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Consumer Reports

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    5 great dishwashers for $500 or less

    The two top-scoring dishwashers in Consumer Reports’ tests—the KitchenAid KDTM354DSS and the Kenmore Elite 12793—each earned 85 out of a possible 100 points and cost more than $1,000. But for half that you can buy models that scored almost as well in our tests including another Kenmore and a Whirlpool. So what do you give up? The higher-priced models have stainless-steel interiors instead of plastic and a few more bells and whistles. But if good washing is all you want, the five dishwashers featured below are excellent choices.

    Once limited to more expensive machines, soil sensors have trickled down to many dishwashers that cost less making it easier to get a cleaner load. Manufacturers have also gotten better at taming the racket made by lower-cost machines. Plus our tests have shown that a high price tag doesn’t guarantee quietness. Keep in mind that while dishwashers have added more cycles and features, there’s no need to pay for extras that you won’t use.

    Whirlpool WDT720PADM, $460
    If you only run your dishwasher while you sleep, you'll find lots to like in this low-priced Whirlpool, which had superb washing, drying, and efficiency. Other pluses include a soil sensor, hidden controls, and a time-remaining display. Whirlpool is also among the more reliable dishwasher brands. For flexibility, there's delayed start, ample flatware slots, and adjustable upper rack and tines. You'll need to clean the filter manually, though you might prefer that over the noise of a self-cleaning filter. A normal cycle took 155 minutes and used about 5 gallons of water in our tests.

    Kenmore 13202, $475
    Top-notch washing, drying, and efficiency come at a bargain price with this Kenmore, so long as you're okay with a little more noise and a plodding cycle time. You get a soil sensor, no guarantee with a low-cost dishwasher, and a time-remaining display. Flexibility options include delayed start, ample flatware slots, and an adjustable upper rack and tines. Controls are all visible, the tub is plastic, and you'll need to clean the filter manually. A normal cycle took 155 minutes and used about 5 gallons of water.

    Kenmore 13473, $500
    Very good overall, this Kenmore earned excellent marks for washing, drying and energy efficiency. It has a soil sensor, an adjustable upper rack, some hidden controls, a time-remaining display and a delayed start option. The interior is plastic and there are no adjustable tines. And as with the other machines, the filter needs manual cleaning. This machine wasn’t as quiet as some other Kenmores in our tests. A normal cycle took 160 minutes, but used just 4 gallons of water.

    Whirlpool WDF540PADM, $500
    You could do a lot worse for the price than this Whirlpool dishwasher, which delivered excellent washing, drying, and efficiency. Other pluses include a soil sensor. Whirlpool is also among the more reliable dishwasher brands. For flexibility, it has delayed start and ample flatware slots. Controls are all visible, the tub is plastic, and you'll need to clean the filter manually. A normal cycle took 115 minutes and used about 5 gallons of water in our tests. As for cons, it lacks an adjustable upper rack and tines and a time-remaining display. And it wasn't especially quiet.

    GE Artistry ADT521PGFBS, $500
    If the best washing and efficiency are all you're after, this GE conventional dishwasher might seem quite the bargain. Pluses include a soil sensor and plastic interior. For flexibility, it has delayed start and ample flatware slots. Some controls are hidden, and you'll need to clean the filter manually. A normal cycle took a long 155 minutes and used about 5 gallons of water in our tests. As for minuses, this model wasn't especially quiet, and it was only so-so at drying plastic items. There's also no time-remaining display, and neither the upper rack nor the tines are adjustable.

    Other good choices

    For more choices at all price points see our full dishwasher Ratings and recommendations where you’ll find models from Bosch, Thermador, Miele, Blomberg, and Viking as well as from all of the manufacturers featured above.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell 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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    Make your microwave last with tips from the pros

    Today’s microwaves do everything from defrosting to grilling. Sure, they’ll reheat yesterday’s dinner or pop a bag of popcorn. But many of the latest models also automate heating functions for a wide range of food and offer convection, speed-cooking, and even grilling capabilities. That means you can cook an entire meal without turning on your stove. Some simple precautions and basic upkeep will keep your microwave popping for years to come.

    Don’t let splatters sit. Tackle them right away with a wet paper towel. If you need something stronger, add a sprinkle of baking soda to the wet towel.

    Cut the crud. Scrape off tough, baked-on food with a credit card. The straight edge can lift the mess without scratching the oven’s finish.

    Use the right cleaner.
    Wash the turntable and other removable parts with hot water and a little dishwashing liquid.

    Freshen the interior. To stop smells, place a bowl of lemon juice and warm water inside the oven and run it on high for 1 minute.

    Avoid damage. If sparks fly from your oven, turn it off immediately and remove the food or the utensil you were using. If caught at once, sparks shouldn’t damage the oven.

    Don't run on empty. Avoid turning it on when empty and avoid putting metal inside.

    Mind the installation. Use a surge protector to shield the microwave’s solid-state circuitry from voltage spikes.

    Follow instructions. Check the owner's manual for more tips.

    Top microwaves from our tests

    Cooking with microwave energy is more efficient than cooking on a cooktop or in an oven. Capacity is improving, too. Major brands are increasing usable space without stretching overall size by using recessed turntables and walls. But some manufacturers exaggerate size by counting wasted space in the corners so see our microwave Ratings for the real deal.

    Best countertop microwaves

    Best over-the-range microwaves

    —Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell 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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    Is there glyphosate in your diet?

    The herbicide glyphosate, known by the commercial name Roundup, is the most commonly used agricultural pesticide in the U.S. on farms. (Home gardeners use it too.) Yet we have no idea how much of it is in our food because the government doesn’t regularly test produce for it.

    Glyphosate use has increased tenfold in the past 20 years thanks to the rise in genetically modified corn and soy. Most of those crops are engineered to be resistant to glyphosate, which means Roundup will kill the weeds but not the crops. According to Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., of Washington State University, data shows that U.S. farmers used enough glyphosate in 2014 to apply the equivalent of almost three-quarters of a pound on every acre of farmland used to grow crops. “When a single pesticide is used that widely, people can’t help but be exposed to it,” Benbrook says.

    Read our special report, "Pesticides in Produce," for more information and to download a chart that details the risk of pesticide exposure for dozens of fruits and vegetables.

    And now there will be even more glyphosate sprayed thanks to the EPA’s approval in late 2014 of the herbicide Enlist Duo, a combination of glyphosate and another chemical herbicide, called 2,4-D. That latest approval has drawn criticism. “I think if the EPA had followed the mandates of the Food Quality Protection Act, there’s no way that they could have ever approved this very substantial increase in the use of glyphosate,” says Philip Landrigan, M.D., of Mount Sinai Hospital. He says the EPA’s decision that Enlist Duo is safe was based on old studies and that the agency was wrong to approve it without adhering to additional child-safety protections required by the act.

    In one small study, the USDA found glyphosate residues on about 90 percent of 300 soybean samples. All were below the EPA’s tolerance level of 20 parts per million, but one of the samples came very close at 18.5 ppm. And we don’t know what other foods are contaminated.

    Consumer Reports' take: The health effects of glyphosate are not well understood, but given its widespread use, we believe it should be monitored by the government.

    This article also appeared in the May 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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    7 best mattresses for couples

    You may have the best mattress money can buy but if you’re being kept awake at night when your partner is tossing and turning, then you may want to reconsider. Some mattresses are better than others at  muting vibrations from one side of the bed to the other when someone changes position or gets up during the night. That’s why Consumer Reports conducts a stabilization test on every mattress it tests. Here are the seven best mattresses for couples—they make it easier for both partners to get a good night’s sleep.

    No more bouncing

    All of the best mattresses in our tests meet or exceed the threshold that earns our judgment of bounce resistance. These mattresses are less likely to relay vibrations when someone shifts positions. Still, some innersprings we recommend do better than others in this test. Among those, the $1,075 Serta Perfect Day iSeries Applause, which is becoming difficult to find, was among the best in our tests and delivered consistently impressive back and side support. (All prices listed are without the foundation.) The $1,275 Sealy Posturepedic Hybrid Trust Cushion did about as well at muting vibration.

    Moving with ease

    The foam beds we recommend are fine at muting vibration and all except the $3,000 Comforpedic IQ180 are notably good at making it easy to change positions. Keep in mind that lower scores on the stabilization test indicate mattresses on which changing positions is more likely to wake up your partner, particularly a light sleeper. Of the foam mattresses in our tests, the Ikea Morgongava, $1,000, is best at  allowing easy movement. Not far behind is the Spring Air Back Supporter Natalie, $1,200, from Costco.

    Firmness options

    Choose the Bob’s Discount Furniture Bob-O-Pedic, $800, and you can get it in firm or soft—or, for couples who can’t agree, a combination of the two. And both the Sleep Number i8 Bed, $3,000, and the less pricey Sleep Number c2 Bed, $700, have separately inflatable air bladders beneath their foam layers. That way you can adjust each half to the respective sleep partner’s preference. Both Sleep Number beds are especially good at resisting bounciness and easing movement. But don’t assume that any adjustable-air bed lets each sleep partner adjust firmness individually. The Tempur-Pedic Tempur-Choice Supreme, $3,200, which missed our picks list, has air bladders that go left to right rather than head to foot—meaning that adjustments made to one side affect the other as well.

    Full Ratings and recommendations

    Only by trying out a mattress for at least 15 minutes in each of your favorite sleep positions can you truly know how comfortable a bed feels. In addition to our stabilization tests, we also measure back and side support. For those sleeping preferences, see our Ratings of nearly 40 mattresses, along with our survey-based Ratings of mattress brands and stores. And be sure to read our mattress buying guide before shopping.

    —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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    The best washers for $800 or less

    How much should you spend on a washer? You don’t have to pay $1,500 to get a washer that cleans well. Expensive washers offer a jumbo capacity and extra features, but if you don’t need to wash 26 pounds of laundry in one load and using your phone to check your laundry’s progress from Starbucks isn’t a priority, then take a look at these washers from Consumer Reports’ tests. They get the job done and cost $800 or less.

    Agitator top-loaders

    They’re cheaper, have faster wash times, and are still the big sellers. But they use a lot more water and extract less of it than high-efficiency (HE) top-loaders and front-loaders, extending dryer time. The center post agitator takes up space so these machines hold less laundry than HE washers—typically 12 to 16 pounds. And most are relatively noisy and not so gentle on fabrics.
    Consider: Whirlpool WTW4850BW, $580, and the GE GTWN5650FWS, $650. These top picks delivered impressive cleaning in our tests and the normal wash time using the heavy-soil setting is 50 to 55 minutes. You’ll save 5 to 10 minutes by using the normal wash on normal-soil setting.
    Tip: Some washers aren’t so gentle on fabrics so use the normal wash on light-soil setting when possible and the delicate cycle when necessary.

    High-efficiency top-loaders

    HE top-loaders hold 17 to 28 pounds of laundry. Compared to agitator washers they typically clean better, use less water, and spin at higher speeds so more water is extracted and dryer time is shortened. But the high-speed spin can tangle and wrinkle clothing and normal wash time using the heavy-soil setting is usually 65 to 80 minutes. Shave about 15 to 20 minutes off by using the normal wash on normal-soil setting. It’s also known as the medium-soil or mid-soil setting.
    Consider: Samsung WA45H7000AW, $700, Maytag Bravos XL MVWB725BW, $800, Samsung WA45H7200AW, $800, Kenmore 28102, $700, and the LG WT1101CW, $700. They have large capacities and were impressive at cleaning, but some are quieter than others as you’ll see in our washing machine Ratings.
    Tip: Your laundry will tangle less if you wash similar items together and rather than dump everything into the machine at once, add a few items at a time and unbunch sleeves, pant legs, and socks. Before you put them in the dryer shake them out.

    Front-loaders

    The best we tested typically clean better than the best HE top-loaders and use less water. Most can hold about 17 to 28 pounds of laundry and spin even faster than HE top-loaders, usually extracting more water and reducing dryer time. Wash times range from 65 to 100 minutes using heavy-soil setting, so use the normal-soil setting and save about 15 to 20 minutes.
    Consider: Kenmore Elite 41472, $700, Samsung WF42H5000AW, $720, and the Whirlpool WFW72HEDW, $800. All were excellent at cleaning.
    Tip: A front-loader's high spin speeds might vibrate too much for the machine to be placed near a bedroom or family room, but keep in mind that concrete floors can absorb vibrations well, unlike wood-framed floors.

    More choices

    Our washing machine Ratings give you all the details. We rate wash performance, energy- and water efficiency, capacity, gentleness, noise, vibration, and cycle time (normal wash on heavy-soil setting) and let you know if there's a matching dryer. Use our buying guide to compare washer types and features and if you have questions, email me at kjaneway@consumer.org.

    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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    Hottest trends from the Architectural Digest show

    The Architectural Digest Home Design Show, taking place March 19-22 in New York City, is where trends are born. Now in its fourteenth year, the show features thousands of products, including appliances, fixtures, furnishings, and more. Consumer Reports was on hand yesterday for the glitzy premiere. While just about everything on the show floor could be called cutting-edge, several trends rose to the top. If you’re attending the show this weekend, when it's open to the public, or just looking for the next big thing in home design, here’s our take.                

    2015 is the year of the 24-inch appliance  

    Compact appliances designed for small urban kitchens, as well as mother-in-law apartments and other secondary kitchens, were all over the show floor. Bosch has one of the most extensive collections; its “24-inch kitchen” includes a glass-front refrigerator, $2,500, an electric wall oven, $1,700, gas and electric cooktops, $800, and a dishwasher, $1,500. The kitchen appliances hit stores in April, along with a 24-inch stackable washer/dryer set, $1,200.

    We also liked the 24-inch Aga City60 Contemporary, $5,700, which you can get in the British manufacturer’s trademark hues, including rose, lemon, cream, and pewter. Smeg’s suite of 24-inch appliances includes a built-in oven with optional pizza stone base. Miele also had a 24-inch refrigerator, which is perfect for the upscale man cave that's all the rage. 

    If you're remodeling a tight kitchen, another smart product from the show to consider is the Galley Workstation, which turns the sink into a multifunctional space for meal prep, clean up, serving, and entertainment.  

    Big names embrace small appliances      

    Smeg is probably best known for its retro-looking refrigerators. The Italian manufacturer is bringing the same aesthetic to its new line of countertop appliances, including a toaster, blender, stand mixer, and kettle. Many of the trademark finishes apply. According to CEO Vittorio Bertazzoni, mint green is the most popular hue in the U.S. market, while Europeans favor cream. Wolf is also getting into the small appliance game with its line of toasters, countertop convection oven, and blender.  

    Products that hear what you’re saying 

    Voice activation is the next frontier in automated products. Dacor, the California-based appliance manufacturer which is celebrating 50 years, featured the latest generation of its Wi-Fi enabled IQ range. The 48-inch dual fuel range, $11,999, has a built-in Android tablet whose remote app accepts voice commands. So if you’re in the backyard and want to turn the heat down on a roast in the oven, you simply speak the command into your phone.

    We’re seeing this technology applied to more products. For example, the recently tested Honeywell RTH959OWF, $300, is the industry’s first voice-activated programmable thermostat. It's our highest-rated thermostat. That’s good to see, since it suggests manufacturers aren’t using the new technology to make up for otherwise deficient products.  

    More appliances cook multiple ways

    Miele’s new 48-inch dual fuel range claims to be seven appliances in one. The 6-burner cooktop has an optional grill and griddle, so it can handle flapjacks and burgers along with traditional pot and pan-prepared meals. Down below, the range features three separate chambers, which reminds us of the AGA cooker. There’s the main conventional oven, which be switched into a steam-enhanced mode for baking bread. Next to it is a speed oven that uses both microwave and convection technology. And there’s a warming drawer.      

    Multi-cookers were also all over at the International Home and Housewares Show that took place earlier this month in Chicago. The countertop appliances claim 5, 7, and even 10-in-1 functionality. One that we already have in our labs, with promising results so far, is the $350 KitchenAid Multi-Cooker, whose 10 cooking methods include soup, rice, risotto, and yogurt.

    Built-in cooking appliances get even more so

    The show features the next evolution of built-in cooking appliances from several manufacturers, including Miele, Wolf, and Viking. Miele's new line of touch-control induction cooktops can be recessed into the countertop, so they’re perfectly flush with the surface (in the past, the cooktop always sat on top of the counter.)

    Along the same lines, Wolf featured a prototype gas cooktop that’s recessed into a countertop. In this case, the controls are separate and built into the cabinet below. Taking the built-in even concept further, Viking showcased an "invisible" induction burner in the countertop itself. The induction system is underneath the countertop and works through it, with the controls built into the cabinet under the countertop.

    Concrete is having a moment

    One of the biggest showstoppers is the woodform concrete countertops on display at the booth of JM Lifestyles, an artisan workshop located in Randolph, New Jersey. The custom fabricated material, which can be used indoors or out, looks like real wood. It comes in a range of finishes, including oak and mahogany, with the option of bark edges and signature leaves imprints.

    The woodform concrete earned high praise from Fu-Tung Cheng, the father of concrete countertops, who was in the Zephyr booth, showing off some of his sculptural range hoods. Cheng’s 2002 book Concrete Countertops has sold more than 175,000 copies and he’s personally trained about 5,000 contractors in the art of poured concrete countertops. “It’s become very prevalent,” he says. “It’s still not for everyone, including people who want a pristine, glass-like countertops that you don’t have to maintain. But if you’re looking for something with the character of old hardwood floors, it’s a great option, especially if you use the form of it.” No wonder he’s a big fan of JM Lifestyles.

    If you like the look of concrete, but not the upkeep, check out Caeserstone’s new line of concrete-inspired quartz countertops, which we spotted back in January at Design & Construction Week in Las Vegas.  

    Professional refrigerator market gets busy

    The built-in refrigerator category has been dominated by names like Sub-Zero, Jenn-Air, and Thermador, all of which have models on our recommended refrigerator list. A couple of newcomers hope to challenge those brands. True Manufacturing, which has been a major name in commercial refrigeration for seven decades, is attempting its first foray into the full-size residential market with a 42-inch refrigerator. The unit features stainless steel inside and out, including the framing around the glass shelves. It also has soft-close drawers in both the fridge and freezer compartments.

    BlueStar, known for its cooking appliances, is also entering the built-in refrigerator market. Its ranges and ovens stand out for their colorful finishes, so the new refrigerator will allow consumers the option of a fully coordinated kitchen. Pricing for the refrigerators isn’t available yet.

    There’s no shortage of aspiration

    There were plenty of over-the-top products on display at the show, and people didn’t seem to care if things looked expensive and blingy. "I was surprised to see how much gold finishes on furniture, lighting and accessories are holding on," says interior designer Libby Langdon. "I felt like I was seeing it everywhere. It seems like it's moved passed being a trend and has now become a movement!"

    As for actual products, Dynamic Closet’s automated walk-in closet, with its dry cleaner inspired rack system that you can control from your smart phone. A single shelf costs $10,000. There were also multiple icemakers, including one from True that makes up to 70 pounds of clear top hat-shaped ice per day; also cool is the colored LED lighting that changes into 14 colors, like blue, red, and purple. 

    —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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    Some pro-style ranges look better than they cook

    There’s nothing subtle about the look of a pro-style range and that’s the point. But when you’re thinking of spending $6,000 for a range, there are a few things you’ll want to consider. Here's what the experts at Consumer Reports have learned testing pro-style ranges.

    Not the best ranges in our tests

    We’ve seen better, for less. Even the $430 Kenmore 94142 electric coil top range outperformed all of the pro-styles we tested, including ranges from Viking, Wolf, Thermador, KitchenAid, and Dacor, but the pro-style look is bold and stunning and probably why you’re considering one. Our pro-style Ratings show the test results for 30-inch and 36-inch models, both gas ranges and dual-fuel, which pair a gas cooktop with an electric oven. The best 36-inch pro-style we tested was the $6,000 KitchenAid KDRU763VSS dual-fuel. The worst? The $2,500 Verona VEFSGE365SS dual-fuel, scoring 25 out of 100.  

    They may look similar, but features vary

    You’ll see pro-styles with six burners such as the $7,500 Thermador PRG366JG—and all six are high-powered—while other pro-styles have four burners. Some ranges have an oven dial for setting the oven temperature; some have a touchscreen. We note features on the model page for each range. Here’s something to keep in mind when shopping. On some pro-styles the oven may be relatively low to the floor, making it a bit inconvenient to use the low-rack position.

    Some have small ovens

    Given their commanding look and width, typically 36 inches or wider, it’s surprising that some pro-style ranges have small ovens, but that’s what we found when we measured their usable space. The $7,200 Viking VGSC536-4G is one of the 36-inch ranges tested that has a small oven, and among 30-inch ranges, the KitchenAid KDRS407VSS, $4,000, Thermador PRG304GH, $4,500, and Wolf GR304, $4,900 have small ovens, to name a few.

    Not all have a self-clean feature

    When a range costs thousands of dollars you expect it to be self-cleaning, but some do not have this timesaver, such as the $6,000 Wolf GR366, a 36-inch pro-style. Here’s how to clean its oven, according to the owner’s manual: “Use mild abrasive cleaners, spray degreasers. Use a razor blade to gently lift baked on foods from oven cavity and window. For stubborn stains, spray with a mild abrasive cleaner or spray degreaser. Wash the entire oven cavity with soap and water to remove all cleaning chemicals.” 

    Warranties vary

    So check the manufacturer’s site online or when you’re at the store. Replacing parts can get expensive on these ranges so read the full warranty and limited warranty details, making note of the electronic control board info, for example.

    More good choices. See our range Ratings for more details. And if you’re on the fence about a pro-style take a look at the slide-in ranges, gas and electric. The controls are up front and there isn’t a back panel, so the look is stylish and less expensive than a pro-style.

    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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    Find a kitchen remodeling plan that fits your budget

    Kitchen remodels come in all shapes and sizes, from the mostly DIY cosmetic update to a full-scale multi-month renovation, with price tags ranging from a few hundred to hundreds of thousands. Fortunately, wherever you fall on the scope-and-spending spectrum, creating a do-it-all kitchen is easier than you may think: Prices have plummeted for premium features like detailing on cabinetry, induction on ranges and cooktops, and energy-saving insulation in refrigerators. You’ll also see a veritable explosion of products that blend performance and value.  Here are some tips and budgets from the experts at Consumer Reports.

    Make your wish list early. Take the time—anywhere from a few weeks to several months, depending on your project’s scope—to talk with and vet contractors and other pros, browse online, and check out showrooms and home centers. Try not to make design changes midstream. “Change orders,” as contractors and builders call them, can add significantly to the cost of the job.

    Sidestep supersizing. In addition to being expensive, huge kitchens can be exhausting to work in. You need only about 4 to 9 feet of space between the sink and the refrigerator or between the sink and the stove, according to the National Kitchen & Bath Association. Islands should be only 3 to 4 feet deep and 3 to 10 feet wide. Anything bigger than that can be hard to use and to reach across to clean.

    Avoid budget busters. “While we’re at it ...” are words that can break any budget. Unexpected structural repairs are one thing (in fact, you should leave a 10 to 15 percent cushion in your budget for just that). But it’s another to ask your skilled carpenter to pile on decorative flourishes as he handles the essentials. Also avoid the temptation to “save” with shoddy choices now, assuming that you’ll replace them with what you really want later. You probably won’t.

    Get it in writing. Whenever you hire a professional the written contract should list each phase of the project, every product, and include copies of each contractor’s license as well as his workers compensation and liability insurance to confirm that they’re in effect. Call the contractor’s references and, if possible, ask to visit recent jobs.

    What you get for your money

    Costs vary, but here’s a snapshot of three budgets, based on the Remodeling Cost vs. Value Report (costvsvalue.com) and our own analysis of what you might get.

    Budget DIY: $5,000

    If you have a small kitchen and are willing to do most of the work yourself, you can transform your space on a budget. You can’t replace cabinets for that price but you can paint them and add new hardware. This budget accounts for new appliances, laminate counters, vinyl flooring, sink, faucet, lighting, and a new paint job.

    • Appliances: About $2,300
    • Countertops, floors, walls: About $2,000
    • Cabinets: About $350
    • Sink, faucet, lighting: About $320
    • Time it takes: One month
    • Return on investment: Depends on what your time is worth.

    Minor midrange: $19,000

    With more to spend and if you stick to the same footprint, you can afford to hire pros to help you plan as well as do such things as remove a wall or build an island. This budget includes refacing but not replacing the cabinets as well as new appliances, countertop, backsplash, floor, sink, faucet, lighting, and paint.

    • Appliances: About $3,250
    • Counters, backsplash, floors: About $5,000
    • Cabinets: About $4,000
    • Sink, faucet, lighting: About $1,000
    • Labor: About $3,000
    • Unexpected expenses: $2,750
    • Time it takes: Three months
    • Return on investment: About 83 percent

    Major midrange: $55,000+

    Even if you have well over $50,000 to spend, the sky is not the limit. This budget accounts for hiring a general contractor and replacing your cabinets as well as all your appliances, surfaces, and fixtures. The budget assumes higher-end appliances and materials and semi-custom cabinets.

    • Appliances: About $5,000
    • Counters, backsplash, floors: About $8,000
    • Cabinets: About $13,000
    • Sinks, faucet, and lighting: About $2,000
    • Labor: About $18,750
    • Unexpected expenses: $8,250
    • Time it takes: Six months
    • Return on investment: About 74 percent

    —Adapted from Consumer Reports Kitchen Planning & Buying Guide

    Kitchen Planning Guide

    Planning a kitchen remodel? Here's everything you need to know to get the kitchen you want at a price you can afford including how to hire the right contractor. Plus:

    Full appliance Ratings and recommendations

    Full Ratings and recommendations of surfaces and materials

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    5 top vacuum cleaners for allergy sufferers

    With the spring comes tough times for anyone who suffers from allergies. Vacuuming is one of the best ways to clear the air in your home, right up there with banning smoking indoors, minimizing use of candles and wood fires, and using exhaust fans in kitchen, bath, and laundry areas. But if your vacuum is spewing out much of the dust and debris it collects, you could be doing more harm than good by stirring up the dust that has settled on surfaces. Here are several vacuums from Consumer Reports' vacuum Ratings, both bagged and bagless, that minimize emissions while cleaning up—and at reasonable prices:

    Eureka Boss Smart Vac 4870

    Moderately priced at $160, this bagged upright is a smart pick if you have carpets and pets, though other models had better airflow for attachments. In addition to top-notch carpet and bare-floor cleaning, pluses include manual carpet pile-height adjustment, which is more precise than automatic systems at matching the brush to the surface, and a brush on/off switch to safeguard bare floors and prevent scattered dust and debris. One feature you don’t get: suction control to help protect drapes when using tools.  

    Hoover WindTunnel T-Series Rewind Bagless UH70120

    Impressive cleaning and superb pet-hair pickup helped put this $130 bagless upright on our winner's list. The Hoover delivered lots of suction for tools and includes manual carpet pile-height adjustment and a retractable cord. Another plus: This relatively light machine weighs just 18 pounds. Two things this value-priced model doesn't include are suction control and a brush on/off switch.

    Panasonic MC-CG902

    Consider this $230 bagged canister if you want capable cleaning and airflow for tools at a moderate price—and don't have a dog or cat. Strengths include impressive carpet and bare-floor cleaning, along with strong suction for tools. And even though this machine is heavy at 23 pounds, we found handling to be relatively easy. You get manual carpet pile-height adjustment, suction control, a brush on/off switch, and the retractable cord found on many canisters. But pet-hair pickup was only so-so.

    Kenmore 22614

    Impressive cleaning, lots of airflow for tools, and fairly quiet running helped make this bagless canister a top pick. The $350 Kenmore, priced in the ballpark of most bagless canisters, is also a great choice for picking up after cats or dogs. Key features include manual carpet pile-height adjustment, suction control, a brush on/off switch, and a retractable cord. But handling this vacuum's 23 pounds takes some muscle.

    Shark Pet Perfect II SV780

    We don’t test hand and stick vacuums as comprehensively as full-size vacuums, since they’re primarily for spills and other quick tasks. But impressive surface cleaning on carpets, with even better performance with bare floors and edges, are chief strengths of this 18-volt hand vacuum from Shark. The $60 battery-powered model is also adept at picking up pet hair. In fact, it’s the only recommended hand vacuum that keeps its emissions low. Helpful features include a replaceable battery, a fairly spacious dust bin, and an electric rotating brush that adapts for vertical surfaces. The vacuum can also stand on its wall-mountable charging base for easy placement on a counter.

    Need a new vacuum?

    Our vacuum cleaner Ratings of upright, canister, hand, and stick vacuums currently has more than 140 models, and we’re prepping results of new robotic vacs as well. (Alongside our performance Ratings are survey-based brand-reliability Ratings.) Be sure to see our buying guide for vacuums before you narrow 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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    Get money back for energy-efficient upgrades

    Typically, energy-efficient home improvements involve spending money now so you can save on your energy bills later. And for some upgrades such as solar panels, the payback time can be years. But there are ways to recoup money sooner through federal tax credits, rebates from your state, local government, and utility among other incentives. Here are the details.

    Tax credits

    As Consumer Reports wrote earlier, federal tax credits for a number of energy upgrades were extended through the end of 2014 so if you replaced your windows, added insulation, or made other improvements you can claim a tax credit and it will be subtracted from the amount you owe Uncle Sam. You can find the full details on the Energy Star website, but in brief, here’s what’s eligible. Keep in mind that if you claimed a tax credit in the earlier years of this program that you may have already hit your $500 limit. You'll need to file IRS form 5695 with your 2014 taxes.

    Windows, doors and skylights
    What: Replacement or new windows, doors or skylights that meet Energy Star standards.
    Tax credit: 10 percent of the cost, up to $500, but windows are capped at $200. Does not include installation.

    Roofs (metal and asphalt)
    What: Metal roofs with pigmented coatings and asphalt roofs with cooling granules that meet Energy Star requirements..
    Tax credit: 10 percent of the cost, not including installation, up to $500.

    Non-solar water heaters
    What: Gas, oil, or propane water heaters with an Energy Factor (overall efficiency) of 0.82 or more or a thermal efficiency of at least 90 percent. Electric heat pump water heaters with an energy factor of 2.0.
    Tax credit: $300

    Insulation
    What: Bulk insulation products such as batts, rolls, blow-in fibers, rigid boards, expanding spray, and pour-in-place. Products that seal air leaks also qualify, as long as they come with a Manufacturer’s Certification Statement, including weather stripping, spray foam in a can, caulk and house wrap.
    Tax credit: 10 percent of the cost, up to $500. Does not include installation but you can install the insulation/home sealing yourself and get the credit.

    Biomass stoves
    What: Biomass fuel includes agricultural crops and trees, wood and wood waste, and residues (including wood pellets), plants (including aquatic plants), grasses, residues, and fibers. Stoves must have a thermal efficiency rating of at least 75 percent.
    Tax credit: $300

    Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning
    What: The following heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment.

    • Central air conditioning, $300 tax credit.
    • Advanced main air circulating fan, $50 tax credit.
    •  Air source heat pumps, $300 tax credit.
    • Gas, propane or oil hot water boiler, $150 tax credit, including installation.
    •  Natural gas, propane or oil furnace, $150 tax credit.

    Rebates

    Rebates are a little trickier to find but you’ll probably get the cash back quicker and they are available for a wider range of products and upgrades. According to the Department of Energy, at the moment there are no federal rebates for energy improvements but some state and local governments reward you for making energy-saving upgrades. You can also check the website of your utility provider as well as that of the manufacturer of the product you’re buying.

    Rebates are not dependent on tax credits so with a little luck you can collect both. Rebates are available for many large appliances including washers, dryers, and refrigerators; building products including windows, doors, roofing, and insulation; heating and cooling equipment including furnaces, and room and central air conditioners; electronics including televisions and computers; lighting and fans; and water heaters, among many other products.

    Rebate finders: You can search for rebates on the DOE’s website, energy.gov, and the Energy Star website.

    Incentives

    Your utility may also offer incentives that can benefit you. For example, they may pay you to recycle your old refrigerator or freezer or offer you a free or discounted energy audit to help you identify the energy upgrades that will save you the most.

    Incentive finders: To find incentives, check your utility's website as well as the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency to see what’s available in your area.

    Tax credits available through 2016

    Several federal tax credits for energy upgrades will be available until the end of 2016. The projects tend to cost more but you can recoup 30 percent of the cost with no upper limit and credits include installation costs. Plus, unlike many of the other tax credits, they’re available for your primary residence as well as a second home. The upgrades include:

    Geothermal heat pumps
    Geothermal heat pumps use the ground instead of outside air to provide heating, air conditioning and, in many cases, hot water.  Must meet Energy Star requirements.

    Small wind turbines
    A wind turbine converts energy from the wind into electricity that’s compatible with your home’s electrical system. To qualify, the turbine must have a maximum output rating of no more than 100 kilowatts.

    Solar energy systems
    Both solar water heaters and solar panels are eligible for tax credits. For solar water heaters, the water must be used in the dwelling and at least half of the energy generated should come from the sun. The heater must be certified by the Solar Rating and Certification Corporation or a similar entity. Qualifying photovoltaic systems must provide electricity for the residence and meet applicable fire and electrical code requirements. Check the Energy Star website for more details.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell 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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    8 tips to help you sell your own home

    With real estate agents’ commissions often as high as 6 percent of a home’s sale price, it’s tempting to hang out a “For Sale by Owner” sign and save the commission. After all, FSBO would put an additional $16,800 in your pocket if you sell your house for $280,900, the recent median single-family home sale price.

    But selling your own home is hard work. It requires time, energy, market knowledge, and some up-front money, says Jim Remley, a Medford, Ore., real estate agent and the author of “Sell Your Home in Any Market” (Amacom, 2008). That may be why only 9 percent of today’s sellers attempt to do the job without an agent, down from 12 percent in 2006. If you plan to join that minority, use these tips for greater success.

    Be sure you’re up for the job.

    You must have plenty of time to show your home, have no problem negotiating, and enjoy the challenge of marketing your own house, says Brendon DeSimone, a real estate agent and the author of “Next Generation Real Estate: New Rules for Smarter Home Buying & Faster Selling” (Changing Lives Press, 2014).

    Price it right.

    An online appraisal service can help. A free tool on ForSaleByOwner.com, for example, can determine a price range based on public-record information. Also, enter your address on Zillow’s website to find your estimated home value and see what similar nearby homes sold for recently. Check newspaper ads and real estate blogs for a read on the market, and spend several weekends going to open houses near you, and track their final selling prices.

    Declutter and clean up.

    Store the family photos, fix the loose doorknob, clean every surface, and slap a fresh coat of neutral-colored paint on the walls. To present your home in its best light, you can arrange a 2-hour consultation with a professional stager for about $300. Search for a stager on the International Association of Home Staging Professionals’ website.

    Use online tools to advertise.

    A mini industry has sprung up to help For Sale by Owner sellers for a fraction of commission charges. Among the services are advertising in magazines and websites, and providing disclosure and contract forms and other sale documents, weatherproof information boxes and flyers, seminars, and educational booklets and materials.

    Realflyer, for example, lets you create professional-looking brochures starting at 32 cents each. Owners.com will list your home (including photos) free for 30 days. For $295, it will list your home for six months on its site as well as on Realtor.com, Trulia, and Zillow. For an additional $100 it will add your listing to the Multiple Listing Service for six months, where you’ll get the most exposure, but you have to commit to paying a buyer’s agent’s commission if one represents your buyer (generally 2 to 3 percent of your sale price).

    Feature pictures and a video tour in your listings, and make sure you also include driving directions, heating and cooling sources, and your school district.

    In addition, publicize your listing on free sites such as Craigslist, Facebook, Google Plus, and Twitter. Don’t waste money on newspaper ads and local real estate guides; only 1 percent of people find their home through those print ads, the NAR says.

    These four problems can ruin a home sale. Watch out for these home sale mistakes that cost you money. Plus the best way to finance home repairs.

    Don’t skip the sign.

    A “For Sale” sign, after the Internet and a real estate agent, is the most effective tool for attracting buyers, according to NAR surveys. Place it as close to the road as possible, unobstructed and with a phone number that’s easy to read and that someone will answer day and night.

    Show like a pro.

    When you show people your home, ask them to sign in and provide you with their e-mail address and a phone number. (See samples of open-house registers or purchase kits for $22 to $30 at Britton Products.) Let potential buyers lead the way as they explore your home, and point out special features. Make sure they leave with a copy of your sales brochure. Follow up with an e-mail or a call thanking them for looking at your home, and use the opportunity to ask whether they have additional questions. For safety’s sake, have someone else in the home during showings.

    Look for buyers with commitment.

    A potential buyer with a mortgage commitment (which means a lender has verified all of the information on a loan application) is further along in the borrowing process than one who has prequalified for a mortgage (which just means a lender has checked a buyer’s credit). A deal with a buyer holding a commitment is less likely to collapse.

    Hire a real estate attorney.

    Many states don’t require a lawyer for a sale, but hiring one familiar with sales by owner is crucial. He or she can field offers, help execute contracts, and arrange a closing date.

    ––Mandy Walker (@MandyWalker on Twitter)

    This article also appeared in the March issue of Consumer Reports Money Adviser.

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

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    10 great gas grills for $300 or less

    Most gas grills sold cost less than $300. If that’s what you’re planning to spend then consider these 10 grills from Consumer Reports’ latest tests. They’re impressive and better than the $1,700 and $1,800 midsized grills we tested. 

    But first, a reality check. How long do you expect a new gas grill to last? The average is around three years, according to the Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association, a trade group. If you’re hoping for longer, then check the construction of the grill when shopping—nudge it from several points to test its sturdiness. The more stable, the better. Note the burner warranty (we point this out in the Features & Specs information for each grill we test). Burners are the most replaced part and a short warranty is a hint that this grill may not last many years. If you keep it maintained, that is. Keeping your grill clean and in tip-top shape not only improves the flavor of grilled food but also helps extend the life of the grill.

    We measure each grill’s usable cooking space so you can match it to the number of people typically gathered around your table. Grills in our small category fit 18 burgers or less. Midsized can hold 18 to 28 burgers, and large, 28 or more. Of the dozens of gas grills tested here are some impressive grills that cost $300 or less.

    Small gas grills

    Broilmate 165154, $200, a recommended model
    Nexgrill 720-0864, $200

    Midsized grills

    Char-Broil TRU-Infrared 463435115 (Walmart), $260, recommended
    Char-Broil Advantage 463240015 (Lowe’s), $300, recommended
    Brinkmann 810-6420-S (Home Depot), $170, recommended
    Brinkmann 810-6630-S (Home Depot), $300, recommended
    Kenmore 16142 (Sears), $300
    Char-Broil 4634322215 (Walmart), $170
    Brinkmann 810-2512-S (Home Depot), $200
    Char-Broil Advantage 463344015 (Lowe's), $200

    More choices. Our gas grill Ratings give you all the details. Use the compare-tool to do just that and the buying guide for information on features. Any questions? E-mail me at kjaneway@consumer.org.

    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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    12 ways to save even more at Costco

    If you’re a Costco member, you probably know a thing or two about saving a buck. But there are ways to cut costs even further at the ubiquitous warehouse club, with its nearly 700 locations worldwide. Part of the strategy is knowing where and when to find the deepest deals. It also pays to choose only the best products from Consumer Reports’ tests of Costco products large and small, including condiments, detergents, mattresses, and more. Here's the score:

    1. Clip those coupons

    The coupon book that Costco members receive in the mail each month has some impressive deals. Some are exclusive to either the warehouse or website, while others apply to both. The same offers can also be found on the new Costco app; a handy feature of the app lets you clip desired deals to your shopping list, which you can then easily present to the cashier (they don't always ask for the coupons, but you never know).               

    It’s also a good to check the Costco website for discounts on luxury items you might not associate with Costco. “Our job is to provide great products and servings at great savings to members, but we also want to wow you,” says Richard Galanti, Costco’s chief financial officer. The website makes that possible, for example with diamond rings costing several hundred thousand dollars (because millionaires need to save too, right?). For the rest of us, the site has plenty of reasonable offerings you won’t find in the store, like an expanded selection of patio furniture and extra large and small sizes of popular dress shirts.

    2. Stock up on detergents

    Some Kirkland detergents kept pace in our tests with name-brand detergents that cost two and three times as much. If you use liquid detergent, try the Kirkland Signature Free & Clear, 11 cents per load. It was tough on grass, blood, and ring-around-the-collar in our tests (though not quite as effective overall as the top-rated Tide Plus Ultra Stain Release, 25 cents per load.) The Kirkland Signature Ultra Clean Pacs, 15 cents per load, also vanquished all three stains, and it closely rivaled the Tide Pods.  

    For your dishwasher, the Kirkland Signature Dishwasher Pacs, 9 cents per load, were very good at cleaning items with caked-on and baked-on macaroni and cheese. Compare the Kirkland pacs with our top-rated Cascade Complete ActionPacs, which cost 29 cents per load.

    3. Bring home the bacon

    We’ve been big fans of Costco’s Kirkland Signature Regular Sliced Bacon for a while now, noting its crispiness and balance of fat and meat flavors. We like it even more thanks to its lower price, down from $16 for the 4-pound pack to as little as $10 or $12, depending on the location. That’s about $1.50 less per pound than what you’ll spend on leading name-brand bacons from our tests, none of which tasted as good.         

    4. Hit the condiment aisle

    In blind taste tests, we found the Kirkland Signature Real Mayonnaise to be just as good as Hellmann’s, for about 60 percent of the cost; the texture did seem slightly less dense, however, so it might take some getting used to. Kirkland Signature maple syrup also delivered good value and flavor, surely enough for your kid’s waffles.

    5. Charge up your electronics

    If your home has a lot electronic devices, including toys, remote controls, smoke alarms, and flashlights, go for the bulk supply of Kirkland Signature AA Alkaline batteries. They were judged excellent overall in our tests and cost just 27 cents per battery. Costco also carries highly-rated Duracell Coppertop AA Alkaline batteries for just a few pennies more per battery. 

    6. Get your prescription filled

    Costco’s pharmacy department offers hundreds of prescription medications at deeply discounted prices—so low you may not need your insurance at all. As a bonus: no membership required. Costco stores in nearly every state allow you to use their pharmacy for free. While available medications aren’t listed on Costco.com, a quick call to the pharmacy desk at your local store should be able to provide you with the information.

    7. Give paper products a try

    Though Kirkland paper products don’t make our recommended list, they have some redeeming qualities—in addition to the great price. Kirkland Signature toilet paper, 12 cents per 100 sheets, is quite soft and disintegrates easily; it lost points for strength and tearing ease in our tests. In our paper towel tests, the Kirkland Signature Premium Big Roll, $1.47, was extremely absorbent, though also a bit short on strength. Both products have been reformulated since our tests, so results may vary.

    8. Take a look at eyeglasses

    In our latest Ratings of eyeglass stores, based on a survey of nearly 20,000 subscribers, Costco topped our chart, beating out most other chains. And when it comes to the cost of frames and lenses, Costco shoppers spent much less than those who bought from independent retailers, private physicians, or the specialty stores LensCrafters and Pearle Vision. The median price paid at Costco was $186, compared to about $300 at the other options. If multiple people in your family wear glass, the savings can really add up. One caveat: Costco’s frame selection is relatively limited.  

    9. Consider the organics

    Kirkland Signature organic chicken stock served up impressive flavors, and at $12 for a case of six 32-ounce containers, it was about half the price of other top-scoring products from Knorr and Swanson. While we haven’t tested Kirkland’s organic milk, it’s USDA certified, and at roughly $4 per quart, it’s a buck or more less than what many national brands charge. Kirkland organic eggs are another bargain, costing about $8 for a 2-dozen container.

    10. Learn the price tag codes

    Some Costco prices are better than others, and the price tag code is the place to spot the biggest bargains. If the price ends in “.97” instead of the more common “.99” that’s a sign that the price has been marked down. Also look for an asterisk in the upper right corner of the tag, especially on favorite items, since that marking means the item is being replaced by different stock.  

    11. Don’t rule out big-ticket items

    Costco could be the place to nab your next mattress—especially if you sleep on your back. The Spring Air Back Supporter Natalie, $1,200, is one of our highest-rated latex foam models. Unfortunately, you can’t try the mattress out in the store. But while Costco doesn’t have an official return policy for mattresses, as far as we can tell, they won’t charge for shipping and handling if you contact them within a reasonable period of time, say a few months after purchase. You don’t even need to save the box.

    Costco is also selling the KitchenAid Professional 6-quart Mixer for just $300 (after the $50 rebate, and while supplies last). According to KitchenAid, this model is equivalent to the KitchenAid Professional 6500 Design Series, which sells elsewhere for about $550 and is one of the highest rated models in our stand mixer Ratings. The one we tested does have a few differences (for example its bowl was made of glass, not stainless steel, and it weighed 31 pounds, versus the Costco version’s 25 pounds) but KitchenAid has always been a very solid brand in our tests.   

    Costco also carries our top-rated blender, the Vitamix Professional Series 750. At $600, they’re not exactly giving it away, but that’s about $50 less than what you’ll spend at other retailers.

    12. Hit the free samples

    It’s a good way try a new product without committing to the 5 or 10-pound bag. The handouts can also help introduce young picky eaters to new foods. And don’t be shy about going back for seconds. “The sample sizes are generally large to start with, so you can go back two or three times,” says Galanti. “We, and the vendor, want you to like it.”

    Just be careful about making too many impulse purchases, no matter how tasty the snacks. And try not to treat the free samples like your lunch or dinner. Better to sit down to a proper meal, maybe centered on a nice Costco rotisserie chicken, for the hard-to-beat (and never changing) price of $4.99. “It’s become a signature item,” says Galanti. “I’ve been on shareholder calls where I’ve had to say, ‘earnings would’ve been higher, but we kept the chicken at $4.99.’”      

    —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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    Some halogen lightbulbs are brighter than others

    When it comes to energy-saving lightbulbs, LEDs and CFLs spring to mind. But what about halogen bulbs? They don’t get much attention, partly because they’ve been around for a long time and they use a lot more energy than LEDs and CFLs. But halogens are cheap and you don’t have to put a lot of thought into buying one, or that’s what we thought. And then Consumer Reports’ lightbulb experts found something you really should pay attention to.

    We put three halogen bulbs from GE, Philips, and Utilitech through initial tests and found they were as bright as claimed—the GE Reveal was even brighter—but they were much dimmer than the 60-watt incandescents they replace. What gives? The answer was on the back of the box of the GE and Philips bulbs. These halogen bulbs have a color filter that improves the light’s color, but it also reduces light output.

    Not all halogen bulbs have this filter. Our bulb boxes mentioned “modified spectrum” or “glass filters.” Manufacturers developed modified spectrum bulbs in the 1980s and 90s and consumers liked the color because it made skin tones look better, says Terry McGowan, director of engineering for the American Lighting Association, a trade group. He says the filter subtracts light in the yellow part of the spectrum.

    So if halogens are for you, focus on lumens when shopping. The more lumens, the brighter the bulbs, and you’ll see lumens noted on the box. A19 halogens are general-purpose bulbs that are used in lamps and other fixtures. Look for close to 800 lumens when you want a bulb as bright as a 60-watt incandescent. And if you like light that's warm, similar to an incandescent, then you want a halogen that has a color temperature around 2700K (the K is for Kelvin). You'll see this in the Lighting Facts label on the box. For white light pick a bulb that's 3000K or so.

    Keep in mind that halogens use about 25 to 30 percent less energy than standard incandescents, while CFLs and LEDs use 75 to 85 percent less. And some halogens last only 1,000 hours yet cost about as much as CFLs, which are meant to last around 10,000 hours. See our lightbulb buying guide for the pros and cons of halogens, LEDs, and CFLs. Then use our lightbulb Ratings to find out how the LEDs and CFLs did after 3,000 hours of testing. Questions? E-mail me at kjaneway@consumer.org.

    Kimberly Janeway 

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    New mowers offer easier starting and maintenance

    Starting difficulties are a chief gripe with gasoline-powered lawn mowers, and the need to maintain the machines also a common complaint. One engine company, Briggs & Stratton, is addressing both gripes with two engines you’ll see in this year’s mowers, some of which Consumer Reports completed testing at our Fort Myers, Florida, testing site.

    Better electric start. All mowers with electric start use a battery that must be kept charged in order to help in starting. Innovations we’ve seen with this feature, including how the running engine charges the battery of the $500 Honda HRR2169VLA, still use the usual lead-acid battery. One drawback: It charges best in warm weather and gradually loses its charge whether or not it’s used. So if you start trying to recharge the typical electric start battery in the chills of early spring, it might not be ready when you are.

    But one mower we tested, the self-propelled Cub Cadet SC500EZ 12ATC6A, $500, uses a Briggs & Stratton Professional Series 875is, an overhead-valve engine with a particular feature we first covered last fall. InStart is a lithium-ion-based charger you can detach from the mower and charge indoors. The device powers up to 75 starts on a full charge, which takes an hour. And if you’re in too much of a hurry for that, you can charge it for 10 minutes and get 20 starts. Best of all, the rear-drive Cub Cadet performed well, with impressive cutting in mulching and side-discharge modes and easy handling thanks to its swiveling caster wheels.

    Goodbye, oil changes. We don’t know how many owners of walk-behind mowers change the oil regularly as they should. But here’s an engine that will make everyone happy. The oil in the Briggs & Stratton EXi still occasionally needs topping off, claims the manufacturer, but it should never need changing. The engine is found in seven machines so far, sold at Home Depot, Lowe’s, Sears, and Walmart. Those we’ve tested include the Toro 20353, $400, Snapper SP80 12AVB2A2707, $300 (both self-propelled, multiple-speed mowers), and the Snapper SP70 12A-A2A1707, $280, a self-propelled, single-speed model. We judged their mowing impressive or better in mulching and side-discharge modes; the Snappers fell short in bagging, which was so-so. The Snapper SP70, like other single-speed, self-propelled mowers, lost points in handling due to its slow ground speed.

    In the coming weeks and months, we’ll tell you more interesting findings from our lawn mower tests. In the meantime, check out our buying guide for lawn mowers and riders (including our new video, top of this page) before viewing our lawn mower Ratings of more than 160 walk-behind mowers, lawn tractors, zero-turn-radius riders, and rear-engine riders. Also check our survey-based brand-reliability scores.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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    Remodelers spare no expense on master bathrooms

    Showers and tubs for two, chandeliers, bidets, and televisions are just a few of the upscale renovations that some homeowners are adding to their master bathrooms, according to a recent survey from Houzz, an online home remodeling hub. Powder rooms and guest bathrooms are also getting the luxury treatment with wallpaper, hardwood floors, and sinks that make a statement. But not all bathroom upgrades are budget busters, says Houzz. A number of projects cost well under $2,500 and involve cosmetic work that homeowners can do themselves.

    The survey included 3,200 Houzz users who are planning, in the middle of, or have recently finished a bathroom remodel. While the majority of those who participated said they are keeping the footprint of their bathroom, more than two-thirds said they are increasing the size of the shower in the master bathroom. Heated flooring and towel racks, and multiple sinks are other popular choices.

    While five percent of those surveyed budgeted $50,000 or more to renovate their master bathroom, half of those asked planned to spend in the $10,000 range. Budgets for other bathrooms in the house were typically lower. Respondents across all age groups said the reason they were undertaking an upgrade was that they finally had the money to do so. New homeowners were the most likely to upgrade their bathrooms.

    Baby boomers are more likely to install grab bars and curbless showers in their bathrooms although such other accessibility features as hand-held showerheads, seats in the shower, and non-slide floors were favored by Gen Xers and Millennials as well. Comfort-height toilets, which are up to two inches taller than conventional toilets, are another convenience.

    Best toilets from our tests

    In Consumer Reports toilet tests, almost all of the top toilet picks are comfort height. The scores are based on our tests of solid waste removal, bowl cleaning, and noise. Here are the top five:

    For more choices, see our full toilet Ratings and recommendations. And if you're planning a bathroom remodel, read our Bathroom remodeling guide.

    –Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell 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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    Sugru silicone-rubber adhesive sticks to its claims

    Who hasn’t wished to strengthen the charging cord of a cellphone, tablet, or laptop that’s begun to fray? Sugru is a moldable putty made of silicone rubber, and repairing electronics is but one of the myriad uses suggested on its website. The product adheres to many surfaces, fills in gaps better than most glues, and sets in 30 minutes giving you time to make adjustments. Consumer Reports tested its claims and found it's as good as claimed—with just a few limitations.

    From the Gaelic word súgradh, which means “play,” Sugru can bind to ceramics, glass, metal, wood, and most plastics and fabrics, according to its maker, FormFormForm Limited. (That wasn’t a typo.) It comes in 10 colors, but in the half hour you have before the putty gets too hard to mold, you can mix different-colored Sugru batches together to match, for example, the color of a chipped porcelain vase. Not that you can play to your heart’s content: It costs $12 for 3 packs, $22 for 8, and each pack holds 5 grams, an amount slightly less than a level teaspoon.

    Sugru feels like Play-Doh while you’re working it. But once it cures, in about 24 hours, it behaves like what you might expect of silicone. It’s waterproof, will bend a bit, and can handle temperatures from sub-zero to about 350 degrees F. And though you might not be able to get it off a porous material, you can easily remove it from non-porous surfaces by cutting it or even simply rubbing it off.

    How we tested

    In our tests, we tried it out every way we could come up with. Our favorites included:

    • Adding protective feet to items whose bottoms weren’t flat enough for adhesive-foam and similar store-bought pads;
    • Making bumpers for the corners of a cellphone, adding protection and, due to the contrasting color, better visibility;
    • Fixing items that needed a little extra support, such as a snapped microphone boom on gaming headsets;
    • Filling in gaps caused by either missing pieces (a chipped ceramic container) or surfaces of different composition, which most adhesives won’t join.

    What we found. As we expected, a pack doesn’t go very far. Sugru sticks adequately to non-porous surfaces but not as well as a true adhesive. It isn’t as soft as some other silicones once cured, and it’s not especially strong. And while you can compress it without problems, it didn’t handle stretching well.

    Bottom line. We wouldn’t use Sugru where failure of the bond could create a safety or health issue. But in cases where filling a gap is essential, a structure requires some reinforcement, or surfaces don’t align well, we found it fun and useful—there are many situations where the usual adhesives wouldn’t apply. Still, we recommend it for non-critical repair tasks.

    Need a traditional glue?

    Our glue Ratings of nearly two dozen glues includes multipurpose adhesives, quick-set superglues, wood glues, and two-step epoxies. Be sure to read our glue buying guide before hitting the store.

    —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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    Spring all-stars from Consumer Reports' tests

    After a rough winter, it’s time to reclaim your yard. At Consumer Reports we just finished testing a new crop of mowers and a new batch of grills and found some winners. We also discovered a quirky cart that doubles as a wheelbarrow yet doesn’t take up much space in the shed as well as some other head-turners. Here are five products that our editors, testers, and market analysts think are worth a look this spring.

    A sturdy grill with lots of extras

    Kenmore is giving Weber a run for its money in the grill department. While the Weber Spirit SP-320 , $600, is still our top mid-sized grill, the Kenmore Elite 33577, $950, has a sturdy enamel cabinet and plenty of extras.
    Why we like it. The solid construction and high-grade stainless are impressive, and the main cooking area is the largest of all the mid-sized grills in our tests. There are four main burners, stainless steel grates, an electronic igniter, side burner, tank gauge, lights that make it easier to cook after dusk, and an LED-lit control panel. The Kenmore comes with a generous 15-year burner warranty. The grill can be converted to run on natural gas.
    Here’s the score. In our gas grill tests, the Kenmore Elite 33577 was excellent at low-temperature heating and very good in our tests of high temperature heating, preheating, indirect cooking, and temperature range. And with all the bells and whistles it earned top marks for convenience.

    A mower that doesn’t need an oil change

    For some homeowners, maintaining a mower is enough to make them hire a lawn service. The Toro 20353 self-propelled mower comes equipped with a well-sealed Briggs & Stratton engine that the company claims doesn’t need oil changes.
    Why we like it. If you have a hilly property that’s hard to mow, this all-wheel-drive, self-propelled mower can make the job easier. In addition to no-prime starting, the premium, overhead-valve engine is likely to run more efficiently and start more easily than traditional side-valve engines. And Briggs & Stratton claims that better sealing ensures you'll never have to change this mower's oil—just top it off. It lacks the convenience of an  electric start, and the all-wheel-drive transmission makes the mower harder than usual to push when the engine isn't running.
    Here’s the score. In our mower tests, impressive cutting evenness in bagging and side-discharge mode—and even better mulching without leaving clumps—were among the Toro’s attractions. And a washout port makes it easy to keep clean.

    A convertible cart that’s a workhorse

    After seeing claims that the Worx Aerocart is an “8-in-1 all-purpose lifter, carrier, and mover that lightens every load,” we brought it into our labs for testing. The $160 hauler  converts from a garden cart and wheelbarrow to a hand truck.
    Why we like it. The versatile cart is just the ticket for space-constrained homeowners. Because the cart has two wheels, it has an advantage over the standard wheelbarrow right off the bat: no tipping with heavy loads. The wheels are large and wide enough to remain stable even over soft soil or grass. They’re also non-inflatable so they won’t go flat between uses.
    Here’s the score. When you need a hand truck, a blade in the cart’s front locks in place at a 90-degree angle. And when the blade is down, you lock in two extension arms to hook on a plant sling, which can also hold a five-gallon bucket. It’s in this position that the Aerocart’s engineering shines. In fact, the more you push down on the handles to raise the load, the easier it is to hold the object aloft to move it. That said, the cart wasn’t perfect in every configuration. But the fact that you can store it on end makes it a winner.

    A freezer that doubles as a refrigerator

    The Frigidaire FKCH17F7HW is the industry's first stand-alone freezer that can also double as an extra refrigerator, say to hold catering trays and drinks before a big party.
    Why we like it. The convenience of switching from freezer to fridge mode is the perfect solution for those occasions when you're entertaining and need extra cooling. You’ll get 12.7 cubic feet of extra capacity and lots of well-placed shelves and bins.
    Here’s the score. In our refrigerator tests, the Frigidaire delivered excellent temperature control and energy efficiency. In our freezer tests, the Frigidaire also delivered excellent temperature control, plus it’s self-defrosting, so you won’t have to periodically do that task by hand. Note that the unit's energy costs will vary depending on what mode you use it in. As a refrigerator, the Frigidaire costs $31 per year to operate, while as a freezer the annual costs go up to $83.

    A comfy mattress that arrives on your doorstep

    While a mattress seems like something you wouldn’t typically order online, Tuft & Needle
    promises a mattress packed in a 66x16x16-inch box will arrive at your home in a week. You can order the mattresses from tuftandneedle.com or on Amazon.com.
    Why we like it. In addition to the bargain price and hassle-free delivery, the well-priced Tuft & Needle Ten foam mattress, $500, has a number of good points. The company offers a “30-night trial” and if you don’t like the mattress they’ll help you donate it to a local charity or arrange a pickup. After donating the mattress, you’ll need to send the donation receipt to Tuft & Needle and they’ll process a full refund.
    Here’s the score. In our mattress tests, the Ten was so-so for both back and side support but where the mattress did stand out was in how it showed only minor changes in performance after eight years of simulated use. Plus it transmitted little vibration from one side of the bed to the other, and changing positions was no problem. We also found it very breathable, important for shoppers who feel that foam beds "sleep hot." And since it measures only 10 inches high, you won't need deep-pocket fitted sheets.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell 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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    Chia seeds deliver a nutritional boost, but they're not for everybody

    Tiny “superfood” chia seeds are being mixed into dozens of food products—cereals, snack bars, yogurt, and drinks—just to name a few. These little black and white gems, which come from a plant (Salvia hispanica) in the mint family, are pretty nutritious. For a 60-calorie tablespoon, you get 4 grams of fiber, plus antioxidants and some protein, omega-3s, and calcium.

    Some studies have shown that chia seeds might help lower blood pressure, reduce blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes, and cut the risk of heart disease and stroke. But they’re not for everybody.

    For example, men who have prostate cancer or who are at high risk for it should probably avoid large amounts because the omega-3s in chia seeds are in the form of alpha linolenic acid  (ALA), and a high intake of ALA might contribute to prostate problems. And people with high triglycerides should choose only the Salba variety of the seeds, since other types might raise triglycerides.

    Perhaps the most intriguing claim for chia seeds is that they can help with weight loss. That makes sense because they’re high in fiber and have the unique property of turning into a gel when mixed with liquid, so they may make the foods they’re added to more filling. But in one study where 76 overweight adults ate chia seeds before breakfast and dinner daily for 12 weeks, no one lost weight.

    Find out whether your snack bar is a dud. Get more reviews in our Food and Drink Guide.

    Taste test

    Our professional tasters sampled one brand of chia seeds, Shiloh Farms, straight up. The verdict: they’re crunchy, but have very little flavor. When mixed with water they develop a consistency that would be good for thickening smoothies, soups, and sauces. A 3 tablespoon serving has about 150 calories, 10 grams of fat, 12 grams of fiber, 5 grams of protein, and 20 percent of the daily value for calcium.

    It's one thing to take the seeds and mix them into your own foods, but another to buy the chia-seed-containing products you see on store shelves. We wanted to find out how they stack up nutritionally and how they tasted, so we looked at four chia-seed products from four manufacturers.

    • Chia Star Lemon Berry Splash beverage. The texture might take some getting used to; you might think you’re drinking gelatin. One 8-ounce bottle has about 50 calories, 0 grams of sugars, and 4 grams of fiber.
    • World of Chia Chia Strawberry Fruit Spread. The texture was OK, but the strawberries tasted “cooked” instead of fresh. A 1 tablespoon serving has 30 calories, 5 grams of sugars, and 1 gram of fiber.
    • Kashi Crunchy Granola & Seed Chocolalte Chip Chia Bar. Tasty, but the chia seeds are listed near the bottom of the ingredients list, so you’ll get more oats and grains than anything else. A two-bar serving has 180 calories, 9 grams of sugars, and 3 grams of fiber.
    • Roo’ Bar Hemp Protein & Chia Bar. No one on our panel was impressed with this one. It had very little flavor and was quite bitter. A one-bar serving has about 120 calories, 11 grams of sugars, and 4 grams of fiber.

    Consumer Reports’ take: If you like the texture, mix chia seeds into salad dressings, smoothies, soup, and yogurt for a little nutrition boost. Read nutrition fact labels on chia seed-containing products carefully. Look at the food as a whole, checking calories, fat, and sugars. And scan the ingredients list; if chia seeds are toward the bottom, the product may not contain very much of it anyway.  

    —Linda Greene

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

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    With new finishes, upright freezers get a facelift

    You often hear stand-alone freezers described as big white boxes because, well, that's what they usually are. And why not, given their location in basements, garages, and other utilitarian parts of the home? But just as washers and dryers are emerging from the dark, thanks to the trend in upper-floor laundry rooms, more freezers are seeing the light of day. At least that's the pitch from manufacturers, who are designing stylish freezers designed to work anywhere in your home.

    We just tested one of these new-look freezers, the Frigidaire FFFH17F4QT upright freezer, $800. The claimed 16.6 cubic-foot freezer features a slate finish, a look that's also popping up on more refrigerators, as a softer alternative to stainless steel. Inside the unit, color-coordinated baskets and adjustable dividers are designed to help with organization, while bright LED lighting can help you find items more quickly.  

    Storage features and design flourishes are all well and good, but if a freezer doesn't maintain consistent temperatures, your frozen food will suffer. Fortunately, the Frigidaire aced our temperature tests and it delivered superb energy efficiency, which was good enough for a spot on our recommended list. It's also self-defrosting, so you won't have to remember to do this time-consuming task by hand.    

    Any downsides? Like many self-defrost freezers, the Frigidaire FFFH17F4QT is fairly noisy, which could be an issue if you do plan to keep it in a living space, as opposed to the basement or garage. And it was subpar in our power outage test, measuring a freezer's ability to stay cold after the electricity goes out. If you plan to stock up on meats or other pricey foods, and blackouts are common, consider the Frigidaire FFU17M1QW, $700, a newly tested manual-defrost upright freezer that has one of the highest scores in our freezer Ratings  for withstanding power outages.

    —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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