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Home & Garden

Dreaming of a new fridge

| Saturday, July 8, 2006

Refrigerators have their own sense of cool these days.

They keep various foods crisper and fresher with changing types of cold air. They pump out precise measurements of water. They quickly chill bottles of wine at command. They let you know their cooling temperatures exactly. They nestle neatly next to cabinets, or sometimes look just like them.

"It's a lot of money to keep food," says Mark Morrison of appliances that can cost $14,000.

He is the owner of Morrison Kitchen & Bath in Baldwin.

Despite that price, they are selling.

"In Pittsburgh, that's pretty amazing," says Matt Hillebrand from Don's Appliance Sales and Service in Canonsburg, Washington County. The high-end models from Sub-Zero Freezer Co., the market kingpin, are "the equivalent of a Bentley or a Ferrari," he adds.

And he sells six to 12 a year in a slice of the market that he says is 45 percent of his business.

Refrigerator sales sometimes surprise retailers. Dominick Mattucci of Manor House Kitchens in Greensburg, says it is not unusual for clients to spend as much as $8,000 on a refrigerator.

When asked whether that happens often, he answers with a chuckle: "Oh, my goodness, yes."

Mark Uchida, owner of A reMARKable Kitchen Store in Blawnox, says refrigerators are only about 10 percent of his business, but when a kitchen is redone, inclusion is a must.

They and representatives from manufacturers say interest in refrigerators is all part of the drive that has revived the kitchen as the heart of the home.

"It really started to percolate around 1990," says Paul G. Leuthe, corporate marketing manager from Sub-Zero, which is based in Wisconsin.

And it hasn't cooled down.

Keep the customer satisfied

Leuthe sounds a bit self-effacing when he says the purchase of refrigerators sometimes takes on a look of "conspicuous consumption."

"They seem to say, 'I've arrived,'" he adds.

But he and Ranjan Damodar, project manager for side-by-side refrigeration at General Electric, point out the comfort of that arrival.

"The kitchen has become the heart of the home in entertaining family and friends," Damodar says, "and having impressive appliances is just a way of taking care of that area."

Leuthe agrees, saying homeowners are more willing to invest in their homes because of that. He sees kitchen remodeling projects that often exceed $50,000 and can go well over $100,000.

"Americans have a greater focus on their homes," Damodar says, "and the industry is just following that direction."

That creates a range of refrigeration offerings across the market.

  • An Amana Easy Reach model tops the Consumer Reports freezer-on-bottom category in the August edition. It keeps fresh foods at eye level and also has humidity-control devices that control vegetable crisper bins. Price: $750.

  • Sub-Zero's Pro 48 is made totally of stainless steel and features the company's dual compressors, which prevent odor transfer and allow for greater temperature flexibility. An alarm sounds when a door is left ajar and a microprocessor senses usage patterns and adjusts defrosting. Price: $12,000-$14,000.

  • GE's ClimateKeeper2 has a system to quickly cool the refrigerator after doors have been opened often, shows actual cooling temperature, dispenses precise amounts of water, and has a CustomCool device to chill or thaw. Price: About $2,500.

  • Thermador is introducing its Freedom Collection with individual columns from 18 to 36 inches wide. That allows the ability to dedicate space to the freezing or cooling section. Prices for individual columns: $2,899-$6,999.

  • A Whirlpool UltraEase model captures Consumer Report honors in the freezer-on-top category. Even in a traditional design, it offers an internal water dispenser, a temperature-management system, humidity-controlled crispers and door bins that hold gallon containers. Price: $750.

Damodar says GE takes a straight-forward approach in its products.

"We try to concentrate on three areas," he says. "Appearance, food preservation and convenience."

Damodar says he has heard reports that homeowners often throw out 14 percent of fresh-food products because of spoilage, so there is a great demand for efficient crisper areas.

Leuthe says the refrigerator business is shaped by that simple drive.

"The consumer is saying, 'Give me better storage of my food,'" he says.

Stainless kitchen fashion

There was a time when refrigerators were white boxes that dominated the look of nearly every kitchen.

Today, however, stainless steel seems to be the look of choice.

"About five years ago, a lot of people said stainless was a fad that would go away, but it hasn't," Damodar says.

He and appliance retailers in this area agree about the popularity of stainless steel. Morrison points to the interest in the "integrated" look, in which the refrigerator takes on the appearance of the surrounding cabinets.

But even when the integrated look isn't used, most buyers want units that are the 24-inch cabinet depth, creating a smooth front in kitchens.

Morrison credits Sub-Zero with being the master of the integrated appearance and also points to the originality of the Pro 48, which has a glass door on one side.

"It looks like a pantry sitting there," he says.

Refrigerator interest in this area seems focused on stainless steel units that generally have freezers on the bottom and French doors above, retailers say.

The French doors allow for a broad storage space with a smaller door. Hillebrand, from Don's Appliance, explains that a 36-inch refrigerator has 18-inch doors, making it easier to use in narrow kitchens or around islands.

He says that "gives you a lot of usable space, and it's wide enough you can put in things like pizza boxes."

Uchida says he believes that aspect of kitchen design has brought back the side-by-side look, which had faded about five years ago.

There also is nearly universal interest in water dispensers, ice makers and efficient food crispers, retailers say.

Uchida, from A reMARKable Kitchen Store, says he believes growing interest in crispers has pushed the "middle range to pay attention to them." He says that means better crispers will be available soon in machines that cost thousands of dollars less that one featuring them now.

Hillebrand also points to a growing interest in refrigerated drawers, pushing aside the second refrigerator to a degree.

Leuthe believes that is because of a change in work areas. Kitchen jobs now are being done at work stations on islands as well as at the traditional ones near the stove.

Mattucci says refrigerator flexibility is a blessing for design.

"Each situation presents its own needs," he says.

Fridge facts

1000 B.C. : The Chinese cut and store ice.

1700 : Servants in England collect ice in the winter and store it in icehouses for use later.

1820 : London's Michael Faraday liquefies ammonia to cause cooling.

1859 : Ferdinand Carre, of France, develops a refrigeration machine that uses ammonia and water.

1876 : Germany's Carl von Linde creates a continuous process of cooling in what is the first refrigerator.

1894 : Von Linde's company installs refrigerator at the Guinness brewery in Dublin.

1911 : General Electric unveils a refrigerator invented by a French monk.

1920 : There are 200 refrigerator models on the market.

1931 : Electrolux introduces the first air-cooled refrigerator.

1937 : More than 2 million Americans own refrigerators.

2005 : 99.5 percent of American homes have refrigerators.

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