Chore Things: Do They Really Work?

By Christina Breda Antoniades
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 23, 2007

I would like an easier life. Not that I'm complaining about the one I have, but when I am presented with things that slice and dice and click and whir in a way that takes work off my shoulders, well, I don't think I'm alone in my excitement to learn more. Who couldn't use a little more free time and a little less hassle?

Of course, some timesavers are more timesaving than others (and some are just a waste of time). I have a travel-size clothing steamer and a baby-wipes warmer to prove that point. But sometimes even an inexpensive gadget can be surprisingly helpful.

Hoping to scout out a few, we recently tested five gadgets that promise to make life easier.

Hard-Nuked Eggs

I can't really explain why, but I was thrilled when the Nordic Ware Egg Boiler arrived in the mail. It's not the kind of high-tech wizardry that gets most people fired up. Nor am I a huge egg boiler. Still, as I pulled the egg-shaped device out of the box -- it's about the size of a small cantaloupe -- I was eager to get it into my microwave.

I like hard-boiled eggs (soft-boiled eggs scare me). I don't, however, make them all that often, mostly because I invariably lose track of time so that my egg boiling comes down to a guessing game. And since I don't usually need hard-boiled eggs, I tend to avoid the hassle. Still, if I could just pop them in the microwave, I might actually make them.

The egg boiler consists of a hard plastic outer shell and, inside, a small aluminum tray with four egg-size indentations. To use it, you fill the bottom with water, place the eggs in the tray, close the outer shell and microwave for the appropriate time, depending on whether you want them soft- or hard-boiled. In my microwave, it took nine minutes for hard-boiled eggs.

With most gadgets it takes a few tries before you get it right, so I didn't expect much. I cracked an egg, and the shell slid off easily. It was still hot, so I took a tiny, careful bite, expecting yellow ooze or crumbly overcooked yolk. Instead I got a perfectly cooked egg. Ha! Success.

I can't really find a downside to the egg boiler. It's cheap, easy to use and easy to clean. It's not really quicker than the stovetop and, clearly, it's not going to change my life, but I do think I'm more likely to make hard-boiled eggs now that I have it. Way to go, Nordic Ware.

$9.99 at http://www.amazon.com.

Roomba's Scrubbing Cousin

After iRobot introduced its vacuuming robot, Roomba, in 2002, homeowners immediately began clamoring for a robot that mops. That endeavor was a bit trickier, but iRobot succeeded, launching Scooba in December 2005.

I am not a big mopper myself, and so I was ridiculously excited to try Scooba, a sleek, round disk somewhere between the size of a Frisbee and a trash can lid. My kids were excited, too, although once they saw it had no arms and didn't talk or carry a weapon, they drifted back to their coloring/tower building/house destruction activities (but not before my daughter declared Scooba a boy, which I found refreshing, given his line of work).

Getting Scooba ready is a quick job: Charge the battery, pour in the cleaning solution and fill the tank with warm water. For the purposes of this test I allowed a good amount of kitchen detritus to build up, including cupcake batter and icing, chocolate milk drips and some unidentified brown muck. Perfect.

Scooba is equipped with sensors that help it navigate a room and avoid such pitfalls as stairwells. It also has bumpers that retract gently when it hits an object and push it in another direction. To clean a room, it first vacuums up loose dirt (that means no sweeping for you), then covers the floor in soapy water. It then sucks the water into a dirty-water tank and squeegees the floor as well. Unlike a human, Scooba doesn't stick to one spot and scrub until it's clean. Instead it may make as many as five passes over one spot until its sensors give the all-done sign.

Scooba took about 20 minutes to clean my 270-square-foot floor, emitting a low buzz as he worked. Much of the floor was dry by the time he finished, and it certainly looked clean. Though while iRobot says Scooba will scrub even dried tomato sauce, the icing and batter and the brown funk remained (the chocolate milk spots were gone). To be fair, it's so easy to use Scooba that you're likely to clean the floor frequently, which means you won't have much caked-on gunk to deal with.

I also tried Scooba on my hardwood living room floor, a test he aced, managing even to navigate the minefield of abandoned toys under the couch.

When he was done, I emptied the dirty-water tank, which was pretty gross, even for dirty water. I like the fact that with Scooba you're using only clean water to clean the floor -- rather than swishing your mop in an increasingly funky bucket -- and that I didn't have to do much actual work (always a plus). Overall, I'd give Scooba a big thumbs up, even if it didn't scrub away everything. It's perfect for people who aren't inclined to break out the mop and bucket, who don't have a lot of extra time or who have small children (especially crawlers, who are known to dine off the floor whenever possible).

$139-$499 at Target, Sears and other major retailers, as well as http://www.irobot.com and http://www.amazon.com.

Space Bag: Otherworldly Organizing

W hen I first heard the name of this product I sort of envisioned something high-tech: You know, "space" as in the final frontier. When I actually got my Space Bag I realized that the makers were probably going more for "space" as in the thing you don't have enough of because you have so many old clothes and spare blankets and other items you never use but feel the need to keep around in case of emergency. And since I was knee-deep in enough children's wear to clothe a thumb-sucking, ankle-biting army, I was ready for a solution.

The concept is simple: You fill the bag with clothes or blankets or other bulky cloth items, zip it and use your vacuum cleaner hose to suck the air out through the one-way valve. Voila: You have suddenly cut your storage bulk considerably; the maker says you'll triple your storage space. The bags are airtight, waterproof and reusable.

I bought a combo set of bags, which includes a medium (fits five to six sweaters), large (fits 10 to 12 sweaters) and extra large (fits a queen bedding set plus two pillows). An entire bedding set seems a little too ambitious for a first try, so I started with the large bag and a stack of little girl clothes -- one last chance to ooh and ahh over tiny capri pants and matching flowery tanks. I stuffed the bag, taking care not to pack it past the "stop" line.

I had a little trouble with the Sure-Zip slider (it moved but didn't seem to zip the thing shut), so I used my fingers (not trademarked), which worked well. When I finished I had a clothing- and air-filled clear plastic pillow. I lifted the valve lid, pressed my vacuum hose to the valve and turned on the vacuum cleaner, which sucked out the air lickety-split. I was left with a firm, lumpy rectangle about three inches thick.

Next I tried the extra-large bag, which fits the contents of a 70-quart plastic storage bin. This time the Sure-Zip slider worked fine. The resulting package was slightly wider than the storage bin at its base but far thinner. And at about $4 a bag (maybe less with a combo pack) it's cheaper than most plastic tubs. The only downside is that the bags don't stack as well as bins.

Overall, I'd give the Space Bag a thumbs up. It does not have rings or rocket boosters or any made-for-NASA material. But when it comes to the other space, the one I need more of, it's a winner.

$14.99 for three at http://www.amazon.com; special deals available through Space Bag (800-617-4190, http://www.spacebag.com).

Get Your Mind in the Gutter

We talk a lot about gutters at my house. When it rains -- and the water comes pouring over the edges in big gushing streams -- my husband, Spiro, or I will remark that we need to clean the gutters. We ask friends if they know a good gutter person. Sometimes Spiro threatens to get out a ladder and tackle them himself. What we rarely do is actually clean them. In fact, we're pretty sure that it's been four years since they were last scooped out.

So I was eager to test a product called Gutter Sense, although I admit that I was not terribly impressed when it arrived in the mail, packaged with little fanfare in clear plastic wrap. For starters, what you're buying is just the tool that scoops the gunk, not the pole you'll need to get it up to the gutter. The tool is a plastic pair of tongs -- they look a little like salad tongs -- attached to a spring with guide wires and a long rope. At one end there's a place to screw in a pole, but it's BYOP (bring your own pole, people).

I expected something a little more, um, substantial. Spiro agreed that Gutter Sense did not seem like the kind of manly tool that could tackle the average gutter -- let alone our sadly neglected ones. But he gamely agreed to try it. (I know it's sexist, but in our house gutter work goes to the man, and since it was cold out and there was physical labor involved, I opted to stick with the status quo.)

The missing pole might have been a problem, but we happen to have a telescoping extension pole, bought for some long-forgotten painting job. After a few practice grabs (you just hold the pole and pull the rope), Spiro remained dubious. As he headed toward a stretch of first-floor gutter that's roughly 13 feet off the ground, I stood nearby with our three children (for emotional support).

The first scoop into the gutter came up empty. Drat. But scoops number two, three and four rewarded us with large clumps of leaves and dirt. "It's working!" Spiro yelped. This was pretty exciting, but Spiro wanted a bigger challenge. He quickly duct-taped a mop handle to the pole and then climbed atop our plastic kiddie picnic table to reach our third-floor gutters. Somehow he managed to get the tongs into the gutter and pull the rope: Voila! A shower of leaves and dirt rained down on all of us.

Spiro was hooked, although he noted that A) his shoulders ached, B) you should wear goggles and C) we need a longer pole. The directions -- oops, should have read them first -- suggest dropping leaves onto a tarp for easy cleanup, and also warn that it's not for people with neck problems and requires extra care when working near electric lines. But these are mere details. As the kids busied themselves on the swing set, Spiro and I surveyed the gutter gunk littering our patio. We could almost hear our gutters letting out a little sigh of relief.

$19.95 at http://www.guttersense.com; extension poles available at hardware stores.

No More Sock Orphans

After I got married and my husband and I commingled our belongings, one of our most dreaded tasks was sorting socks. Even I, not a neatnik, aspire to order in the sock drawer. When it was just the two of us it was bad enough, but a family of five is swimming in socks. Tiny socks, big socks, white socks, black socks. Socks, socks, socks. And always one that is maddeningly missing. It's enough to put you off laundry altogether.

Fortunately, one night I stumbled across a Web site for the Sock Clip, or the Amazing Always Together Sock Clip, as Richco Product Innovations originally named it. The amazing tool is basically a small plastic clip that holds together a pair of socks. Once clipped, they can be tossed in the wash and stored, still together. A set of 32 comes in four hues, so you can color-code your socks by family member.

My first reaction was, great! No more sorting. Bring on the clips! Of course, I soon realized that even without the need to sort, there's a little upfront work. Still, as long as you clip the socks as soon as you remove them from your feet, the task is relatively simple, with none of the searching, matching and swearing that accompanies traditional sock sorting. And making it the house rule that each person clips his or her own socks means that in theory the only stinky socks you'll have to touch are your own.

As usual, I enlisted Spiro's help and, as usual, he responded enthusiastically. For at least 24 hours, which translates to roughly two pairs of socks. After that, he reverted to standard procedure, tossing his smelly, balled-up bundles of sock in the general direction of the laundry basket.

This meant I was pretty much on my own, and, honestly, although I'm a devoted reporter I found it a bit difficult to remember to use the clips. Also, call me wimpy, but I found some of the clips tough to open, which slowed me a bit. Still, those socks that did get clipped were indeed easier to handle post-wash. The clips neither fell off nor damaged the socks (the clips loosen slightly with use).

One important note: Sock clips are hard plastic, and as such they do clang around a bit in the dryer. Not a big problem, but if you live in tight quarters and plan on sleeping while your laundry tumbles, this might not be the ideal gadget for you.

$14.95 at http://www.sockclip.com.


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