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Consumer Reports

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    5 ways to achieve your fitness goals

    Whether you’re just starting an exercise program or you want to switch up your routine, you need to be smart about it. And we don’t just mean picking the best activity, choosing the right home exercise equipment, or taking precautions to prevent injuries. An organized and comprehensive strategy is required. The acronym SMART—Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-based—was created to define the steps needed for successful goal setting. Though originally developed for use in business, the SMART approach can help you reach any objective. Here’s how to be SMART about your fitness goals. 

    Be specific

    Saying “I want to get in better shape” is way too general. You need to dig deeper to find your true motivation. Are you trying to address an underlying health issue, such as diabetes or lower-back pain? Maybe you’re preparing for the company softball season so that you can run faster down the first base line. Whatever it may be, a clearly stated goal will help you establish the steps necessary for success.     

    Measure up

    Assigning a number to your goal is the best way to make it measurable. For example, select a specific amount of weight you’d like to lose or a distance you want to walk or run. Technology makes this easier than ever. Many treadmills and ellipticals from Consumer Reports' tests work with apps that let you create specific training programs and track your progress. Activity monitors and pedometers can also be helpful.  

    Make it achievable

    Create interim goals so that you’ll be able to celebrate small successes along the way to the big prize. If you’re trying to lose 20 pounds for a wedding that’s a few months out, dropping a couple pounds a week is reasonable. Dreaming about running a marathon is nice, but if you’ve been a couch potato for a long time, think more modestly, say first running a 5K, then a 10K, then a half marathon, and so on.  

    Keep the goals relevant

    Exercise can take many forms, and they don’t all deliver the same results. To use the marathon example above, completing a 5K is clearly relevant to this endurance-based objective, but explosive or power-based activities, like power lifting or plyometrics, would be off track. Ensuring that each step you take is relevant to the next will eliminate distractions and keep you focused on your ultimate goal. 

    Time it

    Giving yourself two months to lose ten pounds or four weeks to jog non-stop for a mile sets a firm deadline, so that the pursuit of your goal does not become an endless endeavor. Your success can be celebrated at the end of your timeline, or if you’ve fallen short, you can learn from the experience, adjust your plan, and establish a new, more realistic goal.

    Bonus tip

    Keep going! Goals are a great way to initiate healthy lifestyle changes. But you don’t want revert to old ways once you’ve reached them. Use the successful completion of each goal as inspiration to create a new one. Keep the goals intrinsically rewarding. Sure, it’s nice to get compliments on your healthy appearance from family and friends, but knowing that you’re taking care of your body and mind is the best motivator for sustaining healthy habits.

    Top exercise gear in Consumer Reports’ tests

    Our fitness experts test treadmills, ellipticals, rowing machines, and stationary bikes. Here are the top models from our latest tests. Read "Find a workout regimen that works for you" for advice on determining the best equipment for your needs.

    Non-folding treadmill: Landice L7 Cardio Trainer, $3,800
    Folding treadmill: ProForm Pro 2000, $1,250
    Budget treadmill: NordicTrack C970 Pro, $1,000
    Elliptical with heart-rate program: Diamondback 1260 Ef, $2,200
    Elliptical without heart-rate program: Landice E7 Pro Sport, $3,600
    Rowing machine: Concept2 Model D, $900
    Spin bike: Diamondback 510ic, $800
    Step-count pedometer: Mio TRACE ACC-TEK, $30
    GPS watch pedometer: Nike +SportWatch GPS, $200

    —Peter Anzalone, Senior Project Leader, Fitness

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    5 little problems that can stop a snow blower

    Watching from inside as snow piles up doesn’t instill dread for anyone with a snow blower that’s up to the task. Such confidence, though, could quickly turn to misery. All it takes is for one of several little things to go wrong. You can’t keep them from happening. Still, you can improve the odds of a mishap putting your snow blower out of commission just when you need it.

    Check the pull cord

    Gas-powered models with electric start have a pull cord only as a backup. But if your model lacks the easy starting, your pull cord will get much more use and might snap at a critical point—say, when you’re about to clear snow after a blizzard. Replacing it isn’t easy, but doing so can prevent hours of shoveling. When no snow is forecast, pull the cord out slowly and look for signs of fraying. If you see any, take the machine in to be serviced and with luck you'll have it back from the shop before the next storm.

    Keep a spare belt on hand

    Any gas-powered snow blower uses at least one belt. They can be hard to replace when your hands are cold, but the greater challenge is having the foresight to order an extra or two before you need them. If one breaks while you’re clearing snow and you don’t have a spare, you’re out of business until you either buy a new one or take your snow blower to the shop.

    Avoid a cable outage

    Snow blowers use numerous cables that run between the control panel and the chute, the transmission, or another component. While these don’t typically break, one could go slack from tight maneuvering near shrubs or something else that catches on the cable. You’ll know it when the control no longer works: A chute won’t adjust as intended or a dual-stage model’s speed control won’t change speeds or direction. The fix? Locate the cable, which is sometimes located within a cover you’d need to unbolt, and adjust it until the control works.

    Adjust the tire pressure

    When you first buy a two-stage, gas-powered, snow blower, the tires sometimes come overinflated to reduce shipping damage. (The manual will specify the proper pounds per square inch.) But if they’re underinflated, which can occur over time, you’ll work harder to maneuver the machine and notice less traction. And if just one tire is deflated, the snow blower may lean a bit to one side. More obvious, though, are both the scraping of one bottom corner of the auger box, on the side with the deflated tire, and the corresponding line of uncleared snow that slips beneath the auger box on the other side.

    Stock up on shear pins

    The telltale sign of a broken shear pin is when one half of a gas-powered, dual-stage machine’s auger suddenly isn’t turning; it’s pushing snow instead. What's happened? Such models have a transmission to drive the auger. To protect it from overworking (say, when up against a dense, compacted plow pile), the shaft of the auger has shear pins, little bolts that are weak enough to break instead, usually halting one half of the auger’s rotation. They’ll also corrode on their own over time. Again, keep extras around that are meant for your model. It’s a quick task to tap out the snapped one and push a new one through before you secure it. But whatever you do, don’t permanently install a bolt and nut—you’ll be putting your transmission at risk since the bolts are not meant to break.

    Need a new snow blower?

    Snow blowers are being cleared out of home centers and most other sellers as mowers and grills increasingly take up floor space. So call ahead about a model you’re looking for; first check out our snow blower buying guide and our Ratings of more than 110 snow blowers. Top-scoring gas models include the two-stage, 30-inch Cub Cadet 31AH57S, $1,500, and Ariens 921032, $1,300, the compact, 24-inch two-stage Craftsman 88173, $680, and the single-stage, 21-inch Toro Power Clear 721E, $570.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    As LED prices drop, it's time to make the switch

    New Englanders can brag about their fall foliage. New Yorkers have plenty to boast about too, and we will, given a chance—same for Californians. And is there anything not to like about Hawaii? The one thing they all have in common, along with Alaska and a few other states, is their electricity is more expensive than other parts of the country, according to the Department of Energy. LED lightbulbs are one way to trim your electric bills. Here’s a look at some of the best from Consumer Reports’ tests.

    LEDs use about 80 to 85 percent less electricity than the incandescent bulbs they replace. Even so, when LEDs were $50 a bulb not long ago it took years to earn back the money you spent on an LED. But now you’ll find LEDs for $10 and less, and as more LEDs earn the Energy Star it becomes easier to snag utility rebates. The lower the LED price, the faster you earn back the money you spent by saving on electricity. And since LEDs are claimed to last around 23 years and longer, you won’t be buying bulbs as frequently.

    Let’s say you’re lucky enough to live where electricity costs around 12 cents per kilowatt, the national average. Replace a 60-watt incandescent, the kind you put in lamps, with an LED and over its claimed life of 23 years you could save about $156 in energy and lightbulbs. That’s based on using it 3 hours a day. If you paid $9 for the LED you’ll earn back that money in 15 months. After that, you’re saving money. A BR30 LED, the type you use in recessed fixtures, that replaces a 65-watt incandescent would save you about $180 over its 23 year claimed life, and at $10 takes about 13 months to pay for. After that, you’re in the black.

    LEDs usually don’t burn out; they dim over time. The claimed life you see on the box is an estimate of when brightness will decrease by 30 percent. Some LEDs are supposed to be bright enough to be useful for almost 23 years when on 3 hours per day. But save your receipts. Energy Star LEDs must have at least a three-year warranty, and we’ve seen five- and 10-year warranties.

    Some top-pick LEDs to consider

    60-watt A19 replacements (used in lamps and other general purpose fixtures)
    Feit Electric A19/OM/800/LED, $9
    Philips A19 11W 60W Soft White 424382, $12
    Great Value (Walmart) 60W Soft White A19 Dimmable LED, $10
    Cree 9.5-Watt (60W) A19 Warm White Dimmable LED, $8.50

    65-75-watt BR30 replacements (ideal for recessed and track lighting)
    Great Value (Walmart) 65W BR30 Soft White Dimmable LED, $11
    Utilitech 13-Watt (75W) BR30 Soft White Outdoor Flood (Lowe’s), $12
    Feit Electric BR30 Dimmable LED, $9
    MaxLite 10 Watt BR30, $11

    For more choices, check our lightbulb Ratings. They tell you how bright a bulb is and what color light it casts. You’ll see what the claimed life is and whether the bulb is good at casting light in all directions, if that’s what it’s supposed to do. We tell you if the LED is dimmable and more. You’ll also see CFLs in the Ratings. For more information, read, "How to find an LED lightbulb that fits your fixture."

    Kimberly Janeway  

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Is there an LED bulb that works like a 3-way incandescent?

    Q. Every lamp in my house uses a 3-way incandescent bulb; sometimes you just don’t need more light. I’d like to convert to LED/CFL bulbs, but there don’t seem to be any that will fit a standard lamp with a 3-way switch. Anything on the horizon?—Vicki Christensen, Apollo Beach, FL

    A. Early last year we tested three versions of 3-way LED bulbs (one manufactured by Switch, and two from Lowe’s sold under the Utilitech PRO store brand). Our conclusion is that it’s best to continue using incandescent versions of 3-ways until the LED prices come down. Each LED bulb costs $20 to $55; the incandescent 3-way bulbs were $2.60 to $4. That said, you could try 3-way CFL bulbs for $10 to $12, which have been available for many years.

    For more on lightbulbs, check our buying guide and Ratings.  

    Send your questions to ConsumerReports.org/askourexperts.

    This article also appeared in the March 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Paints that cover in one coat and last for years

    A fresh coat of paint is the quickest way to transform a room. If you’re selling your home, you need an inexpensive paint that freshens up a room in one coat. Buyers, and homeowners sprucing up for the longer haul, need paint that can also withstand stains, scrubbing, mildew, and the test of time. Here are some paint picks for each situation  from the experts at Consumer Reports.

    Cheap but effective

    You’ll save by buying 5-gallon containers. Use flat paint on badly damaged surfaces because it’s best at hiding imperfections, and its no-sheen finish serves as a blank canvas for buyers. We like Valspar Ultra, $29, sold at Lowe’s; Behr Premium Plus Enamel, $28, sold at Home Depot; Ace Royal Interiors, $27, and Glidden High Endurance Plus, $24, sold at Walmart. All but Ace Royal Interiors are self-priming and impressive at hiding old paint in one coat. Behr Premium Plus Enamel left the smoothest finish; Glidden High Endurance Plus, the roughest.

    Best for long-term value

    Use satin or eggshell finish for most walls and trim because they’re best at fighting stains and withstanding scrubbing. Flat paints are the least stain resistant, so they aren’t great for kitchens, hallways, or kids’ bedrooms. Behr Premium Plus Ultra, $34, sold at Home Depot; Clark+Kensington Enamel, $32, sold at Ace; and Valspar Signature, $34, from Lowe’s are all self-priming and better than most at resisting mildew, sticking, and fading, making them ideal for sunny rooms. Behr Premium Plus Ultra was the best at hiding old paint and maintained its sheen after cleaning. And Behr Premium Plus Ultra  and Clark+Kensington Enamel left smoother finishes than Valspar Signature.

    —Kimberly Janeway

    More on buying or selling a home

    Top 5 ways to boost the value of your home

    4 red flags that can ruin a home sale

    The best ways to finance home repairs

    Real estate agents confess their dirty little secrets

    Home-sale mistakes that cost you money

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    When buying a mattress, check the return policy

    At Consumer Reports we have traditionally advised you to try any mattress you’re considering buying by lying on it for at least 10 minutes on each side, your back, and your stomach if that’s how you sleep. And when we asked subscribers if they had taken our advice, more than 80 percent said they had and that they were satisfied with their purchase. But then they told us that there was something that trumped trying the mattress in the store and that was the return policy.

    While trying out a mattress is key, more and more of the to-go places to buy a mattress aren’t a local department store or national chain. Warehouse clubs such as Costco, which sells the Novaform Memory Foam Collection Serafina 14", a top-scoring mattress in our mattress tests, tend to display mattresses standing up—not on a frame with a foundation. If you buy a mattress online, the very notion of trying it out is moot. And even with a store where mattresses are arranged to allow for sampling, how you feel after a tryout might not match how you feel after a full night’s sleep.

    That’s why the return policy is paramount. Retailers tend to agree that it takes about 30 days for your body to adjust to a new mattress, which is why you often get at least that period to decide on a return or exchange. But some policies are more generous than others. Here are the details you need to know before you settle on the purchase itself:

    • How long can you keep the bed before notifying the seller if you’re dissatisfied?
    • How long after that do you have to arrange a return or exchange?
    • Can return the mattress for a refund, or just an exchange (or store credit)?
    • Do you need to repackage the mattress in the case of a return or exchange (many foam beds, for instance, are machine-folded into a box)?
    • Who pays shipping for a returned mattress—and can you return it yourself?
    • How much is any “restocking” or similar fee (often a percentage of the price)?

    In past Consumer Reports surveys, almost 40 percent of our subscribers with regrets wished they had done more research. So consider yourself warned. We’ll soon be adding more models to our mattress Ratings, which should help in pre-selecting a mattress that is tops in back and side support, among other factors. And be sure to see our mattress buying guide before narrowing down your choices.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Want to sleep better? Get yourself a new smoke detector and CO alarm.

    House fires can happen to anybody at any time, but they occur most often in the winter, when people are using heating equipment, fireplaces, and space heaters. And carbon monoxide poisoning often occurs when people are asleep. Because of the colorless and odorless nature of the gas, many don’t realize they are being poisoned.

    That's why you'll probably sleep more soundly knowing you have installed smoke detectors and CO alarms. People without functioning smoke alarms are almost nine times more likely to be injured in a fire; 15,000 visits to emergency departments are caused by CO poisoning every year. Yet only about one-third of U.S. homes have CO detectors. Sources of the gas include faulty furnaces, clogged chimneys, and electrical generators. Signs of poisoning include headache, fatigue, nausea, and dizziness.

    Find the best smoke detectors and CO alarms in our buying guide.

    Install smoke detectors, $12 and up, and CO alarms, $30 and up, near bedrooms and on every floor of your house, including in the basement. Consumer Reports’ tests found that smoke alarms that use ionization technology were great at detecting a fast, flaming fire, such as burning paper, but poor at detecting a smoldering fire, as in a couch or mattress. The opposite was true of photoelectric smoke alarms.

    But some combine ionization and photoelectric technologies to cover both types of fire, such as the First Alert 3120B, $30, and Kidde PI2010, $30, which were tops in our new tests. If anyone in your house is hearing-impaired, consider installing a smoke alarm that uses a flashing light or vibration.

    As for CO detectors, the First Alert CO615, $30, stand-alone monitor was excellent at detecting high levels of the gas.   

    Here's what to consider before buying and installing smoke detectors and CO alarms:

    • Mount smoke detectors on the ceiling or high on a wall. To avoid false alarms, don’t mount ionization smoke alarms in the kitchen, where burnt toast might set them off, or near sources of steam such as bathrooms or the laundry room.
    • Make sure your alarms are up to snuff.
    • Don’t install CO monitors in breezy areas, such as near a fan or an open window, where fresh air can cause a misleadingly low CO reading. Also avoid mounting the monitors in direct sunlight that can damage the units, in the kitchen or near any cooking appliance, in the garage, or near the furnace or water heater.
    • The life expectancy of smoke detectors is generally 10 years, after which point their sensors can begin to lose sensitivity. The test button only confirms that the battery, electronics, and alert system are working; it doesn’t mean that the smoke sensor is working. To test the sensor, use an aerosol can of smoke alarm test spray (about $10) that simulates smoke, which is available online and in some hardware stores.
    • Replace CO alarms every five to seven years. Check the label on the bottom of detectors and replace any that are older than that.
    • Make a fire escape plan for your household and practice it. 
    • Keep a fire extinguisher accessible. 
      —Sue Byrne
       

    This article also appeared in the January 2015 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Whatever happened to CFL bulbs?

    CFLs have improved over the years that Consumer Reports has tested them. Back in 2007 you could find CFLs that flickered when first turned on, cast a weird light, hummed, buzzed, and even smoked when they burned out. The older bulbs contained more mercury and prices were higher. And while CFL stands for Compact Fluorescent Light or Lamp, you couldn’t blame a person for calling them Curlicue Flawed Lights.

    But as Consumer Reports' lightbulb Ratings show, some CFLs are impressive or even excellent overall. They aren’t the top scoring lightbulbs—LEDs are—but they’re cheaper and the best CFLs we tested are bright, cast a warm light, are quicker to fully brighten, and aren’t greatly affected by frequently turning them on and off. CFLs use about 75 percent less energy than the incandescent bulbs they replace and are claimed to last 7 to 10 times longer.

    Here’s how to save money. Use less energy, and you’ll trim your electric bill. For about $1.25 you can buy a CFL that replaces a 60-watt incandescent yet uses only 15 watts. You’d save $63 in electricity and replacement bulbs over the CFL’s claimed life of 9 years, when used 3 hours a day. That’s based on the national average electricity rate. It takes you about six weeks to earn back the $1.25 you spent on the CFL. And a CFL that replaces a 100-watt incandescent would save about $100 over its 9 year life, and takes six weeks to recoup the $2.30 you paid. If you live where electricity is expensive—Alaska, California, Hawaii, and New England to name a few places—you’ll save even more money.

    Need to know

    Check our lightbulb Ratings. We test dozens of CFLs and LEDs.
    Look for utility rebates. It’s another way to save. And thumbs up to Marylanders: You won’t have to pay the 6 percent sales tax on Energy Star CFLs and LEDs this weekend, February 14-16, 2015.
    Choose Energy Star. CFLs that are Energy Star qualified must meet high standards for brightness, color, and energy use and the mercury content is capped.
    Read the Lighting Facts label. It’s on the back of the CFL box and tells you the bulb’s light color—warm, cool—and more.
    Use as directed. Most CFLs aren’t dimmable and note what kind of fixture the bulb can be used in and if it’s meant for outdoors. We indicate all of this in our lightbulb Ratings too.
    Keep receipts. Energy Star CFLs come with a warranty of at least two years.
    Be patient. CFLs take time to fully brighten. You’ll see the warm-up scores in our Ratings. Some take seconds while it may take up to several minutes for flood/reflector CFLs, especially when used outdoors in frigid temperatures. So don’t use CFLs where you need instant light.
    Recycle. CFLs still contain small amounts of mercury and the bulbs should be recycled. This keeps the mercury from being released into the environment if the bulb breaks in the trash or landfill. If a CFL breaks at home follow the cleanup tips from the EPA.

    Some top-pick CFLs for use in lamps

    60-watt replacements 
    Great Value 14W 60W Soft White CFL (Walmart), $1.25
    Feit Electric ECObulb Plus 60W, $2.50

    100-watt replacements
    Utilitech 100W Soft White CFL (Lowe’s), $2.50
    Feit Electric ECObulb Plus 100W, $2.33
    EcoSmart 100W Soft White (Home Depot), $1.50 

    Kimberly Janeway

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Cook these healthy vegetables

    When it comes to making healthy vegetables, cooked can sometimes be better than raw. Cooking can free up more nutrients for your body to absorb.

    “Common wisdom says cooked food has lower nutritional value compared with fresh produce, but that’s not always true,” says Rui Hai Liu, a professor in the department of food science at Cornell University, who has studied how heat affects food. “Many nutrients in fruits and vegetables are bound in the cell walls,” he explains. “Cooking helps release them, so they’re more bioavailable and absorbed by the body.”

    Here are five healthy vegetables that you should heat before eating, plus tips on how to unleash their full potential in terms of nutrition and taste:

    Asparagus

    A 2009 study in the International Journal of Food Science & Technology found that cooking these stalks raised the level of six nutrients, including cancer-fighting antioxidants, by more than 16 percent. Another 2009 study in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences found that cooking asparagus more than doubled the level of two types of phenolic acid, which some studies have linked to lower cancer rates.

    Try this: Steaming asparagus is a good method to keep spears crisp and prevent nutrients leaching into the cooking water. Another option is this flash-cook microwave method from Pamela Braun, a recipe developer for MyMansBelly.com: Soak four paper towels in water and lemon juice, then wring them out and roll spears in them. Microwave for 3 to 4 minutes on high

    Carrots

    Cooking ignites this veggie’s cancer-fighting carotenoids. A 2008 study in the Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry found that boiling carrots until tender boosted their concentration of carotenoids by 14 percent. But hold the fry pan. Pan frying caused a dip in carotenoid levels by 13 percent.

    Try this: To maximize the nutritional benefits, boil carrots whole before slicing. Cooking them that way keeps valuable nutrients from escaping into the cooking water. Bonus: Once cooked, they’ll be easier to cut. Top with a tiny bit of honey or maple syrup to bring out the natural sweetness of carrots, says Catherine Jones, co-author of “The Calories In, Calories Out Cookbook” (The Experiment, 2014).

    Mushrooms

    A cup of cooked white mushrooms has about twice as much muscle-building potassium, heart-healthy niacin, immune-boosting zinc, and bone-strengthening magnesium as a cup of raw ones. That’s according to the Department of Agriculture’s nutrient database. Even mushrooms considered edible can sometimes contain small amounts of toxins that can be destroyed through cooking.

    Try this: Mushrooms are like sponges when it comes to soaking up fat, so go easy on the oil, Braun says. Because they release a lot of water when cooking, don’t overcrowd the pan, and let them cook down. For a flavor boost, Braun sautées mushrooms with garlic and sprigs of fresh thyme. They make a tasty side dish and are a great topper for pasta or burgers, she says.

    Learn more in our Food & Drink Guide. And find out which gadgets make cooking a breeze.

    Spinach

    This leafy green is packed with nutrients, but you’ll absorb more calcium and iron if you eat it cooked. The reason: Spinach is loaded with oxalic acid, which blocks the absorption of iron and calcium but breaks down under high temperatures. One study found that cooking spinach quickly in boiling water, then plunging it into cold water, reduced oxalate content by 40 percent, on average, which was more effective than pan or pressure cooking.

    Try this: Blanch a bunch of fresh spinach leaves in boiling water for 1 minute, then plunge in ice water for a few more. Drain well and keep wrapped in the fridge, ready to add to omelets, soup, and other dishes. It should keep for a few days.

    Tomatoes

    Cooking tomatoes—whether they’re baked, fried, or even puréed into spaghetti sauce—increases a phytochemical, lycopene, that has been linked to lower rates of cancer and heart disease. It also gives red tomatoes their rosy color. According to a landmark study in 2002 by Liu, heating tomatoes for 30 minutes at 190.4° F (the temperature of soup simmering on a stove) boosted the levels of absorbable lycopene by 35 percent. Though cooking reduced the vitamin C content, Liu’s study found that it raised the total power of the disease-fighting antioxidant by 62 percent.

    Try this: Instead of serving raw tomatoes cut up in a salad, try roasting them in the oven. Roasting concentrates their flavor, says Rene Ficek, a registered dietitian and lead nutrition expert at Seattle Sutton’s Healthy Eating, a meal-planning and delivery service based in Illinois. Arrange quartered tomatoes on a sheet pan in one layer; drizzle them with olive oil and balsamic vinegar; sprinkle with garlic, salt, and pepper; then bake for about a half-hour at 200° F.

    —Susan Perry

    This article also appeared in the February/March 2015 issue of ShopSmart magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    The best chest freezers for stashing your ice cream

    There's been a lot of turnover in the freezer market. So Consumer Reports is in the process of testing more than 40 new models from across the main categories: manual-defrost chest freezers, manual-defrost upright freezers, and self-defrost upright freezers. Testing is ongoing for the upright freezers, but we've posted freezer Ratings for nine new chest freezers, including models from Haier and Idylis that make our recommended list. The remainder will be posted soon.

    Chest freezers tend to be more affordable than uprights and they're less likely to cause freezer burn. Our top-rated models combine superb temperature performance and energy efficiency. The higher-priced Haier HCM071AW, $270, adds a door lock, an important safety feature in homes with small children. We were less impressed with the new Kenmore 12702, which delivered subpar temperature control despite costing $50 more than the recommended Idylis ICM070LC, $190, a CR Best Buy.

    Though it misses our recommended list, the Hisense Dual Zone FC-33DT1HA is notable because it's the only standalone chest freezer with a smaller soft-freeze chamber that can be set anywhere from 21° to 50° F. That's handy if you need some more storage space for frozen foods, plus a little extra something for cold beverages and the like.

    The tradeoff with all chest freezers is that they tend to be harder to keep organized, because they're basically a big open box (though some come with adjustable bins). And you have to remember to defrost them by hand, or the ice build-up could make them less energy efficient. If you want the convenience and easier storage of an upright, check back soon for the top performers from our ongoing tests.

    —Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico on Twitter)  

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    Major Presidents Day sales on large appliances

    This weekend is a good time to get a great buy on a large appliance. Home improvement and big box stores are offering 10 to 30 percent off some stellar kitchen and laundry appliances. We took a look at the websites of Home Depot, Lowe’s, Sears, and Best Buy and found some top-performers from Consumer Reports’ tests. Here are five top picks from each but you’ll find plenty more at the stores. Remember to ask about free delivery and haul away, which will add to your savings. (Sale prices are from the retailers’ websites.)

    Home Depot

    Home Depot is offering 10 percent off appliances that cost $396 or more plus featuring special buys that are 20 percent off.

    Samsung NX58H9500WS pro-style range, $1,996
    This slide-in range is typically priced higher than freestanding models. The Samsung offers super simmering and impressive baking, broiling, and self-cleaning. The oven is big and has convection and a temperature probe. There are five burners including two high-power that deliver fast heat.

    KitchenAid KDTM354DSS dishwasher, $808
    In addition to stellar washing, drying, and efficient running, this high-performing KitchenAid dishwasher boasts a self-cleaning, ultrafine filter that breaks food particles down throughout the cycle without noisy grinding. And it’s fairly quiet. Other pluses include a soil sensor, stainless-steel interior, ample flatware slots, and an adjustable upper rack and tines. In our tests, a normal cycle took 125 minutes and used only about 4 gallons of water in our tests.

    Maytag Maxima MHW5100DW washing machine, $748
    Already the least expensive of the top-pick front-loaders in our tests, the Maytag is also the fastest. Normal wash time using the heavy-soil setting is 75 minutes. This washer offers excellent cleaning and energy- and water-efficiency, and is gentle on fabrics. It fits about 22 pounds of our laundry but it's noisy. The matching dryer, the Maytag Maxima MED5100DW, is also on sale.

    Maytag Maxima MED5100DW clothes dryer, $748
    Superb drying, large capacity, and relatively quiet operation make this a winner. This dryer is Energy Star-qualified. Our test results are based on using the regular cycle. The energy-saving option should provide comparable performance while saving energy, but drying time is significantly longer.

    Samsung RF28HDEDBSR 3-door, French-door refrigerator, $2,298
    Samsung’s 36-inch-wide French-door bottom-freezer offers a spacious 20 cubic feet of usable capacity, and the space is well organized around several helpful storage features. These include adjustable shelves, gallon door storage, and spill-proof shelfs. The refrigerator delivers superb temperature control and energy efficiency. And its dual evaporators help keep food fresh by maintaining optimal humidity levels.

    Lowe's

    Lowe’s is offering 10 to 25 percent off major appliances that cost $399 or more.

    LG WM8500HVA front-loader washing machine, $1,439
    This top-rated front-loader has a jumbo capacity, holding about 24 pounds of laundry. The LG aced our cleaning tests, offers superb water efficiency, and does an excellent job extracting water so dryer time is shortened. But it took 90 minutes in our tests to do a normal wash on the heavy-soil setting; the TurboWash option offers comparable wash performance in less time. The matching dryer, LG DLEX8500V, is also on sale. Note that the washer and dryer are each 29 inches wide—2 more than usual—and available only in a graphite steel finish.

    LG DLEX8500V clothes dryer, $1,439
    An electric dryer, the LG has a jumbo capacity and is excellent at drying. It's relatively quiet too. Like the matching washer, it’s 29 inches wide—two more than usual, and only available in a graphite steel finish.

    Whirlpool WRB322DMBM bottom-freezer refrigerator, $1,259
    Whirlpool’s 33-inch-wide conventional bottom-freezer makes our recommended list on the strength of its excellent temperature control and energy efficiency. On the downside, it’s a tad noisier than other top models. Features include split shelves, which make it easy to store tall items, as well gallon door storage and touchpad controls.  

    KitchenAid KDFE454CSS dishwasher, $1,349
    Among the priciest in our tests, this KitchenAid dishwasher delivers some stellar performance. It aced our wash test, which uses a full load of very dirty items, and was among the quietest models during fill, wash, and drain. It was also especially energy- and water-efficient. Pluses include a soil sensor and stainless-steel interior. For flexibility, it has delayed start, ample flatware slots, an adjustable upper rack, and adjustable tines. A normal cycle took 140 minutes and used about 5 gallons of water in our tests.

    LG LRE3083SW electric smooth-top range, $800
    This top-rated electric smoothtop range was superb at simmering and delivered fast heat. In our tests, baking and self-cleaning were impressive; broiling was superb. The oven has convection and a steam-clean feature for light cleaning. There are four range-top cooking elements, including two high-powered.

    Sears

    At Sears, they are offering 10 to 30 percent off appliances including their own brand, Kenmore. Here are five Kenmore picks.

    Kenmore 22614 canister vacuum cleaner, $250
    Impressive cleaning, lots of airflow for tools, and fairly quiet running helped make this bagless canister a top pick. This Kenmore is also a great choice for picking up after cats or dogs. Key features include manual carpet pile-height adjustment (better for matching brush to surface), suction control (protects drapes when using tools), a brush on/off switch (safeguards bare floors and prevents scattered debris), and a retractable cord. But handling this vacuum's 23 pounds took some muscle.

    Kenmore 32313 gas cooktop, $1,016
    Fast heating and impressive simmering at a relatively low price make this 36-inch gas cooktop a recommended model. Two of its five burners are high-power. The continuous grates let you slide heavy pots across the cooktop rather than lifting them. Stainless trim is a plus for the price.

    Kenmore 69313 bottom-freezer refrigerator, $799
    If you’re looking for top value in a conventional bottom-freezer, this 30-inch-wide Kenmore is one to consider. And its narrow width is a good fit for smaller kitchens. In terms of performance, it combines superb temperature control, energy efficiency, and quietness. Just don't expect much in the way of convenience features.   

    Kenmore Elite 12793 dishwasher, $1,050
    In addition to top-notch performance, this Kenmore offers an industry first: a motorized spray arm that reverses direction if something inside blocks the arm's rotation. The model's other pluses include a stainless-steel interior. Flexibility options include an upper rack you can adjust with one hand. A normal cycle takes 145 minutes and used about 5 gallons of water in our tests.

    Kenmore Elite 41073 front-loader washing machine, $1,199
    Offering excellent wash performance and a jumbo capacity, this front-loader holds about 24 pounds of laundry. But the normal wash time, using the heavy soil setting, was 95 minutes in our tests. The Accela-Wash option offers comparable cleaning in less time. We also recommend the matching dryer, the Kenmore Elite 81073, which is on sale for $1,199. The washer and dryer are each 29 inches wide—two inches more than usual.

    Best Buy

    Best Buy is offering up to 25 percent off major appliances, including this quintet.

    Samsung RS25H5121SR side-by-side refrigerator, $1,399
    This 36-inch-wide side-by-side from Samsung sits at the top of our Ratings, thanks to its outstanding temperature performance, energy efficiency, and quiet operation. It’s also loaded with features, including an innovative ice and water dispenser and dual evaporators, which should help keep food fresh by maintaining optimal humidity levels.  
     
    LG WT5680HVA HE top-loader washing machine, $949
    This high-efficiency LG has a jumbo capacity and excels at cleaning. But like many HE top-loaders it wasn't so gentle on fabrics. Normal wash time is 75 minutes on the heavy-soil setting; the TurboWash feature cuts time without affecting performance. Features include a steam option and SmartDiagnosis that lets you transmit washer data by phone to technicians who will try to solve the problem without a housecall. The matching dryer, the LG DLEX5680V, is also impressive.

    Dyson Cinetic Big Ball Animal vacuum cleaner, $399
    Overall this bagless model is a capable upright vacuum cleaner. In our tests, it was very good at removing embedded dirt from carpets and when cleaning surfaces such as kitchen and hardwood floors, the Dyson was excellent. At 19 pounds, it handles well and emissions were kept to a minimum. Other models are better at picking up pet hair.

    Samsung NX58F5700WS gas range, $1,299
    This top-rated gas range is stylish and unlike most gas ranges we tested offers fast cooktop heat and superb baking. Even broiling was impressive—not something most gas ranges ace. There are five burners, including two high power. The oven is large and has a convection feature and gliding oven racks. The warming drawer is a nice touch.

    Bosch Ascenta SHX3AR7[5]UC dishwasher, $629
    Already a CR Best Buy, this Bosch conventional dishwasher delivers top performance at a competitive price. It aced our wash test, which uses a full load of very dirty items, and was very good at drying plastic items. It was among the quietest models during fill, wash, and drain and was especially energy-efficient. For flexibility, it has delayed start, ample flatware slots, an adjustable upper rack, and adjustable tines. A normal cycle took 95 minutes and used almost 6 gallons of water in our tests. Bosch is among the more reliable dishwasher brands.

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

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    Refrigerators that keep your fruit and veggies fresh

    Your refrigerator may not be the safest spot to stash fruits and vegetables. Refrigerators get dirty. A research team at the Tennessee State University found that vegetable drawers are the areas in a refrigerator most likely to be contaminated with bacteria. The researchers speculate that the reason is people dump produce in the bin and forget about it. Then later it turns to mush or ends up covered in mold. That isn’t just yucky; it’s also a food-safety hazard. Here’s how to avoid the biggest food-storage mistakes:

    Clean weekly. Toss out spoiled food and sop up any spills or leaks in the refrigerator. And don’t reuse that sponge or cloth until you’ve washed it. Sanitize sponges in the dishwasher

    Track the temperature. To keep perishable foods such as meat safe, keep your refrigerator at or below 40° F.

    Chill cut produce. Refrigerate any fruit or vegetable once it has been cut, say the food scientists at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Bacterial risk goes up with peeling and cutting. Even in the refrigerator, don’t let cut produce linger too long. Some of the most dangerous bacteria, such as listeria, can grow there.

    Avoid cross-contamination. To prevent contaminating other foods, keep cut items in plastic bags or covered containers. Keep drippy raw meat on the lowest rack, and make sure it’s on a plate and well sealed. Double-wrap, if necessary.

    Toss unrefrigerated leftovers. Play it safe and discard food that has been sitting at room temperature for two hours or longer. And never put washed food back in its original container without also washing the container.

    Limit what you buy. Most fruits and vegetables should be eaten in two to five days, so don’t buy more than you can eat.

    What’s the best way to clean produce bins?

    Bins are the most bacteria-laden areas in refrigerators, so clean them often. Take everything out, then remove the drawers and wash them with warm water and dish detergent in a clean sink. Rinse and dry with paper towels; finish by spraying drawers with a homemade sanitizing solution of 1 tablespoon of bleach to 1 gallon of water. Let stand for at least 15 seconds, but make sure to dry the drawers thoroughly with clean paper towels before returning them to the refrigerator.

    Best refrigerators from our tests

    3-door French door: GE Profile PWE23KMDES, $2,600.
    4-door French door: Samsung Chef Collection RF34H9960S4, $5,400.
    Bottom-freezer: Kenmore Elite 79043, $1,510.
    Top-freezer: GE Profile PTS22LHS[WW], $1,400.
    Side-by-side: Samsung RS25H5121SR, $1,900.
    Built-in: Thermador Freedom Collection T36BB820SS, $7,400.

    –Consumer Reports

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    Hamilton Beach brews coffee any way you like it

    Single-serve coffeemakers from Hamilton Beach haven’t typically ranked in the top tier of Consumer Reports' coffeemaker tests. But from what we’ve seen so far in our tests of the Hamilton Beach FlexBrew Generation 2 49997, the manufacturer is clearly raising the bar—at least for single-serve brewing.

    At first blush, the Hamilton Beach FlexBrew Generation 2 49997 looks ordinary with only a brew-strength selector on the exterior. Open the lid, and you see more: a filtered reservoir you can fill to an 8-, 10-, or 14-ounce level, plus a K-Cup holder that lifts out to expose a permanent filter for loose grounds. Each time you brew, the reservoir runs all the water through for that serving. And the drip tray adjusts to a higher height to prevent splashing when using a smaller cup.

    Our tests of the Hamilton Beach FlexBrew Generation 2 49997 won't be complete until we run expert taste tests of the pod coffee that all the most recently tested models brew. But from what we can see, this model looks like a winner. It delivered a first cup as quickly as the trio of top-rated DeLonghi Nescafé Dolce Gusto machines with the second cup almost as fast. Temperature and size consistency, were top-notch—something you can’t always say about single-serve coffeemakers. Where it fell short was in the convenience score, which took off points for such drawbacks as reservoir markings we thought hard to read.

    Since the Hamilton Beach also brews loose grounds—its 14-ounce setting is meant just for that—we also tested it as a “to-go” single-mug coffeemaker. As a drip coffeemaker, it scored only fair overall, with mediocre scores for brew performance and convenience.

    Need a new coffeemaker?

    We’ve tested more than 90 drip coffeemakers, including the high-scoring Cuisinart Crystal SCC-1000 Limited Edition Perfec Temp, $200, and the Mr. Coffee BVMC-SJX33GT, just $40. Of the more than 30 single-serve coffeemakers tested, headliners include the DeLonghi Nescafé Dolce Gusto Genio EDG455T, $130, and the Starbucks Verismo 600, $150. We’ve also tested four electric French-press models, including the iCoffee RCB100-BC12, $150. Be sure to check out our coffeemaker buying guide before viewing our coffeemaker Ratings.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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    Should you clear the counter for this grill and fryer?

    Decluttering your kitchen countertops sounds great until you discover yet another new countertop appliance that’s faster, better, or turns out tastier or healthier food. Consumer Reports tested the Philips Digital Airfryer and the Ronco Ready Grill. Are they worth clearing space on your counters? Take a look.

    Ronco Ready Grill RG1005BLGEN

    What we paid: $120
    What Ronco claims: Delicious, grilled meals in just 20 minutes! This new indoor, smokeless grill offers all of the delicious grilled flavor. It even cooks frozen foods straight from the freezer. The removable grill basket and drip tray make cleanup a snap.
    The look: Like a toaster but taller (17Wx7Dx12H). It comes in silver with black, red, or blue trim. It can fit enough food for a single course for four, or a mix of foods for fewer. 
    How it works: It’s a vertical broiler that uses two sets of heating rods to cook food in a basket from two sides. There’s no temperature control—the heating elements are on the whole time and the 30-minute manual timer will turn off the grill when time’s up. The basket can be adjusted to accommodate thick or thin foods, and the removable drip tray collects juices and fats.
    Our tests found: We tested the Ronco by cooking chicken wings, frozen French fries,  sweet potato fries, steak, Tater Tots, potato wedges, chicken tenders, sausage, bacon, toasted cheese sandwiches, and burgers and found the Ronco grill preheated fast and cooks much faster than a regular oven and was even faster than a convection oven. Foods were nicely browned and tasty but not smokey, if that's what Ronco means by grilled flavor. Thicker steaks and burgers cooked more evenly than thinner foods like bacon. There’s no temperature control so you have to keep an eye on your toasted cheese sandwiches.
    Need to know: It was easy to use and clean.The recipe book includes fewer recipes than the Airfryer’s so you have to try foods out to get a feel for the Ronco grill.

    Philips HD9230/26 Digital Airfryer

    What we paid: $349
    What Philips claims: Fries, bakes, roasts, and grills with a tablespoon of oil or less. Faster cooking and perfect results. Easy to use.
    The look: Bulky plastic, black or white. Capacity holds enough food for two hungry people, but a slightly larger model is also available.
    How it works: There’s a digital touchscreen, electric heater, fan, and a compartment that holds the basket of food. The heater can be set from 150° to 390° F in 30° increments and the fan rapidly circulates the hot air. There’s a 60-minute timer that automatically shuts off the Airfryer and a ready signal that alerts you when time is up.
    Our tests found: It quickly preheats and cooks much faster than a regular oven—the instructions suggest halving cooking times and reducing conventional oven temperatures by 70° F for pre-made packaged foods, so you’ll have to experiment. We cooked many of the same foods as we did in the Ronco. Using little or no oil, the sweet potato fries were very crispy and the frozen fries were better than those cooked in a regular or convection oven. The other foods were nicely browned and more evenly cooked than from a conventional oven. Testers were sad to see the Airfryer leave our labs.
    Need to know: Recipes are included. We could smell the food cooking but didn’t see any smoke, a possible problem when cooking fattier foods. Cleaning can be a little tricky, especially the screen at the bottom of the basket, but the removable nonstick coated drawer and food basket are dishwasher safe.

    —Kimberly Janeway

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    Wrinkled shirt? Forget the iron, reach for the spray.

    How many times have you left a load of laundry in the dryer overnight, leaving you with a wrinkled mess? That misstep used to mean a long session at the ironing board. Downy Wrinkle Releaser Plus promises a simpler spray-on solution. Does it work? Consumer Reports laundry pros created the ultimate torture test to find out.

    We filled a laundry basket with assorted fabric swatches, as well as several rayon-knit blouses, blended-fabric sweaters, and 100-percent cotton dress shirts. Next we added a 5-pound weight and let the items sit overnight. 

    The next day, we hung the severely wrinkled items from hangers and followed the Downy directions, which say to spray garments until they’re lightly damp, pull and smooth as needed, and let dry. As promised, the wrinkles fell from swatches and garments before our eyes, far more so than when we sprayed them with plain water (though not as thoroughly as when we hit them with a hot iron).     

    Downy Wrinkle Releaser Plus takes about 5 to 10 minutes to dry, depending on the fabric (though in a pinch you could probably don slightly damp garments). And it leaves behind a fragrance that might bother sensitive noses. Also, the spray works best on synthetic and blended fabrics, though it should get the job done on button-down shirts and other cotton apparel.

    And you don’t have to stop at clothing. Tablecloths, aprons, curtains, basically any fabrics around the house that are wrinkle-prone, are also worth a shot. Downy Wrinkle Release Plus also comes in travel-size containers, to keep you looking smooth and put-together when you’re far from home, especially if your clothes are kept stain-free with one of our top-rated laundry detergents.   

    One final point of interest about Downy Wrinkle Releaser Plus: though Downy is a Procter & Gamble brand, this particular product is licensed to Nehemiah Manufacturing Co, whose mission is to bring manufacturing jobs back to Cincinnati. You can read more about the company at its website.

    Best irons from our tests

    Prefer to get rid of wrinkles the old-fashioned way? Check out Consumer Reports' top-rated steam irons. We test irons for steaming rate, temperature consistency, and ease of use. Here are six picks.

    —Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico on Twitter) 

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    5 ways to bring restaurant cooking to your kitchen

    Many features common in today's kitchen started out in restaurants, including high-powered gas burners and the industrial look of stainless steel. Manufacturers are continuing to turn to professional kitchens for inspiration, as evidenced by the latest generation of pro-grade appliances aimed at the residential market. In this video, we highlight five favorites from the 2015 Design & Construction Week, the home industry's big annual trade show in Las Vegas. You'll have to pay a premium for these slick new wares, so we also offer lower-priced alternatives from Consumer Reports' appliance Ratings that give you similar performance for less.

    Tested products in this video

    —Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico on Twitter)

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    It's not too early to buy a dehumidifier

    Though much of the country is covered in ice and snow, home centers are stocking up on dehumidifiers, knowing that the first big thaw will lead to many damp basements. Consumer Reports recently tested a slew of new dehumidifiers to see which models are best at pulling moisture from the air. Kenmore had a particularly strong showing, and is joined by Danby, Frigidaire, GE, Soleus Air, and Sunpentown on our top picks list.

    The 70-pint Kenmore Elite 54571 leads our Ratings of large-capacity dehumidifiers, which we recommend for large or very wet spaces, like that dank basement. Besides acing our water removal and energy efficiency tests, the $330 Kenmore features a built-in pump that can expel water to an elevated location, like a utility sink or open window. One caveat: we found the hose attachment a little tricky to work with and switching the machine into continuous-drain mode is more complicated than with other models. If you're not mechanically inclined, the Danby DDR60A3GP is another top-rated large-capacity dehumidifier whose continuous-drain feature is a bit easier to operate.        

    Kenmore also has the top-rated model among medium-capacity dehumidifiers with its 50-pint Kenmore 54550. The same issue with the garden hose attachment applies, so you might also consider the recommended GE ADEW50LR, $200, sold at Walmart and the Frigidaire FAD504DWD, $220. If you're only trying to dehumidify a small area, the 30-pint Sunpentown SD-31E, $230, actually had the highest overall score of all tested models.                                         

    Find the source of the moisture

    Keep in mind that even the best dehumidifier can't make up for underlying issues that are creating dampness in your home. Here's a moisture-control checklist:  

    • Make sure gutters aren't clogged and that downspouts are directing rainwater at least 3 feet away from the house.
    • Grade your property so that rainwater flows away from the foundation.
    • Keep the duct for your clothes dryer properly vented to the outside, making sure that it isn't clogged or leaking.
    • Run an exhaust fan or open a window when showering, and squeegee or wipe down the shower walls afterward. 
    • When cooking, use a range hood or exhaust fan that vents outdoors.
    • Check plumbing for leaks and condensation in the basement.  
    • Use silicone caulk to seal small gaps in the foundation, and hydraulic cement for cracks.

    —Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico on Twitter)  

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    5 products on deep discount in March

    You might think that because you faithfully compare prices online before buying, download coupons to your phone, and watch for deep discounts on yesterday's inventory as new models appear in stores, you're getting the best deals you possibly can.

    Still, deep discounts for some products go by the calendar. Consumer Reports product research experts, who track prices all year long, have compiled a list of items that are typically discounted most deeply in March. 

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

    ––Mandy Walker (@MandyWalker on Twitter)

    Whether you're looking for a basic digital camera (simple point-and-shoots with just the features needed for routine shots), or an advanced model (feature-laden cameras that include sophisticated models that let you change lenses), now is a good time to shop. Our digital camera buying guide and our our Ratings give you the details on different models, as well as infomation on features and brands.

    Shopping tips

    Do your research. Buying a digital camera can be confusing. There are hundreds of cameras available at many different types of retail outlets (online and in traditional stores), with prices ranging from $75 to several thousand dollars. Some cameras are small enough to fit in a shirt pocket. Others are large and can weigh up to two pounds. Some are easy to use. Others look like you need an engineering degree to operate them.

    Take the next steps. After you consider the type of camera you want and the number of megapixels you need, but before you dive into specific models, be sure to check out our brand profiles, which outline many of the most popular camera product lines and their respective character traits.

    A humidifier can relieve itchy eyes, sore throat, and cracked skin by adding moisture to dry, heated air.  

    Shopping tips

    Before you buy, check the features. A humidistat—if it's accurate—can help you maintain relative humidity between the optimal levels of 30 percent to 50 percent.

    Put substance over style. Models resembling a radio can liven up your decor but their output might be too low for the area you need to humidify. Some models with a touch of whimsy, however—like the owl model from Crane (shown)—also delivered on performance.

    Check our humidifer buying guide for more tips on finding the right model in our Ratings. To learn how we test humidifiers in our labs, watch the video below.

    Early fall is a good time to buy many small consumer electronics such as MP3 players, DVD players, and Blu-ray players. As with many items you buy, deciding which ones are right for you depends on which type fit your needs and come with features that are important to you. Our buying guides can help; for example, we have one for MP3s, DVD players, and Blu-ray players, and a list of other electronics guides. Subscribers can also access our ratings of MP3s and Blu-ray players.

    Shopping tips

    Give them a try. For example, whichever type of MP3 player you choose, make sure you'll be comfortable using the device. Look for a display that is easy to read and controls that can be worked with one hand, useful features iPods lack. When it comes to home theaters, audition systems in the store and ask about a return or exchange if the one you buy doesn't suit you.

    Consider online retailers, too. In recent years, the Consumer Reports readers we've surveyed who shopped online were more satisfied overall than those who shopped at a walk-in store. In fact, websites as a whole outdid walk-in stores for quality, selection, and price.

    A new coat is likely to be one of your bigger clothing purchases if you live in a cold climate, and one of most used items in your closet during the winter.

    Shopping tips

    Time your purchase. Shopping at the right time can save you even more, say the editors at Shop Smart magazine. Kohl's fans, for example, should check out the "Gold Star Clearance" racks, where prices are slashed up to 80 percent on weekend nights. Every Wednesday, shoppers who are 60 years old and older get an extra 15 percent off.

    At Target, women's clothing is generally marked down on Tuesdays, men's on Wednesday, and kids' on Mondays. Markdowns at Marshalls and T.J. Maxx usually happen on Wednesday.

    Hit the outlets We've looked over the clothing sold at outlets several times, and we've found most of the goods are good, even if there are some shortcuts taken (like less expensive buttons or fewer stitches per inch) on items made expressly for the outlets to lower the price from regular retail versions. Just look over each piece of clothing carefully to make sure there are no loose threads, tears, or other faults.

    It's possible to find good TVs selling for a few hundred dollars, while others go for several thousand, and there are many sets that fall in between those extremes. Screen size, features, brand, and more affect the price. Our TV buying guide will help you get the most bang for your buck, no matter how much or how little you want to spend. The video below outlines how we test TVs in our test labs.

    Shopping tips:

    It's hard to judge TVs well in stores. That's because TVs are usually set to a Retail or Store mode, which pumps up brightness and color to a level that looks great under fluorescent lights. Subscribers should consult our TV Ratings before hitting the stores to make sure you get a set that performed well in our lab tests.

    Shop where you'll get a price guarantee. Many retailers will match or beat a lower price from a local competitor, so go to the store with those prices in hand. Even after the sale, some stores promise a refund within a specified period of time, often 30 to 60 days, if they reduce the price of your TV within it or if you find the set selling elsewhere for less. There are usually restrictions, so check the details. Save your receipt and keep checking the ads even after you buy.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Tips from the pros to get top dollar for your house

    The spring home selling season is nearly here, so if you're thinking about entering the market, now's the time to get your house in order. A home can be ready to list in as little as a month, especially if it's in good shape and you're working with a competent real estate agent. But it's often better to give yourself a little more cushion. Here's a rough timeline, including advice gleaned from a recent survey of 303 real estate professionals conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. 

    Two months out (or more)

    Find a real estate agent. This is arguably the most important decision you'll make in the whole home-selling process. You want to find an agent who is credible and trustworthy and with whom you have good rapport. It pays to speak with a few professionals, ideally using word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and family. For good measure, check the references from at least three recent clients. Before signing the contract, be clear on the agent's commission. In our survey, 63 percent of pros said they negotiate their fees at least half the time, and the average commission was 4 percent—not the 6 percent that's often considered the industry standard. Check out these other real estate agent secrets.    

    Six weeks out

    Handle any large repairs or upgrades. Pay close attention to the kitchen and bathrooms, which are the two rooms that most sell a house. Our report found that spending about $2,200 on new suite of appliances—the dishwasher, range, and refrigerator—could fetch you an extra $6,000. In the bathroom, consider replacing corroded fixtures as well as the vanity countertop, which can be fairly inexpensive given its small size. Applying a fresh coat of paint in high-traffic parts of the home, including the front door, is also a good use of time and money      

    One month out

    Get rid of the clutter. Nothing turns away buyers faster than a messy house. You want them to be able to imagine themselves in your home, which will be impossible if your stuff is piled everywhere. Storage is a big selling point, so free up the closets and kitchen cabinets. This is also the time to pack up family photos, which can be another distraction for would-be buyers. These measures can add about 5 percent to a home's asking price, which works out to $10,000 on the average property.

    Two weeks out

    Photograph your home. In the era of online real estate, this step is crucial. If you're working with a top-quality real estate agent, they'll hopefully pony up for professional photographer—and maybe even a stager too. If they try to tell you their smart phone camera can do the job, don't believe them. An advanced digital camera is essential, because its large sensor will take clear pictures even in low-light interiors. Be sure to photograph every room in the home, as well as the exterior and yard. Here are some tips from the pros at Consumer Reports.         

    One week out

    Do a deep clean. Ahead of the first open house, you need to thoroughly wipe down every surface in the home, as well as vacuum and dust every corner. Do your best to air out the property by opening windows. And avoid cooking any smelly dishes in the final days leading up to the open house.        

    One to two days out

    List your home online. Traffic to real estate websites tends to spike just before the weekend. For example, on the real estate broker Redfin, traffic is 29 percent higher on Fridays than Sundays. So aim to post your listing on Thursday or Friday. And make sure you have the pieces in place before posting, especially the visuals. Some sellers debut their listing without the photos, thinking they can upload them later. But by that time, much of the traffic will have moved on.

    —Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico on Twitter)    

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    The best matching washers and dryers

    Matching washer and dryer pairs are a popular choice but some don't make a great couple. Their coordinating style and color make a statement, but you'll question how a terrific washer and a noisy dryer that's tough on clothes ended up together. Enter the matchmaker. Consumer Reports tests found a number of matching pairs that are worth a look.

    The top-rated washers and dryers are expensive. Blame the rising cost of manufacturing and transportation, as well as much larger capacities, stainless-steel drums, added cycles and features, and improved styling. Specialty cycles take out the guesswork, but up the price. Our tests have found that basic cycles can handle most of your laundry needs. So ask yourself if you want to pay extra for a bedding cycle or one for your jeans.  

    CR Tip: Take a look at the washers and dryers that scored very good or better in our tests for noise if you're placing the washer and dryer near bedrooms. You'll know they're working but they shouldn't disturb you. You'll hear the machines that scored good or lower. They make sustained sounds that can be annoying.

    Full washing machine Ratings and recommendations
    .
    Full clothes dryer Ratings and recommendations.

    Our tests found a number of matching washer and dryer pairs that are quiet enough for prime placement near a family room or bedrooms. All offer large or even jumbo capacities and the dryers have moisture sensors that help save energy by turning off the machine when the laundry is dry. Many of the washers and dryers have a steam option. Our dryer tests have found that steam didn't remove wrinkles but did remove more odors than conventional dryers, and steam washer settings slightly improved stain cleaning. We frequently show appliances in white but many pairs are also available in other colors. Here's a glimpse.

    For more details on their performance and features, see our Ratings of washing machines and clothes dryers.

    Kenmore set

    Kenmore Elite 41073 front-loader and Kenmore Elite 81073 electric dryer
    Price: $1,350 each
    Here's the deal: The washer is near the top of our Ratings and has 14 cycles, offers excellent washing, was gentle on fabrics, and has a jumbo capacity—it can hold about 26 pounds of laundry. It made the recommended list. The dryer was excellent at its job and also has a jumbo capacity. Both machines let you transmit data by smartphone to a service center that will try to identify the problem without a house call.
    Consider this: Normal wash time using the heavy soil setting is 95 minutes. Try the Accela-Wash option. It offers comparable wash performance in about 15 to 20 minutes less. 
    Need to know: Each machine is 29 inches wide—2 more than usual—but can be stacked to save room. Gas dryer is Kenmore Elite 91073, $1,450. 

    LG duos

    LG WM8500HVA front-loader and LG DLEX8500V electric dryer 
    Price: $1,450 each
    Here's the deal: The washer is at the top of our Ratings and both machines make the recommended list and have jumbo capacities, each holding about 26 pounds of laundry. The washer was superb at cleaning and gentle on fabrics and has 14 cycles; the dryer excelled at drying. Each has SmartDiagnosis. It enables you to use your smartphone to transmit data to LG. Their service center will try to identify the problem without a house call.
    Consider this: It took 90 minutes to do a normal wash on the heavy soil setting, but the TurboWash option offers comparable wash performance in 15 to 20 minutes less time.
    Need to know: Each machine is 29 inches wide, two more than usual, but can be stacked. Only available in a graphite-steel finish. Gas dryer is LG DLGX8501V, $1,550. 

    LG WT5680HVA high-efficiency top-loader and LG DLEX5680V electric dryer
    Price: $950 each
    Here's the deal: This top-rated washer is recommended and among the few top-loaders to deliver superb cleaning. It has 14 cycles and a jumbo capacity that can hold about 26 pounds of laundry. Normal wash time on the heavy soil setting was 75 minutes. The TurboWash option offers comparable cleaning in less time. The dryer was superb at drying and also has a jumbo capacity. 
    Consider this: As with most top-loaders this LG wasn't so gentle on fabrics. Reach into the washer tub when shopping and try to touch the bottom. If you'll need tongs to retrieve clean socks find another washer. 
    Need to know: Each machine has SmartDiagnosis. Gas dryer is LG DLGX5681V,$1,050. 

    LG WT5070C[W] high-efficiency top-loader and LG DLEX5170[W] electric dryer
    Price: $830 washer, $900 dryer 
    Here's the deal: The washer was impressive at cleaning and gentle on fabrics. It has 12 cycles and normal wash time on heavy soil setting is 65 minutes. The dryer excelled at drying and of the dozens tested, it's one of the quietest. Both machines have large capacities.
    Need to know: Each machine has SmartDiagnosis. Gas dryer is LG DLGX5171[W], $1,050.

    Maytag mates

    Maytag Maxima MHW8100DC front-loader and Maytag Maxima MED8100DC
    Price: $1,300 each
    Here's the deal: This recommended front-loader offers excellent washing. It was gentle on fabrics and there are 11 wash cycles. The dryer was superb at its task and among the quietest tested. They're made in the U.S.
    Consider this: The washer took 75 minutes using the normal cycle on heavy-soil setting.
    Need to know: Gas dryer is Maytag Maxima MGD8100DC, $1,400. Washer and dryer can be stacked to save space.  

    Samsung sets

    Samsung WF56H9100AG front-loader and Samsung DV56H9100EG electric dryer
    Price: $1,500 each
    Here's the deal: This washer has one the largest capacities of the tested front-loaders and fit about 28 pounds of our laundry. It offers impressive cleaning and was gentle on fabrics. There are 15 wash cycles.The top-rated dryer was superb at drying and also has a jumbo capacity. Both are recommended.
    Consider this: Normal wash time on heavy soil setting was 85 minutes, but the SuperSpeed option cut wash time of full loads by about 15 to 20 minutes without sacrificing performance.
    Need to know: Each machine is 30 inches wide, three more than usual, and can be stacked. Gas dryer is Samsung DV56H9100GP, $1,600.

    Samsung WA56H9000AP high-efficiency top-loader and Samsung DV56H9000EP electric dryer
    Price: $1,300 each
    Here's the deal: This washer has a jumbo capacity and can hold about 28 pounds of laundry, the most of all tested top-loaders and more than most front-loaders. Washing was impressive. Normal wash time on heavy soil setting was 75 minutes. The dryer was excellent at its job and has a jumbo capacity. Both are recommended. 
    Consider this: As with most top-loaders this washer wasn't so gentle on fabrics.
    Need to know: Each machine is 30 inches wide, three more than usual. The washer's waterproof cycle prevented the washer from becoming unbalanced when we washed several waterproof jackets. Gas dryer is Samsung DV56H9000GP, $1,400. 

    Whirlpool pairs

    Whirlpool Duet WFL98HEBU front-loader and Whirlpool Duet WEL98HEBU electric dryer
    Price: $1,500 each
    Here's the deal: Both have a large capacity. The washer offers excellent wash performance and was gentle on fabrics. There are 13 wash cycles. Normal wash time, on heavy soil setting, is 75 minutes. That's faster than most.The dryer was superb at drying and among the quietest tested.
    Consider this: These machines are expensive, in part, because they are Wi-Fi enabled, providing remote control via your smart device that lets you monitor your laundry's progress, start/stop the machine, and more.
    Need to know: Machines are only available in silver and can be stacked. Dryer is not available as a gas model.

    CR Tip: Some HE top-loaders come with a warning not to wash waterproof items, or the manufacturer may suggest using the low-spin or no-spin mode to prevent the load from becoming unbalanced, which can cause the machine to shake too much, even damaging the machine and laundry area. Check the manual before you buy.  

    The best washers and top dryers in Consumer Reports' tests are typically among the most expensive, so if you want a matching dryer for your new washer you might have to spend lots of money to do loads of laundry. You'll pay about $3,000 for a top-rated front-loader and its matching electric dryer. But if your budget is around $1,600 or less, take a look at the pairs that did well in our tests and that won't break the bank. A word of caution. Some are relatively noisy, something to think about if you want to install them near bedrooms or a family room.

    CR Tip: Before you give up on your dryer consider that most of the improvements in performance and efficiency are found on washers. If you're set on a matching duo, in general it's smart to select your washer first and then the dryer. Here's a look at several matching pairs, most of the models did not make our Recommended list, but all of these washers and dryers were still impressive at cleaning or drying. For more details on their performance and features, see our Ratings of washing machines and clothes dryers.

    Kenmore couples

    Kenmore Elite 41472 front-loader and Kenmore Elite 81472 electric dryer
    Price: $700 each
    Here's the deal: They didn't make our top picks but were impressive. The front-loader was superb at cleaning, very gentle on fabrics, and relatively quiet. The dryer was impressive at its job and also relatively quiet.
    Consider this: The normal wash time, on heavy-soil setting, was 85 minutes in our tests. Try the Accela-Wash option. It cut wash time by about 15 to 20 minutes without affecting cleaning or gentleness. Washer capacity isn't as large as the top models. It held about 19 pounds of our laundry, so it should suffice for most families.
    Need to know: Gas dryer is Kenmore Elite 91472, $800. Washer and dryer can be stacked.

    Kenmore 27102 high-efficiency top-loader and Kenmore 67102 electric dryer
    Price: $600 each
    Here's the deal: Not on our list of top picks, but keep reading. The washer was very good at cleaning, used less water than most top-loaders tested, and got the job done in 45 minutes. That's fast, for a washer without an agitator. The dryer was excellent at drying and relatively quiet.
    Consider this: The washer is noisy and capacity isn't as large as the top-rated models—it held about 19 pounds of our laundry—but should do for most families.
    Need to know: Gas dryer is the Kenmore 77102, $700. 

    LG duos

    LG WT4870CW high-efficiency top-loader and LG DLE4870W electric dryer
    Price: $800 each
    Here’s the deal: They didn’t make our recommended list but the washer was impressive at cleaning and gentle on fabrics. Normal wash time on heavy soil setting is 75 minutes. The dryer was superb at its job. Both have large capacities and can hold about 22 pounds each, and are relatively quiet.
    Need to know: Both machines have the SmartDiagnosis feature. Gas dryer is LG DLG4871W, $900.

    Maytag pair

    Maytag Bravos XL MVWB725BW high-efficiency top-loader and Maytag Bravos XL MEDB725BW electric dryer
    Price: $800 each
    Here’s the deal: Neither made our recommended list but offer impressive washing and drying and have large capacities. The dryer is relatively quiet.
    Consider this: Like most top-loaders the Maytag wasn’t so gentle on fabric, and this washer is relatively noisy. Normal wash time on heavy soil setting was 90 minutes—longer than most.
    Need to know: Gas dryer is Maytag Bravos XL MGDB725BW, $900.

    Samsung set

    Samsung WA45H7200AW high-efficiency top-loader and Samsung DV45H7200EW electric dryer
    Price: $800 each
    Here's the deal: While they didn't make the recommended list they were very good overall. The top-loader was impressive at cleaning, has a large capacity, and is relatively quiet. Normal wash time on heavy-soil setting was 75 minutes. The dryer was superb at drying and relatively quiet.
    Consider this: Like most top-loaders the Samsung wasn't so gentle on fabrics.
    Need to know: Gas dryer is the Samsung DV45H7200GW, $900. 

    Whirlpool set

    Whirlpool Cabrio WTW5800BW high-efficiency top-loader and Whirlpool Cabrio WED5800BW electric dryer
    Price: $630 each
    Here’s the deal: Neither made the recommended list but the washer was impressive at cleaning and did a normal wash on heavy soil setting in a brisk 40 minutes. The dryer was excellent at its job.
    Consider this: Like most top-loaders this washer wasn’t so gentle on fabrics, and it’s relatively noisy.
    Need to know: The washer’s capacity isn’t as big as the top models, but should suffice for most families. The capacity earned a good score, and can hold about 17 pounds of laundry. Gas dryer is Whirlpool Cabrio WGD5800BW, $730. 

    CR Tip: Increasing capacities meant it was time to update the capacity scores in our ratings of washers and dryers. A machine now needs to hold about 25 or more pounds of laundry to earn an excellent capacity score. Most families can get by with a machine that’s rated very good or even good in capacity. Very good indicates that the washer fit about 20 to 24 pounds of our laundry. A good score means the washer held about 15 to 19 pounds.

    In addition to washing performance Consumer Reports' washing machine tests look at how gentle a washing machine is on fabric as well as its energy and water efficiency. We also look at such factors as noise and vibration that might annoy you if your laundry room is adjacent to a living area. And we compare cycle times. Front-loaders usually take anywhere from 65 to 105 minutes to wash an 8-pound load. Top-loaders are a little quicker, most ranging from 45 to 90 minutes. As for capacity, models rated excellent in capacity fit 25 or more pounds of laundry. Models scoring very good in capacity fit 20 to 24 pounds of our laundry. 

    In our clothes dryer tests we run the machines with different sized loads and a variety of fabrics. We also measure noise, capacity and convenience. Models that earned excellent or very good capacity scores in our dryer tests can hold large loads as well.

    You can find more details on the model page for each washer and dryer, and compare up to five washers or dryers using the comparison feature on our Ratings charts. Before you buy, look online for sales as well as manufacturer rebates and utilitiy rebates for Energy Star washers and dryers; the first Energy Star dryers arrived in stores in the summer of 2014.

    A word about washer types

    Front-loaders use less water than top-loaders but typically have longer wash cycles—some take 90 minutes or more. That's not the end of the world, but it may be the beginning of laundry pile-up. Since front-loaders use less water, the detergent is more concentrated and the machine's tumbling action can also help boost cleaning. Manufacturers recommend using HE detergent—that's high efficiency—for front-loaders and HE top-loaders. Regular detergents are too sudsy for these machines.

    The best front-loaders clean better and use even less water than most of the top HE top-loaders. Front-loaders spin faster than HE top-loaders so more water is typically extracted, reducing drying time. HE top-loaders don't have a center agitator and use a variety of methods to lift and tumble laundry. They're high-efficiency because they use less water and spin faster than conventional top-loaders, also cutting dryer time.

    —Kimberly Janeway

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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