Electric Blanket Safety

With chilly nights becoming the norm, many are looking for warmer blankets and throws for cozy companions.  If one of those blankets or throws is electric, it should be inspected, regardless of age, before snuggling up for the season to make sure that it is safe.  Older blankets that have seen their better days are definitely a hazard but occasionally, a newer blanket or even one fresh out of the bag could have a wiring issue.  Electric blankets and their 100 feet of wiring account for numerous fires, injuries and death each year.

When inspecting a plug-in blanket or throw, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends looking for cracks and breaks in wiring, plugs, and connectors.  Also look for dark, charred, or frayed spots on either side of the blanket.  If the blanket shows any of these characteristics or is more than 10 years old, it should be thrown away—DO NOT DONATE. (If you want to keep the blanket for some other use like covering plants in the fall, throw away the control unit to render it non-electrical.) Older plug-ins (10 years plus) are more likely to be a hazard because most operate without a rheostat.  The rheostat control found on most newer blankets and throws control heat by gauging both the blanket temperature and the user’s body temperature.  Lastly, check the Consumer Product Safety Commission website to make sure the blanket has not been recalled.

If a new blanket or throw is to be purchased for self or as a gift, make sure it has been tested by and bears the label of a reputable testing laboratory such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL).  Be sure to read and follow the manufacturer’s directions.  If the directions don’t match your intended use, do not purchase.  And again, check the Consumer Product Safety Commission website to make sure the blanket of consideration is not on the recall list.

Once the blanket or throw is in use, keep these safety tips in mind:

Keep the blanket flat while in use.  Folds or bunched-up areas can create and trap too much heat.  This also includes tucking ends in which can cause excessive heat build-up.  The blanket is also best stored flat or rolled which puts less stress on the coils.

Keep everything and anything off of the blanket.  This includes comforters/bedspreads, blankets, clothing, pets, and yourself.  No sleeping or lounging on top of the blanket either. Weight of any kind may cause the blanket to overheat.  Pet claws can cause punctures, rips, and tears which may expose or break the wiring and create shock and fire hazards.  If pets are a must, consider a low-voltage blanket.

Avoid washing.  Washing machines and electric blankets aren’t a given match.  Always follow the manufactures directions if washing is necessary and do not use the spin cycle.  There’s no guarantee that the internal coils in the blanket won’t get twisted or damaged or that the electrical circuitry will avoid damage in the laundry.

Heat and then sleep.  If the blanket does not have a timer, turn it off before going to sleep.  Most manufactures recommend the same.

Consider the bed.  Never use an electric blanket on a waterbed or adjustable, hospital-style bed.

Mind the cords.  Avoid running cords under the mattress as this creates friction that can damage the cord or trap excess heat.

Electric blankets and throws are great cozy companions but they need to be respected and used with care.  Today’s electric blankets are safer and more energy efficient than those of the past. Many of these innovations were developed as Underwriters Laboratories, an independent product-safety testing organization, came up with stricter safety standards for electric blankets, including warnings on the instructions.  With respect and care, these cozy companions are perfect for deflecting cold rooms and beds.

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Amber Glass for Canning and More

I recently noticed the new Ball amber mason jars on a store shelf.  Since Ball has sold the blue and green collection jars in recent years, I didn’t think too much about it at first glance–likely thinking, another colored canning jar.  However,  these jars are not to be dismissed as just another decorative, colored canning jar.

Amber glass blocks 99% of UV rays providing excellent protection for preserved foods and allowing them to be shelf stable for up to 18 months1. This is important because UV rays can sometimes change the components of contents by photo-oxidation.  This is the phenomena that causes beer to go “skunky.”  Amber also offers superior blue light protection;  light of any kind has a photochemical affect on food and bacteria.  By blocking harmful food-damaging UV rays and light, amber makes it possible to store foods in lighter areas or even the counter top without loss of flavor, color, or nutrients.

Thus amber is ideal for canning jars.  Besides home canning, amber jars are great for storing bulk foods, baking ingredients, oils, herbs, spices, coffee, tea, or any food item that looses quality due to UV rays.  And given the natural qualities of glass, no harmful chemicals leach into the products stored in the jars as can be the case with plastic containers.

The Ball jars are conveniently wide-mouthed and available in 16-, 32-, and 64-oz sizes.  Presently they are available in cases of four, making them more costly than regular canning jars.  When used with proper canning lids and bands, they are safe for canning in hot water bath or pressure canners.

1 Freshpreserving.com

 

 

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Care for stone countertops

In the last two years, several of the AnswerLine staff members have remodeled their kitchens and bathrooms. During the remodeling process, a big topic is always what sort of countertops are the best for my situation and what kind of maintenance will the countertops require. I have done a bit of research on several of the existing options.

Granite counters are very popular right now. They do not require a lot of maintenance but it is a good idea to wash the counters regularly with a soapy cloth to prevent stains. Blotting spills with paper towels eliminates the possibility that you will spread a stain while swiping it with a cloth. Acidic cleaners like lemon juice, ammonia, and window cleaner may damage granite counters. Instead, you can make your own cleaner with three parts of dish detergent and one part rubbing alcohol.

Granite countertops need to be sealed several times a year. Test yours to see if the previous seal has worn away. Place a few drops of water on the countertop and check for beading. If the water beads up, the counter does not need to be resealed. If it does not bead up, then seal the counter with a granite stone sealer. Follow the directions on the package. If you are sealing kitchen countertops, be sure that the sealing compound is non-toxic. Apply sealer to clean countertops and allow it to rest for a half hour or so. Sealing the countertop will not eliminate the chance of staining but it will help the granite be more resistant to staining.

Quartz countertops are also very popular right now. I chose them for my kitchen because they do not require sealing. Quartz is actually a manufactured product, made of quartz stone and a synthetic polymer. They are very easy to care for and do not require polishing. I clean my countertops with a warm, wet dishcloth. Clean spills and sticky foods as soon as the spill occurs to avoid stains. Glass and surface cleaners will not damage quartz surfaces. However, avoid bleach and harsh, acidic cleaners on quartz as well as granite surfaces. In addition, hot pans set directly on the quartz countertops can cause damage.

Marble countertops are not quite as popular as granite and quartz. Marble is a porous surface even though it is very durable. Remember to use only mild dish soap and warm water to clean marble. Test your marble counter top every couple of months to see if the marble needs to be resealed. Test marble in the same manner you test granite. If needed, apply the sealer over clean countertops and let it sit on the countertop for about 30 minutes.

Soapstone is another choice for stone countertops. This stone is very durable and hard to scratch or etch. Soapstone is a non-porous surface that is hard to stain and is tolerant of hot pans. Remember that soapstone can be damaged by dropping heavy objects on it. Soapstone is more likely to dent than scratch or chip. Soapstone does not need to be sealed, but like a butcher block counter, it does need to regular oiling. Oil the counter by spreading some mineral oil on the surface. Use a towel to rub the oil into the stone. Leave for 30 minutes and the remove excess oil. Not oiling the surface will result in dark spots showing on the surface of the stone—over time. Again, harsh or acidic cleaners are not recommended.

We are lucky to have so many different choices for countertops these days. Stone countertops do not require much more care than my old Formica countertops and I do enjoy the look of stone.

 

Liz Meimann

Liz Meimann

I received both my undergraduate and graduate degrees in Food Science at Iowa State University. I love to quilt, sew, cook, and bake. I spent many years gardening, canning, and preserving food for my family when my children were at home.

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Gas Leak – How to Detect and What to Do

Millions of Americans use gas (natural or propane, i.e. LP) to heat their homes, heat their water, and cook their food.   Our family is one of them and in addition, a natural gas pipeline crosses our property.  While gas is safe, economical, clean-burning, and a versatile fuel when used properly, it is also highly combustible.  Thus, a gas leak can be a risk of a fire and explosion or carbon monoxide poisoning. To help ensure that you live safely with gas, everyone in the family should be aware of the signs of a gas leak, never ignore even the slightest indication of one, and know what to do should there be a leak.  Because of our proximity to a gas line, our gas company provides information periodically on what to know and what to do.  The same precautions apply to propane gas.

Smell.  Because gases are colorless and odorless, a strong odorant that smells like rotten eggs, a skunk’s spray, or a dead animal is added to alert or help consumers detect a possible leak.  If you aren’t sure of the scent, you can request a free scratch-and-sniff card from you supplier.

Sound.  A hissing or whistling sound near a gas appliance, meter or pipeline is also an indicator of a gas leak.

Air.  Another indicator would be blowing dirt or a breeze coming out of the ground.

Bubbles.  A leak in a gas pipe can sometimes cause bubbling in moist areas around the home.

Discolored or dyeing vegetation.  If you suddenly notice your grass or shrubs have changed color, looking more brown or rusty, that could be a sign of a leak. Plants near a gas leak will quickly become sickly and eventually die.

Feeling ill.   The symptoms of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning are similar to flu or food poisoning.  You cannot see, taste, or smell CO.

Fire coming out of the ground.

If you suspect or discover a gas leak:

  • Stay calm.
  • Leave the area immediately and evacuate everyone as well as all pets or animals from the home or building. Inhaling high concentrations of gas can lead to asphyxia in which your body is deprived of oxygen.
  • Go to a remote location and call your gas company or supplier. If they can’t be reached, call the fire department.  Program your gas supplier’s number into your cellphone so that it is readily available in an emergency.
  • If gas is blowing, call 911.
  • Move quickly. Don’t stop to look for the leak, open windows, turn switches off, or unplug equipment.  Leave the door open as you leave.
  • Don’t use anything that might create a spark, such as a cellphone, light switch, or garage door opener. These can ignite gases or vapors.
  • Do not return to the building until the gas company or fire department has given you the all-clear or the leak is fixed.

As always, being prepared in case of an emergency is key.  First and foremost, have the number of your gas supplier programmed into your cellphone.  If you don’t have a cellphone, have the number tucked into your wallet so you can quickly dial the number from another phone.  Secondly, know how to turn off your gas should you need to or be asked to do so.  Begin by knowing where your gas meter and/or emergency control valve is located.  For natural gas users, the emergency control valve should be next to the meter.   To turn off the gas supply, simply turn the handle a quarter turn so the lever is crosswise, perpendicular, or at 90 degrees to the upright gas pipe; a wrench may be required to turn the lever. Propane users should locate the main gas supply valve on the propane tank. Close the valve by turning it to the right (clockwise).  If you are unsure about where to find these valves or what to do, contact your supplier and have them show you.  And it is always a good plan to have your gas furnace and other gas appliances checked annually and serviced as needed for proper ventilation.

During winter, keep your gas meter and valve free from snow and ice using a broom, not a shovel, to remove snow or ice.  Make sure outside appliance vents are not blocked by snow and ice. Blocked vents can cause carbon monoxide  to back up into the building or shut down your system.   If your home or business has natural or propane gas appliances, a carbon monoxide detector should be installed.  When a gas appliance malfunctions, it can produce CO, that deadly, odorless, colorless, and tasteless silent killer.  And always, always call 811 before you dig!

Everyone should know how to detect and respond to a gas leak.  Make it part of your family’s emergency response plan.

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Tips for Cleaning Electric Pressure Cookers

Recently a friend emailed me asking how to clean an electric programmable pressure cooker (EPPC) so that it didn’t retain the smells of previous cooked foods.  This friend is certainly not the only one asking this question.  In fact, after I got my own EPPC, I had the same concern.  In my search for advice, I encountered lots of stories and advice from other EPPC owners with one owner even claiming to have found maggots growing in the condensation collector!  True or not, there are at least eight parts of any EPPC that should be cleaned after every use and it only takes minutes to do:  the inner pot, base, trivet, lid, silicone ring, pressure valve, condensation collector, and the anti-block shield.  With the exception of the base, all of these parts are dishwasher safe with most manufacturers.  The cooker base must be kept dry but can be wiped with a damp cloth.

It is always best to consult the manual that came with the EPPC for the best way to clean the appliance, but we know how manuals get misplaced or sometimes really don’t provide much information.  Another source is to look online for the EPPC manufacturer and hopefully find care information; however, this may not be possible with some generic EPPC brands.   One EPPC manufacturer, InstantPot, provides great care and cleaning tips.  While the tips may be specific to InstantPot, they would be useful for other EPPCs as well if information cannot be found from a specific manufacturer.

If after all of these areas have been cleaned properly and a lingering odor is still detected, it is likely coming from the silicon sealing ring as it does hold food odors.  I have found three ways to help defuse those odors: soaking the ring in vinegar, turning the lid upside down between uses or leaving the ring exposed to air, and placing a small box of baking soda in the unit between uses.   Other suggestions I’ve read include putting the ring in the sun, wiping the ring with a stainless steel soap disc, soaking or steaming in lemon water and baking soda, or purchasing two rings, one for savory and one for sweet.  If one does opt for a second sealing ring or needs to replace a ring, be sure to get genuine manufactured parts to ensure the EPPC will work correctly and safely.

Another concern EPPC users have is with the gradual discoloration of the stainless steel inner pot.  If it is turning a blue-yellow, white vinegar will bring it back to it’s original luster.  The procedure is to let white vinegar stand in the pot for at least 5 minutes and then rinse with water.  If the bottom of the pot is dulled perhaps due to sautéing or hard water, I have found that a small amount of baking soda or a non-abrasive scouring cleanser like Bar Keepers Friend Liquid Cleanser on a damp cloth or sponge does an excellent job of bringing back the original shine after rinsing and drying. Don’t use anything metallic for scouring because it will damage the finish!

These are the suggestions that I gave my friend as they seem to work well for me.  If you are an EPPC user and have additional suggestions, I’d love to hear your tips!

 

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Air Fryers

My sister-in-law is interested in purchasing an air fryer. It is a new concept to me so I decided to do some research on it for both she and I. The basic premise is you can fry foods in air rather than oil. I think we would all agree that if we could enjoy our favorite fried foods without all the extra fat calories from the oil we would be very interested in doing that!

Hot air frying machines work by circulating extremely hot air around food using a mechanical fan that cooks the food and produces a crispy layer on the outside while keeping the inside moist. This would be similar to the way convection cooking is done. The only oil needed is what is brushed on the food before air frying. They do caution to not overload the air fryer as the food wouldn’t cook properly and could even lead to unsafe foods by staying at bacteria-friendly temperatures for too long. So cooking in smaller batches would be a necessity.

If purchasing an air fryer you would want to consider several things like the amount of counter space the appliance will take up, the wattage required to run the appliance, the capacity and what settings are available. On the plus side, it seems an air fryer would be a lot safer as there would be no pots of boiling oil around. It would also be less work in the beginning, there would be no oil to dispose of, no lingering smell in the house, and you would not feel as heavy full after eating. On the minus side, you cannot replicate the texture or flavor of foods that were traditionally deep fat fried and the actual cooking time is significantly longer. Plus air fryers are a bit pricey.

The jury is still out for me to consider purchasing an air fryer but the concept is an interesting one!

 

Marcia Steed

Marcia Steed

I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Home Economics Education. I enjoy spending time with my family and friends and traveling.

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Pizza on the Grill

Summertime brings the grill out at our house and with it comes one of our favorite foods made on the grill—PIZZA!  Making pizza on the grill may seem like making a soufflé in a rice cooker, but it actually makes a lot of sense and works very well.  The key to pizza is high heat and that is something a grill specializes in. In addition, the kitchen stays cool. It’s a great party food or a fun way to feed family that just happen to stop in on Sunday night. But most importantly, it is the delicious, slightly smoky and not-too-charred-just-enough-for-taste crust that makes it the best grilled food.  All you need is a robust pile of charcoal or a gas grill and an optional pizza stone.

Here’s some tips to help you get started with pizza on the grill:

Get everything ready to go—all the toppings, the sauce, the cheese, whatever you wish.  This is key because you have to move fast once you start. Use grated melting cheeses like Mozzarella, Fontina, or Jack.  Toppings (meats and veggies) must be pre-cooked or pre-grilled as there is not enough grilling time to cook them as in an oven.   I like to have everything in individual containers on a table right next to the grill.

Make the pizza dough or use prepared pizza dough.  I like to make my own.  My recipe is at the end of the blog.

While the pizza dough is rising, prepare the grill.  Give the grill plenty of time to get hot. Once the grill is hot, season the grates or put your pizza stone onto the grates.  To season the grates, dip a tightly folded paper towel (or silicon brush) in olive oil (seasoned if you like with garlic, chilies, or herbs) and use a tongs to wipe the grill grates.  If you are uncomfortable with putting your pizza directly on the grates, disposable wire mesh grill toppers work well.

Shape the pizza dough on a slightly floured surface.  I like to use my hands.  My recipe will make one 12-inch round or 4-6 individual rounds.  We like to do the individual rounds so everyone can personalize their pizza.  Do not put a raised rim on the rounds as it will be too thick to grill properly.  The rounds should be rather thin.  Place your round(s) on a floured or parchment lined rimless cookie sheet and let the dough rest for 5 minutes, then poke around on the dough with a fork. (This will keep the round from puffing.) If you are preparing for a party or larger number of guests, you can make the individual rounds ahead, stack them separated between parchment paper, and keep in the refrigerator for up to two hours before grilling.

With everything ready to go, brush the top side of the round with olive oil (or seasoned olive oil).  Lay the oiled-side of the round onto the hot grill grates (omit if using a pizza stone).  Close the lid of the grill and grill for approximately two minutes.  After two minutes, open the grill and check the bottom side of the round to see if it is getting brown.  If nothing is happening, use a tongs to move or rotate the round.  Grill for an additional minute if needed.  By this time, the top of the pizza should be bubbling, too.

Once the round has browned or slightly charred on the bottom, remove the round and flip it over.  Close the grill to retain the heat.  Brush the grilled surface with a little olive oil and then spread on a little sauce.  Less is better with grilled pizza.  A thin spread of a thicker sauce is better than a thinner sauce so you don’t end up with a soggy pizza.  Sprinkle on the toppings, cheese, and then meat (meat should be fully cooked).  Again, keep it light as grilled pizza is not panned pizza.

Slide the topped pizza back onto the grill, close the lid and grill for 2-3 minutes more or until the bottom begins to brown or char slightly and the cheese is melted.  Remove the pizza from the grill and finish with a light sprinkle of sea salt, if desired.

Pizza combinations are endless.  Keep it simple.  The best grilled pizzas have two or three toppings max.  Consider texture, flavor, and color when picking toppings that go together. (Photo pizza is a combination of leeks, asparagus, and smoked pork without any sauce.)  Try it, and I think you’ll be convinced that the grill is an excellent pizza maker! 

Pizza dough recipe:  1 cup light beer or water, 1 tablespoon or package active dry yeast, 1 tablespoon sugar, 1 tablespoon oil, 1 teaspoon salt, 2 ¾ cup bread flour.  Heat beer or water to 120-130F.  Combine the beer or water, yeast and sugar in a mixer bowl.  Stir to combine.  Let stand until the mixture foams, about 5 minutes.  Stir in olive oil, salt, and flour.  Mix until dough comes together.  Knead on a floured surface, adding additional flour if necessary, until smooth and elastic, about 4 minutes.  Allow to rest 20 minutes.  Punch dough down and let rest a few minutes before forming round or divide dough for individual pizzas and then let rest for a few minutes before forming rounds.

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Transitioning from Incandescent and CFL bulbs to LEDs

Like many consumers today, my family has gradually been changing from incandescent and compact fluorescent (CFLs) bulbs to light emitting diode (LED) lights.  For many reasons, LEDs lighting is preferable to incandescent and CFL lighting:  LED’s light up very quickly achieving full brightness in milliseconds, are dimmable, radiate very little heat, use less energy, have a long life, contain no toxic materials, give off zero UV emissions, and operate in extreme hot or cold temperatures.  But gone are the days when buying lightbulbs used to be a cinch. When a 60-watt incandescent bulb burnt out in by-gone days, you purchased another pack of 60-walt bulbs, reinstalled, and that was the end.  Since 2012, incandescents have gradually been phased out, replaced temporarily by CFLs, and now the LEDs.

As we began the transition, we found there are more lighting choices than ever before and that we had much to learn in order to get the right bulb.  A good place to start is by looking for the ENERGY STAR label and checking out the chart: ENERGY  STAR Light Bulb Purchasing Guide as a guide to finding the right bulb for your light fixture.   (ENERGY STAR is the government-backed symbol for energy efficiency helping consumers save money and protect the environment through energy-efficient products and practices.)  Since all LED bulbs are not created equal, LED bulbs that have earned the ENERGY STAR have met the highest standards for quality and performance.

The next step was learning the jargon:

Lumens.  For brightness, look for lumens, not watts as used by incandescent bulbs.  Lumens indicate the light output whereas watts indicate energy consumed.  Certified LED bulbs provide the same brightness (lumens) with less energy (watts).  The Purchasing Guide provides a chart to determine how many lumens are need to match the brightness of an incandescent bulb (i.e. 800 lumens = 60 watts).

Color Temperature.  LED bulbs are available in a wide range of colors matching a temperature on the Kelvin Scale (K).  Lower K values mean a warmer, yellowish light while high K values equate to cooler, bluer light.  There is a small illustration of this in the Purchasing Guide.  For a larger, more colorful and easy-to-read chart, check out the chart provided by Westinghouse.

Color Rendering Index (CRI).  This information is not always on the box but sometimes can be found in the lighting displays at the store.  CRI tells how accurately colors appear under the bulb’s light, ranging from 0-100.  The old incandescent bulbs have a CRI of 100.  Consumer Reports recommends a CRI of 80 for interior lights.

Although there are many advantages to using LEDs, they are still a bit more expensive than alternatives.  Due to their extremely low power requirements, LEDs ultimately save money over their life and will pay for themselves in energy savings.  In some communities, that savings can come within six months of installation.  Further, to help consumers, some power companies and city utilities offer energy savings programs or rebates for purchasing LED bulbs and/or LED light fixtures. From January 1, 2017, through December 31, 2017, participating Iowa electric utilities are helping residents make the simple switch to energy-efficient lighting by offering special pricing on ENERGY STAR® qualified LED bulb purchases of 12 or less. If you want to see the real value of switching to LED’s, visit bulbs.com and check out the Energy Savings Calculator.

A couple of other factors that entered into our replacement equation was the need to make some fixture changes or adjustments.  Even though the LED bulbs are supposed to be exactly the same in size as the incandescents, we found otherwise.  Therefore, it was a good idea to bring our incandescent bulb along and measure everything carefully beginning with the length of the base.  The biggest surprise for me was that contrary to popular belief, LEDs do generate heat and that they need to be in a non-enclosed fixture to allow heat to dissipate from the heat sink.  Without the ability to vent, they can overheat and fail early.  A sales person at Lowes showed me how the new bulb-type fixtures provide for heat dissipation with a nearly inconspicuous small venting system in the glass of the fixture.  Further, he advised that if the LED bulbs are put into existing, enclosed fixtures, the fixture might still be usable by lengthening the stem of the fixture so that there is a small space between the top of the glass and the fixture base.  There are also bulbs specifically designed to be placed in enclosed fixtures.  If you purchase a fixture that already has LED lights incorporated into it, the heat dissipation will have been taken care of by the manufacturer, but you may need to remove some insulation in your attic surrounding the location of the fixture.

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Choosing a Home Air Filter

Recently AnswerLine received a call about furnace filters.  The caller wanted to know the tradeoffs of the various kinds of filters with regard to efficiency and air quality.  And further, how often did an air filter really need to be changed.  Great questions!  However, I didn’t have all the answers and requested time to do some research and get back to the caller.  In doing so, I learned a lot.

In by-gone days, there was only one thing to know when purchasing a filter for your heating/AC system (HVAC)—the dimensions.  It certainly is a different story today.  The wide range of filter options, numbers, and prices can be overwhelming and confusing.

The original purpose of the HVAC filter was to do one thing:  protect the equipment.  Since then, a second function has been added as an option:  reduce indoor air pollution.  Therefore, the filter’s real job is to reduce the amount of dust, dirt, and debris that is in the air so that it does not accumulate on components inside the HVAC system; and as an option, prevent those inside the home or building from inhaling dust, allergens, and other irritants.

Changing or cleaning the air filter when appropriate increases the efficiency and life span of the system and decreases energy costs. Dirty, clogged filters block airflow and cause the system to run longer; further, they also allow the dirty air to get past the filter and make its way into the fan motor, coils, and other parts of the system along with the home environment and into the lungs of humans and pets.

Air filters are either mechanical or electrical.  Mechanical filters capture airborne pollutants on a filter medium; their effectiveness is dependent on both media and design.  Information provided by University of Illinois Extension shows that fiberglass filters remove up to 2%, washable/reusable filters remove up to 6%, thin pleated filters remove up to 11%, deep pleated filters remove up to 25%, and pleated electrostatic filters remove up to 49% of sub-micron particles.  Electronic filters use an electric field to capture debris like a magnet and remove up to 94% of sub-micron particles; ultraviolet or HEPA filters may be built into or added onto an electronic filter.  Most homes use a mechanical filter due to cost unless additional filtration is needed for health reasons.

Filter rating systems devised by individual companies make it hard to compare filters and should be avoided as there is no standard.    Rather consumers should look for the Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) which sets a standard for rating the overall effectiveness of air filters by measuring the filter’s ability to trap particles ranging in size from 3.0 microns to 10.0 microns. Every filter has a MERV rating.  (If it is not on the packaging, contact the manufacturer.)  A residential filter commonly has a MERV rating of 1  to 12.  A higher MERV rating means finer filtration with fewer dust particles and other airborne contaminates passing through the filter.   Here in lies the caveat.  A filter with a higher MERV rating will also restrict airflow more than a filter with a lower MERV rating and will likely increase your systems running time and energy use.  Remember, the filter only needs to keep the coils and blower free of dust and debris.  All HVAC systems are designed for a specific CFM (cubic feet per minute) airflow rating. If the airflow is restricted by say 10%, that could equate to a 10% loss in efficiency, and 10% higher energy consumption along with longer heat up or cool down cycles; or in worst case, if the system is struggling with the CFM due to restriction, the blower motor may eventually over-spin and burn out.

Most home systems require modifications for filters greater than MERV 8.  Studies show that medium-efficiency filters strike the best balance between allergen removal and filter cost.  Flat, disposable, spun fiberglass filters (MERV 1-4) protect the HVAC system from large particles but cannot block the microscopic particles that are most irritating for allergy and asthma prone humans and pets.  Medium efficiency pleated filters made of polyester or cotton paper offer a MERV rating of 5-12 due to the larger and denser surface area thereby allowing them to capture smaller and greater numbers of particles without impeding air flow to the unit. High efficiency pleated filters have MERV ratings of 13-16. Electronic filters do not have a MERV rating.

Most experts recommend that consumers use a filter recommended by the furnace manufacturer.  If a manual for the unit does not exist, call the manufacturer or the HVAC dealer.  Should additional filtration be needed beyond that designed for the unit, consult the manufacturer or dealer for technical assistance.   A flat, fiberglass filter will serve the basic need of protecting the system.  If additional air filtration is needed, a flat, pleated filter that fits into the HVAC systems’ slot with a MERV rating of 7 or less is an acceptable filter for most systems; the pleats provide a greater surface area to trap particles thereby protecting the system and improving air quality.

Lastly, no manufacturer can predict how long its filters will last because none of them know the dust conditions in individual homes.  Checking the filter often is advised with the rule of thumb being, “if it looks dirty, it is dirty.”  A general guideline is to change filters at least every three months to maintain maximum efficiency but monthly checks are encouraged.

For more in-depth information consult:

EPA technical document, “Residential Air Cleaners:  A Summary of Available Information”
American Lung Association, “Health House Furnace Filters: Tips about Your Furnace Filter”
University of Illinois Extension, “Healthy Indoor Air”

Marlene Geiger

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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Making Sense of Clothing Care Labels

I was recently doing some laundry for a family member and double checking the care labels. If you are anything like me, some of them can be confusing! Here is a basic primer on care labels with links for more information if you are interested.

Anything wash related has a pictogram that looks like a wash tub with waves representing water on the top. If that is the only symbol showing, it is okay to wash the garment normally. Any lines under that tub indicate permanent press or a delicate/gentle cycle depending on the number of lines.

The bleach pictogram is a triangle. If there is a blank triangle, any bleach is okay to use when needed. If there are lines in the triangle, only non-chlorine bleach should be used when needed.

A square represents the dryer. A circle inside the square means normal drying. Again, any lines under that square would mean less heat on either the permanent press or delicate/gentle cycle depending on the number of lines. A blank circle in the square means any heat is okay while a darkened circle in the square means no heat/air only. Between those two extremes are circles with dots in. Three dots for high heat down to one dot for low heat.

The ironing symbol looks basically like an iron. Unless the pictogram shows lines representing steam coming from the bottom of the iron with those lines crossed out, you may use a dry or steam iron. Again, maximum temperatures for ironing are shown in dot form with three dots being high temperature down to one dot for low temperature.

A circle on its own is used for dry cleaning. An X through the circle means “Do Not Dry Clean”. Additional information in or around the circle is for the drycleaner.

The Federal Trade Commission enforces the Care Labeling Rule which requires manufacturers and importers to attach care instructions to garments.

This was a good refresher for me and I hope helps you read the care labels in your garments more easily.

Marcia Steed

Marcia Steed

I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Home Economics Education. I enjoy spending time with my family and friends and traveling.

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