Monday, February 21, 2011

Helpful Household Hints: Appliances

What would modern life be without appliances?

Answer: it would be turn-of-the-century life.  The raft of modern appliances we don't even think about anymore, the refrigerators, the freezers, the washing machines - these have taken on a lot of the work that used to fill our days.  I look back on a lifestyle where Dad worked and Mom stayed at home to raise kids and wax rhapsodic about it, but don't be fooled: Mom was busy.  When there's no refrigerator there's got to be some way to save food for when the garden isn't producing.  Canning is one way, and it's days and days of hot, heavy work.  Sunup to sundown, in the kitchen or on the back step, prepping, cutting, cleaning, cooking, lather rinse repeat.  And that's just one small aspect of life that appliances were invented to alleviate; there's lots of others.

So what about them?  The appliances work so I don't have to, it's what they're there for.

Yes, and they'll never work as well as they did on their very first day.  But consider for a moment your refrigerator.  Do you know how it works?

No.  And I don't care to, either.

Fine.  Paring the story to its bones, the refrigerator works by taking heat out of the refrigerator and putting it in your kitchen.  Just like an air conditioner takes heat out of your house and puts it outside, but smaller and it goes to a lower temperature.  And your air conditioner has something that your fridge might not, and you should check it out.

What's that?

An air filter.  Find the owner's manual for your fridge and read up on it.  If it has a filter, it'll probably be near the bottom.  If not, it may not have one at all.  And if you had to read the owner's manual to figure it out, chances are good you've not thought about the air filter or anything else going on under there, so it's long overdue.  So get ready to snuggle up with the machine.

Remove the grille at the bottom if it has one.  Peer under there with a flashlight and if you've never done this before, the view is probably pretty gross.  Lint, pet hair, whatever pencil the cat chased under there and couldn't retrieve - the refrigerator's fan runs to pull air across the coils, cooling them and in the process making sure all that crud just stays put.  So fire up the vacuum cleaner, attach the hose and a brush and get it all off of there.  When you think you're done, look at it again.  Keep going.

Looks pretty good, now.

Sure, from the front.  Now pull the fridge away from the wall - be careful of the water supply if you have a built-in ice maker - and see if there are any panels down low you can remove to get to more stuff.  If so, unplug the refrigerator's power cord, remove the panels and go to town.  Get it all.  The result is a fridge that runs cooler, holds temperature better, uses less electricity and lasts longer.  If you work at it for an hour, four times a year, but the fridge lasts ten years longer (that's totally reasonable), you've saved $1000 (typical purchase price on a fridge that lasts ten years) for a total outlay of 40 hours of work.  That's $25 per hour, a good payday no matter how you slice it.

There's a lot of other crud here behind the fridge, too.

Clean that up, too.  It's all about the air flow.  Anything that slows it down is The Enemy.  The fan under your fridge is no jet turbine, it needs all the help you can give it.

What about the freezer?

Same deal, just colder.  Give it the same treatment.  And when that's done, if you have a manual defrost freezer - most people don't - you may have a nice layer of ice built up on your shelves and whatnot.  That's bad.  While you're in a maintenance mode, now's a good time to fire up your laundry iron - right, the one you use on your shirts - and get that stuff off the coils.

Why?  It's ice, it's okay.

Well, it's not - it's actually insulating your refrigerant coils so they don't do such a great job of cooling the freezer.  Turn the freezer off or unplug it, and first use a car windshield scraper or a kitchen spatula to try to physically remove the worst of the ice.  Don't go crazy, just a few jabs and see if anything pops loose.  Whatever you can remove mechanically means you don't have to add heat to the freezer to melt it away.
NOTE: a lot of manual defrost freezers have the refrigerant coils built into the shelves themselves, on the underside.  So be especially careful not to damage those coils; puncture one and it's time for a new freezer.  You could probably get it fixed, but it may well be cheaper to replace so be careful with the coils.

When I do this chore, I get out a jelly roll pan to put on the next shelf down, and start scraping.  When the scraping stops helping, a few passes with the iron set on its lowest setting just goes right through the frost.  Then more scraping.  Switch back and forth, don't force anything, try not to overheat the coils.  Too much heat causes the refrigerant (what most people just call "freon") to break down, and that's bad.  Chances are you won't get there with the iron, but why go looking for trouble.

The jelly roll pan is there to catch drips and falling ice.  You'll be dumping it a lot if your freezer looks like mine.

Start at the top and work your way down.  You really want to get all the ice but some places are just hard to reach.   Don't sweat it - be thorough, but be realistic, too.

Since I'm a little concerned about efficiency, what are good settings for these things?  What's the best setting?

Well, for the best quality and best keeping without damaging food, you want to set your fridge to the coldest setting it'll maintain without freezing the food - most food scientists recommend 40 degrees or less, but not freezing - imagine fresh veggies that have been frozen.

Yech.  They get slimy.

Right.  So spend $5 and get a refrigerator thermometer, give it an hour to stabilize and see what your fridge is doing.  Move the dial in half-steps to get you to 40 or a tad less.  If you've been running colder than necessary with furry coils under the fridge, be prepared to see a slightly less weighty utility bill.

What about the freezer?

Shoot for 0 degrees.  Your freezer is designed to keep it at zero, and that's where the food keeps best.  For every five degrees above that, expect food to retain its flavor and quality only half as long.  That's right, half as long.  If you can expect a hamburger patty to be okay for three months at zero, don't be hoping to enjoy it as much after just six weeks at 5 degrees.  Or 20 days at 10 degrees.

That was just the refrigerator and freezer.  There's other stuff in that kitchen.  Look it up in the internet and see what you should be doing for it, or check back here later.  And hey - got a question?  Drop it in the comments.  If I can't give you a smart answer, I can at least be entertaining.

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