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Consumer Reports
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    Consumer Reports Zeros in on Pressure Washer Safety

    When Consumer Reports recently issued a safety warning about the pinpoint spray nozzle available on most residential pressure washers, we hoped we could encourage manufacturers to replace the narrowest nozzle with one that produces a less concentrated spray. After all, pressure-washer injuries sent an estimated 6,057 people to the emergency room in 2014. But their response fell short of our expectations.

    Pressure washers are sold with either a set of interchangeable nozzles or an adjustable wand tip, both of which usually let users vary the flow of water from zero degrees, the finest, to about 40 degrees depending on the task. They’re inherently dangerous no matter which spray tip or setting you use. But Consumer Reports feels that the unnecessary risk of using a zero-degree nozzle—which concentrates the tool’s full pressure into a single, pinpoint blast—outweighs any benefits. Higher-degree nozzles get the job done; it just might take a bit longer.  

    Industry Response

    We suggested to manufacturers and the trade group that represents them, the Pressure Washer Manufacturers’ Association, that they remove the zero degree nozzle or setting from residential pressure washers. But the PWMA asserts that pressure washers are safe when operators follow instructions.

    “Manufacturers provide an operator's manual as well as on-product markings, which describe how to safely use the pressure washer,” the group said in a statement. It also said there are specific instances in which the zero-degree nozzle or setting is well suited.

    “Pressure washers are tools, not toys,” said Briggs & Stratton, the largest manufacturer of pressure washers, in response to our request. “Every pressure washer designed and manufactured by our company meets globally recognized, stringent safety standards and comes with instructions in the operator's manual and on the product itself. When used properly, our products, and more specifically any degree of spray angles, are safe and effective.” 

    AR North America, which makes electric pressure washers, initially told us that, based on our findings, the company would be “taking immediate steps to remove this nozzle tip from our electric pressure washer models, both current and future models.” However, that initial decision had not come from the top, and the company decided to maintain its current practices. “Like any power tool,” says Tom Sletten, director of customer service for AR, “there’s a certain amount of risk that the user takes, along the lines of a chain saw. If it’s not managed carefully, you can really do some damage.”

    As with the PWMA and Briggs & Stratton, AR outlined several appropriate uses of a zero-degree nozzle or setting, such as cleaning second-story siding or etching concrete with a concentrated spray. Moreover, Sletten explained that most of AR’s models come with adjustable nozzles rather than replaceable nozzle tips. Were they to follow Consumer Reports’ recommendation, AR would have to re-engineer the adjustable nozzles in certain models. Subsequently, the company will continue to outfit its products, depending on the model, with either zero-degree replaceable nozzles or adjustable nozzles with a zero-degree setting—and to rely on consumers to heed the manuals’ many safety warnings. 

    What You Can Do

    If you buy a model that comes with a zero-degree nozzle (it’s red) or you already own one, Consumer Reports advises you to get rid of it to reduce the chance of damaging property or causing injury to you, your family members, or anyone else who might use the sprayer. And if your pressure washer comes with a zero-degree adjustable setting, we recommend that you refrain from using it.

    To protect yourself, wear goggles, long pants, and sturdy footwear while using any pressure washer. And if you get even a minor skin break from a pressure washer, you need to consult a doctor as soon as possible because fluid from the pressurized spray can cause tissue damage without you knowing it. In the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System injury data we analyzed, 14 percent of the 6,057 estimated ER visits in 2014 attributed to pressure washers led to additional hospitalization, but only 2 percent were due to direct injury from a pressure washer’s stream. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, “the seriousness of high-pressure injection injuries is generally underestimated,” and recommends immediate medical attention.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Consumer Reports Asks EPA to Demystify Humidifier Claims

    With the weather turning balmy it’s time to think more about dehumidifiers than humidifiers. But before you stash your humidifier for the season, make sure you give it a thorough cleaning. In tests performed by Consumer Reports we found that, despite making antimicrobial claims, most humidifiers harbor bacteria in the reservoir tank and many have the potential to emit that bacteria into the air.

    In fact, we feel so strongly that antimicrobial humidifier claims can be confusing to consumers that we wrote a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency asking the administrator, Gina McCarthy, to investigate a number of antimicrobial humidifier claims as potentially misleading.

    “We are concerned that our test results suggest that consumers can’t reliably purchase a humidifier based on many of the antimicrobial claims they see,” wrote Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., Consumer Reports’ director of safety and sustainability. “We also believe that consumers may have a difficult time determining which type of claim is being made.”

    In our analysis, we divided the antimicrobial humidifier claims into the two basic types the EPA regulates: product claims and public health claims. In the product claims, a manufacturer claims that the humidifier itself has properties such as “ionic silver technology” or “silver clean technology” that prevent bacterial or microbial growth. Public health claims, such as “germ free mist,” refer to the cleanliness of the mist emitted by the machine.

    In our report, “Is Your Humidifier Putting You at Risk?” we found that after three days most, though not all, of the humidifiers we tested had increased microbial growth compared to the original levels in tap water and that almost as many had the potential to emit bacteria into the air. These findings held true regardless of whether or not the manufacturer made antimicrobial claims. In our letter to the EPA we list our results in detail, model by model.

    What You Can Do

    When you use a humidifier, you should clean it every day whether or not the owner’s manual says to. Here’s a good routine to follow:

    • Every day. Empty, rinse, and dry the base tray or reservoir before refilling.
    • Every week. Remove water scaling with vinegar and disinfect the unit with a bleach solution following the manufacturer's instructions.
    • Before storing. Clean to remove scaling, disinfect with a bleach solution, and dry thoroughly.
    • After storing. Before using again, clean to remove scaling, disinfect with a bleach solution, and dry thoroughly. Don’t fill it before you need to.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Best Mattresses For Couples - Consumer Reports

    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, you might want to reconsider. Some mattresses are better than others at muting vibrations from one side of the bed to the other when one person in the bed 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 six 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 $1,100 Charles P. Rogers St. Regis Pillowtop was among the best in our tests and delivered impressive back support. (All prices listed are without the foundation.) The $1,275 Sealy Posturepedic Hybrid Trust Cushion, a bit better for side sleepers, did about as well at muting vibration.

    Moving with ease

    The foam beds we recommend are fine at muting vibration, and all these models are also 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, was among the best at allowing easy movement. The Spring Air Back Supporter Natalie, $1,100, from Costco did about the same.

    Firmness options

    Some foam mattresses come in  either firm or soft—and a select few, though currently none in our Ratings, let you get it in a combination of the two, split down the middle. For adjustable-air beds, this typically is a simpler matter. Both the Sleep Number i8 Bed, $3,000, and the less pricey Sleep Number c2 Bed, $800, 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.

    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 almost 60 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 © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Get Your Mower Ready | Lawn Mower Reviews - Consumer Reports

    The relatively mild winter, at least from the number of storms, means that your lawn could need mowing earlier this spring than last year. In other words, this is prime time to to get your mower or tractor ready so that it will start when you need it. Here’s how to get your gear in shape:

    Fuel comes first

    Any gas in your walk-behind mower’s fuel tank? If you added stabilizer before the winter, you should be able to start the mower right up. Similarly, if you ran the mower dry last fall, you can add stabilized gas now. Otherwise, siphon out the degraded gas before adding new. Tractors, with their larger engines, are less susceptible to fuel problems. Still, fuel up with gas to which you’ve added stabilizer.

    Check or change oil

    If you didn’t change the oil at the end of last season, do it now—a mower can overheat and fail prematurely from dirty or insufficient oil. For a mower, change the oil when the fuel tank is empty to avoid spilling. Position an auto-style drain pan beside the mower on the side of the dipstick cap. Remove the cap and tip the mower over the pan to drain the oil. Refill to the dipstick marking. A tractor needs an oil change only as specified in your manual. At the very least, check the level and add as necessary.

    Sharpen those blades

    Dull blades rip rather than slice the grass, and that makes your engine work harder than it needs to. To remove your mower’s blade, wear heavy leather gloves, remove the spark plug wire, and jam in a short 2x4 to keep the blade from turning as you loosen the bolts. (An outdoor-gear dealer will sharpen the blade for about $10.) Even tractor blades should be sharpened three times a year.

    Mind the electrical

    Your spark plug needs changing about every 100 hours of  operation; if not, it can affect engine startup and overall performance. If you don’t know when you last changed it, do it before using the mower. With the mower off, remove the spark-plug cap and use a socket wrench with a spark-plug socket to remove the old plug. Take it to an auto-parts store or outdoor-gear dealer and get a new one. For a tractor, most manuals instruct you to keep the battery indoors on a trickle charger. If you didn't, fully recharge the battery before starting the season, or you’ll reduce battery life. The engine alone can’t fully recharge the battery.

    Change or clean filters

    A dusty filter won’t prevent your mower or tractor from starting, but a clean one protects the engine. On your mower, it’s paper and can be removed in seconds. Take the old one to an outdoor power gear dealer if you’re not sure which one to get. For a tractor, replace your carburetor’s air filter if it’s paper. If it’s foam, wash it in soap and water. Rinse and squeeze it dry. Some manuals suggest you also oil a foam filter with engine oil. If so, squeeze the filter dry again before you reinstall it. Tractors have a fuel filter, too. Check your manual for the proper maintenance schedule and procedure.

    Need a new mower or tractor?

    We’ve completed our tests of 40 new walk-behind mowers, lawn tractors, and zero-turn-radius riders and have added their results to our lawn mower Ratings for a total of more than 175 models. Before you go shopping, check out our lawn mower buying guide for mowers, tractors, and riders.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Two GE French-Door Refrigerators Filled With Features

    As French-door refrigerators have become more popular, their price range has also widened. You can now spend less than $1,500 for a three-door French-door refrigerator with basic features and limited capacity, or more than $5,000 for a luxury four-door version that’s huge on storage and innovation.

    Those are two ends of the extreme. But even among mid-range French-door refrigerators, you might find two similar models with a price differential of $1,000 or more—nothing to sneeze at, especially if you’re redoing the kitchen on a tight budget. So is it worth spending more? A pair of GE French-door refrigerators newly tested by Consumer Reports offers some insights.

    The GE GFE26GSHSS, $1,900, and the GE Profile PFH28PSHSS, $2,900, both make our recommended list, so it’s clear that you can find top performance in a less expensive French-door refrigerator. In fact, the $1,900 model scores a couple points higher in its overall score, thanks to slightly better temperature control. That helped it earn a CR Best Buy distinction.

    How They Compare

    Both French-door models offer excellent energy efficiency and quietness. In terms of storage capacity, the pricier GE Profile PFH28PSHSS has a slight edge, offering 19.8 cubic feet of usable capacity, compared with its brandmate’s 17.1 cubic feet. 

    Now let’s look at the features. While both French-door refrigerators have an external ice and water dispenser, the GE Profile comes with an LCD display and hands-free precise autofill, which lets you walk away while the machine automatically fills any container. The GE Profile is also unique in that it has a temperature-controlled drawer with settings for meat, deli, and beverages. And it features a drop-down shelf in the fresh-food compartment that helps with the storage of two-liter bottles and other tall containers.

    These convenience features are nice, as is the extra capacity inside the GE Profile PFH28PSHSS. The upgrades might even be worth the splurge. But it’s good to know that if you don't have an extra $1,000 in the budget, you can still get a superb French-door refrigerator that will look good in the kitchen while keeping your food fresh.

    See our refrigerator Ratings for the complete list of recommended French-door refrigerators, including other CR Best Buys from LG and Samsung.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    When It Pays to Spend a Little More

    Who doesn’t like a bargain? But sometimes it pays to spend a little more. The pros at Consumer Reports searched the labs and Ratings to find products for the home that are worth the extra money. Here's a look at five everyday products. The good news is you don’t have to spend that much more to get something better.

    Skillets

    Drop $30 on the Rachel Ray 10-inch Open Skillet and you’ll get an aluminum nonstick pan that released food quickly, was easy to clean, with a handle that was comfortable without getting too hot. But the handle wasn’t too sturdy, cooking evenness was only good, and the nonstick surface had scratches at the end of our durability test.

    Pay a little more: The $40 Calphalon Simply Nonstick 10-inch aluminum pan is a CR Best Buy and was excellent at evenly heating and releasing food. The handle stayed cool to the touch and the nonstick surface withstood our durability test in which steel wool is rubbed over a pan for up to 2,000 strokes. A 10-year warranty is part of the deal. For more choices see our cookware Ratings

    Steam Irons

    For $15 the Continental CE23111 steam iron will get the job done, but will take longer since it doesn’t provide a lot of steam. Worse, it doesn’t have an auto shutoff feature. This turns off the iron when it’s motionless after a bit, sensing that you’ve forgotten the iron is on. Auto shutoff isn’t a required safety feature, but it’s well worth every cent.

    Pay a little more: Spend an extra $5 on Walmart's Black & Decker Xpress Steam IR08X and you get auto shutoff and plenty more steam. We've tested dozens of irons and our iron Ratings tell the full story.

    Lightbulbs

    Walmart's Great Value 14W Soft White CFL is $1.25 and casts a bright, warm yellow light. That’s as bright as a 60-watt incandescent while using just 14 watts. This CFL is supposed to last about 9 years when used 3 hours a day. But like all CFLs, it takes time to fully brighten—about 26 seconds—and you can’t dim it.

    Pay a little more: At $7, the top-rated Feit Electric 60 Watt Replacement LED instantly delivers warm light, uses even less energy, is claimed to last 23 years, and dimmable. Our lightbulb Ratings offer more details.

    Interior Paint

    Buy the cheap stuff and you may wind up applying more coats since they often don’t hide old paint well, making them less of a bargain. At $17 a gallon, Walmart’s Color Place Interior Paint is the least expensive in our interior paint Ratings and the worst. And unlike most tested paints, Color Place isn’t self-priming.

    Pay a little more: For $32 a gallon you can buy a self-priming paint that was impressive at hiding old paint, such as Ace Hardware’s Clark+Kensington Enamel. If Ace isn't your go-to paint place, then see our interior paint Ratings for other good choices. 

    Laundry Detergents

    All Stainlifter liquid detergent is just 10 cents a load but was just good at cleaning—it left ring-around-the collar stains.

    Pay a little more: For a penny more a load, Kirkland Signature Free & Clear liquid detergent from Costco was better at cleaning. Not a Costco member? Then check out Wisk Deep Clean. It’s 14 cents a load. You can use these detergents in any type of washer, and the laundry detergent Ratings rate dozens of products. Note the user reviews too. Some people have strong opinions about strong detergent scents.

    Any questions? Email me at kjaneway@consumer.org.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How Safe Is Your Drinking Water?

    Q. After having heard about lead in the water in Flint, Mich., I became worried about the drinking water at my home. Should I buy a filter?

    A. Reports of unsafe drinking water pouring from taps in Flint and other cities can be alarming. But before you panic, you should check your municipal water report and also have your drinking water tested, says Chris Hendel, Consumer Reports’ medical researcher. The Environmental Protection Agency posts municipal water-quality reports every July; find yours at epa.gov/safewater. But if your home was built before lead-free pipes were mandated in 1986 or if you use well water, a test is the best way to assess the quality of the drinking water at your home.

    Your state or local health department might offer free test kits. The EPA’s website lists local labs; you can also call its Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791.

    If tests find lead in your drinking water and the level is below 150 parts per billion (ppb), a filter can make your water safer to drink. (Some water samples collected in Flint were well over that.) Water filters are certified for lead reduction only up to 150 ppb. If lead levels are higher or if tests reveal other concerns, such as arsenic, bacteria, or parasites, contact your local health department for advice. You can also contact the EPA for further guidance.

    In our most recent tests of water filters, the top picks were the Clear2O carafe, $30, and the faucet-mounted Culligan FM-15A, $20. Both were top-rated for removing lead and other contaminants, and both are NSF-certified, which means that they were independently verified under standards from NSF International to reduce lead to 10 ppb or less. That’s the standard many toxicologists recommend, although there’s no universally accepted safe level for lead or many other contaminants.

    We also recommend the faucet-mounted Pur FM-3700B, $30, which is one of three water filters distributed by officials in Flint, according to Michigan.gov/flintwater.

    For related health information, check our water filter buying guide.

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Pick the Best Lawn Tractor for Your Property - Consumer Reports

    Riding mowers are the way to mow for lawns of a certain size, typically one-half acre or more. If your property is even more princely, you may want to consider a tractor with a wider cutting deck. And if you need to cut around trees and other landscaping features, consider a zero-turn-radius rider, which has a fun factor not usually found in mowers. Consumer Reports tested more than 60 tractors and riders, and here are the best from our tests.

    Top tractors

    Lower-priced on average than zero-turn-radius riders for properties larger than a half-acre, tractors are the better bet for bagging clippings—and they’re easier on turf and more stable on hills. Top scores and high-quality features make the John Deere X350, $3,200, well worth its price. For $1,000 less, the Craftsman 20442, $2,200, a CR Best Buy, has a larger deck, mulched more thoroughly, and can turn more tightly. You might also like its 6½-mph ground speed. John Deere, however, is more reliable than most other lawn-tractor brands. Another Deere, the John Deere S240 Sport, $2,500, comes with an extra-wide, flat chute that, for side-discharging, shows some improvement in dispersal of clippings over older Deere tractors; it’s also priced more competitively.

    Top wider-deck tractors

    Wider-deck lawn tractors haven’t traditionally fared as well at cutting evenness as their smaller siblings have, but this trio has changed the rules with exceptional cutting. The Craftsman 20445, $3,500, has the largest deck, at 54 inches, and offers tight turning around trees and other obstacles. A bargain for 50-inch cutting, the Troy-Bilt Super Bronco 50, $1,900, a CR Best Buy, matched the Crafstman for cutting and offers the same electric power takeoff, automatic drive system, and other features. The John Deere D155, $2,200, is slightly smaller, with a 48-inch deck, but offers impressive cutting in all modes.

    Top zero-turn-radius riders

    Zero-turn-radius riders offer the greatest ground speed—though you should be mowing at about 4 mph—and easy turning around obstacles on fairly flat lawns. We’ve called the 42-inch deck of the Troy-Bilt Mustang 17WFCACS, $2,300, a CR Best Buy, the ultimate in cutting performance, and the 42-inch Cub Cadet RZT L42, $2,500, another CR Best Buy, follows that tradition—making both the highest-scoring riding machines overall. For more stability on hills, the Troy-Bilt Mustang Pivot 17ARCBDT and Toro SW4200 74784, both $2,900, have a steering wheel and steerable front wheels instead of the usual control levers and caster-style front wheels, an innovation we first saw in the Cub Cadet RZT-S42, $4,000,  the Cub Cadet RZT-S 17WF2BDT, $3,000, and other MTD-made models.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How to Clean All the Fans in Your House

    You can't see it when they're whirring around but fans tend to collect a lot of dirt, especially if they're in or near a kitchen where steam and airborne grease can be a magnet for dust. Now is a good time to tackle this project before the weather gets too hot and your fans are in constant rotation. Here are some simple steps from Consumer Reports' book, "How to Clean Practically Anything."

    Clean fan housings with a damp cloth and an all-purpose cleaner, or a cloth dampened with a solution of water and mild detergent. Don’t let liquid get into the motor. Dirty fan blades don’t move air efficiently. When cleaning the blades, be careful not to bend them; bent blades may vibrate when the fan is operating.

    Floor, table and window fans. Dust regularly on both sides of the grille using a vacuum-cleaner brush attachment, or a lambswool duster. Make sure the fan is unplugged and clean the blades and inner workings with a hair dryer or a can of compressed air. If the grilles can be removed, hose them down or put them under the shower two or three times a year; scrub with a brush to remove dirt. Clean blades and other plastic parts with a cloth sprayed with or dipped in an all-purpose cleaner.

    Attic (whole-house) fans. Brush and vacuum the louvers and screening at least once a season for maximum airflow. Some fans are thermostatically controlled, so be sure that the fan is turned off.

    Ceiling fans. Clean these difficult-to-reach fans at least once a season. A special tool—a long-handled, U-shaped brush—is available from hardware stores and home centers. The blade fits in the inner part of the U, so both sides can be cleaned at the same time. Two or three times a year, wipe the blades and housing with a damp cloth and an all-purpose cleaner. Dry thoroughly because damp blades attract dust.

    Exhaust fans. Dust these with a vacuum-cleaner brush or a damp cloth. If the fan covers can be removed, twice a year wipe down the blades and other nonelectric parts with a cloth sprayed with or dipped in an all-purpose cleaner and clean or replace the filter.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Top Products From the 2016 Architectural Digest Design Show

    The Architectural Digest Design Show, which kicked off yesterday in New York City, is where trends go to thrive. The 300 or so exhibitors on hand include premium appliance brands, like Jenn-Air and Thermador, as well as boutique purveyors of luxury goods, from bath faucets to outdoor furnishings. The show is definitely not the place to go bargain hunting—five-figure light fixtures are common, as are refrigerators costing north of $10,000. But to see where the home design industry is headed, this is the place to be. Here are the coolest products we spotted. If you’ll be in New York between now and Sunday, when the event wraps up, do some trendspotting of your own. At $40, at least the tickets are reasonable.     

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Low-Cost Treadmills With High-Tech Features

    It wasn’t so long ago that you had to spend thousands to get a treadmill that could do things like track your workout progress and connect to the Internet. But this kind of interaction has made its way to the entry level. In fact, three budget folding models from Consumer Reports' latest treadmill tests feature some form of connectivity, including the category’s new top-rated machine, the Nautilus T616, which sells for $1,000. 

    Of course, you can have the “smartest” treadmill in the world, but if it doesn’t have sound ergonomics, sturdy design, and all the requisite safety features, it won’t do you much good in the long run (and it could even cause you harm). So let’s start with what impressed us about the Nautilus T616 during our performance and safety tests.

    Among its roomy 61-inch-long belt, well-positioned console controls, and combination front and side handrails, the machine should comfortably accommodate a wide range of users and body types (though we always advise trying any exercise machine in the store before buying, be it a treadmill, elliptical, or stationary bike).

    The Nautilus T616 also showed little sign of wear after six months of simulated usage during durability testing. And in terms of safety, the plastic tang style safety-key disengaged without issue and the belt came to a stop after the key was removed in 3.7 seconds on average, compared with an overall average stopping time of 5.7 seconds for all treadmills in our tests.

    That solid all-around performance gave the Nautilus T616 an overall score that’s quite a bit higher than the next best model in our current treadmill Ratings. And as with all folding treadmills, the deck can be raised for compact storage when the machine is not in use.

    Now for the Fun Stuff

    Like all new Nautilus treadmills, the T616 features Nautilus Connect, a free service that lets up to four users save and upload workout data for online tracking. That makes it possible to set goals, measure progress, and more. The technology works one of two ways: either you save your data to a USB stick, transfer it to your computer, and then upload it to the Nautilus Connect website, or download the free app to your smartphone and sync your data to it, via the T616’s built-in Bluetooth.

    If weight loss is part of your fitness goals, Nautilus Connect also syncs with MyFitnessPal, another free service that allows you to track the food you eat. (Check out our report on diet plans to see how it fared against a dozen other options.)   

    When you think about what you could spend on a commercial weight-loss plan and a personal trainer, the $1,000 price tag on the Nautilus T616 looks even better. But the fact that this low-cost treadmill performs as well as models costing two and three times as much is the smartest feature of all.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    It's Time to Jump into Spring Cleaning

    With the grass growing and flowers blooming, your house may be looking a bit dingy in comparison. After a winter of wear-and-tear it’s time to throw open the windows and chase the dust bunnies from under the furniture. And with the weather warming, it’s a lot more pleasant to spend time outside assessing any damage from the rough weather we hope is behind us. To help you get started, here’s a spring cleaning schedule from Consumer Reports’ book “How to Clean Practically Anything.”

    Inside

    • Go through closets, discard or donate unwanted clothes; clean winter coats.
    • Pack away winter clothes (or have them stored at a dry cleaner).
    • Rotate mattresses and wash mattress pads and blankets.
    • Hang blankets on a clothesline to air out before putting them away.
    • Wash curtains and draperies or have them dry-cleaned.
    • Clean the oven, if necessary.
    • Dust coils behind or underneath the refrigerator.
    • Clean blades of ceiling fans.
    • Shampoo rugs and upholstery.
    • Clean or replace filters in room air conditioners; vacuum and reinstall units.
    • Clean the bathrooms including the mirrors.

    Outside

    • Clean around central air conditioner unit and have it serviced.
    • Open attic louvers.
    • Secure any loose shingles or siding.
    • Touch up paint on outside of house.
    • Clean gutters and downspouts; clear debris from roof.
    • Remove storm windows.
    • Patch screens.
    • Wash windows.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Software Bug That Hampered Cleaning Fixed in LG WM3170CW

    As wash-day woes go, this one is thoroughly modern. It starts with a software glitch that went undetected, until the pros at Consumer Reports bought and tested a LG WM3170CW front-loader. And then things got really interesting.

    When dirty laundry comes out of the washing machine dirty, consumers get angry. When it happens in our labs, engineers get busy. And that’s how Emilio Gonzalez figured out that the $720 LG WM3170CW front-loading washer had a software glitch.

    “We first tested this machine last spring and our lab technician, Bill Taylor, noticed it used little water. We figured out that a software bug was directing the washer to use so little water that it was unable to clean our laundry and left stains remaining,” says Gonzalez, the engineer who runs our tests of laundry appliances.

    The washer wound up at the bottom of our washing machine Ratings, scoring only fair in cleaning, but excellent in water efficiency.

    LG responded by saying they would correct the software bug in washers in the stores and in customers’ homes. In February 2016 we decided it was time to buy and test another LG WM3170CW front-loader.

    “We found the software problem has been fixed, and the washer did an excellent job cleaning our laundry and water efficiency is also excellent,” says Gonzalez.

    Here's the Score

    This front-loader scored excellent overall, and at $720, it’s half the price of some higher-rated front-loaders, making it a CR Best Buy. But wash time is longer than most of the front-loaders we tested, taking 110 minutes using the normal wash, heavy-soil setting. You’ll save about 15 minutes using the normal-soil setting.

    “Any LG WM3170CW made after April 2015 has new software,” says John Taylor, vice president of public affairs for LG. “There has been a very low number of issues reported, but if consumers have a model made before April 2015 they can call LG’s customer service at 1-800-243-000 for a free software update.”

    The serial number is easy to spot once you open the washer door. The first three numbers indicate year and month made. Serial numbers starting with 502, for example, indicate the washer was made in February 2015. Those made in May 2015 start with 505. Questions? Email me at kjaneway@consumer.org.

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    If You're Looking for a Bed in a Box, You've Got More Options

    When Casper, Leesa, Tuft & Needle, and other online mattress retailers started selling beds in a box in the U.S., their share of sales was so small that traditional manufacturers brushed them off. But now those same major players have taken notice and are working hard to debut their own online-only foam mattresses. In doing so, they're adopting the most alluring policies of the newer companies while aiming to beat them at their own game.

    Cocoon by Sealy (shown above) is one of 20 mattresses we’ve just bought for testing, but it’s unlike any Sealy you’ve seen before. For one, it comes folded up tightly in a box—as does the typical bed in a box sold online. This Sealy foam mattress comes in two choices, soft or firm, and is sold online only for $850 (queen size), the same price as Casper’s The Casper.

    Another mattress, the Dream Bed, comes from the retailer Mattress Firm, which recently bought Sleepy’s. This bed in a box also comes in two choices. For $829, you can get the Original Dream Bed; for those who sleep hot, the $999 Cool Dream Bed has a gel-infused layer on top. We're testing this bed in a box, too.

    Return Policies

    As with Casper, Leesa, and Tuft & Needle, shipping is free for both the Sealy and Mattress Firm foam mattresses. You get 100 days to decide whether you like the Cocoon, the same as for the $850 Casper, the $890 Leesa Medium Firm, and $600 Tuft & Needle T&N in our mattress Ratings. For the Dream Bed, it’s 180 days. And both companies have matched the return policy of their smaller competitors: If you’re unsatisfied within the trial period, you’ll get your money back. For the Cocoon bed in a box, Sealy will arrange to donate the mattress to charity—as do Casper and Tuft & Needle. You don’t have to put it back in the box. But the Dream Bed goes one better with a promise to donate one bed in a box to charity for every one sold.

    By moving into the bed-in-a-box space, Sealy and Mattress Firm are betting they can absorb more losses over the long run than the smaller companies can. Buying a mattress without trying it out, something we typically advise against, can be risky (though Casper and Tuft & Needle have showrooms), and we recommend that you make such a purchase only if returns are hassle-free.

    It remains to be seen whether these major brands can win the loyalty of millennials, many of whom want to order a mattress the way they order everything—online. They also might view their parents' brands with disdain. The Casper, Leesa, and Tuft & Needle foam mattresses we’ve tested are among our top mattress picks. We’ll let you know whether the bed-in-a-box offerings from Sealy and Mattress Firm make the grade as well.

    Need a New Mattress?

    Our current mattress Ratings include almost 60 innerspring, foam, and adjustable-air beds, and this summer we expect to update our survey-based Ratings of mattress brands and retailers. Be sure to check our mattress buying guide if you haven't shopped for a mattress in a few years.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    BeON Home Protection System Lights Up Your Home When You're Away

    More companies are breaking into the home security business one lightbulb at a time. Manufacturers have figured out that LED lightbulbs, with their semi-conductor chips and electronic circuitry, are ideal for housing sensors, cameras, or microphones designed to protect the home from intruders. So the experts at Consumer Reports tested the BeON Home Protection System.

    Noisy alarms and door locks that slow down burglars are common deterrents to break-ins. So is lighting, when used to create a lived-in look when you’re not home. The $200 BeON Home Protection System contains three LED bulbs, each housing a microphone, rechargeable battery, and BlueTooth.

    “Your home is very personal. Your home protection should be too,” says a statement on BeON’s website. “Use BeON bulbs with your current routine, your own doorbell and your existing alarms—saving yourself both time and money.” The company offers a 100-day trial, promising free returns and a full refund if you are not satisfied.

    How BeON Works
    After each LED bulb is placed in a light fixture in your home, you can program them using the BeON Home app—it works with smartphones and tablets that use BlueTooth 4.0. The bulbs’ software learns your patterns and can mimic your typical usage by turning the lights on and off when you’re away from home. The system also has settings that turn the lights on and off in a timed sequence when the doorbell rings, or turns them on when a smoke or carbon monoxide alarm sounds.

    Our Test Results

    BeON works as promised, though we question if it prevents break-ins. You have to hope the burglar isn’t too bright. Each time the doorbell is rung, the lights turn on and off in the same sequence. A clever burglar might catch on when nobody ever answers the door. And lights automatically turning on and off during the day might tip off thieves, since most burglaries occur between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., according to the FBI.

    Our tests also found that these LEDs provide the same amount of light as 60-watt incandescents, and we liked that the LEDs could also operate on battery power during a power outage. They’ll last 10 hours on the dimmest setting, or 20 minutes on the brightest.

    BeON is a work in progress, and we’ll watch for software app updates to see how it evolves.

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    Frigidaire Professional Refrigerator Offers High-Styling For Less

    The Frigidaire Professional line of appliances, which launched in 2015, promises premium styling and performance at a more affordable price point, compared with the Sub-Zero refrigerators and Wolf ranges of the world. The new Frigidaire appliances come in standard sizes, unlike many pro-style behemoths, so you can get a higher-end look without renovating your kitchen.

    We recently tested the Frigidaire Professional FPBS2777RF French-door refrigerator, $2,300. It does bring several sleek touches to the category, but from a performance perspective, it’s strictly middle of the pack. 

    Let’s start with the design. The stainless steel finish is in keeping with the industrial look, and the material’s fingerprint resistant coating cuts down on cleaning. The sturdy handles add to the refrigerator’s hefty form and feel, plus it comes with an optional trim kit, including louvers that can take the exterior height from 70 inches up to 79 inches. All in all, an impressive looking refrigerator. 

    As for performance, the Frigidaire Professional FPBS2777RF proved capable in our tests, delivering very good temperature control, energy efficiency, and quietness. But several dozen French-door refrigerators earned higher overall scores in our refrigerator Ratings, including the nearly 20 models on our recommended list.

    The Frigidaire’s so-so ease of use score was a factor in the scoring. Though it has several nice convenience features, including an external ice and water dispenser, spillproof shelves, and an additional icemaker in the freezer, it’s lacking a temperature-controlled meat/deli bin and there’s no light in the freezer. If you can live without those features, and peak performance isn't a priority, the Frigidaire Professional FPBS2777RF is worth a look.

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    Why Dirt Gets Your Dishes Really Clean

    If you wonder why dishes come out of your dishwasher with bits of food still stuck to them, it could be because you’re rinsing them first. It seems counterintuitive, but prerinsing can make your dishes come out dirtier, not cleaner. That goes for glasses, pots, and silverware, too.

    The reason is that most dishwashers costing $500 or more sold in the past five years or so have a sensor that determines how thorough a wash is needed. At the start of the cycle, it rinses the dishes and then checks how dirty the water is to determine the proper amount of time and water to get everything clean. If you’ve already rinsed off much of the muck, the sensor misreads the dishes as already fairly clean.

    When that happens, the dishwasher gives them just a light wash, and items come out less than sparkling. To avoid that lackluster result, don’t rinse; just scrape off bits of loose food. And use one of the detergents that did best in our dishwasher detergent tests.

    Dishwashers to Consider

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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    Offbeat Cleaning Tools That Really Work

    You’ll be happy to know that you can skip those new-fangled gadgets in the cleaning aisle of the supermarket. You already have plenty of items around the house that can serve double duty as a cleaning tool including old toothbrushes, credit cards, and socks. Here are some nifty tips from the pros behind Consumer Reports’ “How to Clean Practically Anything” as well as some how-to videos that will get you started on your spring cleaning.

    Toothbrush. Don’t toss that old toothbrush. Use it to get into hard-to-reach spots like window mullions, shower-door tracks, switch plates, and around faucets. But never use a dry brush. For deep cleaning, a moistened brush helps trap the dirt.

    Sticky lint remover. This handy tool isn’t just for clothes; it’s also good for removing pet hair from sofas and other upholstered furniture. For heavy shedders, try a lint brush.

    Umbrella. Forget the drop cloth. Hang an opened umbrella (the kind with a U-shaped handle) upside down from a chandelier to catch drips while you’re cleaning it.

    Terry-cloth towel. To remove stubborn gunk on a granite countertop, wet a terry-cloth towel with hot water, then put it over the spot for a few minutes. The heat will help loosen the hardened spill so that you can wipe it up. You can also wrap a towel around a screwdriver and use it to clean grimy shower-door tracks.

    Credit card. Use it for scraping off baked-on spills from oven and microwave interiors. The straight edge will lift the mess without scratching.

    Damp socks. Dampen a cotton sock and wear it like a glove to clean the dust from broad-leaf houseplants.

    Cloth diaper. Soft and absorbent, it makes a great dusting cloth that won’t scratch surfaces. Some experts prefer one with an 8-ply thickness in the center and 4-ply on the sides. Wash diapers four or five times before using to remove lint.

    Rain-X. Just like it does on your car’s windshield, Rain-X will repel the water on your shower door to keep it clean longer. Apply a coat to freshly cleaned shower doors.

    Plastic wrap. After cleaning the top of the refrigerator, line it with a piece of plastic wrap. You won’t be able to see it, and future cleanings will only require peeling off the plastic, tossing it, and replacing.

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    Best and Worst Walk-Behind Mowers | Mower Reviews - Consumer Reports

    Every year Consumer Reports tests a new batch of mowers at its test lawn in Fort Myers, Florida. This year we bagged more than 1,500 pounds of grass clippings and found out that not every mower measures up to our cutting, mulching, and bagging tests. While even the lowest-rated tractors and riders we tested performed passably, several walk-behind mowers left ugly clumps in their wake and scored just 40 or lower. Here are the best and worst walk-behind mowers from our tests.

    Best self-propelled mowers

    Self-propelled mowers require less effort on your part, especially on graded areas of your lawn. Paying more for the Honda HRR2169VLA, $500, buys superb mulching and bagging, no-prime starting, and an electric-start feature whose battery gets charged while you mow. Among the other multispeed mowers, choose the Toro Super Recycler 20381, $500, for its bagging; Toro Recycler 20333, $400, for its blade-brake clutch; and Troy-Bilt TB-280ES 12AGA26G, $340, for its low price and electric start.

    The Toro Recycler 20339, $380, tops our single-speed picks and offers unique stand-up storage. Also consider the all-wheel-drive Toro Recycler 20353, $400, for steep slopes—as well as the quiet Craftsman 37545, $340, which just missed making our picks—if you mostly mulch and would rather not wear ear protection.

    Best push mowers

    Among push gas mowers, choose Cub Cadet SC100, $250, for its impressive mowing in all three modes, easy handling, and premium engine. The Craftsman 37432, $220 offers fine performance overall for an especially affordable price and the Yard Machines 11A-B9A9, $240, is the  only push mower with superlative evenness in side-discharge mode and was also impressive at mulching and bagging. The Husqvarna LC121P, $250, mulched impressively, producing fine clippings without leaving clumps.

    For battery mowers, pick the EGO LM2101, $500, which handled superbly and was very good in all three mowing modes. For $100 less, consider its brandmate, the EGO LM2000, whose phenomenal ergonomic design makes for effortless handling and easy operation. Also $400 is the Black+DeckerCM 2040, which left behind a few clumps but is still worth a look.

    Worst walk-behind mowers

    Earthwise 60318, $300. Most self-propelled cordless mowers cost more, and for good reason. This one clogged and left clippings when bagging, and we found it hard to maneuver.

    Murray M22500, $170. This gas push mower wasn’t designed to bag, was mediocre in the side-discharge mode, and left visible clippings when mulching. Many push mowers adjust cutting height with one lever per wheel, but for this one you’ll need to remove and reattach each wheel.

    Earthwise 50120, $160. It’s the least expensive of the plug-in mowers we tested, but it’s no bargain. Mulching and bagging were subpar, and—with many leftover clippings—side-discharging was so-so.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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    Central Air Conditioning Reliability | Heat Pumps - Consumer Reports

    Installing or replacing a central air conditioning system is one of a homeowner’s biggest expenses so you’ll want to get it right the first time. It’s not practical for Consumer Reports to test central air conditioning systems because there are so many variables, including a home's size and design, how the system is installed, and construction of the ductwork. Instead, we estimate the reliability of major brands on the market by asking our readers about their experiences with the systems they bought and installed. Choosing a brand with a lower failure rate will help boost your chances of getting an air conditioning system that will last for years.

    In our most recent survey, 16,247 of our subscribers told us about the central air conditioning system they purchased between 2008 and 2015. Because systems with heat pumps are used for cooling for more months of the year than conventional systems—7 months vs. 5 months—we analyzed the data for each type separately. This year we also asked our subscribers how satisfied they are with the central air system they purchased, the cost of their most expensive repair, and which parts broke. Here’s what we found.

    Conventional Air Conditioning Systems

    Conventional central air conditioning systems are more common in regions with greater temperature swings such as the northeast and are used a median of five months a year. In our survey, American Standard was more reliable than half of the eight other brands we analyzed, while Amana was more repair-prone than half the other brands.

    Satisfaction. In general, we expect most owners of a central air system to be highly satisfied with the reliability of their system by the fifth year of ownership, regardless of the brand. Still, owners of American Standard systems are also the most likely to be highly satisfied with the reliability of their A/C system by the fifth year of ownership, while owners of Goodman systems are at the bottom of that list.

    Parts that break. By the fifth year of ownership, evaporator coils and controls are the parts most likely to require repair. On a brand level, York’s evaporator coils are among the least reliable and Goodman’s blowers are somewhat more repair-prone than most other brands.

    Repair costs. When we asked subscribers to tell us the cost of their most expensive repair we found a wide range. Rheem units had a median repair cost of $207 and Goodman wasn’t too far behind at $183. The least expensive brand to repair was Amana, at $133, closely followed by Lennox at $135 and Bryant at $137. We didn’t have enough repair cost data on conventional A/C systems from American Standard or York to comment on them.

    Air Conditioning Systems With Heat Pumps

    Heat pump A/Cs are common in regions with moderate heating and cooling needs. During the cooling season, heat pumps move warm air from your cool house outside. During the heating season, they do they opposite. Systems with heat pumps are typically in use for cooling for a median of seven months a year. In our survey, American Standard and Bryant were among the more reliable brands and York and Goodman were more prone to breakage, with about half of their units experiencing a serious problem by the fifth year of ownership.

    Satisfaction. Reports of satisfaction lined up with reliability, with owners of American Standard and Bryant being the most likely to be satisfied with their system after owning it for five years. Owners of systems by Goodman and York are the least likely to be satisfied. In general, we expect most owners of a central air system to be highly satisfied with the reliability of their system by the fifth year of ownership, regardless of the brand.

    Parts that break. After five years of use, evaporator coils, controls, and compressors are the most likely parts to break. On a brand level, Bryant’s evaporator coils are the most reliable of any heat pump brand. As for evaporator coils, those from systems made by American Standard, Trane, Carrier, and Lennox are more reliable than those from Goodman, York, Ruud, Amana, and Rheem. York’s heat pump blowers are less reliable than those of other brands.

    Repair costs. The range of the most expensive repair costs paid for A/C systems with heat pumps is greater than the repair costs for conventional systems. Ruud is the most expensive system to repair with a median repair cost of $231. That is more than $30 above the next most expensive brands, York and Rheem, at $198 each. The least expensive brand to repair is Bryant with a median cost of $127.

    Keep Your A/C System Humming

    Even if you buy the most reliable air conditioning system, it can let you down if you don’t keep it up.

    Keep it clean. Be sure hedges and plants are at least 2 feet away from the outside unit. Clean grills and filters monthly. Clear debris and dirt from condenser coils and check for blockages in the drain pipe.

    Seal and insulate ducts. Up to 30 to 40 percent of energy can escape through leaks or when ducts aren't insulated.  Sealing them will keep you cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.

    Seasonal checks. Once a year have a licensed professional change all filters, clean and flush the coils, drain the pan and drainage system, and vacuum the blower compartments. The contractor should also check that the system is properly charged with refrigerant, that there are no leaks, and that all mechanical components are working properly.

    More Details

    Overall, the median brand failure rate is 24 percent for conventional A/C systems and 40 percent for A/C systems with heat pumps. To see the reliability rates for all 10 brands— Amana, American Standard, Bryant, Carrier, Goodman, Lennox, Rheem, Ruud, Trane, and York—log-in or subscribe.

    Not interested in central air? Then check our full Ratings and recommendations of window and portable air conditioners.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell

    The full article is available to ConsumerReports.org subscribers. Sign in or subscribe to read this article.

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    Take the Pain Out of Window Cleaning

    Washing windows is a rite of spring and one where the effort pays off immediately. Finally, you can look past winter’s grunge and see the flowers blooming in the garden. That is if you learn how to clean the windows without leaving unsightly streaks and smudges behind. Here’s some tips on window cleaning from the experts at Consumer Reports who contributed to, “How to Clean Practically Everything.”

    Start with the window frames. Clean very dirty frames before you start your window cleaning. Vacuum the runners of aluminum window frames and doors, then polish the frames with silicone car polish, which can also be used in channels to help windows slide smoothly. Or lightly oil the channels. Wash painted or vinyl frames with a sponge dipped in warm water and detergent. Rinse with warm, clean water, and towel dry, if necessary.

    Then the panes. How often the outsides of windows need cleaning depends on where you live, but the insides usually need cleaning two times a year. Wash windows on a cloudy day or when the windows are in shade, because direct sun will cause streaking. If your home has many windows, divide the window cleaning job into segments rather than attempting all in one day.

    Your supplies. You’ll need two buckets; a sponge; a good-quality rubber squeegee; a clean, lint-free cloth; a chamois cloth; and a commercial cleaning solution or your own. Take down your curtains—it’s a good time to clean them—or loop them over a hanger, out of the way. Clean windows from the top down. Use a slightly dampened sponge to apply the window cleaning solution. Wipe across the window with dampened squeegee blade, then wipe the blade. Follow with a rinse of clean water applied with chamois. Polish off any remaining moisture with the dry cloth.

    If you’re painting. Remove new paint spatters with a cloth dipped in water or glass cleaner (for water-based paint) or turpentine (for oil-based paint). Use a single-edged razor to scrape old paint, holding it at an angle to avoid scratching the glass. Leave 1⁄16 inch of paint on the edge of the glass to protect the frame from condensation inside and rain outside. Note that glass cleaner can soften water-based paint. If you spray it onto a painted surface, blot, don’t rub; the paint will harden once dry. Wipe away putty marks with ammonia.

    Special windows. Clean small windows or stained-glass windows with a damp sponge first, then wipe with a clean, damp chamois. Polish with a clean cloth. Treat delicate stained glass with care. Painted glass should be gently cleaned with a damp chamois. Most new double-hung windows have tilting sashes, a handy feature that lets you pivot them inward for easier cleaning. With most, you simply flip a lever to tilt the sash in. But with some, you must pull the sash out of the track.

    Skylights. Some high windows and skylights can be cleaned with special extension tools, but it may be practical to hire a professional window cleaner, if only for the out-of-reach windows.

    Window-Cleaning Warning

    In Consumer Reports' window tests, one surprising discovery was that it’s easy to stain some models if you use the wrong cleaner. Ammonia-based formulas, including some Windex products, can cause streaks or film on windows. So before you grab your squeegee, check the manufacturer’s website for instructions. And whichever cleaner you use, pick a cloudy day for window cleaning—sunlight can make a cleaning solution evaporate before you finish—and clean from the top down to prevent drips.

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    10 Great Refrigerators for $1,500 or Less

    LG LFC24770ST

    You can easily spend $3,000 or more on a French-door refrigerator and not end up with nearly the performance of this 33-inch-wide LG. Temperature control, energy efficiency, and quietness are all exceptional, plus it features dual evaporative cooling, which can extend food freshness by maintaining optimal humidity levels. The LG lacks through-the-door ice and water, plus storage capacity isn't quite what you get with other French-door models. But if you can live with those tradeoffs, the LG LFC24770ST is one of the best options for around $1,500.  

    Samsung RF261BEAE[SR]

    Samsung's 36-inch-wide French-door bottom-freezer combines excellent temperature performance and efficiency. It also features dual evaporators, which can really make a difference with climate control. The Samsung is a bit noisier than other models in the French-door category, a factor that kept it off our recommended list. While it doesn't have an external ice and water dispenser, it has internal water with built in filtration, plus touchpad controls, and spillproof shelves, among other conveniences.

    LG LSXS26326S

    LG's 36-inch-wide refrigerator combines one of the lowest price tags in the side-by-side category with one of the highest overall scores. If you have big storage needs, and appreciate the vertical freezer of the side-by-side configuration, this LG is definitely worth a look. It serves up a generous 20.6 cubic feet of usable capacity and benefits from several helpful convenience features, like spillproof shelves and touchpad controls.

    GE GSE22ESHSS

    GE's 34-inch-wide side-by-side stands out for its exceptional temperature control, which most models in this category aren't able to achieve. It's also extremely energy efficient. Features include a temperature-controlled meat and deli bin, which helps keep food and beverages at the ideal temperature, as well as spillproof shelves. It's a little noisier than other models, which could be an issue if your kitchen is within earshot of other living spaces.

    Kenmore 51813

    This 33-inch-wide Kenmore is one of the least expensive models on our recommended list of side-by-sides, with few tradeoffs in performance. Solid temperature control and quietness combine with superb energy efficiency. Like most side-by-sides, it comes with a through-the-door ice and water dispenser, though you'll have to go without other convenience features, like adjustable shelves and a temperature-controlled meat and deli bin.

    Kenmore Elite 79043

    This 33-inch-wide refrigerator from Kenmore currently leads the bottom-freezer category, thanks to its exceptional all-around performance. Its 17.1 cubic feet of storage capacity feel even roomier thanks to several helpful storage features, including gallon storage and pullout shelves/bins throughout the freezer and refrigerator compartments.

    Kenmore 69313

    If you need to spend less than a $1,000 on a great refrigerator, but don't want a top-freezer, this 30-inch wide bottom-freezer from Kenmore is one of your best (not to mention only) options. Though it doesn't deliver much in the way of convenience features, it delivers superb temperature control, energy efficiency, and quietness. All that, along with the low price, was enough for a CR Best Buy designation.        

    Maytag MBF2258DEM

    This 33-inch-wide bottom-freezer from Maytag earned a spot on our recommended list thanks to its superb temperature control and energy efficiency. Its 15 cubic feet of usable capacity is about average for the category. Storage features include gallon door storage and split shelves, which are helpful for storing pitchers and other tall items, as well as touchpad controls.  

    LG LTCS20220S

    Top-freezers are the classic bargain refrigerator. They're typically smaller in size with fewer features and bare-bones design. This LG bucks that image a bit, thanks to its stainless steel finish, relatively roomy 16.7 cubic feet of usable capacity, and such conveniences as spillproof shelves and touchpad controls. In terms of performance, it combines solid temperature control with superb energy efficiency and quietness. And its 30-inch width makes it ideal for smaller kitchens.

    Frigidaire Gallery FGHT1846QF

    This 30-inch-wide Frigidaire also comes with stainless-steel styling, as well as certain features not found on all top-freezers, like a flip-up shelf that makes it easier to store taller items, and LED lighting. Though a tad noisier than the LG top-freezer included here, it's still very quiet on the whole. Temperature performance is also solid and it's exceptionally energy efficient.     

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    The Best Electric Dryers for $800 or Less

    Dryers haven’t changed as dramatically as washers in the past decade, and yet the top-scoring dryers in Consumer Reports’ tests cost $1,200 to $1,450. Manufacturers designed them so they can be paired with matching washers, and the washer price drives the dryer price. But for $800 or less, you can still buy a great dryer that gets the job done.

    Electric dryers are the big sellers, and the electric dryers highlighted below aced drying, and were quiet or relatively quiet. Most scored very good in capacity, meaning they should fit about 20 to 24 pounds of laundry. Two scored excellent, and should be able to hold about 25 pounds or more of laundry. You'll see the manufacturer's claimed cubic feet in the Features & Specs tab in our dryer Ratings. And of course these electric dryers have moisture sensors. Compared to thermostat dryers, moisture sensors are better at determining when laundry is dry, and then shutting off the machine.

    Dryers to Consider

    More choices
    Our dryer Ratings include dozens of electric dryers that we’ve bought and tested. We score drying performance, capacity, convenience, and noise of electric dryers. Years of testing found that the gas dryers perform similarly, so you’ll see Ratings for them, based on the performance of the electric model. Gas dryers usually cost about $100 more than electric dryers. 

    With so many to choose from, use the dryer Ratings filter to narrow your choices by brand, price, and more. The Features & Specs tab lets you compare dimensions and features, and the brand reliability information tells you which brands are the most repair-prone, according to the more than 105,000 people we surveyed. To help you decide, send questions to kjaneway@consumer.org.  

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Latest on Safety From Consumer Reports

     

    Effective April 1, 2016, Consumer Reports is no longer supporting our various RSS feeds.  If you are a media or news organization, please contact our Media Room at pressroom@cr.consumer.org.  For the latest safety news please visit Consumer Reports Online.

     

     

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    Latest on Home From Consumer Reports

     

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    Latest on Appliances From Consumer Reports

     

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    Reforms Come to Reverse Mortgages

    W hen Karen Hunziker’s husband, Charles, died a month after having a stroke in May 2014, she was devastated. Ten days later, she got another shock: a letter from a loan servicing company saying she’d have to pay off the reverse mortgage on her home or it would go into foreclosure.

    The Hunzikers had taken out a reverse mortgage in 2008. Karen, an artist, and Charles, who worked at a local warehouse, wanted to borrow $20,000 to do repairs on their home in Pollock Pines, Calif. The loan allows older homeowners to borrow against the equity in their home. As long as you keep up with your property taxes, home insurance, and house maintenance, a reverse mortgage doesn’t have to be paid back until you move out, sell your home, or die.

    At the time, Karen was 60, two years too young to qualify for that type of loan. So she agreed to be removed from the title so that Charles, then 65, was the sole borrower.

    Karen says the lender repeatedly assured her that she’d be able to stay in the home if anything happened to Charles. But when she contacted the loan servicer after Charles died, she was told that her home was scheduled for auction in 30 days.

    “I barely had a chance to mourn, and I was told I would have to get out of my house,” says Hunziker, now 68.

    Karen’s experience is the kind of horror story that has long led some consumer advocates and financial planners to consider reverse mortgages too risky, a loan of last resort. In addition to problems when a surviving spouse isn’t on the loan, these compounding-­interest loans can be expensive. And seniors who can’t keep up with taxes, insurance, and home upkeep risk defaulting on the loan and losing their house.

    But over the past three years, new government regulations aimed at protecting older borrowers and shoring up the government-­backed loan program have gone into effect.

    To be sure, the loans remain a poor choice for some, and at Consumer Reports we believe more reforms are needed. But some experts say that for certain homeowners, with the new regulations in place, it may make sense to consider a reverse mortgage.

    One high-profile proponent is Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Robert Merton, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who has studied reverse mortgages for more than a decade. It’s an unfortunate reality, he says, that many people haven’t saved enough for retirement. At the same time, a fast-growing number of the 76 million baby boomers, now 52 to 70 years old, are moving into the eligible age range for reverse mortgages, making them a prime audience for the loans.

    Among Americans 55 to 64, 55 percent report little to no retirement savings, according to a May 2015 Government Accountability Office report. But 74 percent of people 55 and older own their homes. Merton has come to see that “home equity could be a solution” for retirees who would like to improve their standard of living. “Will we still have problems with reverse mortgages? Of course we will,” Merton says. “Do we need improved design, lower closing costs, and better regulation? Yes. But a well-­functioning reverse mortgage is going to be key for working- and middle-class people to have a good retirement.”

    If you’re considering a reverse mortgage, it’s critical to know what you are getting into, given the loans’ complexity, cost, and controversial nature. Here’s what you need to know:

    A Troubled History

    Though never a big part of the mortgage market, government insured reverse mortgages—formally known as Home Equity Conversion Mortgages (HECMs)—have been around since 1987. Congress created them with the aim of helping cash-strapped homeowners 62 and older pay for critical everyday living expenses by drawing income from their home, usually their biggest asset.

    The loans took off along with the housing boom that boosted home values in the 2000s. Lenders gave retirees incentives to take all of the money out up front. Some were talked into using the money for ill-advised investments or spent it on noncritical home improvements. About 40 percent say the primary reason they used the loan was for extra income to pay for daily living expenses, according to Stephanie Moulton, an associate professor at Ohio State University who did a study of seniors who took reverse mortgages between 2006 and 2011.

    But after the real estate bust deflated home values and the Great Recession hit, home­owners in shaky financial positions began falling behind on property tax and home insurance payments. Defaults rose by half, from 8 percent in 2010 to 12 percent in 2014.

    “There was no requirement to check to see if a borrower could really afford to stay in their homes,” Moulton says. “Reverse mortgages were supposed to give seniors more financial security, but for some seniors, that wasn’t happening.”

    Meanwhile, the barrage of reverse mortgage ads on radio and TV has continued unabated. The ads, featuring B-list actors such as Henry “The Fonz” Winkler (shown below), aggressively pitch reverse mortgages to seniors as a risk-free way to supplement retirement income.

    Those ads can be misleading, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says. It issued a report last June saying that many reverse mortgage ads are inaccurate or omit important information.

    The CFPB also studied complaints made about reverse mortgages from 2011 to 2014. It found that many consumers were confused about how the loans worked or got the runaround from loan servicers when there were problems.

    “We don’t see reverse mortgages as innately bad. For the right consumer at the right time, these loans may be an excellent choice,” says Stacy Canan, deputy assistant director at the CFPB’s Office of Financial Protection for Older Americans. “But this is a complicated mortgage product and one we see that consumers don’t often understand,” Canan says.

    Tougher New Rules

    It’s not just homeowners who can get into trouble with reverse mortgages. The Department of Housing and Urban Development insures HECMs and is on the hook if a foreclosed home sells for less than the loan’s value. It must reimburse the lender for the difference. The rules it rolled out starting in 2013 and continuing through last year were instituted not just to weed out selling to borrowers unsuited to the loans but also to reduce its own risk insuring them. The new rules include:

    • Tighter borrowing limits. Starting in 2014, most borrowers can take only 60 percent of the loan in the first year. Some may be eligible to take out more but must pay higher up-front costs.
    • Stricter financial requirements. In the past almost anyone with sizeable home equity could qualify for a reverse mortgage. Since April 2015, lenders are required to assess the borrower’s income, cash flow, and credit history to make sure they have enough to pay the future costs of owning the home. If they don’t, they may still qualify if they can put aside money from the loan to cover future taxes, insurance, and maintenance costs. If not, they won’t get the loan.
    • Stronger spousal protections. As Karen Hunziker found out, if a spouse isn’t listed as a borrower and the borrowing spouse dies or moves out (say, to a nursing home) for more than 12 months, the loan has to be repaid immediately or the surviving spouse faces foreclosure. Last June, HUD adopted a policy that allows a non­borrowing spouse to remain in the home as long as it is their primary residence and taxes and insurance are paid.

    If those financial checks and loan limits had been in place sooner, a recent study by Moulton estimates, defaults would have been about 40 to 50 percent lower.

    Still, some consumer protection experts say the reforms haven’t gone far enough and that loan servicers are dragging their feet helping surviving spouses take advantage of the new rules that allow them to remain in their home. A recent National Consumer Law Center survey of elder advocates found that their clients were experiencing that. “We welcome these reforms—they give consumers more options,” says Odette Williamson of the NCLC. “But there is more work to be done on behalf of consumers to make sure that the options are truly available to them without jumping through a lot of hoops.” Norma Garcia, a senior attorney for Consumer Reports, adds that aggressive marketing, loan complexity, and borrower confusion also remain troubling concerns.

    One important change Consumer Reports advocates is a requirement for seniors to fill out a detailed questionnaire walking them through the loan’s possible consequences before filling out a mortgage application. The worksheet, which we helped design with a neurology professor who studies decision-making in older adults, is mandatory in California. Consumer Reports would like it to become a national policy. That would be in addition to required counseling usually done by phone. “This is a much more effective tool that actively engages people in decision-­making and aids counseling,” Garcia says. To see the worksheet, go to canhr.org and click on Free Consumer Fact Sheets, then sheet No. 52.

    A Strategic Approach

    Some academics and financial planners say that reverse mortgages, strengthened by the reforms, can be used strategically by people who are worried about running out of money in retirement.

    For example, rather than take a reverse mortgage as a lump sum, you can access the equity in your home as a monthly payment, says Steven Sass of Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research, where he is director of the Financial Security Project.

    A lump sum is tempting to spend quickly, whereas a monthly payment gives you a regular stream of income that draws down your equity more slowly, he says. Sass recommends first investigating other, less expensive options, such as downsizing your house (see below). But with the stringent financial checks and borrowing limits, reverse mortgages “are safer products,” he says.

    Alternatively, you could set up a reverse mortgage as a standby line of credit, says John Salter, a certified financial planner and professor of personal financial planning at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. That way the money is available if you have big unexpected expenses, such as a health emergency. “It’s there if you need it, and if you don’t, you never need to tap it,” he says.

    Also, Salter suggests that if the financial markets are down, you could take income from a reverse mortgage line of credit rather than from other investments. Once those investments recover, you can repay the loan. You could also put off taking Social Security longer by using a reverse mortgage to supplement income early in retirement. Delaying Social Security allows the benefit payment to grow, which would give you a higher lifetime guaranteed income stream that is adjusted for inflation. As with any transaction involving your home’s equity, you should discuss the implications with an independent financial adviser.

    Having money in reserve is what appealed to Ralph ­Kumano, 71, who took a reverse mortgage on his two-bedroom home in Auberry, Calif., earlier this year. A retired biology teacher, Kumano has no debt, and his home, appraised at $166,000, is paid off. He qualified for an $87,000 loan and set it up as a line of credit. “It’s mainly for emergencies,” he says. Having those funds available also means that if he needs cash, he doesn’t have to take more than the minimum he is required to take from his retirement accounts, which increases his taxable income. “The money from my house is tax-free,” ­Kumano says.

    As for Karen Hunziker, the new regulations appear to have come just in time. The protections for nonborrowing spouses were extended to loans made before Aug. 4, 2014. With the help of Sandy Jolley, an independent reverse mortgage consumer advocate, Hunziker was able to stall the foreclosure until the new spousal guidelines were in place. “The new law was a lifesaver in Karen’s situation,” Jolley says. “She would have lost her home if it weren’t for this change.”


    How to Decide If a Reverse Mortgage Is Right for You

    How Long Do You Plan to Stay in Your House?
    As with a traditional home loan, taking out a reverse mortgage costs thousands of dollars in closing costs and fees. But reverse mortgages come with an additional expense: Borrowers pay 0.5 percent of the loan amount up front and 1.25 percent annually for government mortgage insurance. If you leave your home soon after taking the loan, you’ll lose a big chunk of your home equity to fees for only a small benefit.

    Is There Another Way to Meet Your Money Needs?
    If you’re really strapped for cash, consider downsizing to lower your expenses. According to the Center for Retirement Research, the cost of taxes, insurance, maintenance, and utilities average about 3.25 percent of the home’s value each year. Downsize from a $250,000 home to a $150,000 one and you’ll cut annual expenses about $3,250, from $8,125 to $4,875.

    Will Your Home Suit You as You Age?
    Reverse mortgages make the most sense if you plan to stay in your home a long time. So consider whether you can continue living there independently in your later years. Think about things such as: Does it have a lot of stairs you may have trouble getting up and down? Is it far from hospitals, doctors, or family members who can look out for you?

    Can You Live There If Something Happens to Your Spouse?
    If you’re married and your spouse dies or goes to a nursing home and can no longer contribute income or help with home maintenance, make sure you can afford to live in the home. Interest on the loan compounds, so also consider whether you will have enough equity left to finance long-term-care costs if you need to go to a nursing home.

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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  • 03/31/16--08:00: How to Keep Flowers Fresh
  • How to Keep Flowers Fresh

    Plunking a penny into a vase of water won’t help your blooms last longer. But here’s what will keep flowers fresh, according to Kristin Schleiter, associate vice president for outdoor gardens and senior curator at the New York Botanical Garden.

    Give Them a Snip
    You’ve probably heard that you keep flowers fresh by cutting the stem as soon as you get them home. Here’s why it’s a good practice: Flowers have a vascular system in their stems that draws up water and nutrients to feed the blooms. If you neglect to cut them, air that has been drawn into the stems while they were out of water can block water absorption. Use very sharp scissors or pruning shears, and snip at least one-half inch off the bottom of the stems to be sure you’re cutting above possible air bubbles. Schleiter suggests doing this if your flowers are delivered in a box or tied with a rubber band.

    Place Them in Water Quickly
    To speed the process, you can cut stems under water to prevent air bubbles from forming in the stems. It’s also okay to put the flowers in a vase of water right after you make the cut. Just don’t dillydally, Schleiter says. Arrange your bouquet first, then cut the stems and put them in water.

    Watch the Water Temp
    Placing stems in hot water will cook them, Schleiter says. Room-temperature water is best, with one exception: Blooms from bulbs that flower during cooler months, like anemones, daffodils, and tulips, will do better if the water is below room temperature. “Using cool water will help them last longer,” Schleiter notes. If you have unopened flowers and want to speed blooming along, perhaps because you plan to use them as a table centerpiece in the next day or two, use warm water to help them open up more quickly. (The trade-off, of course, is that they’ll also die sooner.)

    Remove Below-Water Foliage
    Any plant leaves and flowers you leave in the vase water will rot quickly, which will spread bacteria that will kill your flowers before their time.

    Keep 'Em Cool
    Heat will hasten your flowers’ demise, so place arrangements in cool spots, away from heating ducts and vents. You can also keep flowers fresh by avoiding direct sunlight.

    Change the Water
    As we said, bacteria are the enemy, so wash out the vase and refill it at least every three days, Schleiter advises. Trim another half-inch off the stems while you’re at it.

    Make Your Own Flower Food
    Those little packets that come with many floral arrangements help to keep flowers fresh because they contain sugar to provide a little nourishment; citric acid to keep the pH low and acidic, which helps water move up the stems a bit faster and may reduce wilting; as well as antibacterial powder. If your arrangement didn’t include a packet of food or if you’ve used yours up, you can make your own each time you change the water or before you give the stems a cut. Here’s how: Mix together a few drops of bleach or a clear spirit such as vodka or gin to help fight bacterial growth, add a few drops of clear soda or superfine sugar to feed the flowers, and then crush a vitamin C tablet and add it to lower the pH.

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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