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Expert Advice

How to Shop for Kitchen Appliances

Story by Laurie Constantino

Did you buy a house with an avocado-colored dishwasher? Is your refrigerator turned to the warmest setting, but still freezing vegetables? Do only three burners work on your four-burner stove? It's time to shop for new appliances.

Kitchen appliances usually aren't replaced until they break. Since appliance shopping is done so infrequently, deciding between subtly different machines can make many shoppers break out in a cold sweat.

To help make this experience easier, we tapped advice from several kitchen design and appliance pros.

Before shopping

Educate yourself about appliances. Manufacturers' websites are a great source of information and explain appliance terminology and modern features. Lynn Green, appliance specialist at the SBS Kitchen Design Center in Anchorage, likes consumer magazines, but cautions: "By the time a magazine hits the shelves, models have usually changed. Don't expect to buy the exact model shown in the magazine."

Knowing yourself and your family is key to buying the right appliances, says Kyle Mirka, sales manager at Allen & Petersen. "What's your passion? Do you love to cook or do you prefer heating up food in a microwave? Are young children living in the house? Does anyone in the family have a bad back? All these things matter."

In Fairbanks, The Showcase kitchen designer Katy Mackin focuses on family size, holiday entertaining requirements and the number of people in the kitchen at one time. For example, says Mackin: "If ovens, stovetops and microwaves are separate, three people can work without getting in someone else's way."

Tammy Barrow, owner of Appliance Service Company in Fairbanks, advises Alaskans to consider if their community has reliable power and which brands are serviced locally. "Buy durable name-brand appliances … with the least amount of electronics," says Barrow. "In Fairbanks, we have frequent power surges and they play rough with electronics, easily taking them out. I recommend name brands because parts are easier to get up here."

With so many models and options, shopping for the right appliance can be dizzying. That's why Green recommends using a process of elimination. "Decide what you don't want, what doesn't work for you, what colors you don't like, what features you won't use. When you know what you don't want, it's much easier to pick what you do want."

Finally, understand before you buy that appliances don't last as long as they used to. "Nothing is built to last, unfortunately. Buyers need to know that today's appliances only last five to seven years – 10 if you're lucky," says Barrow. Green explains: "Manufacturers can't afford to build machines like they used to without pricing themselves out of the market."

Refrigerator

Refrigerator choice is critical to kitchen design, says Hollie Ruocco, certified master kitchen designer and owner of Creative Kitchen Designs in Anchorage. "Refrigerators are the big monster." If you buy other appliances first, you might not have room for the refrigerator you want, she adds.

Green agrees that refrigerator size is key. "Refrigerators, they don't squish." Customers often tell her they have a "normal-sized refrigerator." But Green points out that "there just is no such critter. Exact measurements are everything when you're buying a refrigerator."

"Ninety-five percent of refrigerators sold today have French doors with a bottom freezer," says Ruocco. "With a bottom freezer, produce and perishable foods are at eye level and more likely to be used." She explains that many people don't like side-by-side refrigerators because the freezer is too narrow to hold big items like frozen turkeys.

Think about what will be stored in the refrigerator. For those who like to make food ahead of time and refrigerate it, "French doors give you wide open spaces that are big enough to fit a sheet pan or a whole cake," says Mackin. On the other hand, side-by-side refrigerators have bigger freezers. She adds that many Alaskans own separate freezers and don't need to worry about the refrigerator's freezer space.

Range/Stovetop/Oven

Buying a range instead of a separate stovetop and oven is often based on the kitchen's size, says Mirka. "Counter space is often the deciding factor. With a range, you gain 30 inches more counter space when compared to a stove top and wall oven," says Ruocco. Mirka adds: "Some people want separate stovetops and ovens to gain convenient storage space for pots and pans below."

The type of fuel – gas, electric, dual fuel or induction – is the next decision. "Usually people buy what they're used to, although dedicated cooks prefer gas stovetops and electric ovens with convection," says Mirka. "Gourmets want (gas) burners because the heat is easier to control and electric ovens because they give more consistent heat," Mackin says.

Ventilation

"People discount the need for ventilation," says Mirka, "but a family of four puts a gallon of grease into the atmosphere every year. It coats walls, cabinets, furniture, floors and our lungs. Good ventilation is the only solution."

Using the vent fan is as important as buying it. "People automatically turn on bathroom fans before they take a shower, but don't do the same thing in the kitchen. To keep grease out of the house, you need to turn on the fan before you start cooking," says Ruocco.

Modern building codes require venting to the outside for all stoves: gas, electric or induction. "Recirculating fans use charcoal filters to 'clean' the air, but in all my years of selling appliances, I've never sold a replacement charcoal filter," notes Mirka. Without new filters every few months, recirculating fans push grease back into the kitchen, he says. "Don't buy them."

Dishwasher

Most new dishwashers are durable, says Barrow. "The main consideration is noise. Most people want quiet dishwashers." The more budget-friendly models tend to be noisier than the upscale models, an important consideration if you don't want your dishwasher drowning out conversation or peaceful sleep.

Many dishwashers now feature a soil sensor that adjusts the cycle's time and water use to the load's soil level, improving efficiency. As a result, dishwashers don't work as well on pre-rinsed dishes: "The more waste on dishes the better," says Mackin. "If you let the dog lick every plate, dishes won't come out as clean."

Don't overlook the possibility of buying more than one dishwasher – a growing trend in kitchens and kitchen remodels. "The best thing I did in my latest kitchen is put in two dishwashers," says experienced remodeler Laura McArdle. "With five children and entertaining, having two makes everything easier." She says compared to the square foot cost of her cabinets, an extra dishwasher wasn't that much more expensive. "They're well worth the money."

Bottom line

Every kitchen – and every family – is unique. There is no one-size-fits-all option when it comes to choosing kitchen appliances. Do the research, compare appliances and ask questions. You'll want to choose the appliance that's right for the way you cook and for the way you use the kitchen – so choose wisely!