Second of two articles

There are many ways to get information about appliances before you decide what to buy. You can check a manufacturer's Web site, consult Consumer Reports, ask your neighbors and friends or listen to a salesperson's spiel. But in real time in your real house, how will these appliances perform?

Last fall, I was invited by Whirlpool to test any appliance in their catalogue in my home. The terms: I would use the appliances for six months and offer my candid observations. In the name of unbiased reporting, we agreed that if I wanted to keep anything, I would pay for it. If not, the appliances would be donated to charity.

As the most basic models in every appliance category will generally perform the task adequately, I went for the pricey upgrades. I wanted to know if they really do make meal preparation and laundry easier, as claimed. If so, are they worth the extra cost?

Based on my experience with the models that I tested, I would say yes. The upgraded appliances do make life easier. But if my budget forced me to choose between the kitchen and the laundry, I would go for the laundry upgrades because they made a bigger difference in my routine.

With three teenage daughters, I do 12 to 15 loads of laundry a week. Compared with my 15-year-old top-loading washer, Whirlpool's front-loading Duet was a refreshing improvement. And, looking back to when my children were much younger, the features on the Duet washer would definitely have made things easier, starting with the "sanitary" cycle for diapers and crib sheets and moving on to "heavy duty" for mud-caked play clothes and soccer uniforms and "normal" for indoor sports uniforms and school clothes. Now that my children are adolescents, I use the "quick wash." Intended for small loads of slightly soiled garments, it's a perfect fit for teenagers who often wear three to four outfits in one day or throw an item in the wash because it sat in a heap on the floor and became unacceptably wrinkled.

The Duet also has wash cycles for a time-starved parent who still has to look decent for her day job. Not only is there a "delicate" cycle, there are also "silk," "wool" and "hand washables."

Besides having wash cycles that matched my lifestyle, the Duet washer got the job done faster than my old washer. Some of this difference is because the machine is a front-loader that uses less water, so less time is needed to fill and drain the drum. But the Duet takes this one step further with sensors that determine exactly how much water is needed for each load, based on its weight. I also spent less time on laundry because I washed fewer loads. With no top-loading agitator to take up space, the capacity of the drum is larger.

Some options, however, added to the wash time. "Prewash" for especially dirty clothes, "auto soak" for set-in stains, and the higher-speed spin cycles added 15 to 40 minutes.

On the upside, the higher spin speeds -- at 1,100 revolutions per minute, the Duet's "extra high" is nearly twice as fast as the single spin speed on a standard top-loader -- removed so much more moisture than my old top-loader that the drying time was greatly reduced. For example, 12 to 14 bath towels washed with the "extra high" spin option dried in less than half the time required with my old washer and dryer. In most cases, I could dry one load as I washed the next one. Loads of wet laundry did not back up, waiting for the dryer to become available.

Another plus with the washer is true of any front-loader: Your clothes will retain their brand-new luster for a longer time because the tumbling action is less abrasive than the agitation of a top loader. The proof of this is the amount of lint expelled in the wash water. With the Duet, it was negligible, whereas my old machine expelled so much lint I periodically had to clean out the drain. (The lint is produced by the clothes rubbing against each other.)

The Duet dryer has the standard drying cycles -- heavy duty, normal and delicate -- plus a lower-heat "super delicate." This one was added to accommodate the increasingly common fabric blends that contain cotton and rayon or spandex. With sportswear these man-made fibers allow easier movement, and with street clothes they reduce wrinkling. The "super delicate" lower heat will also lengthen the useful life of lingerie and other garments that have elastic.

To eliminate unnecessary drying and to save energy, the Duet dryer has moisture sensors. These measure the wetness level in each load and determine a drying time, based on the cycle selected. However, I found that the sensors were not infallible. When clothes of different weights are dried together -- jeans and T-shirts or socks and underwear -- the heavier garments were still damp at the end of the drying cycle. After taking out the dry items, I had to run the dryer another 10 minutes or so.

A handy feature on both the washer and dryer, and one that makes it easier to sandwich laundry chores between other household ones, is the "estimated time remaining." A liquid crystal display tells you how many minutes the cycle will run and when to come back and put in the next load, based on the type of cycle and options selected.

As an accessory to the Duet washer and dryer, Whirlpool offers a pair of pedestals that raise them about 13 inches off the floor. Each pedestal has a pullout drawer; unfortunately, the drawers are not tall enough to store liquid detergent bottles or other standard-size cleaning products. The pedestals would be a godsend, however, if you were pregnant, or for some other reason could not bend over easily. Recognizing that the height of the pedestals has been a problem, Whirlpool is planning to offer them in different heights.

The third laundry appliance I tested was the DryAire, which Whirlpool introduced to the U.S. market last summer. Used in Europe for years, the DryAire is a drying cabinet for the 30 percent to 40 percent of laundry items that most U.S. households typically do not put in their dryer. The unit has a fan and very low heat -- the highest "heavy-duty" setting is the same as "delicate" on a regular dryer. The DryAire's lowest "super-delicate" setting is barely above "air only," but I found it was enough heat to dry most items in three or four hours. The flexible rack system can accommodate shirts and pants on hangers, 30 T-shirts hung on racks or two wool sweaters laid flat to dry. But, when I tried to pack in as many items as the unit would hold, drying took forever. My solution was to do the wash more frequently in smaller loads. The tradeoff was worth it -- a cabinet in my laundry room rather than racks to be set up and put away each time they were used. The DryAire is designed to fit inside a finished cabinet or to be free-standing. Without the insulation of the cabinet, though, the fan is noisy.

At the end of my testing, I decided to purchase the laundry appliances. All the upgrades did, in fact, make my life easier, and that, I concluded, was worth paying extra.

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

{copy} 2004, Katherine Salant

Distributed by Inman News Features

Whirlpool's Duet washer and dryer offer useful settings and front loading.The DryAire cabinet handles items a regular clothes dryer shouldn't touch.