Kitchens and the equipment inside them are stepping into the 21st century with energy-saving appliances and new features aplenty.
A refrigerator that tracks expiration dates for your milk and sour cream, and plans your dinner menu based on its contents. A waste receptacle that generates your shopping list from the packaging you’ve discarded. A coffeemaker that reads your personal electromagnetic field as you enter the kitchen and automatically brews your favorite beverage.
Baby boomers may be thinking “The Jetsons,” but the technology to allow such capabilities is here; in fact, R&D departments for major appliance manufacturers are working right now to integrate it. Although availability to consumers is still at least a few years down the road, today’s kitchen is still a lot smarter than your grandmother’s – or even your mother’s – ever was.
“Some manufacturers are predicting that these appliances will be available, but not for 24 months or more,” says Darwyn Guler, owner, Guler Appliance Co., 227 7th St., Rockford. “For now, the true meaning of a ‘smart’ kitchen has to do with saving energy, reducing greenhouse gases and curbing the demand on the power grid.”
The products are still designed to cook food and keep it fresh, and to get clothes and dishes clean, but with a smaller margin for human error and much greater efficiency. The amount of efficiency varies with capacity and features – bigger costs more, naturally.
Those appliances that meet certain criteria are Energy-Star qualified by the government and given an energy savings number. To determine which models save the most, consumers need only look to that number.
“About 80 percent of all new refrigerators are Star-Energy-rated,” says Guler. “Dishwashers and clothes washers can be rated, because the frequency of their use is consistent. Cooking appliances and dryers are not, because they’re not used with the same regularity.”
Eventually, a “smart” home will be one that’s metered to show owners the exact energy consumption – and associated cost – of using any given appliance. This will include letting them know specifically about peak demands, so that they can plan to wash clothes, for instance, during non-peak times, lowering not only overall energy consumption in a given area, but also cost to the consumer.
“In 2009, Louisville Gas & Electric [LG&E] in Kentucky instigated a pilot program throughout 16 counties, placing ‘smart’ meters in homes outfitted with GE ‘smart’ appliances,” explains Guler. The participants – and the appliances – receive alerts from LG&E about peak usage and rates. The appliances are programmed to avoid or lower energy use during these times, although consumers can override the programming if they wish. So far, participants have responded positively, and LG&E reports that it is learning a great deal about managing its energy and reducing the need to build more power-generating facilities.
Implementing such a program, whether state- or nationwide, would require a lot of planning and logistics. “All energy companies would have to get on the same rate schedule and grid, or it won’t work,” Guler points out.
Metered or not, these energy-efficient appliances still do some of our thinking for us. There are the automatic icemakers, humidity-controlled vegetable bins, filtered water dispensers and door alarms that we’ve all come to expect – a far cry from the actual “ice box” found in most homes barely a century ago. Many refrigerators even come with a special “blast chill” or “turbo-cool” feature. “When you come home and unload your groceries, for example, the unit has a sensor that kicks on extra cold, to get that new food to the right temperature more quickly,” says Guler. “It keeps the refrigerator from running harder and longer.” Many have energy-saving switches, too, for when there’s less food to keep cold.
Nowadays, homeowners can control things like security, lights, heating and cooling, even entertainment options, from a centralized keypad; though not yet possible, integrating kitchens in a similar manner is on the horizon. The Y2 scare brought to the public’s attention the surprising number of everyday devices that run on computer chips. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“Most appliances have a great deal of intelligence already built-in,” says Al Bryant, co-owner, with wife Sue, of River Valley Kitchens & Baths, 5261 Swanson Road, Roscoe, Ill. “Microwaves can sense the weight of a popcorn bag or the moisture in a potato, and choose settings automatically. Touchpads on the outside of fridges store recipes and family calendars, even make measurement conversions. LG makes one that can connect to the Internet. A lot of options are out there, but they make take a while to catch on.”
The technology to allow refrigerators and trash cans to inventory their contents – radio frequency identification (RFID) – is already in use worldwide. Basically, it’s a system that transmits the identity of an object or person wirelessly, using radio waves. If you have a pet with an ID chip or an EZPass for the tollway, you’re using RFID technology, and its applications are expanding. For instance, Bryant describes a sushi bar in Japan, which serves its customers cafeteria-style via a conveyer belt. Its plates are outfitted with RFID chips, and if a dish isn’t picked up within 30 minutes, it’s replaced with a fresh one. The system not only saves time in the kitchen, but makes certain customers receive high-quality food.
“The technology is definitely becoming more affordable,” he points out. “The biggest piece of the puzzle will be getting all of the product manufacturers to adapt their packaging to be RFID readable.”
When introducing an industry-based technology for consumer use, cost is always a mitigating factor. But if something has a clear benefit, people will buy.
“It’s about ease and convenience,” Bryant says. “Also, people aren’t moving as often, so they’re willing to spend a bit more to make their homes more comfortable, even luxurious.”
In terms of accommodating the technology that’s already made its way into the kitchen, Bryant points to a special cabinet recently introduced by Wellborn.
“The system brings together all of the things people use – television, iPods, computers, DVDs, videos and photos,” he explains. “It has a special bracket for mounting a TV, an iPhone and iPod docking area, a keyboard shelf and space for a computer. It can be customized to fit just about anywhere, counter-height or floor-to-ceiling and for any needs.”
The evolution of smart kitchens is no surprise to Brad Born, co-owner of Al Grace Appliance, 811 W. Riverside Blvd., Rockford, who points out that servicing appliances has involved reading smart boards for a few years now.
“The technology potential is crazy,” he says. “We’re seeing it more and more in cell phones, where you can scan the bar code of an item when you’re shopping and automatically compare prices in other stores, for instance. It’s literally ‘The Jetsons,’ and it’s coming.”
The Al Grace showroom includes a four-door Maytag refrigerator with an external touchpad that provides temperature adjustment and “Nutrition Information at Your Fingertips,” among other functions. The in-door water dispenser on a Whirlpool Gold refrigerator automatically measures as it fills. A Frigidaire flat top range has expandable elements to conform to any size pan, thus concentrating the heat for more efficient cooking. A Kitchenaid dishwasher has double drawers and five cycle options.
“Of course, convection cooking isn’t new, but it’s something that’s becoming more widely available, in both gas and electric,” Born says. “It circulates the hot air, so that food cooks more quickly and evenly, and at lower temperatures. The freestanding double oven is a fairly recent evolution, and new models are being designed with the smaller oven on top, rather than on the bottom. Convection cooking is available on some of those. A few more people are opting for this over the full-size, built-in double ovens that take up more space.”
Born believes the best new innovation is the induction stovetop. “It looks like a conventional flat top, but it doesn’t have heating elements,” he explains. “It has immediate on/off response, like a gas burner, but the element itself doesn’t heat up. Instead, a magnetic field reacts with and heats the pan. It provides more even cooking, because the percentage of power remains constant, unlike an electrical coil, that powers up and down to maintain a certain temperature. And even when it’s on, an induction burner isn’t hot to the touch. The pan will get hot, but the burner never does.”
The only caveat appears to be that an induction cooktop requires pans that are magnetic, not stainless steel or aluminum, and some people don’t want to buy all new pans. But like convection ovens, induction cooktops provide faster, more even cooking, and because they don’t heat up, offer added safety – all features consumers find appealing.
“A smart kitchen could be one that thinks,” concedes Kelly Mathison, kitchen designer for Selin Custom Kitchens, 1125 5th Ave., Rockford. “The RDIF or electromagnetic field detection possibilities are definitely exciting. But designers have always thought about how people live, and have worked to make kitchens more efficient. And appliances have many ‘smart’ features already. Your washer detects how dirty your clothes are and how big the load is, and adjusts the water level. Dishwashers detect how much heat and water pressure are needed. Your fridge regulates the temperature depending on what’s in it.”
With a BFA in Interior Design, Mathison has worked at Selin for three years. “The kitchen is much more than a place to prepare food,” she says. “It’s a family gathering place. One thing I’ve noted lately is that ‘less is more.’ Appliances are being condensed, like a fridge with a built-in TV, vent hoods with heating elements, or a combination convection/microwave oven.”
Homeowners are looking for fewer components and more versatility in their kitchen designs. “A dishwasher drawer takes up less space than a full-size, and a single oven with a convection/microwave above, rather than a double oven, offers a second cooking appliance while providing more room for counter space,” says Mathison. “Many customers are even opting for more efficiently-designed cabinetry that offer more efficient, condensed storage.”
Many new storage systems help to maximize kitchen space: long narrow drawers for utensils that flank an oven door; counter-depth pantries with pull-outs and door storage rather than walk-in pantries; drawer systems for organizing pots and pans.
“When it comes to kitchen design, it’s definitely not one size fits all,” says Mathison. “Innovations constantly offer more and more flexibility, like one-touch cabinets doors or motorized drawers. Whether it’s for need, convenience or to accommodate a client’s physical capabilities, it’s just a matter of finding the right combination of function and design.”
With so many new appliances and convergence of technologies, customization is key, agrees Diane Feuillerat, owner of Kitchens by Diane, 6346 E. Riverside Blvd., Loves Park, Ill.
“I’m designing much more custom cabinetry to accommodate custom appliances,” she says. “I’ve made designs to include televisions, ice makers, even huge coffee stations with built-in cappuccino makers.”
One trend she’s noticed that has to do with technology integration is taller counters. “I recently designed a ‘command center’ for one client,” says Feuillerat. “It includes a beverage cooler and microwave, with a special cabinet above for charging laptops and cell phones. She specifically wanted a higher counter here, so that she wouldn’t need to bend over to write messages or use the laptop.”
Feuillerat, too, has noticed a move away from full double ovens, towards space- and energy-efficiency. “Warming drawers are very popular, as are convection/microwave combination units,” she says. “Demand for induction cooktops is rising, because they cook faster and save energy. Advantium by GE is a line of speedcooking ovens. These are full-functioning microwaves, but they also bake, grill and roast like conventional ovens, only much faster.”
Advantium uses halogen lights to cook the outside of food like a conventional oven, so that it browns and grills, but it uses microwaves to cook the inside of the food. “A baked potato is ready about eight times faster in this than a conventional oven, but the food cooks more evenly than in a microwave, so it tastes better,” Feuillerat explains.
Beverage centers are also popular. “People who have kids especially like these, because it keeps them out of the fridge, so the door isn’t opening and closing so much,” she says. “I recently built one for a couple that entertains a lot, located right off the kitchen, so that the husband can fix drinks for guests and no one’s underfoot while the cooking is going on. They also save energy, because they’re smaller.”
Clients are interested in anything that saves energy, whether on the grid or physical, and a well-organized kitchen means working smarter rather than harder.
“The kitchen is the single-most important area for organization in a house,” says Feuillerat. “It’s true what folks say about it being the heart of the home. Cabinet makers are coming up with some amazing storage solutions.”
She points out Super Lazy Susans, each with its own shelf that turns on ball bearings independently of the other.
“They’re mounted inside round cabinets, so there’s no chance that items can fall off behind, as with the conventional style,” she says. “There are special cubbies that can be installed, with lift-up doors, to hide anything from a microwave to a television or computer. We can design cabinets to fill just about any need.”
Many homeowners are renovating to make their kitchen spaces more efficient and user-friendly, a task that challenges designers.
“Between designing a kitchen for a new home and remodeling one, remodeling is harder,” says Paul Johnson, owner, Andco Kitchens & Baths, 540 S. Perryville Road, Rockford. “With a new build, if a client wants a certain size cabinet on a specific wall, and there’s not quite enough room, a kitchen designer can talk to the contractor and probably adjust the space. It’s not that easy to fit things into a space that’s already built. Luckily, manufacturers are creating cabinets with more custom features, to allow homeowners to better utilize their existing space, and that makes our job easier.”
Andco’s best-selling line is Aristokraft Cabinetry; in business since 1954, it continues to earn the Good Housekeeping Institute’s seal of approval and is certified by the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association Environmental Stewardship Program. Aristokraft has taken special pains to address the changing needs of consumers.
Most homeowners will agree that pots and lids are the hardest items to keep organized. Aristokraft offers two options for this problem. One unit has two standard roll-out shelves with a special removable insert for lids; the other provides two shelves that slide independently, with wire racks for organizing lids and bakeware.
“One of the most popular choices is Aristokraft’s SuperCabinet,” says Johnson. “It’s amazing how much you can fit into one of these units. They run the depth of the counter, and have three full-extension roll-out trays, two wire pull-outs and storage on both doors. The hinges open wider, too, for easier access. Lots of folks don’t have room for a walk-in pantry, or just plain don’t want to use that much space, and this offers a great alternative.”
The SuperCabinet also works for organizing small appliances, plastic containers or cleaning supplies.
“Aristokraft also has base pull-outs for vertically organizing cookie sheets, pizza pans and cutting boards,” says Johnson. “Narrower base pull-outs, just nine or three inches wide, have adjustable shelves and allow us to provide storage function to just about every nook and cranny in the kitchen.”
Andco is one of Aristokraft’s oldest distributors, having stocked and sold the brand for more than 50 years. “Longevity and loyalty are important,” says Johnson. “Andco’s been here since 1935, and we’ve established fantastic relationships with most of the big manufacturers and suppliers. The perception seems to be that the big box stores offer more selection at lower costs, but before the housing market crashed, we were buying cabinets in quantities that matched the three biggies combined. Local dealers can beat them not just on price, but on service and expertise.”
People are concerned about the environment, and many companies are using less energy and cutting down on waste during manufacturing. “A big part has to do with lowering harmful emissions, and many now use low-formaldehyde products for coating, and some are formaldehyde-free,” says Johnson. “We try to promote green-friendly products and highlight suppliers who are thinking about future generations.”
To paraphrase Forest Gump, smart is as smart does, and there are many smaller steps people can take to help their kitchens to help them.
“One of the most costly things is heating water,” says Anita Borgen, kitchen designer, Marling HomeWorks, 1148 Hwy. 14, Janesville, Wis. “InSinkErator offers an instant hot water dispenser. The unit, that fits under the sink, filters the water using reverse osmosis, and then heats and stores it in a small tank. And it’s really hot when it comes out. You can adjust the temperature right on the unit, too. It saves water, because you don’t have to flush the cold water out of the tap first, and it doesn’t require the energy of a 40-gallon water heater.”
One time-saving innovation is pot-filler installed above the stove. “It’s an extendable hose that pulls out of the wall, for filling pans with water,” Borgen explains. “It saves steps and helps to avoid spills. Another really neat thing from Kohler is an in-counter pasta cooker. It’s built right into the counter top, with a heating element and a drain. It’s good for steaming, too.”
While consumer-based versions of instant-on faucets and soap dispensers, like those in public restrooms, are still a couple of years away, something almost as good is available now.
“Delta has come out with its Touch20 faucet,” Borgen says. “Just tap it anywhere on the body or handle, and it will turn on and off automatically. It’s great when your hands are gucky, and it also helps to conserve water. If you’re peeling potatoes, for example, you can just tap the faucet on and off as you need to rinse. It’s really convenient, and it doesn’t cost much more than a high-end stainless steel unit.”
We don’t have robot maids, and our cars don’t fly – yet. But when we look at a state-of-the-art kitchen from just a century ago, calling today’s kitchen simply “smart” seems like an understatement. It really is out of this world.