/ Home & Energy, Technology

How hi-tech are your home appliances?


Is your washing machine a boring white box, or is it a smart, wi-fi connected model pre-loaded with apps to make cleaning your clothes as much fun as playing games on your smartphone?

Modern kitchen appliances are getting pretty good at their fundamental tasks, whether that’s washing, freezing, heating or drying. To stand out in the crowd even the most everyday appliances compete to have the fanciest features.

Two years ago my colleague Lisa Galliers asked you which appliance features are essential and which ones you could happily live without. Since then, some technologies have moved on and become more widespread.

Apps for appliances

Smart technology is the latest fad in kitchen appliances, with products from fridge freezers to washing machines coming equipped with built-in wi-fi and apps to help you communicate with them wherever you are using a smartphone. Handy if you’re too lazy to get off the sofa and press actual buttons.

I’m not opposed to appliances having more user-friendly controls and the option to customise settings, but I am worried about how quickly a smart appliance might become obsolete. If the touchscreen display on my washing machine breaks, how much will the repairs cost?

Techy tumbles and fancy fridge freezers

Even the good old tumble dryer is getting hi-tech, with energy-saving heat-pump technology becoming more common and more affordable. The up-front cost of buying a heat-pump dryer is usually high, but the low running costs seem more and more tempting as energy bills rise.

When you buy a new fridge freezer, you probably want it to do a good job of the basics – namely keeping food safely chilled or frozen. But some models now come with features that claim to keep your food fresher for longer, such as humidity-controlled salad crisper drawers. Some fridge freezers even contain devices that release ‘active oxygen’, with the claim that this technology cuts down on bacteria formation and nasty smells.

Have you bought a new appliance recently? Did you feel overwhelmed by different features to choose between, or was it easy to find a machine that simply does a great job of the basics?


Our fairly basic dishwasher, washing machine and tumble drier have programmes we never use. I’m all for products that do their main jobs well and are not overcomplicated – and I don’t want to pay lots more for features I don’t need and that may increase unreliability. As for energy-saving measures, I think any additional cost needs to be balanced against energy savings – heat pump driers are a good example. There are other ways to save energy – use a drying line outside when the weather is nice (it has been forecast!), use your drier at night if you have economy 7, use a clothes horse…… As a cynic I see many of these extra gadgets as grown-ups toys that are used to get more money out of your wallets and tempt you to discard perfectly good appliances in the name of technology. Curved screen TVs…….

Edward says:
1 March 2014

I agree.We no longer use the tumble drier,having used the outside line when good weather & the heat generated by our woodburner,which we light in the evenings anyway

Why would I need to “communicate” with my freezer and what’s the point of being able to control the washing machine from my sofa when I still have to get up and load/unload it?


Phil, I suppose you could always use your smart phone from the sofa to ring someone to load and unload your machine?

My washing machine is over 30 years old, so that predates gadgetry. I found I rarely used my tumble drier, so that was disposed of after taking up valuable space for ten years.

My view is that consumer durables should last a long time and that does not fit in well with technology, which will soon become dated.

The main consideration for any product design should be for it to achieve the required function with the minimum of complexity. There is a story, possibly apocryphal, about the CEO of a pre-war radio receiver manufacturing company. According to the story he would wander round the product development area and cut out a component from one of the radios being developed. If the radio continued working OK, he would sack the designer! A bit harsh, perhaps, but shows a good appreciation of what is needed.

These days there seems to be a tendency to add bells and whistles more to hoodwink the uninitiated than to make the product better. My favourite example is a simple one, the liquid soap dispenser. There is a product on the market which senses a hand and dispenses a shot of soap without physical contact being required. It is said that this prevents the user picking up bacteria that may have been left by a previous user. This does rather beg the question about the purpose of dispensing the soap, which is to wash one’s hands and thereby remove such things as bacteria. In fact, the arrangement could actually go against the needs of hygiene. What happens when the battery fails? Would this mean that it is not possible to get at the soap?

Tonyp – While I am strongly opposed to unnecessary complexity and keen on having a simple user interface, the best designs are sometimes more complex.

Some years ago it was easy to destroy expensive laptop computer batteries by leaving them on charge for long periods, whereas better laptops had more sophisticated circuitry and it did not matter if they were connected to the mains all day. I hope this problem is history by now.

Suppression of radio/TV interference and inclusion of good safety features are other examples of greater complexity resulting in a much better product. Mains-powered items often don’t have a proper power switch. On the grounds of safety and power wastage, that should not be allowed.

Having repaired some of these pre-war radios you mention, over-simplification was not a good idea then and the same applies today. CEOs should stick to what they are competent at. 🙂

Wavechange: I think you are confusing the difference between good design and unnecessarily overcomplicated design. Sometimes, as you say, there can be a good reason for additional complexity whereas what I was talking about was the addition of complexity for its own sake. In my previous life I ran an R&D department working on safety-critical avionic systems. It was often necessary to add significant complexity in order to meet system integrity requirements – a matter of trading reliability for integrity – but this is quite different from adding complexity simply because it seems to be a good marketing ploy.

The main reason for the improvement in battery life in, for instance, laptop computers is more down to the technology of the batteries than anything else. NiCd batteries had a very poor life capability, especially if re-charged after partial discharge, and hated continuous trickle charge.. NiMH batteries were much better but the latest form of Li-ion have excellent performance in all respects.

Suppression of interference and safety features are examples of good design not of unnecessary complexity, so are not particularly relevant to the discussion.

The CEO I mentioned in my previous post, by the way, was the founder of the company and a noted radio designer and innovator, so I guess he WAS sticking to his area of competence!

I don’t think either of us is confused though perhaps we are both off-topic. 🙂 My comments about laptop battery charging did refer to comparisons of computers using the same battery chemistry. There used to be significant differences between battery management in different brands of laptops, though I suspect that this may be a problem of the past. I’m sure that we could have very interesting technical discussion, though it might not be kind to inflict these on others.

Back on topic, I would suggest that all fridge and freezer manufacturers should fit an externally visible indication of temperature. As a sales gimmick the user could be alerted to problems with bells and whistles.

I agree with Malcolm R above. Washing Machine controls are already becoming far too complex and intimidating.

I’d like to see them have three buttons on the front, two that are user programmable for our normal household usage – one for Cotton wash and the other for Synthetic wash. We’d use those 95% of the time. The third button would be for Delay because we use Economy 7 and use our washer mostly during the night.

Other buttons/control should be hidden behind a flap.

Which? has looked at government data for appliance fires and found that washing machines pose the greatest risk: http://press.which.co.uk/whichpressreleases/faulty-household-appliances-pose-fire-risk/

This press release was widely reported, but no-one seems to have mentioned that many people use their machines at night and don’t even have a functional smoke detector in their kitchen or utility room.

To say something relevant to this Conversation, I would like to see delay timers on washing machines and tumble driers phased out.

The Electrical Safety Council published draft figures for 2011-12 in the following link:
Major products involved in electrical fires in 2011/12
Cooking appliances – 11954
Electric wiring, cables, plugs – 2899
Washing machines and tumble driers – 1083
Lighting – 767
Dishwashers – 475

It would be useful to see, if it doesn’t already happen, some coordination between for example Which?, ESC and manufacturers to see just how many fires are due to an initial design fault and how many down to lack of care by the owner (many tumble drier fires apparently are due to not cleaning the fluff from filters). It is inexcusable not to fit a smoke alarm in an area with any of these electrical appliances, whether you use delay timers or not.

For those wanting to check whether any electrical item they own might has been the subject of a product recall, this service from the Electrical Safety Council seems useful:

Rather than having useless hi-tech features on tumble driers, I would suggest incorporating something to detect if the filter was blocked with fluff and shut down the machine. All that is needed is a simple pressure differential sensor.

There are numerous other ways that additional safety features can be included in domestic appliances without significantly affecting the manufacturing cost or compromising reliability.

I couldn’t disagree with you more. Washining machine fires are rare, especially when compared to cookers and microwaves.

We’ve had Economy 7 most of our married lives (40 years) using our washers and driers at night on cheap rate without experiencing any problems. We do have smoke alarms, as should everyone. Banning delay timers just on the slim chance of a fire is ridiculous. If we followed that idea we would have to ban all petrol vehicles in case of fire and all pneumatics tyres in case of a blow out at speed.

I suggest you contact Which? and let them know that their press release or the government data must be wrong. To be fair it can be difficult to determine the cause of fires because the evidence can be destroyed in a serious fire. 🙁

Check Malcolm R’s post that gives the stats. Washing machines cause one tenth of the fires caused by cooking appliances, one third of those by faulty wiring/cables/plugs. There’s no comparison.

Most of the problems with faulty wiring/cables/plugs are avoidable if someone competent keeps an eye on them and care is taken not to buy dangerous counterfeit products, widely available online. The user may contribute to the problem. For example, sockets can be overloaded and some people force unfused 2-pin Europlugs into mains sockets.

Chip pan fires have long been the biggest cause of kitchen fires and I wonder if the cooking appliance fires in the ESC statistics include some of these. But I have no reason to doubt the information given in the Which? press release indicating the washing machines and tumble driers are the main causes of appliance fires.

Anyway, getting back to the subject 🙂 my suggestion is to scrub the high tech features of kitchen appliances and focus on ways of cutting down the number of accidents associated with kitchen appliance.

wavechange, perhaps Which? can comment on their figures vs. ESC – I am sure they are both working off valid data, it may come down to scope, or where they get the data from. So important to co-ordinate information so we know the facts. You are quite right about checking visible electrics, but less easy to check the hidden house wiring (where poor connections, mice and squirrels damage, may be a future hazard). People should also look after their tumble driers – clean them of fluff; perhaps the problem is that they don’t read the instructions. If all else fails…….

I hope that Which? will make some comment on this. Hopefully there is a perfectly simple explanation of the apparent discrepancy.

I don’t have a great deal of confidence in EHC for various reasons, not least the fact that their recall information is a disorganised mess and always has been. Nevertheless, they are – despite being a charity – doing a useful job and present information in a way that the general public can understand it. For example, they have some useful videos.

It would be good if Which? and EHC could get together and produce some advice to help us spot obvious electrical problems and to encourage us to get a competent person to look over our homes every few years.

The point about cleaning tumble drier filters is very important, but I recall an engineer posting on this website that on some models, fluff can build up unseen in the innards of driers and present a fire hazard. I hope this does not happen very often. I know pet hamsters love gnawing mains leads given half a chance and rodents have probably started many fires. The obvious solution is to include a bitter-tasting component in the plastic, a well established solution for protecting children from drinking hazardous liquids.

Meanwhile back at the topic, I wonder if there any fun ways of getting our kitchen appliances to get us all behaving more responsibly. I would quite like a microwave that would remind me to transfer my ISAs. 🙂

wavechange, “Chip pan fires have long been the biggest cause of kitchen fires”. According to Fire Statistics from Communities and Local Government for 2001-12, chip-pan fires have been on the decrease since 2000 and out of 19612 cooking appliance fires just 2600 were chip-pans. So they seem no where near a big cause of kitchen fires. The difference between the cooking appliance stats from ESC and C&LG are presumably because the latter include both gas and electric

wavechange, I don’t understand your comment about ESC – are you saying their recall information in the link is incorrect? I don’t see an equivalent offering from Which? so surely, unless ESC’s is totally wrong, it is of value to people who know of its existence and bother to look? Perhaps Which? could publish this link. Which is also a charity – don’t see why we should condemn either of them “despite being a charity”. The objective is to collect accurate information so we can consider it logically and act accordingly.

I stand corrected. I expect that deep fat friers and smoke detectors have helped. When I set up home I chucked away the basket of my new chip pan, having decided it would be safer to use as a soup pan.

Mrs R was bought an electric deep fat frier many years ago (by me!) as I love proper chips (3 eggs and chips a favourite meal). She refuses to use it! Hadn’t thought of using it for soup – generally we use the microwave for that. Life can be hard at times.

Malcolm – I have frequently looked at the recall information on the ESC website and some of the product descriptions are very unhelpful and the photos – where provided – are poor. I’m certainly not condemning ESC for being a charity but I guess they would do better if they had public funding to do their job.

The more complicated it becomes the costlier it is to manufacture, maintain and repair. I’ll stick with basic models thank you and absolutely no ‘apps’ to spy on my use either.

Sybilmari says:
28 February 2014

It appears that the most likely reason for the development of ‘smart’ appliances is so that they can be read by ‘smart’ meters (gas, electric, water etc) in the home. This information is then passed back to the company who log the ‘smart meter’ readings. This gives information of how people are using their appliances and can also indicate when the house is empty. The information is then both sold for marketing purposes and made available on the internet. Obviously the information is also open to abuse.
There is also another huge problem with all this wireless technology in the home i.e. the dangers of wireless pollution which is affecting our health and yet it is invisible.
The World Health Organisation recognises the dangers of ‘smart meters’ and Wi-Fi as do all the people who are Electromagnetically Sensitive. Unfortunately those who are not ‘sensitive’ and, therefore, aware of the invisible ill effects of this technology are still being seriously affected. When you become ill ask yourself if the cause could be directly or indirectly attributed to the bombardment of wireless in your life.
Take care.

Sybilman, interesting thought. Is there evidence to support this? I remember a scare on cancer and power lines. Mobile phones were inconclusively linked to radiation problems.

Tom Pawson says:
1 March 2014

Re malcolm r’s comment – surely research to give any useful evidence, conclusive or not, would be too expensive to contemplate! My belief is that many of these calls for such research are more to do with possible compensation claims, than finding out if they are safe to use.

Tom P

Sybilmari – In the western world, most of us are bathed in radiation. In our homes we may have mobile phones, wireless devices such as cordless phones and routers, microwave ovens, fluorescent and LED lighting, computers, various switch mode power supplies and radiation distributed via our mains electric wiring. Outside the home we have radiation from TV, radio and phone masts, plus other forms of radio communication. The frequency and intensity vary, so it would not be easy to quantify any risk. With radiation, the inverse square law applies, so we are likely to be most affected if we are very close to a source of radiation. I believe our government was right to warn of the possible dangers of mobile phones at the time, since these are often carried in a pocket and used next to our brains. Anyone concerned about radiation from a smart meter should certainly not be using a mobile phone.

At present we can refuse to have a smart meter and because of the cost of the roll out, that would be a smart move. I expect that the energy companies will force them on us by offering a cheaper tariff to those who have one, because they can cut costs if it is not necessary to read meters.

We have a smart water meter. The man comes along and reads the meter whilst sat in his van. That’s fine. If and when we are obliged to get smart energy meters, we will ask the question: Is this just to read the meter, or can you use the data for ‘other’ purposes. If yes, then what are those purposes? If you don’t tlike it that you are FORCED to get a smart meter that tracks every ounce of energy that you use and the data can be on sold to anyone with enough money. Use a screwdriver and put it where the man fitted the meter. If enough of us band together and say NO to tracking, then it won’t happen. But if it does and enough of us use screwdrivers, then it will be withdrawn when they realise that we mean business. Simples!

Oh yes, forgot that this was all about smart appliances. Our old washing machine lasted over 20 years and the new Bosch budget model that we bought to replace it was a Which? Best Buy. It’s basic with no frills attached, but it does the job brilliantly. We don’t separate cottons from woollens or synthetics and just bung the whole lot in together. Do we get problems – NO!
We have two basic microwaves. You know, the sort that have clockwork dials on the front. One is over 20 years old and the other replaced one that was at least as old. They are great at doing everything we need. We don’t need whistles and bells, just good old basic functions that go on working, year after year.
The tiumble dryer is also over 20 and the timer bust about ten years ago. No problem. We know how long it takes to dry a load and set a simple clockwork timer to remind us when to check for dry cloths.
Our own human brain is far better at calculating what we need and yet we deny ouselves the function to allow a machine to do it for us. Why? Cameras have gone the same way, but that’s for another forum.

Cathy Careful Scot says:
2 March 2014

I agree with most of the comments posted. I find that most of these appliances are over complicated and that in the end you only use 2 or 3 programmes regularly. As for tumble dryers, I do have one and I like to finish off my towels in it but I just love my ‘old fashioned’ pulley which doesn’t cost me a penny to use. They can also be made quite trendy and used for hanging all sorts of gadgets, pans etc.

Dave says:
2 March 2014

Would anybody be able to advise me on water softners. I am thinking of purchasing a Hauge maximiser 400. I cannot find any independant reviews.
I would appreciate any help.

Dave, we fitted a Monarch Midi about a year ago – our first softener and so far, so good.

I’ve no great experience of the many water softeners available but for our own. But I have noted that most are built around a couple of ‘standard’ ion exchange tanks and heads (either metered or timer controlled). So there isn’t really a great difference between them all as most will have identical controls.

I definitely recommend the metered units to minimise wasted salt tablet. We have a previous version of the following softener http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/150895495986?ssPageName=STRK:MESINDXX:IT&_trksid=p3984.m1436.l2649 which is 7/8 years old now. We had 5 living at home for most of that time. The only intervention it has had other than filling the salt tank was last year when we washed out the accumulated salt slush sitting in the bottom.

The ion exchange resin beads should last 10/15 years depending on use and type. (The smaller beads are more efficient because of their greater surface area, but they wear out and become jelly-like faster than the larger, slightly less efficient beads.) They can be purchased on line to replace yourself if you are up to the diy, or an engineer should service and replace the beads.

I see that fridges are responsible for sending out thousands of spam emails. maybe their designers should pay a bit more attention to this?

peter says:
24 August 2014

I don’t need any connected appliances ( like dryer, dish washer, ovens, toasters). It’s just pure laziness that one must have connected appliances. How lazy one must be to check on the appliance by smart-phone rather than just taking a little walk to check on the appliances.

Alistair Jackson says:
18 August 2016

I’ve had an Electrolux Trilobite robot vacuum cleaner for 12 years and I have to say it hasn’t disappointed. Unlike the cheaper Roomba ones, the Trilobite has always performed really well, coping with large rooms, randomly placed objects and inquisitive cats.

At £1000 new it was never going to be good value for money, but a chance visit to John Lewis during a clearance sale meant I snapped one up for £250, which is about the price worth paying.

Robot vacuums are never going to do the job as well as a person and a normal vacuum, nor will they ever cope with stairs. To expect that is to set yourself up for disappointment. However, if you set your expectations at a robot vacuum cleaner keeping the worst of the mess at bay and you just have to do the odd corner and stairs, then they can be a riotous success.

Electrolux never stuck to their guns and discontinued the Trilobite after the second generation, which was a shame as it was streets ahead of the competition. Electrolux pioneered the robot home invasion and should have persevered, especially as technology constantly improves and becomes cheaper. Who knows, if Dyson can get away with £800 for their notoriously overpriced products, then there could be a niche for the return of the Trilobite. Here’s hoping.