When the refrigerator is warm and the stove is cold, getting on with dinner is just the immediate challenge. More complicated is replacing the errant appliance. Now that washers "talk" to their partner dryers, ovens cook with light, and dishwashers know the difference between fine china and a frying pan, consumers have much to consider--including long-term energy costs--before ever setting foot onto the appliance showroom floor.
The household appliance industry represents $23 billion in the U.S. economy annually, according to Jill Notini, spokesperson for the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM). And every year, some 65 million appliances are shipped to retail outlets nationwide. But long before any of them reach the marketplace, appliance makers rely on consumers to tell them what they want and how they want it to work.
"Refrigerators, stoves, dishwashers, washers and dryers--these are all products that are going to stay around the consumer's home a very long time," Notini says. "So manufacturers invest significant amounts of time and money following consumers around--in their homes and in showrooms--to see how people use the appliances they buy. Manufacturers want to know what consumers want."
And from this information, manufacturers say what consumers want is a combination of good looks, functionality, and energy efficiency.
"Every product must save time, take less effort on the part of the user, and make better use of internal space," says Grant Deady, spokesperson for Whirlpool Appliances, makers of the Whirlpool, Roper, and KitchenAid product lines. "And they must be easy to use."
But while consumers place form and function atop their list of appliance attributes, manufacturers must meet rigorous, periodically upgraded performance standards put forward by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Among those DOE standards are testing for energy efficiency and a compliance program adopted in 1980 mandating that certain new household appliances, including refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers, and clothes washers (kitchen ranges and clothes dryers are exempt), bear yellow EnergyGuide labels comparing the energy efficiency of each model against a range of all similar models. EnergyGuide labels also display the average amount consumers can expect to pay for energy annually to operate the appliance.
More recently, some household appliances have also borne stickers proclaiming that they meet Energy Star standards. Launched in 1992, the Energy Star program, designed by both DOE and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, raises the ante for energy efficiency in performance. Energy Star designated refrigerators, for example, use high-efficiency compressors, improved insulations, more precise temperature, and defrost mechanisms. As a result, they consume at least 10 percent less energy than those required by DOE standards, and 40 percent less energy that conventional models sold just two years ago.
Likewise, Energy Star-qualified dishwashers use up to 25% less energy than the DOE minimum for energy consumption and can save consumers more than $100 over the course of the appliance's lifetime. Clothes washers that earn the designation use and heat 18-25 gallons of water per load, well below the 40 gallons used by standard machines.
While appliance manufacturers can choose to develop models that meet or even exceed Energy Star standards, they must at least meet basic DOE standards. As a result, all manufacturers offer consumers appliances designed to help them save energy and out-of-pocket operating costs. So appliance makers distinguish themselves by targeting consumer desire for ease of use, and by following, if not setting, home fashion trends.
"We must all meet federal standards and they are changing all the time," says Leslie Redford, spokesperson for General Electric Appliances, makers of the Monogram, Profile, GE, and Hotpoint brands. "The appliance industry is very competitive; the only way manufacturers can set themselves apart is by technology and the development of new products."
Sometimes, Redford says, technology shows up on the retail showroom as new features added to existing models. But, not unlike the automotive industry, appliance makers debut new products on a consistent basis. Each one is designed and presented as a household problem-solver with some interesting "benefits" as well.
GE's new washer/dryer pair, the GE Profile Harmony, will debut in June not only as a way to clean and dry laundry, but also as a "Clothes Care System." According to Redford, the pair is designed with a high-tech look and an electronics system that allows the washer to "talk" to the dryer, preparing it with the proper information to dry and fluff everything from pet bedding and sneakers to sweaters and lingerie.
"Clothes are expensive," Redford says, "and people want their lifespan to be more than four or five wearings."
While manufacturers are busy building bonus benefits into their products, they have not lost sight of consumers' craving for obvious attributes. Appliance makers target specific products to specific consumers most likely to take advantage of new models and features.
According to spokesperson Grant Deady, Whirlpool's lines, including Roper and KitchenAid appliances, are aimed at making sure appliances make life easier for the people who use them every day.
"Our target market is women," he adds. "There aren't many things that make her life easier, so at least her appliances should."
In fact, according to Deady, Whirlpool's Satina side-by-side refrigerator was designed to offer the trendy, professional look of a stainless-steel exterior without that material's drawbacks.
"From talking with consumers, we found that the problem with stainless steel is that it shows fingerprints and it won't hold a magnet," Deady explained. "We designed the exterior not to show the fingerprints and still hold a magnet."
Other models offered by all three of the major manufacturers offer bottom freezer designs that account for the fact that people fetch items from the fresh food compartment seven times more often than they do from the freezer. According to Leslie Redford, they make a fashion statement, too.
"The bottom freezer design has sliding drawers to reduce bending. That appeals to the baby boomers," says Redford, "and Gen-Xers like the retro look."
New refrigerators also feature "smart" compartments that can cool beverages in 15 minutes and slowly defrost meat, poultry, and fish safely.
Ovens are "smart," designed to reduce cooking time and compensate for the time people can't afford to invest in meal preparation. Whirlpool's Polara oven keeps a meal cool until the thermostatic timer tells it to begin cooking. Then it keeps the meal warm until it's time for dinner. Meanwhile, GE's Advantium ovens use halogen light to do its cooking in a fraction of the time required by a conventional oven. It's targeted to couples, empty-nesters, singles, and anybody who wants cookies in 4-1/2 minutes' time.
If ovens are designed to save time, new dishwasher technology combines convenience features with space and energy savings. The Fisher & Paykel Company's DishDrawer model is comprised of two independently operating units that offer delicate cleaning of crystal and fine china on one level, and heavy-duty cleaning of pots and pans on another. The drawer design makes for ease of access for loading and unloading.
Maytag's Jet Clean II dishwasher features a trio of adjustable racks for more efficient loading, and GE offers a model with a separate spray arm to handle frequent loads of cups and glasses.
So how do consumers choose among the myriad of appliances turned out by manufacturers every year? According to AHAM's Jill Notini, they look to their lifestyles to decide.
"A real good guide is to look at how you use your appliances, your living space, and your budget," she says. "If you don't do a lot of cooking or a lot of entertaining, maybe you don't need a top-of-the-line oven. And, of course, take a look at the EnergyGuide sticker to check out annual cost.
"The important thing to look at is how the appliance is going to make your life easier," she adds. "And how it's going to suit your needs over time."
Manufacturers of major household appliances stay competitive by researching and developing new products. And while they won't disclose what's on the drawing board for upcoming introductions, they do offer snapshots of what's hot in the marketplace.
Combination ovens are hot right now. Some combine conventional, or thermal, cooking technology with convection cooking options. New to the market is the GE Profile with Innovection Technology ovens that combine thermal, convection, and microwave energies with no bakeware restrictions or food limits--perfect for the chef who needs to cook a 20-pound turkey in only a couple of hours.
Besides doing their jobs, major appliances are becoming more important parts of home fashion options as well. Whirlpool offers some of its stove, refrigerator, dishwasher, and washer/dryer models in designer colors from Blue and Dove Gray to Biscuit and Pewter. Nearly all manufacturers offer some models in stainless steel, prized for its bold statement and professional look. Also gaining decorators' attention, according to Jill Notini of the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM), are door panels for refrigerators that mimic cabinetry or add artistic scenes to kitchens.
Thanks to 21st-century technology, appliances are getting smarter, too. New refrigerator models offer bins with adjustable thermostats to keep produce especially crisp, and ensure that meat, poultry, and fish defrost at a safe, consistent temperature. And if kids aren't as conscious as they should be, some models feature alarms that send a signal when the refrigerator door is ajar.
So what could be next? According to the U.S. Department of Energy, consumers can look forward to clothes dryers that use microwave technology instead of lots of heat to get their jobs done.
When it comes to purchasing major appliances, a little research can go a long way. Fortunately, thanks to the Internet, consumers can do the legwork from the comfort of their homes. All major appliance manufacturers sponsor Web sites containing information about their product lines. Sites include pictures and list dimension features and suggested retail pricing.
For information from manufacturers included in this article visit:
The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers offers information for consumers as well as its manufacturer members. Online consumers will find buying information, use and care help, and even assistance finding repair and service sources. Visit AHAM at www.aham.org.
The U.S. Department of Energy and Energy Star also offer Web sites that describe guidelines, identify products that meet or exceed standards for energy efficiency, and list ways to make the appliances you own work better and last longer.
For the U.S. Department of Energy tips and guidelines, visit www.eere.energy.gov.
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