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    Best robotic vacuums from Consumer Reports' tests

    Who wouldn’t appreciate some extra help with the vacuuming before the guests arrive? Robotic vacuums such as the six we’ve tested won’t clean carpets as well as your average upright or canister, but those vacuums can’t push themselves around. And the $700 iRobot Roomba 880 topped our chart with great pickup and smart navigation.

    Multitasking doesn’t have to cost so much. The iClebo Arte YCR-M05, a CR Best Buy at $450, took almost 2 hours to clean our 12x16-foot test room and did almost as well on carpets as the Roomba. But it had its quirks, as did most of the other models.

    Robotic vacuums return to their bases to recharge once they’re finished or the battery runs down. But the iClebo muscled its charging base around while cleaning. The iClebo and the $900 Miele Scout RX1 also wobbled back and forth for several seconds after transitioning from bare floor to carpet. What’s more, the Ecovacs Deebot D77, $700, and the Miele had some trouble getting past carpet fringes and power cords—a problem dating back to the earliest robotics.

    Only two we tested, the iClebo and the Miele, were easy to program, but some were more flexible than others in varying daily cleaning. And if you detest bending, avoid the Neato models, which lack a remote control.

    Keep your robovac running

    Your robovac may take some getting used to. Although they’re designed to work on their own, they do need occasional attention to keep them running well.

    Give it a trial run. On your first day with your new vac, forget about unattended operation. Learn how it handles its territory—including chairs, cords, and floor coverings.

    Expect to clean it. All of the robotics needed manual clearing of hair and debris. The Ecovacs Deebot D77 is supposed to empty what it picks up into a detachable canister on the base, yet it transferred only part of its contents. Several vacs had full-bin indicators, but only one worked.

    Store it with care. If you’ll be away for a week or two, shut the vac off after a charge. But the otherwise top-notch Roomba won’t completely power down—you’ll have to unscrew a hatch and remove the battery.

    This article also appeared in the July 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How to keep your health care insurance costs down

    Co-pays and deductibles can gobble up a lot of cash every year. Even with good insurance, you’re probably paying more for medical bills than you’d like. And we all know that health care in the U.S. costs more than anywhere else in the world. So how can you save money in our maddeningly complicated system? These seven tips can save you big bucks.

    1. Don’t go out of network if you don’t have to.

    That dermatologist your friend raved about? Yeah, it’s tempting to make an appointment and be done with it. But it’s probably not worth it if she’s not in your insurance plan’s network. If you have a health-maintenance organization, it won’t pay a cent. Even if you have a preferred provider-organization (PPO) plan that allows you to go out of network, it’s probably not going to pay as much as you think—and you’ll be on the hook for the rest. Every plan has to have a full range of qualified specialists, so you should always try to find a doctor in your network. Your plan’s website should have a searchable list of local providers.

    A few tips for finding the right one for you: Look for someone who is board-certified in her specialty. Ask the office staff and the doctor about things such as wait time and weekend coverage. If you are looking for a primary care doctor, try to find one who practices within a patient-centered medical home. They are more likely to have helpful features, such as online medical records you can access from home, evening and weekend hours, and staffers to help you coordinate your care.

    2. Avoid ERs for routine problems.

    Emergency rooms are attached to hospitals, the most expensive possible place to get medical care. Insurance plans don’t want you to go to the ER for routine problems such as a fever, a stomach bug, or an ear infection. That’s why so many insurers charge so much for ER visits.

    A popular Anthem Blue Cross PPO for government employees, for instance, charges a $125 co-pay, and one plan sold on the California Health Insurance Marketplace comes with a whopping $250 ER co-pay!

    Of course, for a true emergency—chest pain, serious bleeding, trouble breathing, sudden one-sided weakness, and the like—you should absolutely go to the ER. But for other medical concerns, choose a doctor’s office with extended hours, an urgent-care clinic, or a drugstore walk-in clinic, where you’ll pay a smaller co-pay. Just make sure the one you select is in your insurance plan’s network.

    3. Pay cash for generic drugs.

    Co-pays for a 30-day supply of many prescription drugs—even generics—have crept up to $10 and beyond. But for certain drugs, there’s an easy way to pay less: Don’t use your insurance. At chain stores including CVS, Rite Aid, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart, you can buy many popular generics for as little as $4 for a month’s supply or $10 for 90 days’ worth. Ask at the pharmacy for a list of those drugs before you fill your next script. And if yours isn’t on it, ask your doctor whether you might be able to swap your current medication for a cheaper one.

    4. Price-shop for tests and procedures.

    Not so long ago that would have been impossible because there was no way to find out prices of medical care in advance. But many insurance companies have started to put some pricing info online.

    If you register on your insurer’s website, you’ll probably be able to see and compare in-network prices in your area for routine things such as MRIs, colonoscopies, and hernia repair. Prepare to be shocked at the range of prices.

    In Chicago, the in-network price of an MRI of the lower back ranges from $606 to $3,382, depending on where you go. That’s according to an analysis of employer health-plan claims by Castlight Health, a consulting firm. In Indianapolis, a test for blood lipids can cost anywhere from $15 to $202. In San Diego, a CT scan of the head can range from $271 to $1,699.

    Picking a less costly provider could save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars every time.

    Share your surprise medical bill stories with us, and get rankings of health insurance plans.

    5. Skip care you don’t need.

    Doctors sometimes prescribe tests and treatments on autopilot, but that doesn’t mean you need everything they suggest. For example, you rarely need antibiotics for bronchitis, sinusitis, or an upper respiratory infection, because those are almost always caused by viruses, which aren’t cured by antibiotics.

    You usually don’t need imaging tests for headaches or back pain, and unless you have symptoms of heart disease, you can skip getting an electrocardiogram or stress test. A project called Choosing Wisely has assembled a list of unnecessary procedures based on research and the advice of medical experts. Learn more at ConsumerReports.org/cro/choosingwisely.

    6. Spend pretax dollars.

    If you have access to a flexible spending account or a health-savings account, put money in it if you can. Not sure what these are? Both are funded by paycheck deductions with pretax dollars.

    You can get an FSA only if your employer offers it, but it works with any kind of health plan. HSAs can be set up only in conjunction with certain high-deductible insurance plans. Your employer may offer one and may contribute to yours, or you can buy one on most state health-insurance exchanges. With either type of account, you use the money for co-pays, deductibles, and care that your plan doesn’t cover, such as glasses, hearing aids, and orthodontia.

    Warning: Don’t put more into an FSA than you can spend in a year, or you’ll lose it. By contrast, unspent HSA money is yours to keep, even if you switch jobs or insurance plans.

    7. Don’t overpay your medical bills.

    Medical billing involves all kinds of complicated codes, rules, and handoffs from the doctor’s office to the insurance company and back again. Mistakes can happen at any step of the way. To avoid paying for services that your insurance should have covered, never pay a doctor or hospital bill until you receive an explanation-of-benefits notice from your insurance
    company.

    The EOB will tell you what the bill was, what the insurance paid, and what (if anything) you owe. If the doctor’s bill doesn’t match the information on the EOB—or if you think your insurance company should have paid but didn’t—call your insurance company’s customer-service number to find out what went wrong. Often it’s something as simple as an incorrect billing code or a typo in your name, birth date, or policy number.

    And remember: If a doctor or hospital is in your health plan’s network, they have signed a contract that says they can’t bill you extra beyond what your insurer allows. If they try to overbill you, send the provider a copy of your EOB to remind them of that fact.

    Avoid the health insurance gap!

    There are lots of ways to lose your insurance and reasons to have to change it. The rules surrounding those transitions can be complicated and obscure, and there’s a good chance no one will tell you about them. But if you mess up, you could end up stuck for months without any insurance. Here’s what you need to know:

    If you leave a job You can get a plan through your state health-insurance marketplace right away instead of waiting for fall open enrollment. But that option expires after 60 days; after that you really will have to wait. The same applies if you turn 26 and get kicked off your parents’ plan. Either way, go to healthcare.gov for more info.

    If you turn 65: If you are 65 or older, you have to sign up for Medicare as soon as you (or your spouse, if that’s how you get your insurance) quits working. If you don’t realize that (and a lot of people don’t), you may find yourself without full coverage for your medical bills. If you are about to reach the age of Medicare, download the “Medicare & You” booklet from medicare.gov. If you still have questions, get answers from the State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP). Find your state’s SHIIP contact info.

    If your kid turns 19: If she is on the Children’s Health Insurance program (CHIP), her coverage will end at 19. Before your child’s birthday arrives, check with your state’s social services agency. (That’s your go-to resource for Medicaid info, too.) Whatever your situation, you really should force yourself to sit down and read the literature that came with your plan, as well as any notices you receive. In pre-health-reform days, you often needed to be a detective to find key info. Now, every plan (except for Medicare) has to come with a summary of benefits and coverage that lays out all of the details. If you get your health insurance through an employer, ask your human-resources department for a copy. If you get your insurance through a state health-insurance marketplace, you can find a copy online.

    A version of this article appeared in the January 2015 issue of ShopSmart magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Hot cars: A deadly danger that can happen to anyone

    On average, 37 children die of heat stroke each year after being left in a hot car, according to KidsAndCars.org. While it may be hard to imagine, many deaths have occurred when over-stressed parents forgot that their children were in the backseat.

    These hot-car tragedies often occur when there is a change in driver's routine, stress, or a sleeping baby in the back and a parent or caregiver forgets that a child is in the car. Some knowingly leave children "just for a minute" not realizing how quickly the temperature in a car can rise to dangerous levels. Even if it is only 70 degrees outside, a car can quickly heat to more than 120 degrees. Jennifer Stockburger, Consumer Reports' Director of Operations at our Auto Test Center, says that researchers are working on devices such as weight sensors or heartbeat monitors to detect the presence of a child in the backseat, but nothing currently exists to warn the driver that a child has been left behind.

    Here are some tips to help avert a heartbreaking catastrophe and make sure no child is left behind in a vehicle.

    • Simple rule: Never leave a child unattended in a vehicle, not even for a minute. In addition to being dangerous, it is against the law in many states.
    • Set up cell-phone reminders for yourself to be sure you’ve gotten the children safely to their destination.
    • Check the car to make sure that all occupants leave the vehicle or are carried out when unloading. If you lock the door with a key, rather than with a remote, it would force that one last look in the car before leaving it.
    • Always lock your car and keep keys and remotes away from children.
    • To serve as a reminder, keep a stuffed animal on the front passenger seat when carrying a child in the backseat.
    • Place something in the backseat that you would need, such as a purse, briefcase or cell phone.
    • Have a plan that your childcare provider will call you if your child does not show up.
    • If you see a child alone in a car, especially if they seem hot, call 911 immediately to help get them out.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    College debit and prepaid cards need tougher standards

    It’s high school graduation season, and millions of freshly minted grads will start college in a few months or so. Most of these students will receive federal aid to help pay for the hefty cost of school. A growing number of colleges are offering their students debit and prepaid cards for receiving their federal aid under marketing agreements with banks and other companies.

    But some students who use these accounts are getting hit with unreasonably high fees, and they're losing their federal student aid funds as a result. Too often, students are being steered to these cards without clear information about their account options.

    At Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, we believe these campus card agreements need greater scrutiny to make sure students are getting a fair deal. Last year, we issued a report on campus banking products that examined fees, poor disclosures, and other problems with these school-bank partnerships.

    Now the U.S. Department of Education has proposed rules to set tougher standards for these marketing deals and safeguard students from excessive fees.

    The Department of Education estimates that these rules would help protect as many as 9 million college students receiving $25 billion in student aid.

    "It is critically important to ensure that students can freely choose how to receive their federal student aid refunds," said U.S. Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell. "Students need objective, neutral information about their account options. For example, students should be able to choose to receive deposits to their own checking accounts and not be forced to utilize debit cards with obscure and unreasonable fees."

    The Education Department said the rules would prohibit institutions from requiring students or parents to open a certain account into which their credit balances are deposited. Institutions would have to ensure that students have reasonable access to surcharge-free ATMs. Institutions would be required to provide a list of account options that a student may choose from to receive credit balance funds, where each option is presented in a neutral manner and the student’s preexisting bank account is listed as the first, most prominent, and default option. Schools would also have to make their campus banking contracts public.

    We believe these rules will help provide greater accountability that has been lacking for too long around these school-bank partnerships. We applaud this strong first step by the Education Department and urge the agency to protect all students from being steered into accounts with harmful fees that eat into their financial aid dollars.

    You can submit comments on the proposed regulations until July 2 by selecting the Department of Education’s "Program Integrity and Improvement" package at www.regulations.gov.

    This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

    Read other installments of our Policy & Action feature.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Why is customer service so bad?

    Talk about infuriating. More than half of Americans storm out of a store or without making a purchase or hang up the phone without resolving their problem because of poor customer service.  

    There's no disputing that finding help can be a nightmare. We've all battled companies at one time or another over erroneous bills, mysterious fees, faulty products they refuse to fix, and lost hotel reservations. When Consumer Reports conducted its first major customer service project several years ago, respondents complained most about the difficulty of getting through to a live person, endless waits on hold, dealing with ill-mannered, uninformed, and unapologetic in-store salespeople, and a lack of help, period.  

    How you can make a difference

    We're kicking off an even bigger study on the customer-service conundrum, and want you to help empower other consumers. Please see the survey below.

    For our upcoming report, we want to hear about your biggest customer service success stories—seemingly hopeless experiences and situations that had a positive outcome because you refused to take "no" for an answer. Please be as detailed as possible and share the tactics, techniques, and strategies that proved effective.

    In the meantime, keep fighting the good fight. You're not powerless. Consumers have tools to express themselves. Internet forums can turn one person's headache into a corporate nightmare. Companies actively patrol social-networking sites to monitor what's being said about them—and often respond to a concern before it goes viral. Twitter has become the go-to brand for customer support. 

    Learn why customer service increasingly means self-service. And check out our advice on how to rattle a company's cage when things go wrong.

    Other tips:

    • Though few companies post their toll-free numbers on all of their web pages, more and more offer live chats with agents. It's faster and more efficient than e-mail because you can have a clear dialogue. Be sure to print out a transcript of the conversation before signing off.
    • User communities within a firm's site are a sure-fire way to catch a company's eye. You can post questions, comments, and air grievances about products and services. Often, a representative will join the discussion.
    • Bypass automated phone menus. Check out websites such as DialAHuman and GetHuman, which list hard-to-find customer service numbers and advise how to bypass automated prompts to get a live person. 
    • Give praise. Thank a company for a good outcome, especially if you've griped publicly. That way, you won't be branded a whiner.

    —Tod Marks

     

     

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How do we smartly limit smartphone use when driving?

    Want to feel less safe when behind the wheel? Let your mind chew on these stats from an AT&T survey released earlier this week on smartphone use while driving: 61 percent of drivers admit to texting when driving, 33 percent check email, 27 percent use Facebook, and 14 percent are on Twitter.

    No one disputes the danger. Actively picking up your phone, reading and typing on the small screen while looking away from the road dramatically increases the risk of a crash. Scores of safety campaigns, including AT&T’s AT&T's Can Wait initiative, have driven this point home. Yet people still drive and pick up their phone.

    This is not just people stealing quick glances at the phone to read a text. While the survey did not distinguish between using the phone when stopped at a stop sign or traffic light and actually driving, it turns out 43 percent of the people texting are actively typing away.

    Check our guide to distracted driving.

    Given the high rate of smartphone use when driving, abstinence-based messages alone just aren’t enough. Ray LaHood, the former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, preached to lock the phone away when driving. That’s not happening. From the AT&T survey, only 5 percent of drivers put the phone in a closed console compartment or trunk.

    So where is the phone? The press release notes, “Other unsettling findings include: 62 percent keep their phone in easy reach while driving.” Easy reach is defined as having the phone in the cup holder (36 percent) or on the front passenger seat (12 percent). But that doesn’t automatically imply texting or social media use. My phone sits there when it’s connected to a car’s USB port or paired via Bluetooth, allowing me to listen to podcasts or my music library.

    Integrating the phone with the car like this is a vital part of improving safety. Pairing your phone’s capability with simplified menus and bigger, higher-mounted screens beats looking in your lap and tapping on a phone’s tiny screen.

    New infotainment systems might be part of the solution. For example, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto have simplified hands-free text messaging systems that work well. These are not free of distraction, and in all likelihood, they will increase cognitive load compared to not texting at all. But when properly designed, such systems can provide a safer alternative to actually picking up the phone.

    The genie is not going back into the bottle—people are going to use their phones when driving. Promoting the safer use of phones, including pairing your phone to a car’s Bluetooth hands-free system or learning how to use your car’s voice commands, is an essential part of the solution.

    Tom Mutchler

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Are you a victim of age discrimination?

    Last fall Ohio-based shoe retailer DSW agreed to pay seven former managers and about 100 other employees a total of $900,000 to settle an age discrimination lawsuit. The Equal Employ­ment Opportunity Commission, the government agency charged with enforcing discrimination laws, had filed on the workers’ behalf after a thorough review lasting more than three years determined that DSW, a company of about 11,000 employees, unfairly fired people over the age of 40 during a “reduction in force.”

    DSW told us that it “unequivocally” denies that it discriminated based on age. “Those difficult decisions were driven by economic volatility and were in no way influenced by the age of associates,” it told us in a statement.

    Although American corporations by and large try to avoid even the appearance of age discrimination, there has been an uptick in the number of people who feel they have experienced it. Complaints filed with the EEOC under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act have increased about 30 percent since 1997, probably due in part to recession-induced downsizing and an aging workforce, says Diane Smason, a supervisory trial attorney in the Chicago EEOC office who worked on the DSW case. But feeling like a victim, knowing for sure that you were, and being able to prove you lost your main financial asset—your job—unfairly are three very different things.

    Federal law protects workers and job applicants 40 and older from age-based discrimination in decisions about hiring, firing, layoffs, pay, benefits, promotions, and other conditions of employment at companies with more than 20 employees. That doesn’t mean you can’t be fired, only that your age alone can’t be the reason. The onus is on you to prove that it was, and that your dismissal wasn’t a result of poor performance or a legitimate business reason.

    Direct proof is best, such as an internal memo that says something like “We need to fire Smith because he’s over the hill.” However, employers who fire people because of their age generally know not to put such sentiments in writing, says Chris D’Angelo, a New York City unemployment law attorney.

    So if you suspect you are the victim of age discrimination, you’ll have to accumulate other evidence, says Jay Levy, a Miami attorney who specializes in employment and commercial law. Say you’re a 55-year-old employee who’s fired but replaced with a younger worker. You’ll have to prove the company did not have a legitimate business reason to fire you; for example, the new hire did not have new or additional skills the company needed.

    Companies have other responsibilities, too. In cases where a layoff involves two or more people asked to sign a severance agreement, the company must provide the soon-to-be-ex employees information about the job classification and age of employees selected and not selected for the layoff. That information can be statistically analyzed by a lawyer representing you to see whether it had a disparate impact on older workers.

    If you want to pursue a claim, you must submit a complaint with the EEOC, generally within 180 days of the date you were aware the discrimination took place. Its site can help you find the office nearest you.

    The EEOC often tries to settle the matter through mediation. Before mediation begins, decide what you would like, such as reinstatement, unpaid income, insurance benefits, and so on.

    If mediation is not successful, the EEOC will investigate the matter, and if it decides there is reasonable cause to believe discrimination occurred, it will attempt to settle the matter again. If that fails, it can take legal action on your behalf. Although that is what happened in the DSW case, the agency litigates an extremely small percentage of the charges it receives.

    If the EEOC does not come to any conclusion after six months, you can request a right-to-sue letter from the agency, ask for any information it uncovered in its investigation, and proceed with a lawsuit if you wish.

    To pursue a legal case, talk to an attorney in your state about the merits of your claim, suggests Bradley Areheart, an associate law professor at the University of Tennessee. You can find an attorney who specializes in employment law through the National Employment Lawyers Association or your state bar association.

    ––Mandy Walker (@MandyWalker on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How to check for bed bugs in hotels

    Q. I’ll be staying in hotels this summer. How can I check for bed bugs?

    A. To avoid the tiny bloodsuckers—which hide in hotel mattresses, box springs, and upholstered furniture—put your luggage in the bathroom and inspect bedding and furniture before you unpack.

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency points out it can be helpful to use a flashlight to spot signs of bed bugs, but adults, nymphs, and eggs are all visible to the naked eye.

    Learn about safer head lice treatment, and how to protect yourself from mosquitoes and ticks.  

    If you see evidence of the bugs—including reddish, rust-colored stains on sheets or mattresses (from the bugs being crushed), shed skins, or dried blood—ask for a new room that is not next to the infested one. If all is clear, play it safe and keep your suitcase on a luggage rack and your belongings off the bed and upholstered furniture.

    Back home, kill any unwanted hitchhikers by tumbling your travel clothes in a hot dryer for 30 minutes (simply washing the clothes usually won't kill bed bugs). Store emptied luggage in the garage, the basement, or a hot attic (temperatures above 120° F kill bedbugs).

    This article appeared in the June 2015 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Help! I think my dentist overdoes it on X-rays

    Q. The surprising dangers of CT scans and X-rays" led me to review the schedule of my own dental X-rays. On a recent visit I declined them, and the office manager said that I couldn’t have my teeth cleaned because it’s against the law for them to treat me. (The Georgia Dental Association told me that it’s not against the law, but that the dentist has the right to not treat me.) I want a dentist who will treat me without frequent X-rays. Any advice?—P.B., via e-mail


    A. If you’re otherwise happy with your current dentist, talk with him or her first, says Jay W. Friedman, D.D.S., M.P.H., a consumer health care advocate and dental adviser to Consumer Reports. Share your concerns and underscore the fact that the American Dental Association (ADA) doesn’t recommend X-rays at every visit. (You can also offer to sign a waiver on the X-rays.) If the dentist insists, you should look for another one who’s sympathetic to your concerns. The ADA’s list, at mouthhealthy.org, is a good place to start. Finding one shouldn’t be hard: More dentists now take a flexible approach to scheduling X-rays. And ask your new dentist to contact your old one for copies of your prior X-rays.

    Read "The Surprising Dangers of CT Scans and X-rays" and watch our video below.

    Send your questions to ConsumerReports.org/askourexperts.

    This article also appeared in the July 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Do I need to flip my pillow-top mattress?

    Q. I read your most recent mattress reviews with great interest. Some manufacturers put the pillow top only on one side and claim that the mattress doesn’t need flipping. Others put it on both sides and talk about flipping it. Who’s right?—Dave Thomas, Cincinnati


    A.
    If a manufacturer tells you not to flip a mattress, there’s probably a good reason. For one thing, many mattresses today are one-sided; the flip side lacks that comfortable ticking. And there’s more going on below the surface because mattress makers might combine either innersprings and foam or multiple types of foam in layers to provide the optimal sleep surface. They’re designed to provide the correct contouring, support, and even temperature characteristics, so flipping the mattress could lead to premature wear, poor support, and discomfort.

    For more check our mattress buying guide, which includes Ratings of mattresses, brands, and stores, and watch our video below.

    Send your questions to ConsumerReports.org/askourexperts.

    This article also appeared in the July 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Give your car a clean start for summer road trips

    Giving the family chariot a thorough cleaning inside and out is not just a good way to protect your investment, but it’ll make the car a nicer place to be on those long drives to vacation spots. And while you’re going over the whole car closely, chances are you’ll discover other things that might need attention before setting off on that big trip.  

    Freshening the interior


    Start by cleaning out any trash and removing unneeded items, like that ice scraper. Then organize what's left, and stow away items in side pockets or compartments. Leaving things loose not only creates clutter, but items left on seats, the rear shelf, or dashboard can become deadly projectiles in a crash. Once everything is tucked away, use a mild cleaning spray and a microfiber cloth to remove dust and grime off the dash and plastic surfaces.

    Next, use a vacuum to remove debris and dirt from the seats, floor mats, rugs, and trunk. A rented steam cleaner works well for deep cleaning stains, but those can get expensive. Try a household spray-on carpet cleaner first. For leather trim, use a leather cleaner. Clean the inside of windows with glass cleaner, but spray directly onto your cloth to avoid streaking.

    Restoring the exterior shine

    First, move into the shade. Never wash or wax a car in direct sunlight, or if the paint is hot to the touch. Bright sun can soften the paint and make it more susceptible to scratching. And don't use dish detergent on your car. Use a dedicated car-wash soap designed for use on automotive paint. Fill a bucket with plenty of water, and apply the suds with a clean natural sponge or a lamb's-wool mitt. Remember: Grit from a dirty sponge or rag can scratch the paint. Start from the top and work your way down, changing the water when it becomes dirty. Use a separate sponge for the tires and wheels. They're likely the grimiest part of your car, and you don't want to harm the finish by recycling road grunge. Don't let the car air dry when done—use a soft, clean towel to dry.

    Waxing a car can provide a good shine and additional protection for the paint. Car waxes come in three forms: liquid, paste, and spray. Overall, we have found in our tests that paste waxes are easier to use than liquid waxes; liquid waxes cleaned the best; and spray waxes were easiest to use and left the fewest stains on plastic parts, but they didn't last as long as other waxes. Whichever wax you choose, we recommend you first try using it on an inconspicuous area, such as a clean doorjamb. And regardless of how hard you work, how much you spend, or what longevity claims manufacturers make, don't expect any wax to last all that long. All of the waxes we tested showed a significant loss of protection within about five weeks. (See our car wax buying guide.)

    If there are significant scratches in your paint, think twice before trying to repair them yourself using a scratch repair pen. Our tests have shown good results are more difficult to achieve than TV commercials suggest.

    But, we have found some exterior trim cleaners that can spruce up your plastic trim and brighten your bumpers. As with car wax, routine treatment will be necessary to keep these areas looking sharp all year.

    Maintenance checks

    Spring is also a great time to check your windshield wipers for wear and tear after battling snow and ice. If they're leaving streaks or missing parts of the windshield, it's probably time for new blades. Our tests have found that most blades are ready for replacement by just six months, but you can try extending their service life by wiping them with a cloth and glass cleaner before removing them. (See our windshield wiper buying advice.)

    The winter months can also be tough on tires. If yours have less than 4/32-inch of tread left, then it's time to go shopping. You can easily check tread depth by inserting a quarter into a tire's deepest grooves, head pointing down. If you can see the top of George Washington's head, that means you have 1/8 of tread or less, and it's time to start shopping for new rubber. (See our tire buying advice and ratings.)

    In addition, check to make sure the tires are properly inflated. In our tests, we noticed a decrease in highway fuel efficiency when tires were underinflated by 10 psi. More important, underinflated tires compromise handling and braking, and wear faster.

    Under hood, clean engine parts with plain soap and water or with a commercial degreasing product, like Gunk. Be careful, though, not to get electrical connections wet. Be particularly attentive to keeping water away from the fuse box, cable junctions, and the large electrical connectors near the firewall.

    If the battery terminals are growing white encrusted fuzz, clean the battery with a damp rag soaked with a solution of water and baking soda. Use a stiff toothbrush dipped in the baking-soda solution for the tough parts. (Wear eye protection and gloves when working around the battery.) You can then coat the terminals with a dielectric (non-conducting) protective grease, and spray the outside of the battery with a clear sealer. Both these products are available at auto-parts stores.

    Summer can be harder on your battery than winter, due to the impact on temperature on the chemicals. Have the battery tested, and be proactive in buying a replacement. (See our car battery buying advice and ratings.)

    For more on maintaining your car inside and out, see our guide to car maintenance and our guide to car repair.

Also read: How to give your old car new life

    —Jim Travers

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Best deals on American cars for Memorial Day 2015

    Memorial Day weekend may be known for commemorating fallen heroes, barbecues, parades, and road trips, but it can also be a great time to buy a new car. The advertising blitz now underway is broadcasting dramatic savings through cut-rate financing, customer rebates, and subvented lease deals (which are sweetened by the manufacturer). There are so many promotional fireworks that it can be overwhelming.

    To identify standout deals, our analysts have focused on nationwide discounts that point to notable available savings below sticker price. In the holiday spirit, we’re spotlighting just American-made models.

    Calling a vehicle "American" is becoming increasingly difficult, with the Chrysler 300 built in Canada and the Ford Focus sourced from Mexico. Meanwhile, BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Infiniti, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Subaru, Toyota, Volkswagen, and other brands have been manufacturing stateside for years. Making a patriotic car purchase can mean targeting models made in the United States, those offered by domestic brands, or potentially both. If buying "Made in the USA" is a goal, be sure to check the window sticker on the specific model you are considering.

    All the cars listed below are 2015 models, shown in alphabetical order. Specific pricing details on these and other trim variations are available on the model pages, along with complete road tests, reliability, owner cost, and other key information. We did find numerous other models with tempting deals, although some cars with big cash on the hood come up short in Consumer Reports testing underscoring the need for shoppers to do their research.

    Also, check our Best New Car Deals, updated monthly, that lists features in only those models that earn a Consumer Reports recommendation, factoring road test score, reliability, and safety.

    See our special feature "What makes a car 'American'?"

    Jeff Bartlett with Todd Young

    Consumer Reports Build & Buy Car Buying Service

    When buying a car, in addition to research and reviews, Consumer Reports offers subscribers access to the Build & Buy Car Buying Service at no additional cost. Through this service, a nationwide network of about 10,000 participating dealers provide upfront pricing information and a certificate to receive guaranteed savings off MSRP (in most states). The pricing information and guaranteed savings includes eligible incentives. Consumer Reports subscribers have saved an average of $2,919 off MSRP with the Build & Buy Car Buying Service.

    Buick Enclave

    Even after six years on the market, the large Enclave remains a competitive three-row SUV. We liked its firm, comfortable, and quiet ride and its agile, secure handling. But like its corporate cousins, the Chevrolet Traverse and GMC Acadia, this Michigan-made crossover is beginning to show its age. The 3.6-liter V6 engine and six-speed automatic are smooth and powerful enough, but at times they work hard in this large SUV, and its 15-mpg overall is paltry. A big plus is the ability to fit adults in the roomy third row. Fit and finish is impressive, and for 2015 forward-collision and lane-departure warning systems are available.

    Make & model Incentives expire MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Buick Enclave Premium AWD 6/1/15 $50,230 $48,751 $5,229

    Chevrolet Malibu

    More than a humdrum midsized sedan, the Malibu has a comfortable ride and a well-finished and exceptionally quiet interior that set it apart. Handling is sound, if a little soggy at its limits. A 2.5-liter four-cylinder with an unobtrusive start/stop system, paired with a six-speed automatic, is standard. The uplevel 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder delivers plentiful power and gets 24-mpg. Controls are straightforward to use. The wide, soft front seats lack support on long trips, and the backseat is cramped. But trunk room is sufficient, even in the hybrid. Changes for 2015 include a standard built-in Wi-Fi hot spot with three months of complimentary data. The current Malibu is made in both Kansas and Michigan. A redesigned Malibu goes on sale in the fall, with the promise to address some shortcomings. Expect deals to continue on the soon-to-be retired sedan.

    Make & model Incentives expire MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Chevrolet Malibu 2LT 6/1/15 $26,420 $25,780 $2,268

    Chevrolet Silverado 1500

    The Silverado and similar GMC Sierra are among our top-scoring pickups. Their strengths include responsive handling and a cabin as quiet as a luxury car's and more spacious. Cabin access is easy, controls simple, and towing and payload capacities generous. Fuel economy from the 5.3-liter V8 crew cab we tested was an exceptional 16-mpg overall, but the truck feels sluggish. Other engines include a 4.3-liter V6 and powerful 6.2-liter V8. The truck's few shortcomings include a jittery ride and front seats that aren't as supportive as those in some competitors. Standard and extended-cab Silverado 1500s are built in Indiana, while the crew cab configurations are assembled in Mexico and Michigan.

    Make & model Incentives expire MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Chevrolet Silverado 1500 Regular Cab, 4WD 1LT 6/1/15 $36,820 $35,034 $3,319

    Chrysler 200

    Redesigned for 2015, the Michigan-made 200 is well-equipped but is downrated for its mediocre ride and handling qualities. Engine choices are a fairly polished 3.6-liter, 295-hp V6 or an underwhelming 184-hp, 2.4-liter four cylinder that returned a very good 30-mpg overall. Both are paired with a nine-speed automatic that is neither smooth nor responsive. The V6 can be had with all-wheel drive. The center console includes a charging station and a rotating knob instead of a conventional gear selector. The cabin is quiet, but handling is clumsy and the ride is rough and unsettled. Available safety features include forward-collision and lane-departure warnings, and self-parking. 

    Make & model Incentives expire MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Chrysler 200 S 6/1/15 $26,165 $25,645 $2,755

    Ford Escape

    The Kentucky-built Ford Escape has a solid feel and drives very well, with agile and sporty handling and a composed ride. The cabin is very quiet for the class, but many of the controls are needlessly complicated, especially if you get the optional MyFord Touch system. The driver's footwell is a bit narrow, and the base-level cloth seats provide just mediocre support and comfort. The optional leather seats are better shaped. The rest of the interior is roomy enough. Most models have a 1.6-liter turbo four-cylinder; uplevel models use a stronger and quieter 2.0-liter turbo. Both got 22-mpg overall in our tests. A rearview camera is standard.

    Make & model Incentives expire MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Ford Escape 4WD Titanium 7/6/15 $31,890 $30,513 $2,430

    Ford F-150

    Redesigned for 2015, Ford's big-selling pickup truck has moved to an all-aluminum body, which saves about 700 pounds. Powertrain choices include a 3.5-liter V6, 2.7- or 3.5-liter turbo V6s, and a 5.0-liter V8, each paired with a six-speed automatic. Our F-150 with the 3.5-liter V6 delivers abundant power, and even the 2.7-liter is no slouch. In early testing we found the 2.7 gets 17 mpg overall, one mpg better than the turbo 3.5. The 2.7 is also slightly quicker in the 0-to-60 mph sprint. The cabin is very quiet, but the ride is a bit jittery. New safety offerings include lane-departure warning and blind-spot detection. Other notable features include a 360-degree-view camera and integrated loading ramps. The F-150 is manufactured in Dearborn, Michigan, and Claycomo, Missouri.

    Make & model Incentives expire MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Ford F-150 SuperCab XLT 4WD 7/6/15 $38,590 $36,009 $2,622

    Ford Taurus

    The Chicago-sourced Taurus puts styling ahead of interior comfort and driver visibility, and the convoluted MyFord Touch control system doesn't help matters. Fuel economy from the 3.5-liter V6 is 21 mpg. The six-speed automatic can be slow to shift and is not very smooth. A more fuel-efficient turbo four-cylinder is available. Otherwise, the Taurus is quiet, rides comfortably, and has lots of features. Handling is responsive but not sporty, and the turning circle is wide. The SHO, with standard AWD, is quick but not engaging to drive. A rearview camera is standard. 

    Make & model Incentives expire MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
     Ford Taurus SE 7/6/15 $27,880 $26,385 $3,812

    Hyundai Sonata

    The Sonata is a competitive but ho-hum sedan with a quiet cabin, a comfortable ride, and good rear-seat room and access. Handling for this Alabama-built sedan is sound and responsive enough. But the SE we tested had lackluster tire grip, affecting braking and emergency handling. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder returned 28-mpg overall in our tests; a 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder is optional. Both engines are mated to a six-speed automatic. The Eco features a 1.6-liter turbo four-cylinder paired with a seven-speed dual-clutch. Controls are easy to reach and simple to use. Safety features include forward-collision mitigation, lane-departure warning, and blind-spot detection. A hybrid version arrives in June. 

    Make & model Incentives expire MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Hyundai Sonata Limited 6/1/15 $27,350 $26,181 $3,046

    Nissan Pathfinder

    This Tennessee-built midsized SUV has seating for up to seven, but the second row's posture is not ideal and the third-row seat is tight. The 3.5-liter V6 and CVT delivered respectable acceleration and 18-mpg overall in our tests. The ride is comfortable enough, but handling lacks agility. Towing capability is competitive at 5,000-pounds. The cabin is quiet and spacious, the controls are fairly easy to master, and the passenger-side rear seat can be moved forward with a child seat installed. Updates for 2015 include available blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert.

    Make & model Incentives expire MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Nissan Pathfinder SL 4WD 6/1/15 $38,635 $36,317 $2,052

    Ram 1500

    The Ram is the most comfortable-riding full-sized pickup on the market, yet it's plenty capable of grunt work. Its coil-spring rear suspension helps cushion the ride, and the spacious cab is luxury-car quiet. Our Big Horn Crew Cab, with its smooth 5.7-liter V8, averaged 15-mpg. The base 3.6-liter V6 is no weakling, but it tows less. The torquey 3.0-liter diesel V6 version is expensive but delivers effortless thrust and returns a class-leading 20 mpg overall. Rear-seat room is generous, and the Uconnect 8.4-inch touch screen infotainment system is easy to use. The Ram 1500 is built in Warren, Michigan, with regular cab trucks built in Saltillo, Mexico.

    Make & model Incentives expire MSRP Invoice Potential savings off MSRP
    Ram 1500 Sport, Regular Cab, 4X4 6/1/15 $40,530 $37,224 $3,180

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Everything you need to know about the Takata airbag recall

    About 33.8 million vehicles, made by 11 different automakers, have been recalled to replace frontal airbags on the driver’s side or passenger’s side, or both. The airbags, made by major parts supplier Takata, were installed in cars from model year 2002 through 2008. Some of those airbags could deploy explosively, injuring or even killing car occupants. (Look for details below on waits for replacement airbags and why other suppliers can't supply airbags.)

    The different automakers’ notices to their customers have varied, depending on how many Takata airbags they installed and how long they believe it will take them to acquire replacements if they don’t have enough on hand. To provide guidance to car owners, we spoke with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Takata, and most carmakers.

    Nissan’s explanation of the issue was one of the clearest: “The propellant could potentially deteriorate over time due to environmental factors [due to many years in high humidity conditions], which could lead to over-aggressive combustion in the event of an airbag deployment. This could create excessive internal pressure within the inflator and could cause the inflator housing to rupture.”

    If the airbag housing ruptures in a crash, metal shards from the airbag can be sprayed throughout the passenger cabin—a potentially disastrous outcome from a supposedly life-saving device.

    Visit our guide to car safety.

    May 19, 2015: DOT released a statement saying that Takata acknowledges airbag inflators it produced for certain vehicles were faulty. It expanded certain regional recalls to national ones, and included inflators fitted in certain Daimler Trucks in the recalled vehicles. In all, the recall was expanded to a staggering 33.8 million vehicles. That number includes the roughtly 17 million vehicles previously recalled by affected automakers.

    February 20, 2015: NHTSA fined Takata $14,000 per day for not cooperating fully with the agency's investigation into the airbag problems.

    January 18, 2015: The driver of a 2002 Honda Accord became the fifth person in the United States thought to have been killed by an exploding airbag inflator.

    December 18, 2014: Ford issued a statement adding an additional 447,310 vehicles to the recall.

    December 9, 2014: Honda issued a statement saying it will comply with NHTSA and expand its recall to a national level. This brings the number of affected Honda/Acura vehicles to 5.4 million.

    November 18, 2014: NHTSA called for the recalls to be expanded to a national level.

    November 7, 2014: New York Times published a report claiming Takata was aware of dangerous defects with its airbags years before the company filed paperwork with federal regulators.

    Six fatalities and more than 100 injuries have been linked to the Takata airbags, and in some cases the incidents were horrific, with metal shards penetrating a driver’s face and neck. As awful as they are, such incidents are very rare, and it doesn’t mean that airbags in general are a danger. The Department of Transportation estimates that between 1987 and 2012, frontal airbags have saved 37,000 lives.

    Based on information provided by Takata and acting under a special campaign by NHTSA, the involved automakers are responding to this safety risk by recalling all vehicles that have these specific airbags. While the automakers are prioritizing resources by focusing on high-humidity areas, they shouldn’t stop there. We encourage a national approach to the risks, as vehicles tend to travel across state borders, especially in the secondary market.

    How do I know whether my car is affected by the recall?

    There are several ways to check whether your car is affected. For most methods, you’ll need your vehicle identification number. You'll find the VIN in the lower driver-side corner of the windshield (observable from outside the vehicle), as well as on your registration and insurance documents. Punch that number into NHTSA’s online VIN-lookup tool. If your vehicle is affected, the site will tell you so. NHTSA also has a list of vehicles available for a quick review, and the manufacturers have ownership sections of their websites for such information.

    Acura Lexus
    BMW Mazda
    Chrysler Mitsubishi (Registration req'd)
    Dodge Nissan
    Ford Subaru
    General Motors (includes Pontiac, Saab) Toyota
    Honda  
    Infiniti NHTSA VIN lookup tool

    What is taking so long for my airbag to arrive?

    Many affected owners are learning that it may take weeks or months for their replacement airbags to arrive. Takata’s assembly lines are at maximum capacity, but according to a recent Automotive News report, even with the higher production rate, it could still take as long as two years to build replacement airbags in the initial 10 million recalled vehicles. With the recalled vehicles now numbering more than 30 million, it will take years, even as other suppliers race to support this initiative.

    Why can’t other suppliers step in to fill the gaps?

    According to the Automotive News report, other suppliers are capable of assisting in production, but it is not as simple as merely switching over assembly lines to the Takata design.

    For one, the Takata airbag design differs from the ones constructed by rival suppliers. Steve Fredin, president of Autoliv Americas, told Automotive News that an Autoliv-produced, Takata-designed airbag would require testing to ensure that it is safe. That would add months to the process.

    More constraining is the maxed-out production capacity at airbag suppliers. Fredin said that the supplier would have to build an entirely new production facility to help Takata meet the demand of this massive recall—all while still being able to fill ongoing new-vehicle airbag contracts. Such a facility would take 10 to 12 months to construct. Autoliv also wants assurances that such a major capital expenditure would be covered, either by the government or by future airbag-contract guarantees. Those negotiations will take time as well.

    How important is that I respond to the recall?

    All recalls, by definition, are concerned with safety and should be treated seriously. As with all recalls, we recommend having the work performed as soon as parts are available and the service can be scheduled.

    Does it matter where I live?

    According to NHTSA, yes. The Takata inflators seem to be vulnerable to persistent high humidity and high temperature conditions, such as in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, the Gulf Coast states, Hawaii, and island territories.

    How are repairs being prioritized?

    Automakers are getting the replacement parts as fast as they can, and most are sending them to the high-humidity areas first. Northern and less-humid areas might need to wait longer for parts availability, depending on the brand. Contact your dealership to learn how soon the work can be performed.

    What if I spend only a certain part of the year in a humid climate?  

    People who travel to the higher-risk areas in times of low humidity (such as snowbirds) are not at the same level of risk as those who live in those areas year-round, according to NHTSA.

    Are the airbags in my car definitely defective?

    It is by no means certain that the airbags in every recalled vehicle are defective. Since 2002 only a very small number of nearly 8 million cars have been involved in these incidents. Still, Takata has told the automakers that a range of manufacturing dates could potentially be defective, and the automakers have recalled certain vehicles and model years out of caution. At this point it looks like there’s no way to be sure whether the potential defects are confined to small batches that weren’t assembled right or to large numbers. Since sustained high humidity is thought to exacerbate the problem, regions of high humidity are the primary focus for recalls right now.  

    I’m worried about driving, what should I do until the fix is made?

    If the recall on your car involves only the front passenger-side airbag, then don’t let anyone sit in that seat. But if you use the VIN-lookup tool and it says that the problem involves the driver’s side, you should do what you can to minimize your risk. If possible, consider:

    • Minimizing your driving.
    • Carpooling with someone whose vehicle is not affected by the recall.
    • Utilizing public transportation.
    • Renting a car.

    Renting a car until yours is repaired can prove expensive and ultimately might not be the ideal solution. Asking your dealer whether they will provide one, or a loaner vehicle might be worth a try if it accomplishes nothing else than putting some pressure on the manufacturer. If you do get a rental car, as with any new vehicle or rental, take some time to familiarize yourself with its operation before driving.

    What about shutting off airbags until the replacement parts arrive?

    Right now only Toyota is recommending this course of action. Each brand is handling the recall in a slightly different manner. Consumer Reports has concerns about the recommendation from a safety standpoint.

    Why can’t my dealer just use another supplier’s airbag if the Takata replacement is available?

    The recalled airbags were designed specifically for your car, including being sized for the specific packaging, calibrated for the automaker’s performance parameters, and engineered to mate with the car’s sensors and software. There is no handy, off-the-shelf alternative. Besides that, we are told by supply-chain experts that there is very little excess factory capacity and tooling anywhere that could be pressed into service quickly to make these specific parts.

    In 2012, NHTSA issued a warning to alert consumers to the presence of counterfeit airbags in the market. Some recalled airbags are on this counterfeit watch list. Owner of those affected vehicles are advised to work with an authorized dealer to avoid this kind of situation. Some dealers may refuse to work on an airbag they deem to be counterfeit, to avoid putting their technicians in danger. If put in that situation, affected consumers should ask to speak to the automaker’s regional service manager or technical adviser for assistance.

    Should I expect to pay any money to get the recall fix?

    While the airbag itself and all the necessary parts that require are free under the recall fix, the customer might have to pay for replacement parts damaged while performing the recall work. Parts such as the airbag clock spring or plastic trim pieces, are fragile due to environmental factors during the life of the car, and damage may not be covered by the recall. The vehicle owner should check with dealer’s service advisor when dropping off the car to see what costs are covered and which are not.

    Affected owners in Florida, Hawaii, or Puerto Rico have been prioritized in this recall and will receive parts first. If you live in these regions, make sure to contact your local BMW dealer immediately to schedule an appointment to have your front passenger airbag replaced. The driver’s airbag is not included in the BMW recall. BMW recommends that no one sit in the front passenger seat until that airbag is replaced.

    Recalled cars:

    Driver's side only in humid states (Florida, Puerto Rico and Hawaii) (14V-348)

    2004-2006 BMW 325Ci

    2004-2006 BMW 325i

    2004-2005 BMW 325Xi

    2004-2006 BMW 330Ci

    2004-2006 BMW 330i

    2004-2005 BMW 330Xi

    2004-2006 BMW M3


    Passenger side front airbag (13V-172), plus driver's airbag on models with the and Sports Package steering wheel shown in photo.

    2000 - 2005 3 Series Sedan

    2000 - 2006 3 Series Coupe

    2000 - 2005 3 Series Sports Wagon

    2000 - 2006 3 Series Convertible

    2001 - 2006 M3 Coupe

    2001 - 2006 M3 Convertible

    Chrysler is going to replace the airbag in cars based in Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It is currently working on accumulating a supply of replacement parts, and is contacting customers as they become available.

    Chrysler stresses that its vehicles are equipped with inflators that differ from other vehicles. The American automaker is saying that these inflators are not faulty.

    Recalled cars:

    Chrysler:

    2005-2007 Chrysler 300 - Driver’s side airbag

    2007 Chrysler Aspen - Driver’s side airbag

     

    Dodge:

    2005-2007 Dodge Charger - Driver’s side airbag

    2005-2007 Dodge Dakota - Driver’s side airbag

    2004-2007 Dodge Durango - Driver’s side airbag

    2005-2007 Dodge Magnum - Driver’s side airbag

    2004-2007 Dodge Ram 1500 - Driver’s side airbag

    2005-2007 Dodge Ram 2500 - Driver’s side airbag

    2006-2007 Dodge Ram 3500 - Driver’s side airbag

    2005 Dodge Dakota - Passenger side airbag

    2005 Dodge Magnum - Passenger side airbag

    2003-2005 Ram Pickup - Passenger side airbag

    Contact your local Ford dealer to schedule an appointment to have the airbag replaced in affected vehicles. Ford states that it has not seen any issues in its vehicles, but under advisement from NHTSA, and with information from Takata, the company is recalling specific vehicles, including the 2004 Ford Ranger and 2005-2007 Mustang.

    Following the recall of an additional 447,310 vehicles Ford is now in compliance with NHTSA's call for a nationwide recall. The total number of Ford vehicles affected by this recall is 538,977.

    Recalled cars:

    2004 - 2005 Ranger - Driver’s and/or passenger side airbag

    2005 - 2006 GT - Driver’s and/or passenger side airbag

    2005 - 2008 Mustang - Driver’s side airbag

    Double check that your vehicle is actually involved. It was first announced that many Buicks, Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles were affected by the recall. It turns out that was an error in reporting by NHTSA. Most of those vehicles were part of an unrelated recall years ago.

    Interestingly, the two remaining vehicles were actually produced by other automakers and rebranded under former GM makes: the 2003-2005 Pontiac Vibe (built alongside the Toyota Matrix) and the 2005 Saab 9-2x (a Subaru-built vehicle rebranded as a Saab). Both vehicles should be taken to a current GM dealership for repairs.

    Recalled cars:

    2003 - 2005 Pontiac Vibe - Passenger side

    2005 - Saab 9-2X - Passenger side (Subaru WQM-49)

     

    Honda has the most affected vehicles, with more than five million cars being recalled. If you haven’t already, go to Honda’s recall site and enter your VIN. If your vehicle is included in this recall, the site will provide a description of the problem and instructions on how to proceed.

    If you have a vehicle that was first sold in, or is registered in Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Puerto Rico, or the U.S. Virgin Islands—take immediate action. If you haven’t already received notice in the mail, print out the results of your VIN search and contact your nearest Honda dealer. They have allocated the replacement parts to these high humidity areas and will replace the part once you’ve made an appointment. Honda will be sending notices to other areas on a rolling basis as the parts become available.

    Honda will comply with NHTSA and expand its recall to a national level. This brings the number of affected Honda/Acura vehicles to 5.4 million.

    On January 18, the driver of a 2002 Honda Accord became the fifth person in the United States thought to have been killed by an exploding airbag inflator in a minor two-car collision in Spring, Texas. Although that Accord had been recalled to replace its driver-side airbag inflator in 2011, the recall work was never done, Honda has acknowledged. The driver who was killed had bought the car used less than a year ago and may never have received the recall notice. Consumer Reports urges all car owners to respond right away to safety-defect recalls.

    Recalled cars:

    Acura:

    2003-2006 Acura MDX - Driver’s side airbag

    2002-2003 Acura TL - Driver’s side airbag

    2003 Acura CL - Driver’s side airbag

    2005 - Acura RL - Passenger side


    Honda:

    2001 - 2007 Honda Accord - Driver’s side airbag, 2003 on passenger side, too.

    2001 - 2006 Honda Civic - Driver’s & passenger side airbag

    2002 - 2006 Honda CR-V - Driver’s side airbag

    2003 - 2011 Honda Element - Driver’s side airbag

    2002 - 2004 Honda Odyssey - Driver’s side airbag

    2003 - 2008 Honda Pilot - Driver’s side airbag

    2006 - Honda Ridgeline - Driver’s side airbag

    Mazda has focused its recall on vehicles sold or registered in Florida, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. The automaker will replace the front and/or passenger airbag inflators.

    Recalled cars:

     

    2003 - 2007 Mazda6 - Driver and/or passenger side airbag

    2006 - 2007 MazdaSpeed6 - Driver and/or passenger side airbag

    2004 - 2008 Mazda RX-8 - Driver and/or passenger side airbag

    2004 - 2005 MPV - Driver and/or passenger side airbag

    2004 - B-Series Truck - Driver and/or passenger side airbag

     

    If you see that your car as part of this recall, Mitsubishi advises owners to act immediately in scheduling an appointment to replace it. If the dealer does not have the part yet, they will provide instructions on how best to proceed until the part is available.

    Recalled cars:

    2004 - 2005 Lancer - Passenger side (recall number: 14v-421)

    2006 - 2007 Raider - Driver's side

     

    Nissan has notified owners of affected vehicles to bring their vehicle in for inspection and potential parts replacement. Extra attention is being paid to “some areas” of Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, or the U.S. Virgin Islands. Nissan says they have a sufficient supply of airbags to keep up with demand. Most are covered under recall number: 13V-133.

    Recalled cars:

    Infiniti:

    2003 - 2005 Infiniti FX - Passenger side

    2006 Infiniti M35/M45 - Passenger side  

    2001 - 2004 Infiniti I30/I35 - Passenger side   

    2002 - 2003 Infiniti QX4 - Passenger side  

     

    Nissan:

    2001 - 2003 Nissan Maxima - Passenger side  

    2001 - 2004 Nissan Pathfinder - Passenger side  

    2002 - 2006 Nissan Sentra - Passenger side  

     

     

    Call your local Subaru dealer and schedule an appointment to have the airbag replaced. There is no wait for parts to arrive and no special emphasis on localized climates or regions. Because second owners may not know where the previous owner of their vehicle lived/drove, Subaru does not want to focus on any particular region.

    Recalled cars:

    2003 - 2005 Baja - Passenger side

    2003 - 2005 Legacy - Passenger side

    2003 - 2005 Outback - Passenger side

    2004 - 2005 Impreza (include WRX/STi) - Passenger side

    Immediate action is recommended if your vehicle registered in the coastal areas around the Gulf of Mexico, including Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. Or if the car is in Florida, Puerto Rico, Guam, Saipan, American Samoa, Virgin Islands and Hawaii.

    Toyota will replace the front passenger airbag. If the part is not available, the dealership can disable the front passenger airbag until a replacement part is available, and then recommends that the front passenger seat not be occupied.

    Toyota also says that if you do not follow the instructions in the owner letter to have the work performed, then you should not drive your vehicle.

    If you must use the seat after airbag deactivation, we advise that extra care should be taken to ensure passengers wear a seatbelt.

    Owners outside those areas can likewise contact your Toyota dealer to have them disable the front passenger airbag.

    When the parts become available, owners will be notified by mail to bring their vehicle in for the proper fix.

    Finally, if you are uncomfortable driving your vehicle to the dealership to have the work performed, contact your local Toyota dealer, and they will arrange to have the vehicle picked up. Search recall number: 14V-312.

     

    Recalled cars:

    Lexus:

    2002-2005 Lexus SC - Passenger side  

     

    Toyota:

    2002 - 2005 Toyota Corolla  - Passenger side

    2003 - 2005 Toyota Matrix  - Passenger side  

    2002 - 2005 Toyota Sequoia  - Passenger side

    2003 - 2005 Toyota Tundra - Passenger side

    Car safety

    • Check for recalls on your car

    • The truth about recalls

    Guide to car safety

    Guide to models offering advanced safety features

     

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Should my teen use a credit or debit card?

     

    Q. My 18-year-old daughter is new to banking and credit. She knows to pay off any credit-card balances each month. However, should she carry a debit card? And what are the protections associated with using a credit vs. a debit card?—Phillip Ortiz, Queensbury, NY


    A. If your daughter has shown that she’s able to spend responsibly, you might consider giving her a debit card. The advantage of choosing it over a credit card is that it can limit spending: Funds are immediately withdrawn from her account. (Be sure she doesn’t opt for an overdraft program because that can lead to high fees.) But a debit card has some disadvantages. She won’t be developing a credit history as she would with a credit card. If someone steals the card and makes purchases, she’s out the money until the bank resolves the dispute. And she might incur fees from out-of-network ATMs or for foreign transactions. But debit cards do offer many protections; check with the card issuer.

    For more information check our credit card guide and reviews.

    Send your questions to ConsumerReports.org/askourexperts.

    This article also appeared in the July 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Can antivirus software 'cure' my sick computer?

    Q. If my computer already has a virus, are the antivirus software programs that you recommend good, or is there another way to clean it up?—Charles Jeannel, Los Angeles


    A. Some computer viruses can limit your ability to properly install and run protection software. If you want to try to eliminate existing bugs, we recommend downloading and running the free Malwarebytes Anti-Malware scanner. If necessary, you can download it on another computer, then transfer over the program using a USB flash drive.

    For more on preventing viruses, check our security software buying guide and Ratings and find out how much security software you really need.

    Send your questions to ConsumerReports.org/askourexperts.

    This article also appeared in the July 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    When going OTC is a smart choice—and when it’s not

    You might be tempted to rush to a doctor for a prescription medication when you’re dealing with nagging knee pain, a couple of days and nights of heartburn, or the misery of a migraine. But for certain common ailments, our Consumer ­Reports Best Buy Drugs analysis shows that over-the-counter drugs may be the way to go.

    Some work at least as well as a prescription medication and may cause fewer or less severe side effects. And because many OTC drugs were once prescription-only, they can have a long track record of safety and effectiveness.

    What’s more, OTC drugs can save you the time and cost of an office visit, and may be less expensive, especially if they are available as low-cost generics. In general, if your symptoms are infrequent, mild to moderate, and resolve within a week or so, treating yourself with an OTC drug is a reasonable option. Otherwise, you should see your doctor.

    Allergies

    Rx choices: Steroid sprays mometasone (Nasonex) and ciclesonide (Omnaris).

    OTC options: Steroid nasal sprays fluticasone (Flonase Allergy Relief) and triamcinolone (Nasacort Allergy 24HR).

    Research suggests that nasal steroid sprays are the most effective stand-alone medications. They can reduce congestion, sneez­ing, watery eyes, itchiness around the eyes and nose, and postnasal drip. These two available OTC drugs are just as effective as their prescription versions. (Both were prescription-­only until a year or two ago.)

    When to see a doctor: If you haven’t received an allergy diagnosis, see your doctor. You might be suffering from a cold, the flu, or a sinus infection. It can be difficult to distinguish those conditions from allergies on your own. Also see your doctor if allergy symptoms don’t improve with OTC treatment after two weeks or so. You might need an additional—or a different—drug.

    Prevention pointers: If you can, stay indoors as much as possible on peak allergy days. According to a Consumer Reports National Research Center survey, one-fifth of Americans were "highly satisfied" with the relief they got from avoiding allergy triggers. The respondents also said that when the avoidance strat­egy worked, it was a more effective allergy treatment than OTC drugs.

    Find out which allergy treatment is right for you in our free Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs report on antihistamines.

    Chronic constipation

    Rx choices: The laxative lactulose (Cholac and generic) and lubiprostone (Amitiza).

    OTC options: The laxative polyethylene glycol (MiraLax and generic). MiraLax is just as effective as prescription lactulose for chronic constipation. In addition, it has a long record of safety and is generally well-tolerated. We caution against using OTC stimulant lax­atives such as bisacodyl (Correctol, Dulcolax) and senna (Senokot, Ex-Lax), and their generic equivalents, for more than a few days; they’re less effective than polyethylene glycol and might cause more side effects, such as cramping.

    When to see a doctor: Reasons to schedule an office visit include blood in your stool, having the frequency of your bowel movements drop to less than three per week for at least two weeks, or finding that MiraLax hasn’t helped within one week. You may have another condition, or need a prescription med­ication or other treatment to relieve your constipation and help prevent complications such as hemorrhoids.

    Prevention pointers: Eat more fiber-rich foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and beans (for women older than 50, aim for 21 grams of fiber daily; men, 30 grams). If that doesn’t work, try a daily OTC fiber supplement. Our analysis found that those containing psyllium (Metamucil and generic) are best. And don’t ignore the urge to go. That can lead to irregularity and chronic constipation.

    Heartburn or GERD

    Rx choices: Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) such as dex­lan­so­prazole (Dexilant) and pantoprazole (Protonix and generic).

    OTC options: For occasional heartburn, first try antacids, such as Maalox, Mylanta, Rolaids, and Tums, or acid-reducing H2 blockers, such as famotidine (Pepcid AC and generic) and ranitidine (Zantac 75, Zantac 150, and generic).

    If your doctor has diagnosed GERD—a chronic acid reflux that can lead to esophagus damage—and recommends a PPI, try a generic version of OTC lansoprazole (Prevacid 24HR) or om­eprazole (Prilosec OTC). Research shows that they work just as well as pricier prescription PPIs. Those are also our CR Best Buy picks.

    But don’t take those drugs without a GERD diagnosis from your doctor. And be aware: They are meant to be taken preventively—not for immediate relief—and for a limited time. PPIs can have significant side effects, including a higher risk of pneumonia, a potentially deadly infection, and bone fractures.

    When to see a doctor: If you have heartburn two or more times per week for several weeks or if OTC antacids or H2 blockers don’t provide relief, make that appointment. Tell your doctor if you take antibiotics, blood-thinning drugs such as clopidogrel (Plavix and generic) and warfarin (Coumadin and generic), or anti-anxiety benzodiazepines such as diazepam (Valium and generic). All can interact with PPIs; Plavix in serious ways. PPIs can also increase the effects of diazepam and warfarin.

    Prevention pointers: Keep a food diary to help you pinpoint foods that trigger flare-ups. Try eating smaller meals and avoid lying down for at least 3 hours after eating. Raise the head of your bed by 6 to 8 inches. Losing weight, if you’re overweight, and avoiding alcohol might also help.

    For more detailed information on treating heartburn, GERD, and acid reflux, see our free report, and see our tips for getting relief without drugs

    Insomnia

    Rx choices: Zolpidem (Ambien and generic), eszopiclone (Lunesta), and ramelteon (Rozerem).

    OTC options: Diphenhydramine (Ben­a­dryl Allergy, Nytol, Sominex, and generic) and doxylamine (Unisom and generic). Prescription sleep medications have a long list of potential side effects, including dizziness, unsteadiness, and daytime sleepiness. Sleep-driving, sleep-eating, memory lapses, and hal­lu­ci­na­tions have also been reported. For occasional insomnia, OTC sleeping pills that contain diphenhydramine or doxylamine might help. But don’t use them for more than a night or two because they can cause next-day drowsiness, confusion, constipation, dry mouth, and trouble urinating. Nondrug treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, and our prevention pointers below, are safer.

    When to see a doctor: If you have insomnia three or more nights per week for at least a month, schedule an appointment. Your doctor can help identify the underlying cause, which can include asthma, bladder and prostate problems, fibromyalgia, heartburn, men­o­pause, sleep apnea, and certain drugs. Your doctor may also refer you to a sleep therapist.

    Prevention pointers: Exercise, minimize alcohol and caffeine in the hours before bed, and quit smoking. Turn off electronics 2 hours before bedtime. Keep consistent wake and sleep times. And if you can’t sleep, get out of bed and do something relaxing, such as reading, until trying to catch your zzz’s again.

    Need help getting a good night's sleep? Before considering a sleeping pill, try these approaches.

    Joint pain (osteoarthritis)

    Rx choices: Celecoxib (Cele­brex and generic).

    OTC options: Advil or Motrin IB (and generic ibuprofen), Aleve (and generic naproxen), and Tylenol (and generic acetaminophen). Our analysis shows that nonprescription nonsteroidal anti-­inflammatory drugs such as Advil and Aleve can relieve pain as well as Celebrex. But consider trying acetaminophen first. Pro­longed use of ibuprofen and naproxen can cause serious side effects, including gastro­intestinal bleeding and stomach ulcers. And because of the potential risk to your liver, our recommendation is never to exceed 3,250 milligrams of acetaminophen daily or less. (Tylenol recommends no more than 3,000 milligrams per day for some of its products.)

    When to see a doctor: If you take these drugs for longer than 10 days or the recommended doses on the label don’t bring relief, call your physician.

    Prevention pointers: Stretching, muscle strengthening, physical therapy, and losing excess weight can re­duce discomfort and might eliminate or sharply reduce the need for medication. Ask your doctor or physical therapist to help you develop a safe exercise program.

    Migraine headaches

    Rx choices: Sumatriptan (Imitrex and generic) and rizatriptan (Maxalt and generic).

    OTC options: Advil or Motrin IB (and generic ibuprofen), Aleve (and generic naproxen), and combination products that contain acetaminophen, aspirin, and caffeine (Excedrin Extra Strength, Excedrin Migraine, and generic). Studies have shown that those OTCs can help some migraine sufferers with mild or infrequent pain.

    When to see a doctor: If the OTC drugs don’t work or you need to take them more than once or twice per week, see a physician. Overusing OTC painkillers can cause rebound headaches, leading to pain that can persist and become more frequent over time.

    Your doctor can help determine whether you might need a prescription medication. He or she can also make sure you don’t have another type of headache, one that might require a different treatment.

    Prevention pointers: Keep a diary to help you figure out what triggers your migraines, and avoid those items or situations. Common culprits include alcohol, caffeine, certain kinds of cheese, dehydration, airplane travel, skipping meals, and stress. Biofeedback, acupuncture, massage, and other relaxation strategies might also help prevent migraines from occurring.

    Avoid OTCs for overactive bladder
     
    The Oxytrol for Women patch, available only with a prescription until 2013, is now OTC. But our medical experts caution against treating yourself for an overactive bladder without a diagnosis. Potential side effects of prescription overactive bladder medications, as well as the OTC patch, include dry mouth, constipation, blurred vision, and dizziness. Plus the drugs work only moderately well, reducing bathroom visits by only two to three per day. More important, overactive bladder symptoms can stem from another condition, such as a bladder infection, or result from side effects of medications.

    If you have leakage or frequent, sudden, strong urges to urinate, or urinate so often that it interferes with your life, see a doctor. If the cause is an overactive bladder, before suggesting medication your doctor should recommend bladder training (slowly increasing the time between bathroom trips and using relaxation techniques when you feel urges to go) and Kegel exercises to strengthen the pelvic muscles that help control urination. Other important—and potentially easier—steps are cutting back on caffeine and alcohol, and drinking less between dinner and bedtime.

    Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in Consumer Reports On Health July 2015 newsletter. These materials were made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by a multistate settlement of consumer fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin).

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Thanks to you, mutual fund costs are falling

    The costs of investing in funds are falling, which is unequivocally good news for investors.

    A 2015 study by fund research firm Morningstar concludes that over all types of funds, investors are paying 10 basis points (or one-tenth of a percentage point) less than they were five years ago. The expense ratio—the annual fee that the fund manager charges shareholders to manage their fund—fell to 0.64 in 2014.

    A number of factors are driving that cost downward, not least of which are investors themselves, who are choosing to invest more of their assets in passively managed index funds, which tend to cost less to operate. Nearly $2 trillion flowed into passively managed mutual funds and exchange-traded funds over the past 10 years, nearly twice that of the more expensive actively managed funds, which generally try to outperform an assigned benchmark. 

    Learn how to stop 401(k) fees from cheating you out of retirement money.

    Although the costs of active management are also falling—the average expense ratio for them was 0.79 percent in 2014, according to Morningstar—that's still nearly four times the cost of the 0.20 percent average expense ratio of passively managed funds. And not all funds have lowered their expenses for investors. According to the study, 21 percent of funds (across all share classes) raised their expense ratio over the past five years.

    Chris Horymski

     

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    What's the right size for carry-on luggage?

    In the 2009 film "Up in the Air," George Clooney's character Ryan Bingham extols the virtue of the carry-on, telling Anna Kendrick's Natalie Keener that an airline traveler loses a ton of time by checking a piece of luggage and having to get it from baggage claim: "35 minutes a flight. I travel 270 days a year. That's 157 hours. That makes seven days. You're willing to throw away an entire week on that?"

    Even if you travel a small fraction of the amount that Clooney's frequent-flying corporate hatchet man did, carry-on luggage might still have big appeal to you. Most U.S. airlines don't charge a fee for one carry-on bag, though most do hit you up to check a bag. 

    Where it gets tricky is selecting a carry-on that meets an airline's size restrictions. Use these tips to find carry-on luggage that will measure up.

    For more information, check our luggage buying guide. Also, find out why buying a new carry-on bag can save you money.

    Sizing it up

    When airlines refer to “carry-on luggage” or “carry-on baggage,” they mean the bag that meets size specifications to store it in the overhead bin. 

    Trouble is, there is no such thing as a standard carry-on size. Every U.S. airline has its own rules. The big three—American, Delta, and United/U.S. Airways—have settled on a uniform size (for now). It’s 22 inches high x 9 inches deep x 14 inches wide—these are external dimensions, including wheels and the handle. A few U.S. airlines are more generous with their carry-on size allowance, but some also impose weight restrictions and/or fees for carry-on baggage.

    If you are traveling on a foreign airline on a flight that begins or ends in the United States, the rules of the U.S. partner airline apply.

    However, for flights that begin and end outside of the United States, all bets are off. The U.S. lowest common denominator of 22 inches high x 9 inches deep x 14 inches wide is rarely the right shape or size for out-of-country travel. In general—and it’s always wise to check before you fly—foreign flights without a stop in the United States require a shorter bag, usually 21 inches, but it can often be wider, and it is typical for weight restrictions to apply.

    What size should you get? It's easy if you only travel on one airline: Check the allowable carry-on size and buy one that fits. If you don’t play favorites with airlines, you have to decide if you want to buy the smallest bag that will get you onto any plane, or if you want to buy two or more to take advantage of the opportunity to use a larger carry-on on airlines that permit it.

    How do you know the bag’s dimensions? This is a trickier question than you would think. First rule of thumb: Ignore hang tags, advertisements, and website product descriptions that proclaim something like “Official Carry-On Size.” Even crazier: Ignore the stated measurements listed. Frequently, the measurements are inaccurate. When buying online, ask the seller if the given size reflects the external dimensions including wheels and handles. When buying at a brick-and-mortar retailer, bring a tape measure to check for yourself. Remember: with the bag standing vertically, measure from the floor to the top of the handle (retracted) for height; front to back at its widest point for the depth; and left to right at the widest point for the width.

    Capacity

    Once you've identified a few bags that meet your size requirements, compare the interior packing space. Get a carry-on that has as much interior capacity as possible. Don't judge the capacity—measured in cubic inches/centimeters or in liters—based on exterior dimensions: Two bags with the same external dimensions can have wildly different internal capacity.

    How do you measure the packing capacity? Outside of creating a lab project for an applied physics class, you can’t. So you have to inspect the bag for certain tell-tale signs, such as:

    • Squared edges. Interior volume is sacrificed with curved corners.
    • No protrusions. An exterior, protruding pouch reduces total packing space. Compartments accessible from outside the bag should be configured as inline pockets, not pouches that appear as protrusions.
    • No wheels. If you really need every possible inch of interior space, forgo wheels. While the wheels contribute to the overall dimensions of the bag, they displace potential packing area.
    • Externally mounted handle. This would be a best-case scenario. Most handles are mounted internally. But if you absolutely must be able to harness every square inch of packing space, external is the way to go.

    Weight

    A lightweight, wheeled carry-on-size bag will be 7.5 pounds or less, experts say. Weight becomes particularly important on flights outside the United States, where carry-on weight is usually taken into account. Some U.S. airlines as well are beginning to impose weight restrictions on carry-on. You want to avoid heavy bags that, when empty, use up too much of the total allowable weight.

    Susan Feinstein

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How to install a window air conditioner

    Two out of three homeowners install their own window air conditioners, according to GE. To avoid any ‘duh’ moments, there are a few questions to answer before going to the store. Plus,take a look at some top-pick air conditioners from Consumer Reports' tests.

    Do you have the right windows? Not all windows can accommodate an A/C. Double hung are the easiest. Make sure you measure the width and height of the opening before choosing a model. Avoid windows in direct sun. A unit placed in a shady spot can run up to 10 percent more efficiently, according to the Department of Energy.

    Are your windows clean? After you install the A/C you won’t be able to open your windows again for a while. Consider switching to shades so that the airflow isn’t blocked.

    Do you have enough power? Make sure there is a three-prong outlet within cord length. (Extension cords aren’t recommended.) Check the load on the circuit you plan to use, it’s best to have a dedicated circuit.

    Do you need help? If you’re installing it yourself, ask a buddy to help with the heavy lifting. A unit with a slide-out chassis is easier to install because you can secure the cabinet, then the chassis. Follow the manufacturer’s installation instructions. Unless they say otherwise, the window air conditioner should be level from left to right and pitched slightly toward the outdoors so that water drains properly to the rear of the unit and doesn’t leak into the home. And be sure to fill the gap between the window frame and the sash with foam to keep hot air out and cool air in.

    The best air conditioners to install

     

    Small: 5,000 to 6,500 Btu/hr. (Cools 100-300 sq. ft.)

    Medium: 7,000 to 8,500 Btu/hr. (Cools 250-400 sq. ft.)

    Large: 9,800 to 12,500 Btu/hr. (Cools 350-650 sq. ft.)

    —Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell on Twitter)

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    Pros and cons of gas and electric pressure washers

    Professional cleaning at a do-it-yourself price has helped move pressure washers beyond the tool-rental shop and into your local home center. Lower prices and less upkeep explain why 60 percent of buyers choose an electric pressure washer. But gas machines have roughly twice the cleaning power, which is the main reason you'll see fewer plug-in models at the big-box stores, where most pressure washers are sold.

    Pressure washers use a gas engine or electric motor, pump, and concentrating nozzle to boost water pressure from your garden hose as much as 60 times. That lets them blast away deck mildew, driveway stains, and other grunge a hose can't touch while cleaning chairs, siding, and other items more quickly and easily than you could with a scrub brush. For as little as $90 for electric machines and $300 for gas, owning one is a tempting alternative to renting one for $50 to $90 per day.

    Consumer Reports' previous tests of pressure washers on an array of outdoor surfaces confirmed that gas-powered machines have a clear performance edge over electrics. But more pressure also means more chance of injury with any pressure washer. Especially with gas models, it's easy to damage what you're cleaning. We're bringing in a new batch of pressure washers for testing to see if performance has changed.

    More power, more risk

    Water pressure is typically measured in pounds per square inch (psi). Gas-powered models typically put out 2,000 to 2,800 psi of pressure compared with 1,300 to 1,700 psi for electric models. Much higher pressure allowed the top-performing gas machines to clean a grimy concrete patio three times faster than the fastest electrics. Gas models were up to 10 times faster at stripping paint off vinyl siding, a test we used to simulate tough stains.

    On the downside, all of the gas models required more caution and control than the electrics to avoid splintering and etching wooden tables and other surfaces.

    Faster is noisier

    All the gas pressure washers produced at least 85 decibels (dBA), the threshold at which we recommend hearing protection. Electric models averaged 78 dBA when running and are silent with their triggers released, since doing so stops the motor.

    Protect yourself and your property

    Injuries involving pressure washers are estimated to affect more than 6,000, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Typical mishaps include chemical burns to the eyes and skin abrasions. You can also be injured by material shot back at you. To protect yourself and what you're cleaning:

    • Wear safety glasses or goggles, shoes, and, with gas models, hearing protection.

    • Start with the nozzle 2 feet away from the cleaning surface and move closer as needed, but no closer than 6 inches.

    • Set the nozzle to the widest spray angle that removes the stain.

    • Practice first by cleaning a hidden area.

    • Point the nozzle away from legs, feet, people, and pets, as well as lights, air conditioners, and other electrical devices.

    • Be wary of using solid-stream nozzles and settings, which can cause the most harm.

    You'll find models from Black & Decker, Briggs & Stratton, Craftsman, Excell, Homelite Husky, Karcher, and Troy-Bilt at home centers and dealers.

    Gas-powered pressure washers

    Best for: Quickly cleaning decks, siding, and other large areas as well as whisking away gum, sap, and tough stains. They pump out 2,000 to 2,800 pounds per square inch (psi) of water pressure vs. 1,000 to 1,800 psi for electrics, allowing gas models to clean a grimy concrete patio three times faster than the fastest electrics.

    But: Downsides include added noise and weight, and the need for pull-starting, fuel-mixing, and tuneups. Pumps must be winterized with anti-freeze in colder areas, since gas machines shouldn't be stored inside a home. Gas models also require more caution and control than the electrics to avoid injuries and damaging wood and other soft surfaces. Price: $200 to $500.

    Electric pressure washers

    Best for: Small decks and patios, furniture, and other lighter-duty jobs that emphasize cleaning over stain removal. They're relatively light and quiet, require little upkeep, and create no exhaust emissions. They start and stop with a trigger and are small enough to be stored indoors without winterizing.

    But: Less pressure means slower cleaning. Wands and nozzles are less-sturdy plastic, not metal. And you need to be near an outlet. Price: $90 to $180.

    A soap tank saves you the hassle of using separate containers. Tool and cord storage is a plus, as are wheels for heavier models. Adjustable nozzles are more convenient than replaceable nozzles; a twist changes spray width or pressure. But replaceable nozzles allow specific spray angles, broadening your options.

    Wash the car? Maybe not.

    Practically any pressure washer can handle decks, walks, and other typical cleaning tasks. They're also forceful enough to harm a car's paint, which is why we suggest using a hose for cars.

    Don't buy solely on specs

    Retailers and manufacturers often push lofty numbers for water pressure and volume. Some talk about "cleaning units," which are simply pressure multiplied by volume.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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