Appliances get a rare workout during holidays

  • James and Morris Carey / On The House
  • Wednesday, December 22, 2004 9:00pm
  • Life

The holiday season is a time for family gatherings, entertaining, baking traditions and festive holiday meals. It’s also a time when kitchen appliances get a real workout.

Busy work schedules in two-income-earning households means major home appliances such as the cooktop, oven or range are “put on the back burner,” so to speak. They simply don’t get the workout that they once did when more American families fired them up on a daily basis to prepare family meals.

Today, for many families, mealtime involves revving-up the microwave or waiting in line at the local fast food joint. In any case, unless you use and maintain your major appliances on a regular basis, your holiday baked goods or festive spread may turn out to be disastrous thanks to an appliance on the blink.

The last thing you want to do is ruin your holiday with an undercooked turkey or ham or try to get an appliance repair person and the necessary parts out to your home on a holiday.

Are all of the burners on the cooktop working properly? Are the elements in the range heating? Is the thermostat in the oven operating properly? Will the dishwasher produce spotless dishes? Will the refrigerator keep the leftovers cold?

Even if you’re not a gourmet cook, it’s important to use your appliances from time to time (especially before a major holiday) to ensure that they are functioning properly.

Often, an “appliance problem” may have nothing to do with the appliance. If your freezer suddenly isn’t freezing, your stove won’t heat, or your dishwasher won’t wash, there might be a simple answer.

Basically, it’s one of three things: a bad outlet, an overloaded circuit or a faulty appliance. First, unplug the appliance and plug a lamp into the outlet. If it works, the appliance is the problem; if the lamp doesn’t light, check the circuit breaker. If the breaker is tripped, reset it. If it trips again, there’s a short in the wiring or serious problem in the outlet and you’ll need an electrician. Keep in mind that a short circuit in wiring or in an outlet can be serious.

You want to keep your oven sparkling clean, so you protect it by adding aluminum foil on racks, under food as it cooks and down on the oven floor where food drops and burns to a crisp. Instead of helping, you’re hurting your oven.

Foil placed on the oven floor reflects and intensifies heat, which can cause the bake element to burn out prematurely. Foil placed under foods on the racks is bad because it traps heat in the bottom of the oven, keeping it from circulating and reaching the heat sensor near the top. Severe overheating is possible, and besides damaging the bake element, it could also affect insulation in the oven wall and discolor or even crack oven-door glass. By disrupting temperatures and air circulation, aluminum foil messes up cooking times too.

Often overlooked (until it’s too late) is the proper firing-up of your kitchen gas range. Burners are lighted in one or two ways – either by tiny continuously burning “pilot lights” or by the newer electric igniters that create a spark to get things going. When neither type works as it should, accumulated grease and small food particles are the usual suspects.

Pilot lights can be rejuvenated by first removing any visible obstructions, and then clearing with a straight pin. Be careful not to damage or enlarge the hole. With all burner controls off, relight with a match.

For electric igniters, after checking the power, clean the electrodes with a soft cloth, then test. An electric stove burner that won’t heat might be something as simple as the coil not being firmly plugged into the stovetop socket or a dirty food-filled connection that needs cleaning.

Microwaves were introduced in the early ’70s and today many are 15, 20 or even 25 years old. They’re often still being used on a daily basis. As your microwave oven ages, remember two words: “efficiency” and “safety.”

First, make sure it still delivers full power for proper cooking. One cup of water should boil within three minutes. If not, have it checked. A dirty interior also can cut efficiency. Strange noises, electric arcing and a flashing display say it’s time for a check-up. If your unit is more than 15 years old, have it tested for radiation leaks by a professional technician or consider replacing it with a new one.

Refrigerators and freezers must operate at precise temperatures for proper food preservation, maximum energy-efficiency and to keep them from working too hard and wearing out prematurely. The recommended levels are between 37 and 40 degrees for the refrigerator compartment and zero for the freezer section. There are individual dials and settings to control each one. Just putting a thermometer in the compartments won’t always give you an accurate reading due to door openings and fans that move air for moisture control and defrosting.

To test the refrigerator side, place a thermometer in a glass of water in the center and leave it for 24 hours. For the freezer side, place the thermometer between two packages of frozen food, cover with plastic wrap and leave it for 24 hours. The next day, check both and adjust accordingly, allowing another 24 hours for each adjustment until your “patient” is a perfect 37 to 40 and zero.

Also, refrigerators have coils that cool circulating refrigerants when air passes over their surface. But over time they get dirty and block airflow, causing the compressor motor to run longer to cool things down, and causing your electric bill to soar. Keep them clean by vacuuming the coils with a crevice tool.

If your freezer isn’t freezing, it could be the result of ice forming on the rear wall due to a worn seal – letting warm air in. Simply unplug it, let it defrost and replace the door seal. “No icemaker” could mean the sensor arm is stuck in the up position.

Today, most homes have a dishwasher, but unlike other appliances, the less you use it the more likely it is to break down.

Water that remains in the bottom of your dishwasher is there for a reason. It keeps seals moist. This prevents leaks and protects the motor. But when it’s not used for long periods, the water evaporates, seals dry out, and leaks and motor problems become likely. To prevent this, when a dishwasher will sit unused for more than two or three weeks, pour in a half-cup of liquid bleach to prevent bacterial buildup. Then, add three tablespoons of mineral oil. It coats the surface of the water and prevents evaporation, even over long periods of time.

With dishwashers – use it or lose it or protect it.

For more home improvement tips from James and Morris Carey go to

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