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Hot-Mist Appliances Steam Up Technology

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By Stacy Downs

RISMEDIA, March 22, 2011—(MCT)—Home appliance makers are building up steam. The trusted technology found in whistling tea kettles and surging clothes irons has become a hot thing in washers, dryers, dishwashers and ovens. After all, steam is energy-efficient and can sterilize surfaces and hospital instruments.

Multipurpose steam cleaners were a popular category earlier this month in Chicago at the 2011 International Home + Housewares Show. Their microfiber pads help remove grime and germs from countertops, tile and floors and also freshen carpet, draperies and upholstery. The devices are even touted as a weapon for killing bedbugs. In less than a minute, they heat up ordinary tap water to at least 212 degrees—the boiling point—to create steam.

“Many consumers are becoming more educated about environmentally friendly cleaning products,” says Lisa Casey Weiss, lifestyle consultant for the International Housewares Association. “And as a result, they have become interested in steam cleaners because they often eliminate the need for harsh chemicals.”

So is steam the panacea for cleaning, de-wrinkling and even cooking? It depends.

Portable Cleaners
Consumer Reports added the “steam mops” category in 2010. A dozen items that often fall to the floor—including ketchup, mustard, olive oil, syrup and baby cereal—were allowed to harden on vinyl floor tiles before testers tackled them with steam mops.

The verdict? Consumer Reports called the H2O Mop ($100) and Eureka Enviro Steamer 313A ($70) “good” and the others “mediocre.” The nonprofit, independent testing agency identified a recurring flaw: When there’s a large amount of soil, more gets pushed out of the way than picked up by the pad. It also cautions that steam and water could damage wood floors and might void the warranty.

“A $15 squeeze mop proved comparable, if not better, at floor cleaning,” the magazine says.

Steam-mop manufacturers have recently addressed concerns through vacuum/steam mop combos that eliminate the need for a mop, bucket, broom and dustpan. As far as potential floor damage, the mops’ moisture levels can be adjusted for different types of floors.

“With floors that are a little more delicate, for example … you can put it on the steam-dusting setting,” says Dann Provolo, vice president of marketing for Euro-Pro, maker of Shark steam-cleaning products, which introduced its next generation of Steam-Pocket Mop. “Regardless, a traditional mop with water can leave standing water on a floor, which could damage it. Steam quickly dries.”

Portable steam systems with wedge- and cylinder-shaped pads can be used to clean countertops, tile grout, mirrors, windows and upholstery. Steam kills staph, E. coli, mold, mildew and dust mites. A steam unit also can kill bedbugs, with a caveat.

“A steam cleaner should be a tool within a variety of methodologies,” Provolo says. “It shouldn’t be the entire solution.”

Washers and Dryers
When Nebraska Furniture Mart salesman Scott Price wanted to replace his own top-load washer and dryer in October, he turned to steam.

“I was looking for washing performance, not necessarily energy savings,” says Price, who lives in Shawnee, Kan.

But steam washing machines use less power and consume less water than conventional models. A little bit of water can produce a lot of steam, which expands to take up more volume. The front loader uses 15 gallons versus the 40 gallons his top loader did.

Price chose Whirlpool models that were each $150 more than machines that don’t use steam. He likes how the steam cycle on his washer gets out tough stains . He uses the steam dryer to de-wrinkle his clothes.

“I’m the type of person who throws a load of clothes in the dryer overnight,” Price says. “So the de-wrinkling cycle touches them up in 10 to 20 minutes in the morning.”

The dry clothes look better, he says, when he de-wrinkles one item at a time. Price’s observations are in line with Consumer Reports’ test results.

“We found that with washers, the steam does improve the performance somewhat,” says Emilio Gonzalez, senior program leader in the appliance division at Consumer Reports. “With dryers, it’s mixed. They’re great at alleviating odor buildup, so you can freshen up clothes. But they’re not always great with wrinkles.”

How steam is generated in appliances has come under attack in the courtroom. LG Electronics USA filed suit for $60 million in 2008 over rival Whirlpool’s use of the word “steam.” LG’s dryers heat water to the boiling point of 212 degrees before injecting vapor into a cold dryer drum. Whirlpool’s Duet unit injects a cold, fine mist into a hot dryer drum, producing a similar result. This past October, a U.S. jury found Whirlpool didn’t defraud consumers with the steam-creating capabilities of its line of clothes dryers, but it had breached Illinois’ deceptive trade practices law. LG wasn’t awarded any damages.

Dishwashers
Conventional dishwashers produce steam in the drying cycle when leftover water is converted into vapor. But steam dishwashers use steam in the washing phases.

“One of the main reasons you’re seeing more steam dishwashers is because detergent manufacturers have eliminated phosphates,” says Stephen Wright, appliance manager at Nebraska Furniture Mart . “So (conventional) dishwashers aren’t as good at breaking up debris, especially the caked-on stuff.”

Steam dishwashers don’t exclusively use steam for cleaning, but they can employ it on different cycles. For example, GE steam dishwashers have pre-wash cycles (steam baths) that loosen food before normal wash cycles, eliminating the need to manually rinse dishes, which wastes water.

Consumer Reports is lukewarm on steam dishwashers. They found the addition of steam does make dishes cleaner, but only a little bit. A downside: they take a lot longer to get through a wash cycle, adding as much as 45 minutes. The upsides: they’re quiet and energy-efficient.

Ovens and Steamers
Portfolio Kitchen & Home in Kansas City knows that technology is steaming up in the heart of the home—and on “Oprah,” where actress Gwyneth Paltrow said the steamer was her favorite kitchen tool. The design center demonstrates its Gaggenau steam-convection combination oven and in-counter steamer.

“It’s a way to make nutritional food that tastes like it came from a restaurant,” says Portfolio owner Geri Higgins. “You don’t have to add butter or sauce to it to make it more moist or flavorful.”

The steamer and the oven are self-cleaning; condensation needs to be wiped up after cooking. For an integrated countertop steamer, a plumber hooks up water and drainage lines. Because calcium can sometimes clog water lines, many models contain water cartridges. Ovens come with detachable water reservoirs and don’t typically require plumbing.

On a recent day, Portfolio made asparagus (3 minutes) and salmon with lemon and herbs (10 minutes) in an in-counter steamer. The texture was moist but not water-logged.

Portfolio baked bread in a Gaggenau combination oven using dough from the grocery store. Steam is misted on the dough toward the beginning of the cycle to create a flaky brown crust on the exterior with the goal of retaining moisture inside.

Steam-combination ovens cook fast, too. A 14-pound turkey takes 90 minutes.

Some opt to reheat food with steam instead of using a microwave. Leftover pizza, for example, tastes like it’s fresh out of the oven.

“You’re starting to see steam ovens as a second oven above a conventional one,” Higgins says. “Instead of a microwave.”

(c) 2011, The Kansas City Star.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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