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How to decide whether your kitchen appliances need replacing

Sometimes decades-old appliances are so energy inefficient that it's more cost-effective to buy new ones than to keep them going. (Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg News)
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A terrible clanking, a mysterious leak and suspiciously underbaked cookies … What do all of these things have in common? They are all indicators that something may be wrong with your kitchen appliances.

Just because something is broken does not mean it cannot be fixed. Warranties, local handymen and even the old User Manual of Times Forgotten (often available online if the times truly were forgotten) are all valuable resources if you are experiencing problems.

But sometimes a unit is simply beyond repair. Or the cost of repairs exceeds the value of the unit, which should also be a consideration. Sometimes appliances have outlasted their era and are now just a drain of resources: I have seen working refrigerators decades old, but they were so energy inefficient it was more cost-effective to buy a replacement than keep them going.

For many homeowners, appliances just need to serve a function: clean dishes, keep food cold, make food hot. For such basic needs, the thought of buying a new appliance can feel more like embarking on a quest than replacing an old unit in kind. There are so many options, and even the bare minimum can seem like an outrageous amount of money.

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There is a light at the end of the tunnel, though.

Besides the noticeably improved energy efficiency — often paired with enhanced performance (rather than at the sacrifice of performance) — there are a lot of perks to look forward to if you are buying a new appliance in today’s market. The industry standards and features common in current appliances far exceed the status quo of the past.

Take one of modern cleaning’s most beloved inventions: the dishwasher. One word describes the most common request (usually, the only request) from homeowners for new dishwashers: “Quiet.” The industry standard across all major brand names for dishwashers today is less than 50 decibels — typically, less than 45 decibels even. By comparison, 10 years ago, dishwashers typically ran around 60 decibels. Because decibels are on a logarithmic scale, this means a dishwasher today will be about half as loud as a dishwasher bought before 2010.

Today’s dishwashers are so quiet that manufacturers have to install a light indicator on the unit (sometimes on the front, top, or — a fan favorite — shining down on the floor) to communicate when the cycle is complete. Why? Because dishwashers run so quietly now, you can barely hear them operating. You are more likely to mistake your new dishwasher for a nearby babbling brook than the roaring monster of its ancestors.

The humble dishwasher is not done there, though. A common feature in many dishwashers now is the once-coveted third rack: Nearly flat against the roof of the unit lies a thin shelf perfectly scaled for silverware. Instead of hunching over to the vertical cubbies at the bottom dishwasher rack and taking up valuable real estate for the larger dishes and pans, tableware can now be spread out at the top of your unit. This is better for the long-term care of most eating utensils, too, so they do not scratch against each other during the cleaning cycle.

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Let’s move across the kitchen from the cleaning zone to the cooking zone. Among the most-appreciated common features in standard mid-grade ovens are effortless pull-out racks. Similar to roll-out shelves in kitchen cabinetry, easy gliding oven racks smoothly make your baked goods more accessible to check, baste or remove. Gone are the days of coarsely grating metal against metal; your culinary accomplishments will no longer be screeched forward by strong-arming wire racks with a doubled-up oven mitt.

Finally: the refrigerator — possibly the most upgradeable kitchen appliance in today’s residential market. The most common basic updates revolve around the box itself: dimensions and drawers. First of all, shallow-depth refrigerators are readily available. Rejoice, for there is no need for your new fridge to consume half the floor space of your kitchen!

A second update to standard refrigerator offerings revolves around improved functionality and ergonomics. While many people liked the wide storage of the top-freezer/bottom-fridge units, the principle complaint was that the freezer had the prime real estate on the appliance and the most-used section (the refrigerator) required hunching over to access. The side-by-side refrigerator resolved this, with the fridge and freezer next to each other instead of stacked, giving better access and allowing for split doors (especially great for cramped kitchens). However, the reduced width of the refrigerator storage was not preferable.

The French door refrigerator resolves the ergonomic preference for the fridge on top (putting the freezer on the bottom, as a drawer) and the storage preference for a full-width refrigerator, allowing for storage of baking sheets, pizza boxes and large casserole dishes without a second thought.

Even when you are perfectly content with the way things are, sometimes change is inevitable. Whether you find yourself suddenly needing to replace a family heirloom of an appliance or are just dreading the hassle of getting something new, realize that many industry standards and common features may, in fact, make replacing your appliances a change for the better. Plus, with so many special features and smart designs across today’s market, there are also plenty of bells and whistles to look forward to beyond the standard offerings.

Stephanie Brick is the owner of Stephanie Brick Design in Baltimore.