A consumer’s guide to refrigerators

The refrigerator, once the hulking white box of the kitchen, has morphed into much more than just a place to keep milk cold. With the rise of the trophy kitchen, the fridge is a more stylish, often stainless steel, status appliance. “It had a lot to do with MTV’s show ‘Cribs,’ ” says Jill Notini, spokeswoman for the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, referring to the program featuring celebrity homes. “When they showed the kitchens, it was all about the fridge.”

WHAT’S NEW?
Freezer placement.
Although half the refrigerators manufactured still reflect the traditional top-freezer design, more and more consumers are choosing the bottom-freezer style that makes fresh food easier to reach.

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Design. The French door, or armoire style, is today’s go-to model. It works well in smaller kitchens because the doors aren’t as wide.

Water.Many filtered-water dispensers are moving from outside the fridge door to inside. Most filters need to be replaced every six months; in some models, a red light tells you it’s time for a filter change.

Saving energy. Most new average-size Energy Star refrigerators cost around $50 to $60 a year to operate. If you have an old model in the basement, garage or anywhere else (sometimes called the “beer fridge”), you can be shelling out hundreds of dollars a year running it full-time.

Bigger size. Consumers now need space for larger quantities of food and drink, says Ellis Mass, spokesman for LG Electronics: “Refrigerators over the past few years are carving out more capacity while taking up the same footprint.”

OPERATING TIPS
Check for leaks.
To make sure your door shuts tightly, close it on a dollar bill. Household columnist Heloise explains, “When you pull out the bill, there should be a little resistance. But if the dollar falls to the floor by itself, it’s time for you to get a new gasket or realign the door.”

Fill it up. Keeping your refrigerator full makes it more energy efficient; food absorbs the cold and helps keep surrounding items chilled. “If all you have in there is some mustard and a six-pack of beer, you are using a lot of energy to keep just a couple of things really cold,” says Mass.

Keep it clean. Clean regularly under and behind your refrigerator, especially around the coils, to keep it working efficiently.

Low, middle, high
Paul Walterhoefer, store manager of the Bethesda branch of regional appliance chain Bray & Scarff, recommends these refrigerators (above left) at three price levels. Prices given are for stainless steel; white costs about $200 less; for the KitchenAid white is the same price.

SHOP SMART
Prices range from about $400 for a bare-bones, full-size model to more than $13,000 for a built-in professional-style unit. Models are generally manufactured in widths from 30 to 36 inches.

1. Show up with measurements of your current fridge as well as your available space: height, width and depth. If space is tight, determine whether your door can open from the right, left or both.
2. If you are going stainless, consider whether the unit is full stainless or just has a stainless front. If it’s the latter, check what color the sides are painted and whether they’ll show after it’s installed.
3. If you’re buying a unit with a water or ice dispenser, make sure your favorite glass will fit under it.

BY THE NUMBERS

50

Percentage of refrigerators sold that are white; 28 percent are stainless steel and 18 percent black. (A limited selection is available in “beige tones.”)

98

Percentage of U.S. households that own a refrigerator.

21

Percentage of U.S. households that own two or more refrigerators.

11-14

Average life expectancy of a refrigerator in years.

SOURCES: Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers

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