First of two articles

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 decisions?

I got to do exactly that last fall when Whirlpool Corp. invited me to test any item in its catalogue in my 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 of three teenagers, two working parents and a constant struggle to stay on top of things.

As my experiment unfolded, a number of truths emerged that would apply to any appliance purchase. The first was that despite the manufacturer's 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 kitchen a facelift quickly fell out of the calculus when I discovered that the electric range with all the features I wanted came only 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 three-year-old electric range had a glass cooktop and electronic controls, so this aspect of the range was not new to me. But compared with the 20-year-old range it had replaced, the difference was 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.

The crucial test for the 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 too well. Afterward, 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 provide a lot of useful information, some of which is applicable to any dishwasher. For example, before turning the machine 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 helps to get the dishes cleaner and periodically adding rinse aid (a drying agent) eliminates the water residue on cups and glasses in the upper rack that ordinarily remains 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 an 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 dishwasher, they embraced the instant hot water dispenser , installed at our sink. My husband and children use it for making tea and hot chocolate, but 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 takes about eight minutes.

The side-by-side refrigerator 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 hunt 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. At their farthest point, they project forward about 1 1/2 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 foods together so they are 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.

In two weeks: Testing laundry appliances.

Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.

{copy} 2004, Katherine Salant

Distributed by Inman News Features

Are extra features worth paying for? The Whirlpool Gold GS2SHAXN refrigerator's water and cubed or crushed ice dispensers were an instant hit with the tester's family. The Whirlpool Gold GU2500XTP dishwasher earned points for running quietly, holding more items and requiring less cleaning before loading, even if loading it took some getting used to.