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Big Roles For Small Appliances (6/23)

June 23, 2003
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Households seek compact options when space is an issue.

Reprinted from the Washington Post

Until a few months ago, Amanda Myers had no dishwasher in the decidedly low-tech kitchen of her tiny Cleveland Park apartment. "I decided it was time to be an adult," she said.

With a built-in out of the question, she first tried a portable from Sears, Roebuck and Co., but "it was huge, with butcher block on top -- way more than I wanted." She sent it back and ordered a countertop model by Danby that holds four place settings and is about the size of a "large microwave that you can fit a whole casserole in."

"It's perfect," she said.

Myers got her Danby through www.compactappliance.com, the Web site of an Austin-based company that does a booming business in small dishwashers, combination washer-dryers, portable air conditioners, compact refrigerators and freezers, even complete, if minimalist, kitchens that tuck into a 30-inch space. The dishwasher, she said, is simple to use: "It's got a quick change thing, you screw it directly into the faucet. . . . It's easy to get on and off."

It also solves a common problem in older buildings, the somewhat shaky hot-water supply. "It has an internal heater that gets the water so hot that I have to let the dishes cool down before removing them."

Rick Lundbom, president of CompactAppliance.com, took over the family business four years ago, expanding its niche from equipment for the RV and boat market to include an array of appliances for residential and commercial use. "I wasn't aware of how many people have small homes, when I started," he said. "Boats and RVs ended up being the smallest part of our business."

Houses and apartments now account for 75 percent of his company's market, and most of that business is in older, northeastern cities, with Washington at the top of the list of Web visitors.

This is not just the stuff of college dorms. The Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas ordered the company's wine coolers for its ritziest suites. The Philadelphia Eagles have its compact refrigerators in the VIP boxes.

Although combination washer-dryers have been around for 30 or 40 years, Lundbom said, they are becoming increasingly popular. These are not stacking machines; they are all-in-one units where you toss in the clothes and the soap and the clothes are washed, rinsed, spun and then dried, all in the same box.

These machines are far from perfect. District resident Kristen Hartke had, she hopes, her last experience with such a beast during a recent visit to her brother's home in Los Angeles. "I can't tell you how happy we were to do laundry at our house," she said.

Her husband remarked, "Look! We just did two loads of laundry in two hours instead of one load in 24 hours."

"We were thinking the best thank-you gift we could give them was a retractable clothes line," Kristen Hartke said.

Her sister-in-law dislikes the machine too: "Absolutely, but they paid $900 for it," she said of her in-laws. "She said she bought the washer because it was very green and it was very space saving."

The environmentally friendly aspect of the Italian import was particularly appealing. It uses a fraction of the soap, water and energy of standard machines.

But it can only handle a small load, Hartke said. "Four or five shirts and maybe two pair of pants. All lightweight stuff -- not jeans. Jeans are a whole 'nother thing. It takes 21/2 hours to go through the cycle -- then you have to hang things up to dry."

And wrinkles?

"If you don't snatch the load out the second the dry cycle is over, everything is wrinkled," Hartke said. "Sheets wrinkle not a little -- a lot." Her sister-in-law drapes sheets over the grand piano before they dry so she can avoid ironing.

The bottom line: "It's perfect for some Italian bachelor, but it's lousy for a family of three," Hartke said.

Chantel Sheaks is not a family of three and she adores the combo machine that is tucked away in her guest room closet, enjoying "the ease of throwing in the clothes in the morning and when I get home at night it's all clean and dry -- and I've done nothing."

Sheaks had considered a full-size stackable, but that would have required venting, "and the pain of working with contractors." It would also have eliminated one of only three closets in her circa 1930 Capitol Hill home.

The Equator Energy Star model that she bought from Lundbom leaves enough room to hang clothes. "I can hang shirts and pants but no evening gowns, but then I don't have evening gowns," she said, laughing. "And it's cute, too."

"Wrinkles? It depends on the fabric," Sheaks said. "Personally, I don't care how wrinkled my sheets are . . . and if I'm concerned that my jeans are wrinkled I need some help."

Lundbom said: "You have to be reeducated to use it. If you have a family of five and want to do five loads on a Sunday it'll drive you up the wall. But you can load, leave and come back and it will be done. Set it and forget it. Go to the movies, go to dinner."

Sometimes, Lundbom said, what it boils down to is, "Either you have this to wash your clothes in -- or nothing. If you can get a standard appliance, get it."

Eking out space is a specialty of Judith Capen's. The partner in District-based Architrave P.C. Architects said, "I like to use standard appliances . . . so I try to plan carefully. You pay a premium for other than standard." And when you combine several functions in a single machine, "when one function goes you throw away the whole thing."

One space saver she particularly likes: "Demand water heaters, where water heats as it goes over a coil so you don't have to store it." A typical water heater, she said, is bulky because it stores water.

The hot-water-on-demand units, she added, are "the perfect application for Jacuzzis. You have this huge bathtub you use once a month -- why heat up all that water and keep it hot?"

Sometimes, Capen said, you have to climb far outside the box for solutions, such as taking a look at prison and hospital fixtures, the manufacturers of which are masters at squeezing the most out of tight quarters.

For example, consider the Suicide Resistant Penal-Ware Comby, featured in a prison equipment catalogue. If you can get past its name, this is a sleekly handsome stainless steel cylinder that combines a toilet and sink. Because the toilet can be mounted on the right or the left of the cylinder, the unit would tuck cleanly under the stairs or into a corner, a perfect little powder room.

We are not sure how one would use a toilet to kill oneself, but there is no toilet seat, if that's a hint.

Combining a sink and toilet is not as weird as it sounds, Capen said. The water in your toilet tank is tap water and that is what is used in the toilet's sink. The soapy water drains into the tank and is used when you flush. "You use the water twice -- and do you care if you use soapy water to flush?"

The same company manufactures a similar toilet for residential use as part of its Neo-Metro line. This model has a seat, plus a few nifty extras.

Locally, the Neo-Metro collection is handled by the Ferguson Gallery in the Washington Design Center. Catherine Harvey, a showroom consultant, said it's "truly for the high-tech bathroom." Fitting neatly into a four-foot-square space, the Neo-Comby Toilet and Sink "has a little cabinet for cleaners and a toilet tissue holder attached and a towel bar. It's a great little combo!"

At $5,000 it's pricey. But then, it's a complete bathroom in a box.

The Kitchen, Bath and Building Design Center on the lower level of the Washington Design Center offers a trove of concepts for the space challenged. The showrooms are open to the public, and consumers can buy directly or through a designer or architect. It's not inexpensive, but looking is free, and so are ideas.

Ferguson Gallery also shows a variety of more traditional fixtures that will fit in tight spaces, including tiny wall-mounted corner sinks and wall-hung toilets that project 23 inches into the room as opposed to the standard 29 or 30 inches.

If you're remodeling a tiny kitchen, Studio Snaidero at the design center handles Miele appliances. The German manufacturer offers a number of space savers, including an 18-inch-deep dishwasher with adjustable racks that will hold nine place settings.

"They really maximize the space," said Shawna Dillon, a Snaidero designer.

Some stoves are also smaller than average, but with high capacity. One 23-inch-square wall oven holds a 24-pound turkey (and not much else.) The cook tops come in 12-inch modular sections, each with two burners, that can be either electric or gas.

Rutt HandCrafted Cabinetry doesn't sell appliances, but it does have a gorgeous butler's pantry on display in its gallery at the design center.

The 71/2-by-10-foot room is loaded with storage ideas and several miniature appliances, including a dishwasher in a drawer from Fisher & Paykel and a microwave hidden neatly above a wine refrigerator.

If the Design Center is too rich for your wallet, there is always that complete kitchen from CompactAppliance.com, for less than $700.

Popular in extended-stay hotels, dorms, offices and apartments, the 30-inch-wide, counter-height Danby Compact Kitchen has a six-cubic-foot refrigerator under the counter, a sink and a two-burner range. Add a wall shelf and a microwave oven or small convection oven and you are set.

"In a 30-inch footprint you have virtually everything you need to cook," Lundbom said.

Not even enough space for that? Lundbom offers the Teba Mini Kitchen, "a countertop oven with two burners, like a big toaster oven. Cook some beans in a pot on top; it'll bake, broil, convect and has a rotisserie spit. I bought one for my mom. When she has big holiday dinners she always needs another burner. She pulls it out on a buffet cart."

There is no sink, but you could use the one atop the Neo-Comby toilet.

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