When it comes to selecting appliances, what would make the process easier? How about the opportunity to try a few in your house before making any purchase decisions.

I got to do exactly that last fall when the Whirlpool Corp. invited me to test any item in its catalogue in my own house. The terms: I would use the appliances for six months and offer my candid observations. To ensure unbiased reporting, we agreed that if I wanted to keep anything, I would pay for it. If not, the appliances would be donated to a charity.

As you might expect, when cost was not an issue, I chose top-of-the-line everything. I wanted to know if all those added features designed to make routine chores easier and faster worked as claimed. And if they did, would they be worth paying for? I found the answer to both questions to be yes, at least for my household with three teenagers, two working parents, and a constant struggle to stay on top of things.

As my Whirlpool experiment unfolded, a number of truths emerged that would apply to any appliance purchase. The first was that despite the manufacturer’s large number of appliance offerings–25 gas and electric ranges, 35 refrigerators, and 10 dishwashers–I soon discovered that I had to make a choice between aesthetics and features. The slick, stainless-steel look that I had hoped would give my 15-year-old kitchen a facelift quickly fell out of the calculus when I discovered that the Whirlpool Gold electric range with all the features that I wanted only came in black, white and biscuit. Forced to choose between a convection oven and a color, I took the oven and would make the same decision again in a second. As claimed, the convection oven is faster and the food is more evenly baked, roasted and broiled. And, I spend a lot more time cooking than looking.

My 3-year-old electric range had a glass cooktop and electronic controls, so this aspect of the Whirlpool range was not new to me. But compared to the 20-year-old range I had replaced, the difference is dramatic. With a glass cooktop, spills can be cleaned up with a quick wipe of the sponge; with my old stove, I had to remove the exposed coiled cooking element, reach in underneath the stove top and clean by feel–a cumbersome process to be sure.

The crucial test for the Whirlpool Gold dishwasher that I selected was its cleaning ability. After years of having to clean every speck off everything before loading it into the dishwasher, I was eager to see if this could be avoided. Would the dirty plates and icky cooking pans come out clean, as claimed? I found that the plates needed some wiping before loading, but nothing like what my old machine required. When I loaded messy broiler and roasting pans along with the dishes, however, the dishwasher didn’t perform as well. Afterwards, I found small black specks on cups and bowls in the top rack. I solved this problem by soaking the cooking pans overnight and washing them separately the next morning on the “soak and scour” setting.

The dishwasher’s cleaning ability also improved after I read the manufacturer’s instruction manual, another truth learned. Though hardly a page-turner, the manual does in fact provide a lot of useful information, some of which is applicable to any dishwasher. For example, before turning it on, you should let the hot water run about one minute to reach its maximum temperature. Otherwise, the heater in the dishwasher may not be able to boost the water temperature to the 120 degrees required for a regular wash cycle. If the water is not hot enough, the detergent won’t be as effective and the dishes won’t get as clean. Two more tips from the manual: adding extra detergent for the prewash cycle also helps to get the dishes cleaner and adding rinse aid (a drying agent) periodically eliminates the water residue on cups and glasses in the upper rack that ordinarily remain at the end of the drying cycle.

The dishwasher manual also described the unit’s flexibility, which was not obvious. This particular dishwasher has an adjustable upper rack and adjustable tines so that it can accommodate large, bulkier items or many smaller ones. Once I figured out how to move the rack and tines, I found I could load an entire dinner’s worth of dirty dishes plus the pots and pans used to cook it as long as they weren’t too grimy, in which case I washed them separately. In the latest version of this model, the flexibility is obvious because all the adjustable components are blue 

Another truth learned about the new appliances: my children needed time to adjust to a new appliance if it differed from the old one, even if the difference was positive. The dishwasher is much quieter, it holds more things and requires less cleaning before loading. But, it must be loaded differently–for example, the silverware basket is in the door–and they had a hard time with that.

While the family balked at the new dishwasher, they embraced Whirlpool’s Instant Hot Water Dispenser installed at our sink. My husband and kids use it for making tea and hot chocolate; we also use it for cooking. The total capacity of the storage tank, two quarts heated up to 190 degrees, halves the time required to boil four quarts of water for making pasta. The tank refills and reheats quickly–it only takes about eight minutes.

The Whirlpool Gold side-by-siderefrigerator replaced one that was 25 years old. Some of the features that were new to us have been around for a long time; they are certainly upgrades worth paying for. Glass shelving confines spills so that an overturned bottle up top doesn’t dribble over everything below. Two interior lights (top and bottom) make it easier to find things; the glass shelving and clear plexiglass vegetable, snack and meat drawers also make the finding process easier. The “through-the-door” water and cubed or crushed ice dispensers were an instant hit. (The filtered water, though very cold had no taste–perhaps this is what “purified” means). Even handier for families: the dispensers have a childproof lock to prevent young children from having a field day with them.

The particular unit that we selected has curved doors, which at their farthest point, project forward about 1½ inches more than a standard side-by-side refrigerator. Clever design has put this small difference to advantage. The door bins on the refrigerator are deeper, which makes it easier to group similar foodstuffs together (all the Chinese cooking ingredients, for example) so that they are close at hand when you want them. The door bins are also versatile–I was surprised to discover that the one I was using for small yogurts and dog medications was actually designed to hold soda cans.

With such positive experiences during our appliance test, we decided to purchase the kitchen appliances when our trial run was completed. All those upgrades did make food preparation and clean up easier, and that, in my book, is worth paying extra for.  

FIRST SIDEBAR–The Reliability Factor

When choosing an appliance, ease of operation and time saving features are certainly a priority. But reliability and service also count for a lot. According to Consumer Reports “Best Buys for Your Home,” 2004 edition, the specific Whirlpool appliances that I tested have performed well. CR’s Brand Repair Rates, listed in the same publication, ranked the Whirlpool brand most reliable in the dishwasher and dryer category, third in clothes washers and fourth in electric ranges. CR’s Brand Repair Rate for refrigerators, which is posted on its website (www.consumerreports.org) but not in the book, ranked Whirlpool first in all three refrigerator categories–side by side with icemaker and dispenser, top or bottom freezer with icemaker and top or bottom freezer without icemaker.

Consumer Reports tested kitchen food disposals and kitchen exhaust fans for the first time this year; the Whirlpool models that I used were not tested.  

As to my own experience with the Whirlpool appliances during the six months that I tested them, they performed well. My only problem was with a KitchenAid disposal, which was actually manufactured by Insinkerator, the original equipment manufacturer for about 80 percent of all disposals sold in the US. The model I tested was a batch-feed type which Whirlpool does not sell, but its sister company KitchenAid does. I prefer the batch-feed type because of the way it is turned on–you put in the sink stopper and turn it about five degrees. The advantage is that you can’t accidentally get a hand or finger caught, a plus that was also noted by Consumer Reports in its initial February, 2004 testing and rating of disposals. We have always had the batch-feed type and my children are terrified of the more common continuous-feed type of disposal that is operated with a wall switch.

Safety concerns with the continuous feed disposals do not seem to be an issue with the buying public, however. Pete Young of the Insinkerator firm said consumers vastly prefer this type because it is less prone to break down, and it costs less. And anecdotal evidence suggests the safety issue may be overblown. In 28 years of working in hospital emergency rooms and treating more than 100,000 patients Vashon, Washington, emergency physician Christopher J. Davis said he has never seen a garbage grinder injury, nor, he added, has a colleague ever described such an injury. By way of explanation, Davis said, “I the public is rightfully concerned about the potential for injury so they exercise safe habits when using them.”

The Whirlpool service man who came to repair the batch-feed disposal took one look at the problem (the switch was stuck in the on position), said the unit was covered by a full seven-year warranty, and replaced it, no questions asked. Other than the switch problem, the disposal was better than my old one. With a one-horsepower motor, it grinds up the food quickly, and it is quieter. 

APPLIANCE MODELS and PRICES used in SALANT’S TEST:

Please note: in some cases, the exact models that I used are no longer manufactured. I have listed the model number and price of the slightly modified version now available. A stainless steel front generally adds about $100. The prices listed are the manufacturer’s suggested retail prices. The appliance industry is highly competitive, however, and most dealers will match prices offered by their competition.

Refrigerator: Whirlpool Gold GS2SHAXN, $1,399. This is a 22-foot cubic model; the more commonly specified 25 cubic foot GS5SHAXN is $100 more, but it would not fit in our 15-year-old kitchen.

Electric Range: Whirlpool Gold GR450LXL, $849

Kitchen Exhaust Fan: Whirlpool GZ8330XL, $249

Dishwasher: Whirlpool Gold GU2500XTP, $519

Instant Hot Water: Whirlpool HD1000JS $129

Questions, comments or queries? Author and syndicated columnist Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.

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