posing as a handyman or contractor, could use it to gain access to a second-floor window or balcony.

    Check our buying guides for entry doorsdoor locks, and windows. And find the best homeowners insurance policy.

    8. Light up the outdoors

    If you don’t have them already, buy and install outdoor lighting with infrared motion sensors and install one near each point of entry. Replace any burned-out lightbulbs and put your porch lights on timers. Find the best bulbs for outdoor uses.

    9. Install timers

    When you leave for work or appointments or go on vacation, you can create a “someone’s at home” look using timers on lights and TVs. No surprise, there are lots of gadgets available. Fake TV, for instance, simulates the flickering lights of a television, and from outside, it appears that someone is watching TV.

    10. Secure air conditioning units

    Unsecured window air conditioners could provide an easy entry point for a crook. Use an air conditioner bracket, sliding window lock, or corner braces.

    11. Eliminate hiding spots

    If your shrubbery is too tall, bushy, or not well spaced, you’re providing a nice hiding spot for a potential burglar. Trim and prune plantings.

    12. Check windows

    Are the window locks operable? If not, get them fixed or replace them. Also consider installing aftermarket window locks, which let you open the window a few inches while still keeping it secure. Another alternative is to use inexpensive window-break alarms. Check our home window buying guide.

    13. Assess doors

    Okay, so you’re probably not going to be able to install new doors by yourself over a weekend. But you can inspect your front, side, and back doors. Replace hollow (read: low-quality and easy-to-breach) doors with solid-core (made of wood or metal) or metal-clad doors. Check our buying guide for entry doors.

    Sliding-glass doors have a latch to close them but are often an easy point of entry for burglars. To make one more secure, place a wood dowel cut to size or an adjustable safety bar in the interior floor track, or consider adding a floor bolt.

    Electric garage doors are not a common point of entry—as long as they are closed. “I can drive you down almost any street in America and find a garage door that is open and the inner door is unlocked,” McGoey says. “Homeowners have to treat all the doors like the front door and close it.”

    14. Replace weak locks

    Locks are the weakest point on a door. Make sure you have a grade 1 or grade 2 dead-bolt lock that penetrates the door frame. It’s not necessary to get one at a specialty locksmith; these can be purchased at a big-box home store. The strike plate—the stationary piece that the bolt enters—must be heavy duty, made of solid metal or brass, with six three-inch-long screws that penetrate the door jamb and the door frame. Check out our door lock buying guide and read about the $10 part that will make your door lock safer.

    —Susan Feinstein

    Alarming clauses

    If you decide to buy an alarm system, be aware of the following contract clauses:

    Early-termination charges: These can leave you liable for up to 80 percent of the costs of the contract's term, even if you move.

    Exclusions: Some contracts stipulate that promises made by sales staff or in ads are not binding if they're not in the contract.

    Limited liability: If you suffer a break-in, even due to the alarm company's negligence or failure of the equipment or service, the company isn't responsible and won't reimburse beyond a specific amount. You might also forfeit the right to sue the company for additional money.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    4 healthy smoothie recipes for summer

    Many smoothies are refreshing and delicious, but it's not so easy to find one that's also nutritious. Made with whole fruit and vegetables, each of these four drinks is a tasty way to sneak in some of your five a day. They're also packed with protein and fiber, so they're perfect for a healthy breakfast or snack.

    Lean Green Dream

    Yes, you known eating leafy greens is good for you. But do you always do it? Toss some kale into your smoothie and you'll get the nutritious boost without any bitter flavor.

    In a blender, add one banana frozen then thawed for 15 to 20 minutes, 2 cups chopped kale, 1/2 cup almond milk, and 1 tablespoon honey. Blend until smooth. Makes 1 serving.

    Per serving: 260 calories, 3g fat, 125mg sodium, 6g fiber, 35g sugars, 8g protein.

    Chocoholic's Delight

    Sure, it has healthy protein from soy, and potassium from banana, but the taste of this morning milkshake is pure chocolate goodness.

    In a blender, add 1 medium banana frozen then thawed for 15 to 20 minutes, 4 ounces silken tofu, 1/2 cup chocolate almond milk, 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon. Blend until smooth. Makes 1 serving.

    Per serving: 230 calories, 5g fat, 80mg sodium, 6g fiber, 25g sugars, 8g protein.

    Fruit-And-Fiber-Frappe

    You could eat your yogurt, then a bowl of fruit, then your oatmeal, with a glass of juice on the side—or throw it all in a blender for a three-course breakfast in a glass.

    In a blender, add 1/4 cup oats and blend until powdery. Add 1 1/2 cup frozen mixed berries, 1/2 cup non-fat plain Greek yogurt, 1/4 cup orange juice, 1 tablespoon maple syrup, and 1 teaspoon orange zest. Blend until smooth. Makes 1 serving.

    Per serving: 320 calories, 2.5g fat, 45mg sodium, 8g fiber, 39g sugars, 17g protein.

    Tropical Temptation

    It's like having a pina colada—no airfare to the islands required. Tiny umbrella optional.

    In a blender, add 1 cup frozen tropical fruit mix (pineapple, mango, and papaya), 1 6-ounce container non-fat plain Greek yogurt, 1/2 cup unsweetened coconut almond milk, 2 teaspoons sugar. Blend until smooth.  Makes 1 serving.

    Per serving: 240 calories, 2.5g fat, 130mg sodium, 3g fiber, 32g sugars, 19g protein.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Do’s and don’ts for choosing a kitchen contractor

    Hiring the right kitchen contractor is arguably the most important decision you’ll make, especially on major remodels. While most home contractors out there are legitimate and do quality work, the rogues gallery of bogus builders, careless carpenters, and plundering plumbers is a vast one. Here are the rules to live by:

    Don’t rely solely on user reviews. Online ratings services of pros can be convenient, but they’re not always impartial. For example, contractors on Angie’s List who buy advertising get increased exposure. For the site Porch, reviews are selected for posting by the professionals themselves.

    Do use word of mouth. It’s always the best way to find reputable pros. If possible, inspect past projects in person to see how the work is holding up. And check the Better Business Bureau and your state’s attorney general’s office for complaints before making your pick.

    Don’t fall for the lowball. Even if he’s not playing fast and loose, a contractor who underestimates project costs will have to make up the difference elsewhere—maybe on the installation.

    Do shop around. Interview multiple contractors to gauge the going rate for your project. That will also help you find someone with whom you’ll have good rapport and communication.

    Don’t allow for  “allowances.” Those are open-ended amounts in the contract that could end up blowing the budget. Once the work is under way, stick to the terms.

    Do get everything in writing. The contract should include a complete description of the project, all associated costs, and a target completion date.

    Don’t apply for your own permits. That is the job of the contractor. If he asks you, it could be a sign that he’s in poor standing with the local building department.

    Do check the paperwork. That includes up-to-date license and insurance and workers compensation policies. Go to the Contractor’s License Reference Site, at contractors-license.org, for more information.

    Don’t pay cash. That is a common tactic used by fraudulent contractors, who take the money and run. A reputable pro will accept a check made out to his contracting company or a credit card.

    Do set up a payment schedule. It’s common to put down 30 percent upon initial delivery of materials. Make the final payment only when you’re fully satisfied with the work.

    —Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico on Twitter)

    Kitchen Planning Guide

    Planning a kitchen remodel? Find everything you need to know in our Kitchen Planning Guide including Ratings and recommendations for all major appliances as well as such surfaces as flooring and countertops.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Nest adds to its trove of home-monitoring systems

    Nest just made another big bet on the connected home with its purchase of Dropcam, a video monitoring company, for $555 million. The purchase gives Nest, known for its learning thermostat, another way to collect data on the home although Nest stressed that it would not share those details with its parent company, Google, which bought Nest for $3.2 billion earlier this year.

    The deal is another sign of optimism in the growing field of Internet-connected smart devices that control everything from security systems and door locks to lights and appliances. Almost 20 percent of Consumer Reports subscribers already use their phone or tablet to control part of their home and many homeowners who don’t are intrigued. But in our tests, some of the newfangled devices were difficult to set up with no obvious benefit while others showed promise.

    When we tested the Nest learning thermostat, $250, we liked its vibrant display and easy setup and added it to our list of top thermostat picks. But user reviews have been mixed from a rave of “cut my energy bills by 30 percent” to a rant that “software bugs shut down heat in winter.” The Nest, which learns your temperature preferences over time, can be connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi, so it automatically installs software updates made by the company.

    Nest has also had a few hiccups with its Nest Protect carbon monoxide and smoke detector. The much-touted Nest Wave feature, which lets you silence the alarm with the wave of your hand, also picked up on other movements that turned off the alarm unintentionally. After a brief sales hiatus, Nest last week cut the price from $130 to $99 and  returned the Nest Protect to store shelves with the wave feature disabled. In our tests, the Nest Protect was excellent at detecting high CO levels but we faulted its fire detection because it was slow to detect fast-flaming fires.

    In announcing its purchase of Dropcam, whose products we haven’t tested, Nest co-founder Matt Rogers wrote, “In a matter of a few short years, their team has managed to create products that change how people interact with their homes.” And that’s the promise of a smart home that allows you to manage your energy use, monitor your child or pet, or check your home security system from afar.

    Still, skeptics remain. In his story, “Why I’m Not in a Hurry for a Smart Home,” Christopher Mims, a tech columnist at the Wall Street Journal, writes, “Have we really gotten to the point where we can't be bothered to switch lights on and off or adjust our own thermostat when we go to bed or leave our homes?” Nest is wagering that we have.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell on twitter)

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    5 things to consider when buying a refrigerator

    Consumer Reports latest tests of more than 250 refrigerators revealed an expanding array of options, including roomier models designed to keep food fresher and make it easier to organize, at every price. We’re also seeing more refrigerators made in the U.S., as GE and Whirlpool bring the bulk of production back home. But, as we found, certain refrigerators aren’t so hot no matter where they’re made. Here’s what to consider:

    Decide: side-by-side, bottom-­freezer or top-freezer models. Bottom-freezers put the most used compartment at eye level. French-door and four-door versions save space with narrow door swings for the upper fridge and, with four-door models, two separate freezer doors below. Side-by-sides also have narrow door swings but require more reaching and bending. Top-freezer refrigerators cost the least but are also the least stylish. Built-in refrigerators sit flush with cabinets, but they cost the most and hold the least overall; cabinet-depth models offer the same look for less.

    Check the features. Adjustable shelves can make room for tall items, and temperature-controlled drawers offer cooler temperatures for fish and other delicate fare.

    Check the dimensions. Width is usually the most critical one, because most refrigerators fit between counter space. Also be sure that a new refrigerator will fit through halls and doorways en route to your kitchen.

    Choose a finish. Stainless still tops the charts because of its neutral, unifying look. Some versions resist fingerprints. Black or white appliances, including Whirlpool’s Ice Collection, can also complement many kitchens. Built-in models usually offer panels that can blend in with your cabinets.

    Factor in noise. It’s a big deal in open-plan kitchens. Kenmore, LG, and Samsung stand out for quietness among standard refrigerators; Jenn-Air and Thermador are among the quietest built-ins.

    Top refrigerators from our tests by type

    —Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico on twitter)

    Kitchen Planning Guide

    Where to buy appliances. Where to find the best appliances at the best price with the best service. Plus everything you need to know to plan your project and pick your products is in the Kitchen Planning Guide.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Whirlpool’s smart washer and dryer just got smarter

    With its new partnership with Whirlpool, Nest has moved from the living room to the laundry room. Now a Nest learning thermostat can monitor Whirlpool's Smart Front Load Washer & Dryer when you’re asleep or away. It’s part of the ambitious “Works with Nest” effort that Nest claims will deliver “personalized comfort, safety, and energy savings.” Consumer Reports has tested the thermostat and the washer and dryer. Here are the details.

    The Whirlpool Duet machines are Wi-Fi enabled and can be controlled remotely with a smartphone app. But that requires you to make manual adjustments when the machines need to be checked, or turned on and off. When used in concert with the Nest learning thermostat, the machines take care of themselves. “It’s not just apps,” says Brett Dibkey, vice president and general manager of Integrated Business Units for Whirlpool Corporation. “It’s having an ecosystem of machines that work together that almost think for you.”

    For example, if your Nest thermostat is set to “away” when you’re not home and your wash cycle ends, the machine will activate the FanFresh option that tumbles clothes in fresh air after the cycle is over and can even dry small loads. Similarly, if you’re away when the dryer cycle ends, the Wrinkle Shield feature is activated and periodically tumbles your clothes to help avoid wrinkles. The washer and dryer also have a Smart Delay feature that keeps them from running when energy rates or demand are highest.

    The Smart Front Load Washer & Dryer. The Nest works with the Whirlpool Duet WFL98HEBU front-loading washer and the Whirlpool Duet WEL98HEBU electric dryer, available at Home Depot for $1,599 each. They were both good performers in our tests. The Whirlpool Duet WFL98HEBU washer offers excellent wash performance and a large capacity. Normal wash time, on heavy soil setting, is 75 minutes. That's faster than many front-loaders.

    The large capacity Whirlpool Duet WEL98HEBU electric dryer offers superb drying, quiet operation, and lots of features. It has a steam option and Airflow Alert, which reliably detected a fully blocked vent, and can alert you by text or e-mail, but wasn't as good at detecting a partial blockage.

    The Nest thermostat. The Nest learning thermostat, $250, made our list of top thermostat picks. We liked the bright display and found it easy to set up and adjust. The Nest is connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi, so it automatically installs software updates made by the company. When asked if Whirlpool will soon be integrating other appliances with Nest, Dibkey said, “Right now were focused on the laundry pair but we’re committed to this for the long haul.”

    —Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell on twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Shopping for cooking gear offers a range of options

    Shopping for cooking appliances just got a whole lot easier. Today. even mid-priced models boast premium features, sleek styling, and speedy cooking. Among the options available are double ovens, induction cooktops, and convenience features. Standalone ranges are best for kitchens where you’re simply replacing a range or where the range is the centerpiece. But if you’re remodeling your kitchen you may want to consider a cooktop-wall oven combination, which puts your baking and roasting at eye level. Here are the features to consider as well as some recommended models from Consumer Reports tests.

    Dual-fuel ranges. These pair a gas cooktop with an electric oven. Manufacturers tout more even heating compared with gas ovens. But our tests have found no clear advantages.
    Recommended range with this feature. The KitchenAid KDRS407VSS pro-style range, $4,000, delivered impressive performance in our tests.

    Electronic touchpad controls. Look for controls that are visible and easy to reach when cooking. A digital display makes it easier to set and monitor the precise temperature.
    Recommended range with this feature. The single-oven LG LRE3083W, $1,000, electric smoothtop features an easy-to-clean numeric keypad.

    Hot-surface lights. A must on electric ranges and cooktops, they alert you that an element is still hot. It’s best if each element has its own light.
    Recommended range with this feature. The GE Cafe CS980SNSS, $2,800, has a warning light for each of its five elements.

    Smoothtop ranges and cooktops. Easier to clean than coils, but use a nonabrasive cooktop cleaner and a special pad to avoid scratching the surface.
    Recommended cooktop with this feature. The KitchenAid KECC604BBL cooktop, $900, has two high-powered and one expandable element.

    Induction cooktops and ranges. These require magnetic cookware, though it’s readily available.
    Recommended cooktop with this feature. Kenmore 43820, $1,700, induction cooktop was excellent at both high and low heat.

    An oven’s usable capacity. It can be a lot less than a manufacturer claims because some manufacturers include nooks and crannies. If you have a favorite large roaster, take it along when shopping.
    Recommended wall oven with this feature. The Maytag MEW9530AW, $1,400, features a large oven with ample capacity.

    Double-ovens. In double-oven ranges, convection is usually in the lower oven; some have it in both. Double wall ovens usually have convection in the upper oven.
    Recommended wall oven with this feature. The Whirlpool WOD93EC0AS, $2,500, features convection in the upper oven.

    Double-oven ranges with the oven on bottom. Imagine yourself lifting a turkey or large roast out of the lower oven. Does it feel too low?
    Recommended range with this feature. The Frigidaire FGEF302TNF electric smoothtop, $1,400, has two same-sized ovens.

    —Kimberly Janeway

    Kitchen Planning Guide

    Cooking with gas or not. Find cooking gear that fits your lifestyle plus the right refrigerator, dishwasher, microwave and more in our Kitchen Planning Guide.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers or sponsors on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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