Archive of ‘Home & Kitchen Appliances’ category

Don’t use foil in the microwave – and other household myths

Many widely held beliefs about home safety and savvy are more fiction than fact.

Myth: Standing in front of the microwave oven while it’s on will give you cancer.

Fact: Federal regulations have established strict limits on the amount of energy that can be emitted by microwave ovens. These standards are much lower than the level at which any adverse health effects are believed possible. Even if an oven leaks, you may feel some warmth but you will not be at risk for cancer, says Sharon Franke, the Institute’s expert on microwave cookery and food appliances. Unlike X rays and ultraviolet light, microwave energy is non ionizing, meaning it can’t damage genes or cells.

Myth: When wrapping foods in aluminum foil, the shiny side of the foil should face outside.

Fact: It doesn’t matter which side of the foil you use when you’re cooking, freezing, or storing foods. While there’s a slight difference in how much light is reflected off the two sides, it has no effect on the food you’re covering, says Franke. So why is one side shinier? It has to do with the manufacturing process.

Myth: Using antiperspirants containing aluminum and cooking with aluminum pots can give you Alzheimer’s disease.

Fact: There is no scientific evidence that aluminum from pots, pans or antiperspirants causes Alzheimer’s, explains Sandra Kuzmich, Ph.D., director of the Institute’s Chemistry Department. While some studies have found increased concentrations of aluminum in the brain cells of Alzheimer’s patients, it is not known if this is a cause or effect of the disease, or whether there is any relationship at all. Because aluminum is found in the air, water, and soil, it’s present in most foods we eat. It’s also found in many over-the-counter medicines, including antacids and buffered aspirin: According to the Food and Drug Administration, the amount you absorb through everyday items is extremely small–and safe.

Myth: Toothpaste is a good substitute for silver polish.

Fact: Your regular toothpaste (not the gel kind) can be used in a pinch, says Carolyn Forte, director of the Home Care Department. But because it’s more abrasive than silver polish, repeated use can leave fine scratches. For on-the-spot emergency polishing, rub a little on with your finger, then rinse well with hot water and dry with a soft, clean cloth.

Myth: Never put aluminum foil in the microwave.

Fact: “Older ovens–those made twenty or more years ago–couldn’t handle foil because of a problem with energy reflection and would become damaged,” says Franke. “But you can use foil safely in newer models.” For instance, small pieces can be folded around corners of foods like brownies and lasagna to keep them from overcooking. Note that you should keep the aluminum foil smooth and at least one inch away from oven walls; pieces that have jagged edges may cause some sparking. Other metals, such as wire twist ties, should never be used in the microwave.

Myth: Rechargeable batteries will last forever.

Fact: There is a limit to how many times you can replenish rechargeable batteries because the chemicals inside will eventually wear out, explains John M. Sun, director of the Institute’s Engineering Department. The life expectancy of nickel-cadmium rechargeable batteries, for instance, is determined by an estimated number of charge cycles. So each time you remove your cordless phone and put it back on the base, you’re using up one of the cycles. To make the battery last longer, don’t put the phone back on the base after each call. Instead, wait until the end of the day.

Myth: Don’t use plastic wrap in the microwave; toxic substances in the plastic can get into your food.

Fact: Under very high temperatures (300 [degrees] F. or higher), plastic wrap can melt into food. However, it’s highly unlikely that food will ever get that hot unless you’re cooking–not just reheating–something that contains large amounts of sugar or fat, says Franke. Even if you do eat heated plastic particles, experts say there’s no scientific evidence they will make you ill. But to be extra safe, advises Franke, put food in a microwave safe bowl, then cover with plastic wrap.

Myth: Moths eat only wool, so you don’t have to worry about other fabrics.

Fact: First, it isn’t the adult moth hut the larva or worm that hatches from the moth egg that causes the damage to your clothes, explains Associate Textiles Director Nancy V07ar. Second, larvae will attack even synthetic fabrics to get to food stains. So make sure all your clothes are clean before you store them.

Myth: If a stain has ruined a garment, just dye it a different color.

Fact: “Before you dye your clothes you must remove the stain,” says Vozar. If you don’t, the dye will color the stained area differently from the rest of the fabric and you’ll still see the spot.

Know your fire extinguisher

The smoke detector starts blaring, and as you rush to find your children, you spot the blaze. It’s small; maybe you can just put it out. Quick: Do you have a fire extinguisher? Where is it? Do you know how to work it? If you can’t find and use it in moments, the fire is likely to get out of control.

More than 70 percent of all Americans own a fire extinguisher, but only a fraction actually know how to use it. “Our message is advance planning, so you’re not trapped making a quick decision under stress,” says Meri-K Appy, assistant vice president for public education at the National Fire Protection Association. Her instructions, below, could save your life.

Q: How do I decide when to use a fire extinguisher or when to call the fire department?

A: The only time you should try fighting a blaze is when you have a clear exit behind you and the fire is small, self-contained, and not spreading rapidly. I advise people not to attempt it if the fire is bigger than a wastebasket, but the truth is you should never fight a fire if you’re not confident. I remember hearing a firefighter from Omaha suggest that you take the hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck test. If it’s standing up, just get out.

Q: If I put out a fire with my extinguisher, should I still call the fire department?

A: Always. Fires can reignite as long as three elements are still present-fuel, oxygen, and an ignition source. People often won’t even notice that there are still embers smoldering, but with sufficient oxygen, fires can rekindle.

Q: What do I need to know before buying a fire extinguisher?

A: First, make sure the brand you’re buying has been tested and is labeled by an independent testing laboratory such as Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. After that, we recommend you buy the largest unit you can lift and handle.

Q: I’ve noticed combination letter-number designations on fire extinguisher labels. What do they mean?

A: The letters tell you what kind of fire the extinguisher is intended to fight. We recommend a combination extinguisher, with an ABC classification. The numbers you see, which appear in front of the letters, indicate what size fire the unit is intended to extinguish. The higher the number, the larger the fire it can handle. No sizes are assigned to C extinguishers; A models range from one to 40, and B from one to 640. For home use, your best bet is a unit labeled 2A:10B:C. [Cost around$30.] This is a good size because it’s big enough to hold a reasonable amount of extinguishing agent.

Q: What’s the best place to keep it?

A: In plain view, next to an exit. The last thing you want to do is somehow get yourself caught in a position where there’s a fire between you and an exit. We recommend that you keep an extinguisher on each level of your house. You should not have to walk more than 40 feet to reach a working unit.

Q: Is there an instance in which a fire extinguisher isn’t best choice for fighting a fire?

A: You can use an extinguisher to put out a grease fire on the stove, but it isn’t the best choice because the pressure from the extinguisher can cause the grease to splatter. Instead, put on an oven mitt, carefully slide a cover over the pan, and turn off the burner. Then hold the lid tightly in place until the pan has cooled completely. Don’t peek inside; that’ll let in more oxygen and can reignite your grease.

Never throw water on a grease fire. Don’t pour baking soda on it either; in the urgency of the moment, you might grab baking powder instead, which can cause the fire to spread.

Q: How long is a fire extinguisher good for?

A: Some models have a color-coded dial pressure gauge that tells you whether you’re in the fully charged range. Others have a pressure-check pin; if the pin doesn’t pop out when you push it in, the pressure inside is too low. Some units, especially small ones, are designed to be thrown away after use, or when the pressure drops too low. But if the unit is rechargeable, bring it to a service center  or to your local fire department if it offers servicing. Be sure to bring it in after each use as well.

Fast friend in the kitchen

It might be a note on the refrigerator, or a phone call from Mom or Dad. “We’re going to be late tonight. Can you start fixing dinner?” Or maybe it’s just your regular night to cook. Or maybe you’ve just come home from school and you have to have something to eat.

These days, when everyone in the family’s busy, a lot of teenagers share the shopping and cooking with the grownups. And for adults and teens alike, the microwave has become their fast friend in the kitchen for snacks and meals. It’s quick defroster, it reheats leftovers without giving them that warmed-over taste, it makes cooking quick and easy, and it eliminates a lot of dish washing.

Ready When You Are

The food industry knows a good thing when they see one, and they’re turning out a lengthening list of ingenious products designed for the microwave. Technology has raised microwave popcorn to the top of the home snack popularity list, and brought microwave individual pizzas close behind. And that’s just the beginning. Supermarket freezers and shelves are filled now with breakfast items, baked goods, entrees, soups, side dishes, vegetables, desserts, and more, all microwaveable.

Before you buy or use them, though it’s a good idea to read the ingredient list on the package. Some products are more nutritionally sound than others. Microwave pastries, for instance, can have just as much high-calorie fat and sugar as any other kind. The vegetable oil on the butter-flavored popcorn may be palm or coconut oil, both more saturated than butter. (Those “sat-fats” can clog your arteries, you recall.) Even some diet entrees may have more fat and calories than you might expect.

You don’t have to eat just what the manufacturers give you, you know. You can make your own snacks and specialties, to suit your own taste. With a microwave, it’s quick and easy.

What a Friend Can Do

The microwave has a lot of special virtues. If you eat different food from the rest of the family–vegetarian meals, for example, or a weight-control diet–it’s easy to make a separate meal that’s meatless or low in fat and calories.

Microwave cooking’s good for nutrition because it uses less liquid and less fat. This is especially true with vegetables. Cooked in a minimum of liquid, they don’t lose water-soluble vitamins, and they have better flavor. The microwave has made baked potatoes easy, because it cooks them in minutes. (A standard oven takes almost an hour.) You can even cook fresh corn on the cob right in its husk, instead of shucking the corn and boiling up a big pot of water. And the husk and corn silk are easier to peel off after cooking.

Cooked fruit for breakfast or dessert–a baked apple, for example, or a poached pear–is easy, quick, delicious, and low in calories.

Chicken and fish can be cooked fast and with fine flavor. And crusty oven-baked fish or chicken in the microwave is quick and tasty, without the excess calories that come with frying in deep fat.

A microwave isn’t practical for quantity cooking, though. The more food you put in, the longer it takes. For a big turkey or a dozen baked potatoes, the regular oven is best, and boiling pasta in a big pot of water is better on top of the stove.

But what the microwave does for small amounts of food is wonderful.

Three Squares a Day

Take a look at breakfast, for instance. Think about old-fashioned oatmeal on a chilly morning, hearty and warming, topped with a bit of brown sugar and milk. In the microwave, it’s ready in just minutes.

Or bacon, for a special weekend breakfast, with cold fruit juice and hot muffins. Bacon’s much better in a microwave. Put the strips of bacon on a plate lined with white paper towers, covered with another towel, and they come out crisp, flat, and grease free. And no frying pan to clean, either.

How about a pita bread sandwich for lunch? Cut a pita pocket in two, and line each half with a slice of low-fat cheese. Add two or three cherry tomatoes, cut in half, a few strips of green pepper and avocado. Set on a plate and cook at full power for one minute, or until the cheese melts.

Fast fish: even good cooks can become reliant on microwave ovens

Like most of my food-conscious friends, I never thought that a microwave oven would have a place in my kitchen. There wasn’t room. It either reheated food or cooked it badly. Then the writer Barbara Kafka, once a fellow hold-out, started telling me of the wonderful results she was having while researching her book Microwave Gourmet, which was recently published. I found room. Predictably, considering the strength and duration of my resistance, I now use the microwave oven more than any other appliance in my kitchen, including the stove.

Kafka’s book goes beyond anything written before on the subject, including, emphatically, owner’s manuals. It is the first book that shows serious cooks how they can find a microwave oven indispensable–for preparing components of complicated dishes–as well as showing harried cooks how microwave ovens can speed getting dinner on the table. Kafka does not make the usual claims that the microwave oven can do everything–no albino roasts, vinyl-like baked potatoes, or tan rubber brownies. Instead she maps out what it can do that nothing else does so well or so fast: cook vegetables, grains (polenta, my old favorite, comes out perfect), broths, pates, and jams, among many other unexpected foods. She breaks with most manuals and books by, for example, pronouncing that breads and conventional cakes are disasters. She finds most manufacturers’ defrosting programs, with their elaborate alternations of medium and low power, unnecessary; full power for a short time usually produces the same result. As for defrosting steak: “Don’t do it.” Most important, and most unlike other authors of books on microwave cooking, Kafka is an original and stylish cook, whose recipes would taste delicious no matter what they were cooked in.

A “dictionary” at the back of the book gives cooking times for most of the foods mentioned as ingredients in the recipes and for quite a few more, so that you can make up recipes of your own. The nature of microwave cooking requires precise timings and quantities; it does not forgive the abandon of effervescent improvisers, the way a stove often does. Unfortunately, different ovens cook in different ways, depending not only on how much power they generate but also on how they diffuse microwaves, and volumes of ingredients–say, chicken parts–vary everywhere. And every cook has his own idea of when something is done. So expect to make your own refinements in the cooking times and container sizes called for.

If you have not yet bought a microwave oven, I recommend that you buy a full-powered one–between 600 and 750 watts. I bought a medium-powered one–500 watts (small ovens are usually 400 watts)–and have found the difference in speed when using full-powered ovens so remarkable that I plan to buy one. I hear from people who test microwave recipes that some 500-watt ovens cook many foods nearly as fast as 700-watt ovens, but mine doesn’t. They also tell me that performance varies within brands from model to model, and that the only way to know that you will have the speed of a full-powered oven is to buy one.

I have gone from refusing houseroom to a space-saving oven to considering keeping two, even though I know that in large ovens it is possible (if tricky, because of timings) to cook two dishes at once, using a rack. Once you start cooking in a microwave oven regularly, you use it to cook components of one or more dishes, just as you would a stove, and you want to be able to cook several things at once. Whatever size you buy, pay the extra amount for a keypad that will allow you to time your cooking to the second. Dial controls are not precise enough for most recipes, and you’ll often want to put something in for only twenty or thirty seconds more.

Just as word processors cannot do the writing for you, microwave ovens can’t eliminate preparation time. I will admit that as obvious as this lesson seems, it came as an unpleasant surprise. The vegetables still have to be peeled, the onions chopped, the spices retrieved from the back of the cabinet. The prospect of a good, satisfying dinner in ten minutes is hard to realize if you insist on using only fresh foods. But a microwave oven brings that prospect a lot closer almost no matter what you’re making–and delivers it when you’re cooking fish.

Fish cooked in a microwave oven is the single best example of how owning one can change your life. First, fish needs no preparation. You take it out of the wrapping paper and put it on the plate you plan to serve it on. It needs nothing to make it taste good: no oil, no court bouillon to poach it in, no herbs you forgot to buy. Even a fish as bland as sole reveals itself to be much more interesting than it was when poached in a liquid that drew off its flavor or baked at a heat that dried it out. The inside and the outside of the fish cook at the same time (unless the fish is more than three inches thick), eliminating the problem of a raw center and a dry exterior. No more undercooked fish served in the fear of being caught serving dry fish. The appearance barrier doesn’t exist: fish isn’t supposed to brown unless it’s fried or broiled, in which case it’s probably overdone. It looks good white (and even better on a dark-colored plate), and it is snowy when it comes out of the microwave oven. I used to buy fish only rarely, despite my great fondness for it, out of reluctance to take the time to figure out how best to cook it and for how long. Now I buy any fish that I can find, knowing that I will taste it at its best after a few minutes. And I’ll have only the plate to wash.

Most kind of fish take the same time to cook in the microwave oven and call for the same technique. What determines cooking time is the weight and the shape of the fish. Although it might seem cumbersome to weigh pieces of fish (or translate the decimal weight on the package into ounces), doing so ensures proper cooking, and is easier than standing a ruler beside the thickest part of the fish and bending down beside a counter to decide what it measures–the prerequisite for the “Canadian” rule of cooking fish for ten minutes per inch of thickness. The Canadian rule is inexact from the start, because a steak might be an inch thick from one end to the other whereas a whole fish or fillet might be an inch thick in the center but very much thinner at the sides or ends; it also doesn’t take into account any liquid that may have been added, which can make a great difference in timing.

Although whole fish that aren’t bigger than your oven can be cooked in it with great success, I’ll give rules for fillets and steaks, because they are more widely available in markets. Kafka defines fillets as “halves or quarters of fish removed lengthwise from the bones,” and steaks as “cuts across the fish with or without bone.” Flat-boned fish such as flounder, sole, and perch are sold either whole or in fillets; big, thick fish such as swordfish and tuna are nearly always sold as steaks, and salmon often is. Leaving in bones and skin will not affect cooking times for fillets and steaks.

Fillets should be cooked on the smallest plates they can fit on in a single layer; a rectangular dish will suit several fillets. If the fillets have skin, slash it across the width of the fillet, so that the fish does not curl. If the steaks have tapered ends, place these pointing toward the center of the dish. Food at the edge of a dish receives moremicrowaves than food in the center, so anything thick or slow-cooking should always be placed along the rim.

Cover the fish tightly with plastic wrap. Wrapping stabilizes heat and moisture around the food being cooked, and helps to counteract the uneven pattern of microwaves in every oven–a defect that turntables remedy only incompletely. (You can buy a wind-up plastic turntable if your oven doesn’t come with one, or remember to rotate dishes that take more than five minutes to cook a quarter turn midway through cooking.) As the tightly covered food cooks, the plastic forms a dome over the dish, making it look like a terrarium, and as the dish cools, the plastic shrinks to encase the food, like Cryovac.

It may be tempting at first to imitate conventional cooking methods, such as poaching or steaming, but the most effective microwave cooking can be disconcertingly simple. For instance, any liquid beyond a teaspoon or two, which quickly turns to steam, will only slow cooking. A half cup of liquid will add about thirty seconds to cooking time, depending on the depth and width of the dish. A small amount of vegetables-less than half a cup–won’t affect the cooking time, if you scatter them around the fish rather than over it. A cup, or six ounces, will add a minute in a full-powered oven, a minute and a half in a small oven. If you want to add more than half a cup of slow-cooking vegetables, such as carrots, green beans, whole or quartered onions, or broccoli, precook them for a minute or two. (These measurements apply to liquid and vegetables added to the whole dish, not to each portion.) Quick-cooking vegetables, such as mushrooms, scallions, zucchini, and chopped onions, can be cooked with the fish.

The flavor of dried herbs is intensified in the microwave oven, so use less; because there is so little liquid to absorb it, use less salt; and pepper becomes so strong that you should add only a little at a time until you become used to the new gauge. The flavor of fresh herbs weakens, so add a bit more or add them just before the dish finishes cooking.

You can nearly always eliminate fat from any recipe you want to adapt to the microwave oven. If you do want to add it, a spoonful of olive oil or melted butter (nothing is faster or easier for melting butter than a microwave oven–see why you need two?) drizzled over the fish just before it is served will taste fresher and stronger than if cooked.

Kafka’s dictionary gives cooking times for fillets and steaks of various thicknesses and in various portions. I’ll give her times for one and two portions, and bear in mind that you can’t double times willy-nilly for more. For fillets a half inch thick and weighing six to eight ounces each, the time for one piece is two minutes or in a small oven three and a half minutes; for two pieces, two and a half minutes or in a small oven four minutes. For steaks three-quarters of an inch thick and without bone, weighing eight to nine ounces each, the time for one piece is three minutes or in a small ovenfour and a half to five minutes; for two pieces, four to five minutes or in a small oven six to seven minutes.

Fish will continue to cook if left in the oven and especially if left wrapped. Be very careful when removing plastic wrap. The plate may be only warm, but the steam under the wrap is hot and strong, and it can easily burn you. Prick the plastic with a knife to let steam escape, and gently pull back one corner, keeping your hands to the side of the dish. After you bring the plate to the table, you might start wondering what you’ll try in the microwave oven next, and counting the number of dishes you won’t have to wash.

Despite my enthusiasm for microwave ovens, I have been unable to persuade my entire acquaintance to buy them, and not only because of the counter-space problem. Friends worry that they aren’t being told about health dangers, and especially if they have children around, they don’t want to take an unknown and thus all the more frightening risk. No one to whom I spoke at the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health seems willing to corroborate their suspicions.

Przemyslaw Czerski, a physician and research biologist at the center, whose field is non-ionizing radiation and health protection and who has written a book on the biological effects of microwaves, says, “From the point of view of safety, particularly with children, I certainly prefer a microwave oven to a gas range, which will have boiling things that could be upset over a child.” (He does caution a mother heating her baby’s formula in a microwave oven to wait a minute until the formula stops heating, and then to shake the bottle and feel a drop on her wrist before giving it to the child; a cool bottle may hide a too-hot liquid.) Czerski says that within the emission limitations that the FDA currently requires of all microwave ovens, there are “no known experimentally proven or theoretically feasible health hazards, from what we know about the interactions of microwaves at this frequency range with living systems.”

Czerski is speaking of emissions of microwaves from ovens; microwaves leave no radiation in food. Another misconception he hastens to correct is the one caused by the frequent reassuring statements that television picture tubes emit more radiation than microwave ovens do. Picture tubes emit ionizing radiation (the kind x-rays emit) and microwave ovens emit non-ionizing radiation (the kind light bulbs and most household appliances emit); the two are not comparable.

Joanne Barron, the chief of the microwave and acoustics section of the office of compliance at the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, says that microwave ovens manufactured since 1976 have over their lifetimes held to the emissions requirements for microwave ovens fresh from the factory (the requirements, enacted in 1971, allow for slightly more leakage after the ovens are bought). The FDA also requires two interlock devices preventing theoven from producing microwaves when the door is open, and a monitor that will blow the oven’s fuse if for some reason both of the devices fail and the door is opened.

Louis Slesin, the editor of Microwave News, recently published the results of a report at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, in Batavia, Illinois, that found that leakage tends to increase with ovens‘ age, but that their interlock systems ensure leakage only at extremely low levels and very rarely at ones above the FDA standards. Slesin, whose newsletter deals with broadcast towers and video-display terminals much more often than it does with microwave ovens, thinks that both the short-term risk (of any part of the body being heated) and the long-term risk (of any ill effects of chronic exposure, none of which have yet been identified) to those who use microwave ovens at home is negligible, and he praises the FDA for enacting the “only enforceable non-ionizing radiation standard in the country.” This standard has brought justifiable confidence to consumers, he says. He does fear that workers who are exposed to microwave ovens in continuous use for hours every day may be in some as yet unspecified danger, and he is frustrated that “no one” is conducting studies of chronic long-term exposure.

The only risk that Slesin can imagine for children is that of staring, transfixed, at food through the window of the oven, where any leakage is greatest; the eye’s lens has no cooling mechanism, as most of the body does, and a child might develop cataracts. This is, he says, at the moment a scare scenario. If you don’t want your child staring into the oven, cover the door with something opaque, and if you want to minimize your own exposure, step back a few feet from it–exposure decreases geometrically with distance. Slesin, in short, cannot work up much concern about the home use of microwave ovens. He is not one to shy away from bringing consumers bad news that manufacturers don’t want them to hear, either–he publishes another newsletter about the dangers of non-ionizing radiation from video-display terminals.

Kafka’s book has itself raised other fears. Manufacturers of cookware and ovens are up in arms over her contention in four recipes (of 600 in the book) that it is safe to deep-fat fry in microwave ovens; they claim that flawed cookware can break, that people can burn themselves from splattered oil, and that oil can heat beyond control and catch fire. Kafka counters that cooks should check to be sure that containers are properly large and are free of cracks, chips, crazing, or mending and that her book both calls for small amounts of oil in deep containers and warns against attempting to deep-fat fry in small ovens, whose interiors might be too low to avoid splatters. She says that she has heated fat for thirty minutes in the microwave oven–twice as long as she recommends in any recipe–without having it surpass 385 degrees. The standard temperature for deep-fat frying is about 350 degrees; oil reaches the smoke point at about 475 degrees, at which point it will give an off flavor to food, and it can ignite at about 600 degrees. Both the smoke and flash points of oil are significantly lowered when oil is contaminated with water, and all food contains a lot of water; if you decide to try deep-fat frying in the microwave oven, be sure to use only fresh oil every time you do. However deep-fat frying is done, it is potentially dangerous (let alone nutritionally unacceptable), and manufacturers seem more concerned about hurt and possibly litigious customers than about damage to their ovens.

For similar reasons, manufacturers of plastic wraps call for consumers to vent wraps when covering food to be cooked in the microwave oven, by leaving open a small area at the edge of a dish. Kafka calls for unvented wrapping. Dr. Gertrude Armbruster, a teacher at the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University who specializes in microwave cooking, says that consumers “are worried when they see plastic wrap balloon” but that in her years of covering foods tightly with various kinds of plastic wrap she has never seen it burst from steam pressure, a danger that manufacturers hold out. Again, the danger manufacturers seem to fear most is that of consumers being burned, in this case by steam.

A possible hazard that no one has yet raised in the popular press is that of the leaching of chemicals from plastic wrap into food when the wrap is used in microwave cooking. The plastic wrap that works best by far for microwave cooking is polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which clings most tightly to containers. Unfortunately, the “reservoir of chemicals that could migrate into foods” is “much higher” in PVC wrap than in other kinds, according to Dr. Gregory Cramer, a chemist at the Food and Drug Administration who works on the regulation of plastics and new packaging. Those chemicals are plasticizers, which give PVC wrap its flexibility. There are fewer chemicals that could migrate from polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC), the basis of Saran Wrap, or polyethylene (PE), the basis of Glad Wrap; these resins require either less or no plasticizers to be flexible. Reynolds, the best-known manufacturer of PVC plastic wrap, says that its plasticizers have all been approved by the FDA; but the FDA’s regulations for plasticizers in plastic wrap were devised primarily for use at room temperature and below in the 1960s, when microwave applications were not envisioned. Migration takes place at the highest levels when plastics are in direct contact with fatty foods, which absorb chemicals much more efficiently than water condensing beneath the wrap used to cover a dish. The amount of chemicals that migrates depends not only on the nature of the plastic but also on how long the plastic is in contact With the food and at what temperature. For the moment, the FDA is not actively investigating the issue of plasticizer migration from plastic films in the microwave oven.

But as for the safety of using microwave ovens themselves, I could not elicit even a shadow of concern from either Czerski or Barron, at the FDA. When I asked Czerski if he used a microwave oven at home, he said, “The control panel on my microwave oven is broken, and I’m terribly upset that I have to live a few days without it.”

Even with air conditioning you need a whole-house fan

When I installed central air conditioning a few years ago, I could hardly wait to get rid of my 20-inch window fan. At that time, air conditioning cost less than a dollar a day, and the fan was nothing more than a nuisance.

But by last summer, my air-conditioning costs had nearly quadrupled. I began thinking about that slightly ugly and somewhat noisy fan, remembering how I had managed to cool my house with it on moderately hot days at a negligible operating cost. Right now, similar window fans cost up to $180. But for a little more money I found a better way to cut the cost of keeping cool: a whole-house fan.

I installed a fan in the ceiling of my central hallway, and began trial-and-error experiments with the airflow in my house (see drawing). After I developed a good ventilation scheme, I was able to get along without central air conditioning for all but a few days last summer. Depending on your house and climate, you too may be able to take care of most or all of your cooling needs this way. Whole-house fans are designed for easy installation and operation. Here’s how they work:

Ceiling exhaust fans draw air up through the house and push it out through attic gables or eave openings. For the fan to operate properly, you must open some windows, and perhaps exterior doors. Obviously, all hall doors must be ajar. Deciding which windows to open and fine-tuning your plan may take some time, but it will pay off in efficiency and comfort. One word of caution: You may be tempted to open doors and windows in a cool basement, but it’s more effective to bring air in through first-floor windows. And if you live in an area where radon is a concern, it’s especially important to circulate fresh outside air.

Early in the morning, when the house is cool, close your windows and doors. Keep blinds and shades drawn, to reflect sunlight. It takes time for heat to penetrate the walls and ceilings of your house. Outdoors, it’s usually warmest about 3 p.m., but the indoor peak generally occurs between 5 and 6 p.m. Wait until the outside temperature in the shade falls below the indoor temperature, then open your windows and turn on your fan.

As the fan pulls cool air into your house, it dramatically lowers the air temperature in the attic, which can reach 150 degrees F or so without air movement. The fan provides almost instantaneous relief because moving air feels about seven degrees cooler than static air. Makers of whole-house fans say–and I found it to be true–that the fans have limited usefulness when the outdoor temperature rises above 85 degrees F. That’s because most people are comfortable with air temperatures of 78 degrees or less.

Last summer I resorted to my central air only on the few days when temperatures reached the 90s and low 100s and humidity was high. Even then, I first ran the fan at full speed to purge hot air from the attic before starting the air conditioner. As soon as the outside temperature dropped in the evening, I switched back to the fan.

It’s difficult to compare last summer’s cooling costs with those of earlier years, because the weather was unusual in my area–with wide hot-cool swings and a shorter-than-normal hot spell. But I do know that when I run the ceiling fan, I am paying for only 1/3 horsepower. The air conditioner, combined with its fan and the furnace blower, is rated at three horsepower. So the fan’s operating cost is about 1/10 that of air conditioning. I expect to recover its cost in power savings within a couple of years.

My 30-inch variable-speed fan from Sears cost about $280. Smaller whole-house fans are available for as little as $100. The fan blades are direct- or belt-driven, with diameters of 20 to 42 inches. The motors are about 1/4 to 3/4 hp. Some are single-speed; others have two speeds or variable speeds. The fans can move anywhere from 3,000 to 17,000 cubic feet of air per minute.

The most popular fans are 24- and30-inch units, used in 1,200- and 1,700-square-foot houses, respectively. Airflow for these fans is 3,600 to 5,700 cubic feet per minute. Check fan specifications to find out which size you’ll need. When in doubt, choose the larger, higher-volume fan.

You can use a whole-house fan in a two-story house, too, but you should choose a fan based on the total square footage of both floors. Ideally, the fan should be centrally located in the upstairs hallway. One maker has this two-story tip: Keep the upstairs windows closed until evening, pulling all the air through the lower windows. When you retire, close the downstairs windows and open the others.

You may want to add accessories to your fan. I spent about $60 for a thermostat, an insulated winter cover, and a “firestat’–a safety device that shuts off the fan at 204 degrees F. In a fire, a running fan could act like a blast furnace. The fire stat also has a kill switch to shut down the fan when you are working around it. Never work near a powered fan.

My unit also has an automatic temperature control that shuts down the fan when the house cools to a selected temperature, but the fan must be manually started. The reason? To make you remember to open enough doors and windows to provide the minimum air intake specified for your fan. If you don’t furnish an adequate air supply, your fan may draw gases from the flues of fireplaces, furnaces, or water heaters inside your house.

Heat-pump clothes dryer

At the Nyle Corp. in Bangor, Maine, there are a half-dozen prototype electric clothes dryers that claim some impressive attributes:

  • They are not vented, so they can be put nearly anywhere.
  • They run on 110-volt circuits; most electric dryers require 220 volts.
  • They circulate a larger volume of more humid air; thus they are gentler to fabrics and reduce static cling.
  • The cabinets are insulated, which makes the machines very quiet.
  • Best of all, they use one-third the energy of a standard electric dryer.

What are these machines? “Basically they are dehumidifiers,” explains Donald Lewis, president of Nyle and holder of the relevant patents. He explains: “Using a refrigeration cycle similar to what is used in a heat pump, we cool the air and condense out the water. The latent heat removed in condensing the water we immediately put back into the air. In addition, we constantly add heat from the compressor. And while most clothes dryers vent about five thousand cubic feet of air per drying cycle, we don’t vent any air, so the temperature keeps rising.”

Just as a heat pump in most climates will heat a house more efficiently than will electric-resistance elements, a heat-pump (or dehumidifying) clothes dryer will burn less energy to dry clothes. The diagram and caption give the details.

Nyle based the clothes-dryer design on much bigger machines.

“We make commercial lumber- and leather-drying systems and food dehydrators,” says Lewis. Looking for ways to expand the business, he decided the technology could be used in a residential clothes dryer. So he applied for and got a $90,000 U.S. Department of Energy grant (from the Inventions Program in the Office of Energy Utilization) to build the prototypes.

“There have been heat-pump dryers on the market in Europe,” Lewis points out, “but they’ve never been popular because they take a long time to dry a load of clothes.” That’s because they don’t get very hot.

Like most refrigeration systems, they are engineered to work within a narrow temperature range. Lewis explains: If the system is optimized to work at relatively low air temperatures, then as the temperature gets higher all the refrigerant inside the evaporator coil will boil and turn to gas without absorbing enough heat from the passing air to drop it to its dew point and condense out some water vapor. For this reason the European dryers have a top temperature of about 125 degrees F.

On the other hand, if the system is optimized to work at a relatively high air temperature, then at the beginning of the cycle when the temperature is low, the evaporator would chill the air so much that the coil would freeze. Lewis’s solution is to send only part of the air over the evaporator and to vary the percentage in response to changing temperature. So when the air contains fewer Btu, a greater volume of air is delivered. Conversely, when it contains more Btu, the quantity of air is reduced.

The dryer can use either automatic dampers (as shown) or a variable-speed fan at the evaporator coil to alter the airflow pattern. It operates efficiently within a temperature range of 60 to 160 degrees F, Lewis claims.

David Mello, the DOE invention coordinator who supervised the agency’s grant to Nyle, speaks highly of the heat-pump dryer. “It’s a fine product and makes a lot of sense for a lot of good reasons,” he notes. “Refrigeration systems are among the most trouble-free machines we have: You plug them in and they work. Except for the fact that it uses a chlorofluorocarbon,” Mello goes on, “the Nyle dryer really doesn’t seem to have a down side.” (Chlorofluorocarbons are implicated in the destruction of Earth’s protective ozone, but the dryers can be engineered to use whatever replacement fluids are developed, according to Lewis.)

Nyle had arranged for an offshore manufacturer to make the dryers, but economic problems in the country sank the deal. Now new negotiations are in progress.

A heat-pump dryer will sell for around $800, Lewis predicts, about twice the price of a conventional dryer. “People would have to pay more for them at first,” Mello concurs. “But if they ever caught on, the guys making the conventional kind would be hard pressed to compete.”

Blow dry

We began designing hair dryers back before the gun style was introduced, even before the development of the bonnet with the plastic belt hitch that helped you dry your hair and vacuum at the same time. In fact, we started out before the concept of towel drying, at a time when people dried their hair by sticking their heads out the window. Since then we’ve been allowed to design 1,139 models, both in and out of the sanatorium.

The first dryer we produced had a broad handle and a soft, feminine look, and, in fact, we needed only three attempts before we came up with “Myra,” the hair dryer shaped like a voluptuous woman. Our company, Mr. Dry, didn’t like where the hot air blew out, and when we refused to change it they had us put away.

After the treatments we designed a dryer with a different concept much more sedate and, well, psychotropic. In, fact, it was a hair dryer that looked like a giant Thorazine capsule, because, well, that was all we thought about in those days. It was cordless and had a cylinder that was half red and half clear, with white stuff inside. We ran into mechanical difficulties when the hot air blew inward and melted all the wiring.

When we got out, we decided, Damn it, let’s have a little fun. People are supposed to enjoy themselves while drying their hair, and we’re going to help them. In a frenzy we went to Macy’s and smashed all the hair dryers on the floor, and after Mr. Dry paid the bail we came up with a new model. Look, the brush element snaps on and off. And the comb element, see, you can snap that on and off too, and it also has a removable roller element. The handle snaps off too, and so does the motor.

After the Macy’s incident Mr. Dry decided that we should lie low for a while in a place like India, so they shipped us off with only our Japanese watch and told us to come back with some new designs.

Not one person we met during our stay in Calcutta had ever used a hair dryer, but they did have this marvelous philosophy where you sit around all day and think about just one thing or a sound or a word.

We thought about hair dryers not sometimes, but every minute of every day until they notified us of the hearing. The result was Essence of Hair Dryer. Of all the 4.5 billion people on this planet, we were chosen by God to create the ultimate hair dryer, and I’m telling you, this one is a beauty. Look at it–it’s simple yet it has a lot of detail. Look at the way the nozzle attaches to the body. It screws on like a light bulb. And the on/ off switch isn’t cluttered with a lot of confusing speeds like low, medium, and high. The switch is simple and direct on, off.

The day we returned from India, the judge ordered us to the home. They were very nice to us there, and to keep us quiet they gave us their entire collection of cardboard tubes from paper towels, mostly, and toilet tissue. Despite the treatments, we soon realized that the tubes reminded us of blow dryers. We liked playing with them, and the doctors encouraged us to pretend that we were drying our own hair, and they kept asking us how our mother felt about personal hair-care products. We began to feel and to relate in ways we had never dreamed of–if you reversed two tubes and had the air blow into your sleeve, what would that do? What if you took two small, three medium, and four large tubes and connected them to a lawn mower could you style your hair and cut grass at the same time? The ideas obsessed us until we arrived at the final product: a hair dryer that was nothing but different-sized paper tubes. It was a dryer we fell in love with. It was a dryer we wanted to do illicit things with. And in the end it was a dryer that spoke to us. That was when they took it away. Mr. Dry told us it sold very well in the stores, and that made up for every minute of the electroshock therapy.

After they found out that the electroshock had destroyed half of our brain cells, Mr. Dry thought we should design a dryer that expressed our sense of fun at having the mind of a six-year-old again. So we fashioned a dryer that was nonintellectual, illiterate, and, in the words of the television commercial, “fit for an idiot.” The excitement of youth shows in what we called it–“Baby Blow,” the little one, the one that leaves your hair wet no matter how long you stand there holding it to your head. We’ve projected the feeling of youth right through to the picture on the package a picture of a man drooling.

We find that people are very sensitive about their personal hair-care products and in particular that they want to have an enormous emotional high when grooming. For them it’s not just a matter of fixing the hair. It’s plugging into the cultural voltage of a whole generation.

Sometimes when we think about our accomplishments, we have to step back and say, “We have not created Truth or Beauty or even disposable neckties.” But let us not forget that we have created the Mr. Dry 901 and that people respond to it on a daily basis. And we know that how well the dryer works doesn’t matter, as long as it brings a little style into the home.