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Universal Design

Upgrade Kitchen Appliances

How to sort out features that make ranges, ovens, refrigerators and dishwashers safer and easier to use.


There was a time when the choice in kitchen appliances was limited to color and size. Today, there are so many products available that deciding which to install can be more confusing than liberating! From drawer refrigerators to fancy countertop cooktops with woks, griddles and other gizmos, the array of appliances can be overwhelming. It can also make it hard to separate fact from marketing fiction.

The good news is that many of the latest appliances, especially cooktops and ovens, combine style with enhanced safety features — demonstrating the universal design concept that improved function can be beautiful.

I’ve done quite a bit of homework in this area so that I can put you in a better position to decide what appliances and gadgets make sense for you and your kitchen. Read on to learn about the latest cooking technologies and design features that can help conserve energy and increase safety and efficiency.

Here are three general pieces of advice:

  1. Regardless of the appliance, brand or model you’re interested in, look for large-sized buttons and controls in bright, contrasting colors. They minimize mistakes with the controls.
  2. When buying new appliances, select “quiet” models that are well insulated. For example, choose your refrigerator, range hood, dishwasher and even your blender with care, as noisy models can sound like jet engines, even to those with hearing loss.
  3. Available in electric, induction or gas, ceramic glass cooktops are attractive and easy to clean. But note that these surfaces can scratch or mark (for example, when sliding rough pan bottoms). Also, they can be damaged if you forcefully set down a pot or drop an item like a knife, spice bottle or soup can onto the cooktop. (So don’t store anything above the cooktop.)


Guide to Appliance Features


Refrigerators and Freezers

The refrigerator is the biggest energy consuming appliance in the kitchen. If you have an older model, it’s using up to twice as much electricity as an energy-efficient one. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that replacing a refrigerator bought in 1990 with an energy-efficient model saves enough power to light the average household for nearly four months! New features, like high-efficiency compressors and improved insulation, will not only lower your utility bills but also reduce your carbon footprint.

If you’re in the market for a new refrigerator, consider a side-by-side model if it fits your kitchen. It makes it easy to grab both fresh and frozen goods without excessive bending or reaching. And the smaller size doors don’t swing out as far as larger single doors do — a real plus in a busy kitchen. Most refrigerators come with pullout shelves, but in the more upscale models you’ll find additional features, such as an express thaw that allows you to thaw a frozen meal for dinner in a couple of hours; special cooling zones that keep foods fresher and crisper for longer; and bright LED lighting that makes food easier to see. And yes, there are even refrigerators installed in pullout drawers, usually under the countertop, for convenience and extra storage space during holiday parties. Such a unit is pricey, but if you host large get-togethers, it just may be worth splurging on.

What features can you expect to see in the near future? New refrigerators will use Internet capability and bar code-scanning technology to keep track of your food items and send an e-mail reorder to your local store. When you arrive home from work at 6 p.m., your groceries will arrive shortly after you do (like magic).

Cooking Appliances

Until a decade ago, the “all-in-one range,” with burners on top and the oven underneath, was the only game in town. Today, the many advantages of separate cooktops and wall
ovens have made them popular.

First, your back will thank you. Instead of reaching and groping into a hot oven, a wall-mounted oven can be installed at a height that allows safe, easy and direct access. Second, with separate units, you can install the cooktop near the food prep area  —  in the countertop or the island — at a convenient height. And third, if there’s more than one cook at a time in your household, one person can use the cooktop free and clear without having to dodge oven doors and large hot pans coming and going. Be sure that both appliances have generous countertop space on both sides for setting down hot dishes and the like.

Most standard wall ovens are electric and self-cleaning. Select a side-opening door so you can get at the interior of the oven easily, and install a heat-resistant pullout shelf under the oven where you can set down hot pans. Install the oven, depending on your needs, so its base is 29 to 34 inches (73.5 to 86 cm) above the floor.

If you don’t have the room for a separate cooktop and wall oven, however, the freestanding all-in-one range is a good choice. Today’s options include gas and electric, or even a combination of these; in addition, you can get an induction cooktop. When choosing a range, you’ll want to look for controls located on the top front surface, and a lockout safety feature that allows you to disable the oven and burner controls (good for young children or adults with memory loss).

Select a model with a large, clear glass window and good interior lighting; this helps you see the food cooking without having to open the oven, an eco-friendly feature.

Rating the Safety of Cooking Technology

The main types of cooking technologies are electric, induction and gas, and each has its pros and cons. Now they can be combined. Safety, energy efficiency and, of course, easy cleanup are important features, but for everyone — young, old and in between — safety is the biggest concern. More household fires start in the kitchen than in any other place in the home — and unattended cooking is the leading cause of home fires. Two new products on the market — low-temperature electric burners and induction cooktops — perform quite well without an open flame or red hot cooking elements. These new technologies can help you or an older parent stay safe in the kitchen.

This listing of cooking technologies is presented in order of safety, from low-temperature electric burners and induction through electric and gas. Note that though the first two are about equal in safety, low-temperature electric is substantially less expensive
than induction.

Electric: Low-Temperature Burners

Low-temperature electric burners are cast-iron plates that are one-third to one-half as hot as regular electric burners; the maximum temperature on these plates is 662° F (350° C) compared with a whopping 1,400° F (760° C) on a standard electric burner. They’re hot enough to boil water and cook delicious meals but not hot enough for oil, food and most household materials (like pot holders, clothing and paper) to ignite. You can purchase a new cooktop or a range with these low-temperature burners already installed, or you can hire a technician to install them over your existing coiled burners. An added bonus: these burners are eco-friendly because they use less energy.

Because the burner plates do remain hot to the touch longer than standard elements after the power is off, consider buying a cooktop that has indicator lights to remind you that the elements may still be hot. This low-temperature technology scores high for healthy longevity: it can save lives. The burner plates are relatively affordable — purchasing a cooktop or stove with the burners already installed does not add substantially to the price.


Although this radically different cooking technology was launched in 1933 at the World’s Fair in Chicago, it has become popular only in the last decade — primarily in Europe and Asia. Induction is now making inroads into the U.S. market because its benefits are safety and energy efficiency.

Induction differs from other cooking processes in that there is no hot coil, open flame or heated surface. Instead, it uses a coil of copper wire just below the cooktop’s glass ceramic surface; when an electric current is passed through this wire, it heats the cookware directly through the magnetic field it creates, making it the most efficient and greenest cooktop available. Only the area under the cookware gets hot; the copper coil itself doesn’t get hot and the unused portion of the cooktop remains relatively cool. It’s this absence of a hot heating element or flame that gives induction its extra margin of safety. But the surface under the pan does get hot (from contact with the pan) —  hot enough to cause a burn.

If you’re concerned about the electromagnetic energy that creates the heat in the cookware, you can relax; it’s what we’re surrounded by all day in the form of radio and television waves, Wi-Fi hot spots, and microwave ovens. Speaking of safety, if you have a pacemaker, check with your doctor before using induction — the same precaution you should take with microwave ovens.

Induction has a response time similar to that of a gas stove and is much faster than any other type of electric cooking. Induction cooking is approximately 83 percent energy efficient, compared with gas and electric at 50 percent to 60 percent. And induction doesn’t throw off a lot of heat into the kitchen, a real bonus when the weather is warm. It’s also an easy cleanup since the cooktop doesn’t get hot enough to burn any spills or drips.

But cooking with induction may take some getting used to, especially if you’ve been depending on flame size to judge the level of heat. With induction, just as with electric cooktops, you have only a marked knob with LED numbers and an indicator light. Also, induction cooktops are expensive: they cost at least twice as much as gas or electric models. But keep in mind you’ll reduce your electricity bill.

In addition to the higher initial cost, there is another potentially daunting trade-off. You can use only flat-bottomed cookware made of magnetic materials, such as cast-iron and most stainless steel. If a refrigerator magnet sticks firmly to the bottom of the pan, you’re OK. If not, you’ll need to buy new cookware. Look for cookware (thicker bottoms will heat more evenly) that is specifically made for induction cooking. The increased safety may be well worth the additional investment in cookware, depending on your situation.

If you’re curious about induction and wonder if it’s the right cooking technology for your household, you can purchase a relatively inexpensive one-burner hot plate and test it. It can always be put to good use as an extra cooktop in the kitchen (or even in the dining or family room) to warm up food during family gatherings and holiday parties.

Standard Electric

Available with either coiled burners or a glass ceramic surface, electric cooktops and ovens have heating elements under the surface. The heating elements turn red, a visual aid for safety and useful if you have low vision or like strong visual reminders. However, unlike their low-temperature counterparts, standard electric burners can reach very high temperatures, and, as with gas burners, you need to be extremely careful not to let loose-fitting or hanging garments, newspapers, pot holders and other fire hazards come into contact with the burner.


If you’re used to cooking on a gas stove, you appreciate the fast heat, precise temperature control (simmer, low, high and everything in between) and the ability to judge the cooking temperature by the size of the flame. But there are some major safety issues, especially for young children and older adults. The open flame presents serious burn and fire risks, especially if you’re wearing long sleeves while cooking. Leaving a gas burner on or having a flame extinguished accidentally by a strong gust of wind can cause problems, a concern for older adults who have a decreased sense of smell. These hazards can make converting from gas to induction or electric technology well worth it, even if it requires you to upgrade your electrical system.

Wall Ovens

Most standard wall ovens are electric and self-cleaning. The more expensive models offer convection cooking, which speeds up cooking time. This is a feature you may or may not require, depending on your cooking habits. Ovens do not receive an Energy Star rating; choose a model with a large clear glass window and good interior lighting. This allows you to see the food cooking without having to open the oven — you’ll save energy and help the environment.

To upgrade to a truly universal design wall oven, select one with a side-opening door, so you can get at the inside easily. You can install a heat-resistant pullout shelf under the oven on which to set down hot pans. When you install the oven, raise the base so it’s 29 to 34 inches (73.5 to 86 cm) above the floor, depending on your needs.

The latest trend for wall ovens is an “oven in a drawer.” If you have a hefty budget and often host large get-togethers, you can install convenient warming drawers in any room of your house to keep food appetizingly warm.

Microwave Ovens

New microwave ovens are easier to use than ever, with shortcut keys and sensors that cook a variety of dishes, from pasta to steamed veggies. When buying a new microwave, the biggest decisions you’ll need to make are the size and the type of unit you need, which have everything to do with your kitchen size and the kind of meals you prepare. You may not need all the bells and whistles if you use the microwave only for reheating leftovers and making popcorn. A compact microwave may be your best bet, especially if you have a small kitchen. These ovens use around 800 watts and take a little longer to cook than a larger model. Keep in mind that some compact models have such small interiors that you can’t even cook two small potpies at the same time.

If you cook for two or more people, or use the microwave to whip up entire meals, then you’ll want at least a midsize oven with 1,200 to 1,500 watts and the latest innovations, like a convection feature (a fan and a bulb), which not only speeds up the cooking but also provides browning and crisping —  important if you’re fond of crispy pizza or roasted chicken. Large-size models are designed for large dishes like casseroles or turkey breast — and for large kitchens. These powerful ovens use more than 2,000 watts; they are over 20 inches (51 cm) wide, 20 inches (51 cm) deep and 12 inches (30.5 cm) high; and they are often built into the cabinetry like traditional ovens.

Regardless of size, for fast, easy cooking, choose a microwave with sensors that automatically set the temperature and cooking time and then turn off the microwave when the food is cooked. Before too long, microwaves will be able to read the bar code on frozen or packaged items and automatically set the cooking time.

Stove Range Hoods

The range hood is an important part of your kitchen design. It helps maintain good indoor air quality by sucking out contaminants, heat and odors.

Like stovetops and ovens, hoods come in a wide “range” of styles and have different features. To ensure your choice is safe and user-friendly, select a model with radius, or rounded corners. Hang it no lower than 56 inches (142 cm) from the floor. Downdraft models are good for grilling and frying; updraft models, for the evacuation of steam. The size and type of fan used in the hood determines the noise level (and the differences are large), so be sure to listen to the unit you’re considering before leaving the showroom. For added safety, an automatic fire-suppressant system can be purchased separately and installed in most hoods at little additional cost.


As with any appliance, when it comes to dishwashers you want performance, energy efficiency and convenience. Dishwasher efficiency has improved dramatically in the past decade as new soil sensors determine both the wash cycle time and the water temperature needed to clean the dishes. And that’s not all. Better pumps, filtration systems, rotating jets and pressurized spray nozzles get dishes cleaner, with less water and — you’ll really appreciate this — with no prescrubbing. Some models even allow you to run a half load with less water, a real plus for someone living alone. Choose a dishwasher with a quiet motor that makes it possible for everyone to hold a conversation while the dishes are being washed. Now if only it came with robots to load the dishwasher!

The universal design approach is to install the dishwasher on a platform at a back-friendly height, about 9 inches (23 cm) from the floor. For increased storage space, you can install a drawer in the platform for seldom-used items. There is a trade-off, though: because the counter on top of the dishwasher will be higher than the adjacent one, you won’t be able to slide pots and pans across the countertop easily, an inconvenience when moving heavy pots. As always, choose what’s best for your situation.

Washers and Dryers

One of universal design’s main goals is to make life easier; so think about moving your washer and dryer into or near the kitchen. You can cook dinner and do a load of wash at the same time! Plus, you won’t have to walk up and down stairs to a basement to do the laundry.

Washers and dryers are now available in fun colors and in space-saving styles. If your washing machine is old, it’s probably a water hog; now is the time to replace it with an energy-efficient model that uses up to 50 percent less water and energy per load. You’ll save money in the long run. Front-loading appliances cost more than top loaders, but they clean better and are more energy efficient, too. When shopping for a dryer, choose one with a moisture-sensor option that automatically shuts off the machine when the clothes are dry. This eco-friendly feature saves energy and wear and tear on your clothes. To avoid having to bend with an armful of heavy, wet clothes, go for a frontloading washer or dryer that is placed on a simple platform to make the door higher. A pullout drawer placed in the platform makes a great storage space for seldom-used items.

'Revitalizing Your Home' by Rosemary Bakker (book cover)

Rosemary Bakker is the author of the AARP Guide to Revitalizing Your Home, which is available through Barnes & Noble. Bakker holds a master of science degree in gerontology and is a certified interior designer.

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