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Consumer Reports

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    Look for an adviser with fiduciary duty to save money on your IRA

    If you ask folks near retirement what worries them, many will mention the fear of outliving their money. Consumer Reports’ most recent retirement survey found that 43 percent had that concern.

    So a recent report by the president’s Council of Economic Advisers got my attention. It focused on the investment advice that savers and retirees get when rolling over 401(k) plans to IRAs. It noted that people who work with advisers with conflicts of interest—those who benefit from commissions and other investment fees—would lose about 12 percent of their savings because of those costs, assuming they drew down their money over 30 years. And they would run out of money five years sooner than if they had worked with an adviser who took no back-door payments. The report estimated that those conflicts of interest cost savers up to $17 billion per year.

    So it’s good news that the Labor Department, which regulates retirement accounts, recently proposed that advisers who recommend retirement investments hold to a “fiduciary” standard.

    Advisers who have a fiduciary duty to you must act in your best interest, recommending investments that optimize your returns while reflecting your goals, tolerance for risk, age, and other personal attributes.

    “If someone is paid to give you retirement investment advice, that person should be working in your best interest,” said the labor secretary, Thomas E. Perez. The Securities and Exchange Commission, long a foot-dragger on the matter, has expressed a willingness to expand the rule regarding fiduciary duty. Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, supports initiatives from the Labor Department and the SEC to protect investors.

    You would think that every adviser would want what’s best for her clients, but it doesn’t always work that way. Even advisers with recognized credentials aren’t necessarily required to act in your best interest.

    Broker-dealers—also known as stockbrokers—are mandated by the SEC only to meet what’s called a “suitability” standard, not a fiduciary duty. If you ask a broker-dealer to find you, say, a small-cap mutual fund, he’s only required to find something that’s suitable given your level of wealth, investment sophistication and goals, and stage in life. If that fund rewards him with high commissions that are subtracted from your balance, it’s his gain and your loss. Unlike a fiduciary, he’s not required to find you a comparable small-cap fund that would cost you less, even if it doesn’t compensate him as well.

    A broker might tell you that he has a Series 7 license to sell most securities, but that doesn’t make him a fiduciary. Neither does being regulated by the SEC or the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

    On the other hand, trustees of 401(k) plans have a fiduciary duty to account holders. Certified financial planners (CFPs) aren’t bound by regulation to be fiduciaries, but the Certified Financial Planner Board, a governing body, requires CFPs it certifies to adhere to the fiduciary duty standard. Registered investment advisors (RIAs) must by law exercise fiduciary care when giving investment advice.

    But under current SEC rules, RIAs can escape their fiduciary duty. As long as they’re charging a commission on a transaction separate from providing advice, they’re off the hook, notes Mercer Bullard, a professor at the University of Mississippi School of Law. “The SEC lets RIAs switch hats, sometimes being a fiduciary and sometimes not,” he says, pointing out that it doesn’t serve consumers, who naturally expect they will always get trustworthy advice from their RIA.

    Consumer Reports Retirement Planning Guide offers unbiased, expert advice on finances for the next chapter of your life.

    Until the new fiduciary rules are in place—advocates hope by early next year—a clear-cut route to engaging a fiduciary is to work with fee-only financial planners. They charge only for their advice; they don’t earn money based on what you buy. The Garrett Planning Network and the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors are good sources.

    However you find an adviser, ask how he is compensated, and in what situations he will and won’t be a fiduciary for you, says Arthur Laby, a law professor at Rutgers University.

    The questions will help weed out folks who can’t give a straight answer. “And it will make a difference in the relationship with the adviser,” Laby says. “Investors who are more engaged are likely to get better treatment.” 

    — Tobie Stanger (@TobieStanger 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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    An early identity theft warning

    Another day, another data breach. In the decade since the Identity Theft Resource Center has been tracking security breaches, it has counted over 5,300 breaches. Every two seconds, another American becomes a victim of identity fraud.

    Often the first clue that personal information—such as your Social Security number, driver’s license number, or credit card numbers—may have been stolen comes when you start getting billed for items you never bought or discover that your credit score has tanked. 

    For more information, read "Should you freeze your credit file?"

    Senator Charles Schumer (D., NY) would like to change that by having the firms that control consumers’ credit reports sound an alarm much earlier. Last month, Schumer sent a letter to Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, the country’s three largest credit-reporting firms, asking them to implement a system that will notify consumers when someone is using their name to try to get a loan or other type of credit.

    “I’m urging the three national credit reporting bureaus to set up a simple, easily-accessible voluntary system that would notify consumers anytime their credit is checked or accessed to open a new account or establish a line of credit to buy a car, rent a home, or worse,” said Schumer. A ‘credit inquiry alert’ would instantly notify consumers—by phone or by email— every time there is an authorized or unauthorized query on their credit file.”

    If the consumer didn’t request the credit, they would know that their information had been compromised. Schumer also suggested that consumers who are sent alerts should be allowed to immediately freeze their credit reports, which prevents new accounts from being opened in your name or loans being given out.

    “Too many people have faced the reality of learning that someone else has opened new lines of credit in their names only once their score has already been run into the ground,” he wrote in the letter.

    While consumers can currently request a freeze on their credit reports, they often don’t do this until it’s too late. Schumer’s proposal would allow them to do this immediately as part of the alert. (You have to lift the freeze before applying for further credit.)

    If you suspect you may be a victim of a data breach, follow these steps to protect yourself:

    • Request a fraud alert. Equifax, Experian and TransUnion all allow consumers to request fraud alerts on their credit reports at no cost. These require lenders to take additional steps in verifying the identity of the person applying for credit in your name before approving them. The period for which the fraud alerts are in place varies, but is usually 90 days for most consumers.
    • Sign up for a credit-monitoring service. For a fee – generally between $18 and $30 a month – the credit-reporting firms will notify consumers when their credit reports are being checked for a loan application. Schumer proposes that the notification be free and in place for as long as the consumer wants it.
    • Freeze your credit report. A freeze is worth considering if you suspect someone has stolen or otherwise obtained your Social Security number or other information that can be used to open credit in your name. But a security freeze may not be the best solution if the theft involves only your credit or debit card information. While it’s in place, it prevents virtually everyone from accessing your credit files, even those you’ve authorized to do so (access still is permitted for companies with which you have existing relationships, such as your credit card issuers). That can create hassles, delays, and other problems if you need to apply for a loan, credit card, or a job; obtain insurance; rent an apartment; set up electric or phone service; and more. And it will cost you between $2 to $15 to set up and remove a freeze.

    With data breaches occurring daily, consumers need better ways to protect themselves from identity theft. Schumer’s proposal is a big step in the right direction. 

    Catherine Fredman

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

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    All-new Volvo XC90 blazes trail to the Swedish brand’s future

    “All new.” It’s one of the most abused phrases in automotive marketing; we’ve seen it applied to as little as a nip-and-tuck facelift with a new radio and restyled headlights. But if any car really and truly qualifies as being all-new, it’s the 2016 Volvo XC90. We get our first look at the future of Volvo on this episode of “Talking Cars with Consumer Reports.” (A first drive report will soon follow.)

    Think of the XC90 as a modern day Martin Luther, nailing the Swedish brand’s mission statement to the SUV market’s front door. Four-cylinder only engines, advanced infotainment, super-luxurious interior appointments, and sophisticated safety equipment all play a big part for the modern Volvo.

    In contrast, we also discuss our Volvo V60 Cross Country, which dutifully reflects the brand’s past. Following the marque’s previously successful recipe, it takes a normal V60 station wagon and jacks up its ride height to create a faux-SUV. Problem is, Volvo already has a popular compact upscale SUV—the XC60—that offers more room and drives as well, all for about the same price. We love wagons, but this one misses the mark.

    Maybe the V60 Cross Country doesn’t make a convincing case. Leave that to our Volkswagen Golf SportWagen test car, which quickly became a staff favorite. We rave about its compact size, spacious practicality, and fun-to-drive nature. But the TDI diesel engine comes in for some criticism, despite its cult following and fuel economy. The episode wraps up with a discussion about the sports sedan market, and why it lacks a clear stand-out choice that balances driving enjoyment, luxury, and reliability.

    As with the other shows, this episode is also available free through the iTunes Store. Subscribe to the video or audio. You'll also find the video on YouTube.

    Also view:

    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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    Streaming media player review: Apple TV vs. Amazon Fire TV vs. Roku 3

    About two in five American households now subscribe to a streaming video service such as Netflix or Amazon Prime, according to a recent survey by Nielsen. But not everyone has a smart TV capable of directly accessing these services. That's where a streaming media player comes in.

    But which one to get? We recently tested nine models for our streaming media player Ratings to see how they fared. For this streaming media player review, we chose three leading players: Apple TV, which has added more content; Amazon Fire TV, which has gained a few new features since we first tested it; and the second-generation Roku 3, which replaces the company's previous Roku 3 flagship model. Here's what we found.

    Do you use a streaming media player? Tell us what you watch with it by leaving a comment below.

    Although Apple TV is getting a little long in the tooth—its last major upgrade was in 2012—it's a must-have for Apple-centric users who have a lot of content stored in iTunes, on a Mac computer, or on Apple's iCloud.

    Not surprisingly, Apple TV has the company's usual super-friendly interface, and it seamlessly integrates with iTunes TV show, movie and music libraries, and Apple's iCloud storage service. You can also use Apple TV to access the new Apple Music subscription service. Using AirPlay, it can stream content from an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch to a TV, and it supports AirPlay mirroring, which displays whatever is on your iOS device's screen on the TV.

    Apple has added more content. In addition to Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube, it now has access to Fox Now, HBO Go and HBO Now, Showtime Anytime, WatchABC, and WatchESPN, but it still lacks Amazon, M-Go, or Vudu.

    We're expecting Apple to offer a revamped or entirely new Apple TV in the near future.

    Unhappy with your broadband? Is your Internet service provider letting you down? Check our buying guide and Ratings for telecom providers.

    Amazon Fire TV, the retailer's first streaming media player, offers fine, responsive performance and a few unique features. Although it trails both Apple TV and Roku in installed base, one research firm reported that Fire TV (including the Fire TV Stick) was the best-selling media player during the first three months of the year.

    Fire TV lets you search for content using voice commands, and it offers a kids' environment, called FreeTime, that lets parents choose what their kids can see and set time limits for viewing. Fire TV also has one of the most credible gaming platform of any streamer we've tested, with titles including "Minecraft-Pocket Edition," "The Walking Dead," and "Monsters University." But you'll really need to spring for the optional $30 game controller. There are some free games, and others start at 99 cents.

    Like other streaming players, Fire TV offers access to streaming movies and TV shows from several services, including Amazon (Prime and Instant), Hulu, Netflix, Sling TV, and YouTube.com. Earlier this year the company updated its software with several new features, so you can now add a USB drive to the player to expand its storage, and it supports Bluetooth for use with Bluetooth headphones. One additional bonus for Prime subscribers is access to Prime Music songs and playlists.

    With its winning combination of solid performance, loads of content, and a pretty wide range of prices, Roku media players are among the most popular streaming choices.

    This spring, Roku revamped the Roku 3 player (though it didn't change the name), adding a few new features, including voice search and "Roku Feed," which lets you track content you're interested in and get automatic pricing and availability updates. For example, the "Movies Coming Soon" section lets you track hit theatrical releases and then get alerts when they hit streaming services, along with info about how much they cost on each service.

    Roku still has the most content of any tested player, including streaming movies and TV shows from Amazon, Blockbuster, HBO Go, Hulu, M-Go, Netflix, and Vudu. Like other Roku models, the Roku 3 has limited screen mirroring and casting capability, letting you cast Netflix and YouTube directly from a compatible phone or tablet to your TV. This year the Roku 3 is the only Roku model with a headphone jack on the remote, so you can plug into the remote for private listening.

    And the winner is . . .

    The Roku 3 remains our top pick for most people looking for a media streamer, mainly on the basis of its unrivaled assortment of content. It's also fast and easy to use once you've set it up. But each of these three players is worth considering. Though Apple TV is starting to feel a bit dated, at $70 it's now $30 cheaper than it was a year ago, and is pretty much a no-brainer for those already living in Apple's world. Amazon Fire TV has continued to beef up its content, and it has a few unique, worthwhile features that make it a great choice, especially for parents and gamers. It tends to prioritize Amazon's own services over others, but having free access to Amazon Prime music is a bonus.

    Still, not everyone wants to add a settop box to their TV setup; that's one reason there's a growing number of stick-style streaming media players that plug into a TV's HDMI port. We have several—including the Amazon Fire TV Stick, Google Chromecast, and the Roku Streaming Stick—in our streaming media player Ratings, which contain detailed test results of all the tested players. And keep a lookout for our shootout of stick-style players, none of which cost more than $50, later this summer.

    —James K. Willcox

     

     

     

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

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  • 07/07/15--10:59: Don't mess with AHRQ funding
  • Don't mess with AHRQ funding

    Efforts underway in Congress would do away with a key agency designed to generate unbiased research used by consumers, doctors, advocates, and researchers across the country to evaluate and improve quality in the health care system.

    The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s (AHRQ) mission is to produce evidence that can be used to improve the quality of health care and make it safer and more accessible, equitable, and affordable. In plain English, AHRQ’s work helps consumers get the most for their money when it comes to their health care.

    The agency’s research is used in hospitals, private practices, health departments, and communities. Consumer Reports also uses AHRQ research. For instance, we break down the AHRQ’s high-quality systematic reviews to help you compare treatments based on effectiveness, safety, and our own cost calculations.

    The AHRQ is a critical source of unbiased, trusted analysis on comparing the effectiveness of medications, devices, preventive services, and other medical interventions. Its research helps make the health care system less complex and costly for consumers by improving quality in care, shining a spotlight on waste in the system, and enhancing efficiency.

    AHRQ has been a source for our reports on whether you should treat chronic pain with opioids and cancer screening tests as well as our Best Buy Drug program.

    With more Americans participating in the health care system than ever before, we need to put more funding behind efforts such as the AHRQ’s, not less.

    Legislation currently being considered in the House of Representatives would zero out the AHRQ’s budget. And the Senate is proposing to significantly slash this important agency’s funding. Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, is strongly opposed to this effort to defund or drastically reduce the AHRQ. This move would take away a key, independent resource that not only helps consumers trying to navigate the often complex health care system but also helps make the system work better as a whole.

    We recently sent a letter to lawmakers urging them to reject this attempt to gut this critical agency. And we’re committed to fighting this every step of the way. Contact your representative today and tell the Congress member that consumers need the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

    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 past 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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  • 07/07/15--11:59: 5 steps to a safer deck
  • 5 steps to a safer deck

    The collapse this past weekend of an oceanfront home’s deck—which injured 24 people, five seriously, after they gathered for a photo—is yet another reminder of the importance of inspecting your deck at least once a year This particular case is all the more tragic because the home was a rental. An estimated 40 million residential decks in the United States are more than 20-30 years old. Whatever the deck’s age, and whether it’s at your home or one you rent, the following pointers from the North American Deck and Railing Association and Consumer Reports' experts can help keep it safe:

    Split or rotting wood

    The deck that collapsed over the weekend was at least 10 feet off the ground. The top and the supports of such structures need a good look. The ledger board, the deck’s connection to the house, is a common point of failure. Walk the deck to check for soft spots, particularly in areas that tend to stay damp. One way to check the floorboards: Try to penetrate the wood with an ice pick or screwdriver; if it goes in ¼ inch or more, you might have a decay problem. And check all joists (to which the deck boards are attached), support posts, railings, and stairs for weakness.

    Loose flashing

    Metal or plastic, flashing is often installed where the deck and house meet. Be sure that it’s intact and consider adding or replacing it if you notice areas that let water pool.

    Loose or corroded fasteners

    Rusted fasteners are a common problem around salt air. But any nails, screws, and anchors used in the installation will eventually corrode. Screw in any loose fasteners, and pound back in any nails. (If a nail goes in too easily, you could have a decay problem.) If a fastener seems rusted or otherwise corroded, replace it; a bad fastener could contribute to wood deterioration.

    General cleanup

    Mildew is the enemy and can quicken the process of loosening fasteners and overall wood deterioration. Clear away leaves and other debris. If mildew is present, you’ll need to clean it off and refinish. Before staining, pressure-wash or brush the old surface with a cleaning solution. If there is any remaining mold and mildew, remove it using a solution of 1 part bleach and 3 parts water. When staining, use as many coats as the manufacturer recommends.

    Special circumstances

    Other checks you’ll need to do involve everything above and on the deck. Overhanging tree branches can pose a problem if they’re weak. Grills and other heat sources should be placed away from flammable surfaces, with a non-flammable pad beneath. Make sure lighting is up to code and working properly. Outdoor furniture should be sturdy and away from the edge of the deck, and any storage boxes—such as for lighter fluid, cleaners and other hazardous materials—should have childproof latches.

    Note that town or other municipal codes might be more stringent—or even more lax—than the above recommendations. NADRA recommends an annual inspection by a deck builder or home inspector. And if you’re in the market for a new deck, see our buying guide.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore 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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    Whole Foods under fire for overcharging customers

    Update: Whole Foods has implemented a new policy to address pricing mistakes. If you think an item is incorrectly priced, ask the cashier to double check. If you've been overcharged, Whole Foods will refund the full price and give you the item for free. "Our goal is 100 percent price accuracy," according to a statement from chain executives.

    For the second time in a yearWhole Foods Market has been slammed for ripping off shoppers by selling products with the weight incorrectly labeled. The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) on Wednesday released the results of its ongoing investigation that contends the high-end grocer routinely overcharged customers by overstating the contents of prepackaged foods. The discrepancies resulted in overcharges of 80 cents to nearly $15 per package, according to officials.

    In addition, the DCA said that 89 percent of the packages it re-weighed failed to meet the federal standard for the maximum amount that a package can deviate from the actual weight. DCA tested 80 different types of pre-packaged products including meat, dairy, and baked goods.

    Take a look at the results of our latest survey to see which supermarkets have the best and worst prices.  Also, read about "The real cost of impulse shopping at the supermarket."

    The department characterized the overcharges as the byproduct of a “systematic problem with how products packaged for sale at Whole Foods are weighed and labeled,” according to a DCA statement. “The findings suggest that individual packages are routinely not weighed or are inaccurately weighed, resulting in overcharges for consumers.” The overcharges were especially prevalent in packages that had been labeled with exactly the same weight when it would be practically impossible for all of the packages to weigh the same amount, the report said. The products included nuts, berries, vegetables, and seafood. 

    In response to the charges, Michael Sinatra, public relations and public affairs manager for Whole Foods Northeast region, said, “We disagree with the DCA’s overreaching allegations and we are vigorously defending ourselves. We cooperated fully with the DCA from the beginning until we disagreed with their grossly excessive monetary demands. Despite our requests to the DCA, they have not provided evidence to back up their demands nor have they requested any additional information from us, but instead have taken this to the media to coerce us. Our customers are our number one stakeholder and we highly value their trust in us.”

    DCA Commissioner Julie Menin pulled no punches in describing the severity of the allegations: “Our inspectors tell me this is the worst case of mislabeling they have seen in their careers,” she said.

    Regular inspections

    In New York City, the Department of Consumer Affairs regularly inspects supermarkets for scanner, scale, and pricing accuracy. Inspectors first noticed labeling problems at Whole Foods stores last fall, which persisted when they revisited several of the locations during the winter.  To date, the probe has involved the chain’s eight stores that were in operation at the time of the inspections. Since then, a ninth has opened.

    The fine for falsely labeling a package is as much as $950 for the first violation and up to $1,700 for a subsequent violation. The potential number of violations that Whole Foods faces for all pre-packaged goods in the NYC stores is in the thousands, the DCA said.

    Last June, we reported on a settlement between Whole Foods and City Attorneys in the California cities of Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and San Diego over widespread pricing violations that included: Failure to deduct the “tare” weight of containers when ringing up charges for self-serve foods at the salad bar and hot bar; giving less weight than the amount stated on the label for packaged items sold by the pound; and selling items such as kebabs and other prepared deli foods by the piece, instead of by the pound as required by law. The chain agreed to pay close to $800,000 in penalties and implement a strict in-house pricing-accuracy program. 

    What you can do

    Our subscribers have long been less than satisfied with pricing at Whole Foods. In our latest supermarket survey, respondents criticized Whole Foods for having some of the highest prices of any grocery store in the country. Whole Foods isn't the only supermarket chain that's got in hot water for pricing irregularities in recent years. Safeway and Ralphs have been penalized, too. If you suspect an item isn't the correct weight, take a few packages and compare them on the consumer scale set aside at most grocery stores for that specific purpose.

    —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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    Prevent identity theft on vacation

    While you’re on vacation, identity thieves are hard at work. They wait for you to let your guard down and before you realize it, your wallet has been stolen or your email account hacked and your personal information has been compromised.

    Identity theft on the road is more common than you think. A recent study by ProtectMyID, the identity theft protection unit of credit bureau Experian, found that 20 percent of consumers have had a driver’s license, passport, credit card or other document with personal information lost or stolen while traveling. Nearly 40 percent have had their identity stolen as a result—or know of someone who was similarly victimized.

    Thieves strike when you least expect it, according to the ProtectMyID study. While 19 percent of travelers feel most vulnerable in restaurants—and rightly so, since 18 percent of crimes occur when people are dining out—most identity theft crimes actually occur in hotels (24 percent).

    Here’s how to make sure thieves don’t ruin your vacation.

    For more information on this subject, read 11 easy ways to prevent identity theft while traveling. 

    Cull your credit cards

    You probably spend a lot of time trying to lighten your luggage load. Take equal care with what’s in your wallet. According to the ProtectMyID survey, 47 percent of travelers do not remove unnecessary credit cards from their wallet before leaving for a trip. Even worse, 25 percent travel with their Social Security cards.

    Our advice: Bring only the essentials, including a limited number of credit and debit cards. You may also want to set up a travel alert for your credit card accounts, especially if you will be traveling internationally. Leave your Social Security card at home. That way, if your wallet is lost or stolen, thieves won’t have all of your personal information.

    Beware of Wi-Fi hotspots

    You may feel secure in the privacy of your hotel room but hackers can infiltrate hotel Wi-Fi networks to steal guests’ passwords and other sensitive information. A typical scam: When you log into the hotel’s network, a pop-up for a software update appears. But if you click to accept the download, you unknowingly load software designed to damage your computer or steal your information.

    Our advice: Use encrypted networks or a virtual private network (VPN) to access personal accounts through public Wi-Fi networks. A VPN encrypts all of the information that passes between you and a wireless network, wherever that network is located. You can download VPN software from a VPN provider or bring your own mobile Wi-Fi hotspot.

    Avoid public computers

    The public computer in a hotel, hostel or Internet cafe may be convenient if you’re traveling without your laptop, but using one leaves you vulnerable—big time. That’s because you have no idea what has been installed in the computer. Risks include key-logging software that remembers your username and password, out-of-date security updates, and insufficient anti-virus software.

    Our advice: If you must use a public computer, use it only for innocuous purposes, such as researching restaurant options or museum opening times. Do not check your online bank account or enter any personal financial information. Even checking your email or posting to Facebook can be risky, so make sure to reset your password from a secure device as soon as possible.

    Choose your ATMs carefully

    The convenience of getting cash often outweighs caution and that’s exactly what identity thieves count on. Crooks plant skimmers in ATMs and in a matter of seconds can steal your PIN and the account data stored on your card’s magnetic stripe.

    Our advice: Go to ATMs that are monitored by video cameras or security guards, such as those in bank lobbies. Avoid unattended ATMs in public locations like airports, shopping malls or convenience stores. 

    Pick what you post

    That brag-shot of you bungee-jumping off a bridge in New Zealand not only tells the world about your daredevil deeds—it also informs crooks that you’re not home. Thieves troll Facebook, MySpace, Instagram and other social networking sites to see when people are on vacation and possibly target their home for a break-in.

    Our advice: Take the shot, by all means. But don’t post it until you’re back home.

    “Vacations give people the perfect chance to stop thinking about everyday life, but that’s something identity thieves count on” to make it easier to snatch your stuff, says Guy Abramo, president, Experian Consumer Services. “By taking some precautions before, during and after vacation, people can reduce the risk of identity theft happening to them.”

    Catherine Fredman

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

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    When should you consider synthetic oil?

    Many automakers require owners to use synthetic motor oil in their cars’ engines. This is because synthetic oil has some advantages over conventional motor oil. It’s designed to be more effective at:

    • Resisting break-down, and thus lasts longer than mineral oil
    • Withstanding high temperatures
    • Flowing in cold temperatures, thus reducing engine wear during frigid startups.

    However, synthetic motor oil can cost two to four times as much as regular oil. So unless your owner's manual specifies synthetic, you don’t need it. But Consumer Reports’ chief mechanic says there are some situations where synthetic oil’s resistance to breakdown can help prolong the life of an engine.

    If you make lots of short trips, standard motor oil may never get warm enough to burn off moisture and impurities. That could hasten the breakdown of conventional oil. Also, if you live in a region with very cold winters or very hot summers, or if you use your vehicle for towing or hauling heavy material, synthetic oil won’t break down as quickly. While synthetic generally holds up better and can serve for more miles, it is important to not extend oil changes beyond the time interval recommended by the manufacturer—typically six months or a year.

    Another good use for synthetic oil is as a salve for older engines prone to sludge buildup. This gunky residue can block oil passages and lead to a quick death of an engine. In the early 2000s, several engines from Chrysler, Toyota, and Volkswagen, among others, were especially prone to sludge buildup. This sludge forms when oil breaks down. Synthetic oil would be beneficial in those engines, as it is less likely to form troublesome sludge.

    Using synthetic in these situations will prolong your oil life and require fewer changes. That’s a major benefit to the environment, as used motor oil is a major source of toxic waste in water. Your pocketbook will also thank you.

    For more insights, read our special report on excessive oil consumption.

    Share your experiences in the comments below.

    Eric Evarts

    Car maintenance resources

     

    Repair cost estimator

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    Special report: Excessive oil consumption

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    High-performance Alfa Romeo Giulia races to broaden brand portfolio

    Alfa Romeo is following up the 4C sports car with another serving of spicy Italian, the high-performance Giulia sedan. Sized to compete with the BMW 3 Series, the Quadrifoglio version unveiled this week looks to be a fitting sparring partner for the M3.

    Instantly recognizable as an Alfa Romeo, the Giulia proudly wears the distinct trefoil nose, which grants this new sedan the visage of an angry Koala bear. Further distinguishing this special model is a Quadrifoglio (aka four-leaf clover) fender badge.

    Beneath the hood is a turbocharged 510-horsepower six-cylinder engine inspired by corporate cousin Ferrari. The automaker claims 0-60 mph sprints in just 3.8 seconds—putting the weight-conscious Giulia on par with the Porsche 911 in a straight line. The company also talks tough regarding handling.

    The Giulia is based on a rear-drive platform, and it will be offered with all-wheel drive. Great care was taken to achieve a 50/50 front-to-rear weight distribution, a combination long heralded as essential for balanced handling. Numerous technical tidbits, such as an active air splitter and driver-selected performance modes, promise thrilling, adjustable driving dynamics.

    The Giulia is coming the U.S. market next year, with specifics to be announced closer to the on-sale date.

    Jeff Bartlett

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    Do you talk on the phone in the bathroom?

    It starts with a knock on the bathroom door, then a sigh, and finally an exasperated, “What’s taking so long?” The bathroom is the please-do-not-disturb-me room and often the only room in the house with a lock on the door, offering complete privacy. Turns out that a whirl of surprising activities occur behind that door.

    About 81 percent of Americans have used their bathrooms for either playing games on mobile devices, talking on the phone, posting on Facebook or Instagram, taking a selfie, or other unexpected activities, according to a recent Consumer Reports’ survey. Maybe it means we’re tethered to our electronics, or perhaps the only way to escape the demands of modern life is to hide in the bathroom.

    Our survey found that men are more likely than women to read news on a mobile device or use their laptop in the bathroom, but women are more likely to hand wash dirty laundry or hide from others. That’s right, they hide. For all the activities to indulge in, sometimes having a moment to yourself, however brief, is just the thing. Consumer Reports’ nationally representative survey included 1,008 U.S. adults.

    What's your take on this 21st-century bathroom behavior? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

    Reading in the bathroom is common and chatting on the phone was the most popular of the activities, with nearly half of the adults we surveyed admitting this. It’s hard to disguise a bathroom—there’s no confusing it for a kitchen or conference room—so it’s not surprising that only four percent say they’ve participated in a video chat or conference, to which we raise our plunger in salute.

    But when 14 percent told us they’ve taken a picture of themselves with their smartphone, well it looks like some Americans aren’t totally camera shy in the bathroom. For those follks, recommended reading includes the Huffington Post's Kim Kardashian Masters the Art of the Public Bathroom Selfie.

    Kimberly Janeway

     

     

     

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    Clever Volvo child seat concept has appeal

    We have long said that a car seat that was integrated into the car would be ideal for both safety and convenience. And now, a new concept revealed by Volvo may bring us one step closer to that end. The Excellence Child Seat Concept essentially is a child seat console that replaces the front passenger’s seat.

    In terms of safety, this concept holds promise—assuming that height and weight limits would be sufficient enough, it is designed with the idea that children should remain rear-facing as long as possible.

    This approach eliminates the need for conventional, DIY child seat installation. As a secure installation is critical to providing safety in a crash, the more integral the seat is to the car, the safer it will be. Right now, the safety depends heavily on the parent or caregiver installing the seat properly, and statistics show that people get some aspect of installation wrong more than 75 percent of the time. Making the seat and hardware integral to the car removes that risk.

    See our car seat buying advice and ratings.

    In terms of convenience:

    • The seat swivels, allowing convenient access to the child.
    • Its front seat location makes it easy to make eye contact and observe your child while traveling.
    • A storage drawer beneath the console offers a handy spot to store baby stuff.
    • A heated cup holder can keep a bottle warm for when its needed.

    This concept is just that, a prototype for an idea. In other words, it’s not available on any production Volvos, yet. But it does show how at least one automaker is thinking about making children, and not just adults, safer and more comfortable in their travels.

    Jen Stockburger

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    Fuller Brush and Maytag roar into vacuum market

    Millennials might not have heard of the Fuller Brush man, but legions of salesmen and later saleswomen sold their cleaning products door-to-door from the early 20th century to as late as the mid 1980’s. Times change, yet the name still resonates for some of us, and now you’ll find upright vacuums with the Fuller Brush name. Consumer Reports is testing three of its models, along with models from another brand not known for vacuums: Maytag.

    Tacony Corp., which also makes Riccar and Simplicity vacuums, has licensed both brands and is selling them through independent mom-and-pop dealers along with Amazon. Maytag, a Whirlpool brand, is more commonly seen on major appliances such as refrigerators, ranges, and washing machines. The Maytag line is pitched as more upscale and we’ll know in the coming weeks whether Maytag vacuums catch on with consumers.

    Both brands offer one bagged upright—the $400 Fuller Brush Mighty Maid and $630 Maytag M700—with wide brush rolls that typically do well for deep cleaning carpets. The two brands also offer lightweight, bagged “pusher-type” vacuums, the $300 Fuller Brush Speedy Maid and the $380 Maytag M500, with identical wooden brush rolls and similar construction throughout. But while Maytag rounds out its full-sized vacuum line with the fullest-featured Maytag M1200 upright, $900, Fuller Brush instead offers the first bagless model we’ve seen from Tacony, the $210 Jiffy Maid upright.

    A new model from Kirby. Among the nearly 20 upright and canister vacuums we’re testing is a new model from another brand that’s sold direct to customers: Kirby. The Kirby Sentria II, $1,370, had ranked among our recommended bagged uprights for years, but the company has discontinued it in favor of the new Kirby Avalir, which so far seems to be only stylistically different. (Both models accept numerous accessory kits that extend functionality.) If you're a fan of Kirby, check back for the results of our tests.

    Need a new vacuum cleaner?


    Consumer Reports' vacuum cleaner Ratings of more than 130 models will get you rolling if you can’t wait a few more weeks until we publish our latest findings. Top picks include the $200 Kenmore 31140 bagged upright, the $130 Hoover WindTunnel T-Series Rewind Bagless UH70120 bagless upright, and the $330 Panasonic MC-CG937, a bagged canister. Be sure to read our free vacuum cleaner buying guide, which points out pros and cons of bagged and bagless upright, canister, handheld, stick, and robotic vacuums.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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    14 million Americans were involved in accidents with senior drivers this past year

    Over the past year, 14 million Americans aged 18 to 64 were estimated to be involved in accidents caused by drivers aged 65 and over, according to a new Caring.com report. Among those accident victims, 18- to 29-year-olds were the most likely to be involved in a crash with an elderly driver.

    Even though older drivers are involved in a large number of crashes, they have one of the lowest fatality rates, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (PDF). Seniors often self-regulate, choosing to drive during daylight hours and avoiding busy areas.

    Learn about the most common hazards for older drivers.

    Despite those figures, it's the seniors themselves who think they pose a serious danger. While the survey reveals that most Americans under 65 are far more concerned with drivers who are drunk, teenaged, or distracted than those who are senior, respondents 65 or over feel that they are more of a threat behind the wheel than drivers who are intoxicated.

    Most people under 65 are unwilling to talk to their parents about when it's time to stop driving; in fact, 40 percent said they'd rather discuss funeral arrangements with their parents. So who should start the discussion? Among respondents to the random, nationwide phone survey, 29 percent said they think a doctor is the best person to determine when it's time to stop driving, while 25 percent said it was a family decision and 23 percent thought the government or local department of motor vehicles should make the determination. Only 16 percent thought the seniors should decide for themselves. (Learn more about when it is time for seniors to retire their keys.)

    Those findings fly in the face of what seniors want. Almost a third of seniors said they would prefer their family to determine when they stop driving, while 26 percent think they should make the decision themselves. About one in five would leave it up to their doctor or caretaker, and just 10 percent say the decision should be made by the government.

    "No one wants to be the one to take away Mom or Dad’s keys, but sometimes it can be crucial for their safety,” said Andy Cohen, CEO of Caring.com, a website that provides support and referrals to those caring for the elderly. “Plus, many seniors would actually prefer to hear it from a family member than from a police officer on the road. There are numerous online resources that people can use to make the conversation go as smoothly as possible.”

    Aaron Gold

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    Plan your kitchen remodel at Home Depot, Lowe's, or Ikea

    Planning a complete kitchen makeover? You’ll probably save by sourcing your purchases from a number of sellers. But for sheer convenience, you can’t beat buying everything—appliances, cabinets, counters, and flooring—in one location and paying a single party. National retailers such as Home Depot, Lowe's, and Ikea aim to make the kitchen design process easier than ever.

    Project-length estimates are based on a 10x10-foot kitchen. That might seem small in the real world, but it’s an industry standard that helps you compare prices. An in-home consultation, which is deducted from the project cost, includes a pro’s measurements. All three big box stores offer installation, too, and guarantee the labor even when done by subcontractors.

    Here's what to expect when you plan your kitchen remodel and shop for appliances and remodeling materials at Home Depot, Lowe's, and Ikea.

    Have you bought products for your kitchen remodel at Home Depot, Lowe's, or Ikea? Tell us about your experiences by leaving a comment below.

    The largest retailer—with more than 2,250 stores in North America—estimates that most kitchens take three to 10 weeks to remodel. Many store designers are certified by the National Kitchen and Bath Association. Routine training also makes use of NKBA courses. Software called My Kitchen Planner lets shoppers upload plans and share ideas with their designer. In-home measurements cost $49 to $99. The minimum for a full kitchen project is about $25,000. You can request a specific designer over the phone or at a store, or you can use the website to schedule an appointment. Labor is guaranteed for a year.

    What it sells

    10 cabinet brands

    $50 to $300 per linear foot

    12 countertop brands

    $5 to more than $150 per square foot

    About 7,000 sinks

     $100 to $400

    More than 10,000 faucets

    $20 to more than $200

    412 fridges, 716 ranges, and 113 dishwashers

    $270 to $8,550

    Almost
 40 brands of flooring

    50 cents to $6.20 per square foot

    The inventory doesn’t quite match that of Home Depot, but there’s still plenty to choose from. Both chains offer more online than in their stores. Lowe’s estimates that most kitchen remodels take at least nine weeks. Designers at the 1,770 North American stores often have interior-design backgrounds and all receive training, including information on the latest trends. Start with the Virtual Room Designer on its website. In-home measurements cost $75. Lowe’s says that the average job costs at least $20,000. Each store usually has just one designer, so if your ideas don’t click, you’ll need to go elsewhere—maybe another Lowe’s. Labor is guaranteed for a year.

    What it sells

    5 cabinet brands

    $40 to $300+ per linear foot

    6 countertop brands

    $10 to more than $90 per square foot

    More than 4,000 sinks

    $60 to more than $3,000

    More than 2,000 faucets

    $15 to more than $1,900

    692 fridges,
717 ranges, and 257 dishwashers

    $240 to $8,740

    Almost
 40 brands of flooring

    $1.30 to $7 per square foot

    Ikea sells mostly its own branded products, so selection pales compared with the other home centers. But you might prefer the simplicity. On the plus side, everything they sell is on display in-store. Shoppers use Ikea’s Home Planner software to add cabinets, countertops, and other items to a 3D plan of their space. In-store specialists can help; they’re trained in design guidelines. In-home service, available if you live near an Ikea store, starts at $199. A kitchen (without appliances) costs at least $3,000 before labor and takes about seven weeks. Ikea uses outside installers but backs the labor for five years.

    What it sells

    48 cabinet-door styles

    See store for prices.

    5 countertop materials

    $12 to $52 per square foot

    16 sinks

     $27 to $413

    15 faucets

    $20 to $280

    9 refrigerators, 9 ranges, and 8 dishwashers

    $300 to $1,900

    If you want to redo your kitchen floors, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

    If you want more personalized service and upscale offerings—and you’re willing to pay more—consider Pirch and Waterworks, two high-end retailers.

    Pirch

    With full-time chefs and other pros giving demos, Pirch encourages customers to linger in its eight expansive showrooms. The carefully trained technicians deliver and install products and perform long-term warranty work, making them the first—and only—ones to call if you have a problem. Though it doesn’t employ designers, Pirch can help you find one. It doesn’t keep in-store inventory but you can get anything, even brands sold at home centers. Complete kitchens start at $25,000— but that won’t get you that 60-inch-wide $16,000 La Cornue range in one of the kitchen displays.

    Waterworks Kitchen

    Waterworks is known for its luxury bathroom fixtures sold in 15 stand-alone showrooms (and other locations) and by more than 60 partners. The company entered the kitchen-design market last year with an all-kitchen showroom and kitchen sections in three existing showrooms. Waterworks sells its own private-label line of cabinets, countertops, faucets, floors, and sinks. It also has an array of accessories, from cutting boards to table linens. The retailer doesn’t sell appliances but has a partnership with Sub-Zero and Wolf, and in-house designers can advise shoppers on kitchen appliances from other brands, too.

    Planning a kitchen remodel?

    Find the best products and projects in our Kitchen Planning Guide.

    And don't miss how one woman downsized her kitchen on a budget without sacrificing style.

    Not a big box shopper? Here are the best places to buy appliances, according to our readers.

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

     

     

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    Why LG front-loaders top LG top-loading washers

    Most LG washers do well in Consumer Reports’ tests. Some are near the top of our ratings. And you’ll see LG front-loaders on our recommended list, but you won’t see LG’s top-loaders on that list. That’s because they’re significantly worse than most other brands when it comes to being repair-prone.

    That’s what we recently found when we surveyed 115,573 subscribers who bought new washers between 2007 through the first half of 2014. LG doesn’t make agitator top-loaders, so the top-loaders cited in our survey are high-efficiency washers, or HE models, which do not have agitators and use a lot less water to get the job done. Among top-loaders, HE and agitator models, Speed Queen, Roper, Maytag, Samsung, and Whirlpool were more reliable brands.

    Recommended top-loaders

    For HE top-loaders to make our recommended list they have to score 71 or higher and can’t have brand reliability issues. Recommended HE top-loaders include the Samsung WA48H7400AP, $900, Samsung WA52J8700AP, $1,000, and Kenmore 28132, $800. Agitator washers must score 51 or higher, and of course brand reliability can’t be a problem, to make our top picks. The minimum overall score required is lower than HE washers because the best agitator top-loaders don’t perform as well as the best HE washers, yet agitator washers remain popular since they’re cheaper and have faster wash times. The Whirlpool WTW4850BW, $580, and GE GTWN5650FWS, $650, are both recommended.

    Recommended front-loaders

    LG and Samsung are among the more reliable front-loader brands, while Frigidaire and GE are among the more repair-prone. Front-loaders set the bar for top overall performance and recommended models must score 81 or higher, such as the Samsung WF567H9110CW, $1,450, LG WM8500HVA, $1,450, and the Maytag Maxima MHW8100DC, $1,400.

    And if you’re wondering about dryers, LG electric and gas dryers are significantly more reliable than any other brand, and Fisher & Paykel electric dryers are the most repair-prone brand, according to our survey of 105,474 subscribers who bought new dryers between 2007 and the first half of 2014.

    See our washer and dryer Ratings for all the details. Click on the Brand Reliability tab and the Features & Specs tab too. You’ll see the appliance dimensions noted here. That’s important, especially given the increasing width of some washers and dryers. Any questions? E-mail me at kjaneway@consumer.org.

    Kimberly Janeway

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    Why the NYSE glitch was nothing for investors to worry about

    Summer is usually a quieter time for stock trading. But on July 8, when the New York Stock Exchange shut down for nearly four hours, things were a little too quiet.

    The shutdown was blamed on an "internal technical issue." Against the backdrop of other events occurring that day, such as financial crises in China and Greece, and what proved to be an unrelated glitch that grounded United Airlines flights, investors were nervous. 

    But where investors ever at risk? Not really. The main risk to investors is if they have an open order in place when the exchange shuts down. In such a case, they may not know if an order was actually placed or if it had been canceled, which could lead to losses. Yesterday, however, the NYSE said in a note to traders that all open orders had been canceled for the day except the long-term requests to buy or sell put in by large institutional investors.

    Investors were also able to trade NYSE-listed shares elsewhere. Just because a stock chooses to list itself on the NYSE, doesn't mean that trading is restricted to that exchange. NYSE-listed stocks were traded on other exchanges, such as Nasdaq, during the outage.

    Today, the New York Stock Exchange only handles 14 percent of trades. Compare that to only a few years ago, when over 80 percent of stock trades went through the NYSE. 

    Today, the New York Stock Exchange only handles 14 percent of trades. Compare that to only a few years ago, when over 80 percent of stock trades wen through the NYSE. 

    Trying to choose a brokerage firm? Read our brokerage service buying guide.

    Mutual fund prices could have been a concern, but ultimately were unaffected. The more worrying aspect of the NYSE glitch was the possibility that trading wouldn't resume by the 4PM (Eastern Daylight Time) market close. That's important because mutual funds rely on the NYSE closing prices to price their shares. Without a closing price to rely upon, it was unclear how funds were to report their Net Asset Value (N.A.V.) to investors. As trading resumed during the final hour of the trading day, that problem never materialized.

    You should be investing for the long-term anyway. Ultimately the NYSE outage affected traders much more than investors. Or in the words of Warren Buffett, "Only buy something that you’d be perfectly happy to hold if the market shut down for 10 years.” 

    –Chris Horymski

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    Maximize your retirement income: smart strategies at 60

    Individual retirement accounts, or IRAs, are among the most valuable assets most of us own. Yet after years of religiously putting money into their IRAs, many people are confused about the best way to withdraw funds from them.

    According to government regulations, you may begin tapping your IRA without a penalty at age 59½, and you must start taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) at age 70, or pay a substantial penalty. (401(k)s are subject to the same rules.)

    But withdrawal isn’t as simple as opening the savings spigot. How and when you take your RMDs can affect your Medicare premiums, your taxes, and the amount of money you can leave to your heirs or charity.

    Following these smart strategies when you turn 60 can help you maximize your RMDs later. 

    To learn more about preparing financially for retirement read,  "Stop Freaking Out About Retirement.

    Don’t act too quickly

    Having passed the 59½ mark, you’re now eligible to take penalty-free withdrawals from your retirement accounts. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should. You’re giving up tax-deferred growth – ten years’ worth of it, if you can afford to wait until 70.
     

    Consolidate your retirement accounts

    If you’ve changed jobs, you know how your retirement accounts can pile up. Consolidating accounts makes it easier to track your investments, avoid over-diversification or repetition of your investments, and reduce fees.

    Re-evaluate your retirement portfolio

    Ensure that your portfolio has the appropriate asset allocation for your time horizon and the right asset location: Are your assets situated to maximize tax-efficiency? “At this time in life, people start to buy taxable bond funds and dividend funds in their outside (non-IRA) accounts to focus on income, but that makes their portfolio less tax-efficient,” notes Colleen Jaconetti, senior investment analyst with Vanguard. Withdrawals from an IRA are taxed as ordinary income, which is usually at a higher rate than the 15 and 20 percent tax on long-term capital gains and dividend income, respectively. Jaconetti recommends shifting investments that might generate short-term capital gains (i.e., stocks and mutual funds that would be owned for less than a year as well as taxable bonds and real estate investment trusts) to tax-deferred accounts to shelter the income. Conversely, any funds where you expect to realize long-term capital gains or dividend income should be held in a taxable account.

    Keep making those IRA contributions

    You’ve got another 10 years of tax-deferred growth, so keep funding your IRA and your spouse’s. As 60-somethings, you are entitled to a catch-up contribution and can each contribute $6,500 annually.

    Calculate your RMDs in advance

    Many financial services websites have a calculator accessible to anyone. So if you’re 60 and have $100,000 in your IRA, with a 5 percent estimated rate of return, you can figure that your RMD starting at age 71 will be about $6,400. Why do this? It’s not what you might think.

    The prospect of being bumped into a higher tax bracket when RMDs start adding to your income is actually not a big deal. The tax rate for married couples filing jointly is 15 percent for an annual income of less than $73,800; between that amount and $148,850, the tax rate is 25 percent but that applies only to the amount above $73,800.

    A bigger deal is that higher RMDs can cause Social Security income to be taxed at a higher rate. For married couples filing jointly with an income between $32,000 and $44,000, up to 50 percent of Social Security income may be taxable. Above $44,000, up to 85 percent may be taxable. Consult a financial adviser to determine whether the magnitude of the increase in taxes is worth the time and effort.

    Decide whether to convert to a Roth IRA

    One solution to a burgeoning tax bill in retirement: Convert all or part of your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. Roth IRAs have one big advantage over traditional IRAs: There are no RMDs—ever. And because the Roth IRA requires you to pay taxes upfront, either before you contribute to the account or when you convert from your traditional IRA to a Roth, any distributions you choose to take are tax-free. Finally, earnings in the Roth IRA continue to grow tax-free for your beneficiaries after your death and they can make withdrawals tax-free.

    The trade-off, however, is that while you may reduce your taxes later on, you’ll give up tax-deferred growth. Meanwhile, you’ll have to pay the income taxes you did not pay when you originally contributed the money—and that can be a hefty sum.

    If you think a Roth IRA is right for you, one solution is to do a partial conversion. One way: Use a tax refund or a financial windfall to cover the tax bill on an equivalent amount in your IRA. You won’t miss the money, you’ll lower your eventual IRA RMDs, and you’ll leave a nice gift for your heirs.

    Catherine Fredman

    A version of this article previously appeared in the November 2014 Consumer Reports Money Adviser.

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    LG OLED TV: One step closer to perfection

    We couldn't wait to get our hands on the new LG EG9600-series OLED TV, the first 4K UHD OLED we've ever tested. Anyone who cares a lot about picture quality has been anxiously awaiting OLED TVs ever since it became apparent that plasma TVs were going the way of the dodo, rear-projection TVs, and CRT sets, despite their superior performance.

    LCD technology has certainly improved, thanks to ever-more-sophisticated trickery to address its inherent weaknesses. But most of the TV testers here at Consumer Reports take issue with LCD's grayish blacks, backlight non-uniformity, and narrow viewing angles.

    That's why we have such high hopes for OLED TVs, which use an emissive—or light-producing—technology, just like plasma sets. That means you don't need a separate backlight as you do with LCD TVs, which have difficulty getting completely black.

    OLED, in fact, shares many plasma TV attributes, such as unlimited viewing angles and resistance to blurring on fast-motion scenes. But it can produce even darker blacks than plasma, which can not only enhance contrast in dark scenes, but also serve as the basis for excellent color reproduction. OLED also assumes some of the attributes we like about LCD sets, such as better-than-plasma brightness and LED-like energy efficiency. When you combine all these ingredients, you have a recipe for the best TV ever.

    And in many ways, the 55-inch LG 55EG9600 set ($5,500) is among the best TVs we've tested. In fact, if it weren't for mediocre sound quality, it would have the highest overall score of any set in our TV Ratings. It has excellent high-definition picture quality, and its UHD performance was very good. (LG promises that the TV can be updated to high dynamic range (HDR) capability via a firmware update later this year.) It also has the benchmark-setting black levels we've come to expect from OLED TVs.

    But the LG OLED TV also has some flaws that detract from its overall performance. In fact, the first set we purchased had an issue significant enough that we had to have its panel replaced. As a result, we bought another set just to make sure that what we saw wasn't an anomaly. Still, despite some of the issues we found, most of us here would pick this TV out of all the TVs we've tested this year as the one we'd most like to own. Here's what we found when we put this LG OLED TV through our battery of tests.

    Overall, the LG 55EG9600 had excellent high-definition picture quality; its UHD screen did an excellent job displaying the finest detail, with very good color accuracy that made images look quite natural. Not surprisingly, the set has excellent contrast, which gave images great depth and dimension, and its black-level performance is among the very best we've seen from any TV—and the depth of black doesn't vary with viewing angle, as it does with LED/LCD models.

    But a problem developed shortly after we began testing: After calibrating the TV for optimum black level and shadow detail, we noticed days later that the black level had become a bit brighter than before, and there was a visible array of illuminated vertical bands of slightly varying intensity that ran across the screen.

    To keep this in perspective, we had the room lights nearly off so we could see this clearly. We tried to tweak out these brightened stripes by lowering the TV’s brightness control, but then we could not get the TV to a solid deep black without crushing shadow detail. As you can see in the top photo above, the bands were also visible on our our dark gray test pattern (a 10 IRE gray field pattern to you techies), and were subtly visible on dark video content.

    It was at this point that we decided to send the TV out for repair. The service center decided to replace the panel, and in the interim we bought a second 55EG9600 to see whether it had the same issues. The second set did not exhibit the brightened black level, and we were able to achieve deep black along with good shadow detail. But both sets still showed hints of the vertical bands, though they were certainly not a problem during normal viewing.

    In the scene below, you can see the two sets—the new model on the left, the repaired original set on the right—side by side.

    But we also noticed another issue on both sets, which is a bit more problematic: The left and right edges of the image showed slight but visible darkening mainly on darker scenes, almost like a vignette effect, which was somewhat distracting when present. You can see what we mean in the 10 IRE grayscale image, above, and on a close-up of a scene from "Guardians of the Galaxy," below.

    The set on the left is a larger LED/LCD TV; the OLED TV is on the right. The effect is noticeable on both edges of the OLED screen, but especially so on the left edge where the image essentially fades to dark, masking significant picture information that's clearly visible on the LCD set.

    This issue was only visible on darker scenes; it disappeared when the screen displayed brighter images.

    There were also a few other minor things we noticed during our tests. One was that this LG OLED TV is subject to some temporary image retention, where very subtle ghosts of the TV's bright menu windows remained visible when no video was displayed on the screen. We also detected some darkening of the upper and lower part of the image after we had viewed a letterbox movie for a few hours. These effects were very subtle and probably wouldn't be detectable under normal viewing conditions, and eventually the ghosting did go away. Since OLED is so new, we don't yet know whether these issues could lead to permanent image burn in.

    We also noticed an unusual brightening of black levels when a static image was left on the TV: With a blackfield still test image on the display, after a few minutes we noticed that the TV's black levels suddenly brightened. We didn't see this during normal viewing, and LG speculated during a visit to our labs that it might be caused by the TV invoking an anti-burn-in feature. Since it didn't appear during our normal testing with motion video, we didn't put too much emphasis on it, and we doubt that any viewers will be bothered by it.

    The pros outweigh the cons

    So far our review has mainly focused on some of the flaws we detected when testing the LG 55EG9600. But in fairness, the positive attributes of this LG OLED TV greatly outweigh its shortcomings. Images had an excellent level of detail, and we saw no noticeable banding in scenes with subtly shaded light-to-dark areas, such as a sky during sunset. The set did an excellent job upconverting standard HD fare, with minimal jaggies when converting HD video content, such as from cable, to the display's native resolution. Its stunning black levels and resulting contrast help place this model's picture quality among the very best TVs we've tested.

    To put this OLED TV's ability to go truly black in perspective, check out the photo below, where it's compared to the LCD TV that touts an LED backlight with numerous zones that can be locally dimmed.

    In this pattern, which we created to test the effectiveness of local dimming, two white balls move horizontally across the screen. You can see from a glance that the LCD TV, on the left, is simultaneously activating a whole grouping of LEDs in order to illuminate the ball as it travels within that zone, producing a band of light behind the objects. The OLED, on the other hand, is able to illuminate only the balls while preserving the deep blacks just beyond its white borders.

    The backlighting effect on the LCD is a bit exaggerated as it was shot slightly off angle—a dirty little secret about local dimming is that the halos it induces are often accentuated at off angles—but again that's not something you have to worry about with an OLED set, which has a virtually unlimited viewing angle. That means that black levels and contrast do not degrade as you move off center, though the image does introduce a slight shift in color temperature toward a cool, bluer tone as you move away from front and center.

    Overall, the LG 55EG9600 is among the best TVs we've tested this year, and some of the flaws we noted pale in comparison to the various image-related anomalies we see every day when we test LCD sets.

    The TV earned an "excellent" for HD picture quality, and its UHD performance was very good only because of a quirk that imposed some oversharpening on native 4K content, including movies and test videos from our Sony FMP-X10 UHD player via an HDMI connection, and photos and videos played via USB drive. That added coarseness to the edges of very fine detail. (It did not appear to be an issue with streaming 4K programs from Netflix or YouTube.) This was due to effect of the TV's "Super Resolution" image-sharpening feature, which was evident even though it was turned off.

    We were able to deactivate the feature by going to the menu and turning the feature on and then off, but when the TV is turned back on the feature is reactivated by default. Hopefully this can be fixed via a future firmware update.

    As you'd expect from a set this expensive, this LG OLED TV is loaded with features and attractively styled, with a curved, thin-bezel UHD screen that sits atop a clear plexiglass stand. The TV is 3D-capable, and it comes with the company's point-and-click Magic Remote and the webOS smart TV platform, which lets you access content via a row of graphic tiles arrayed across the lower portion of the screen.

    The set has built-in HEVC (Netflix, Amazon) and VP9 support (YouTube) for 4K streaming videos, and all three of the TV's HDMI inputs comply with the latest HDCP 2.2 copy protection specification. However, only two are HDMI 2.0 compatible and thus able to support play back of 4K video at 60Hz, which will be required for compatibility with emerging 4K movie playback devices such as the UHD Blu-ray players expected later this year.

    The bottom line

    If we seem to have been overly critical of LG's OLED TVs so far, it's only because we believe the technology has so much promise for those looking for state-of-the-art TV performance. When we reviewed an LG 1080p OLED last year, we noted a color shift toward red and some noise reduction that couldn't be turned off. LG has corrected those issues, and has now moved to UHD's higher resolution, which looked superb on this set once we corrected the oversharpening.

    As mentioned earlier, most of us who cover TVs for Consumer Reports would probably choose this set to own out of all the TVs we've tested—though probably in the 65-inch screen size if we didn't have to pay for it. And since LG is the only TV manufacturer currently offering OLED sets, it's essentially building a market for a new TV technology by itself, and we applaud the company for that.

    So far, with each iteration we see, OLED technology seems to be heading one step closer to becoming the Holy Grail of TV viewing: the perfect TV.

    —James K. Willcox and Claudio Ciacci

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

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    Complete guide to room and central air conditioners

    With temperatures rising, one thing’s for certain: your utility bill will, too. Now’s a good time, before the thermometer hits triple digits, to assess your cooling needs for the summer. At the very least you should check and clean your equipment, whether you cool your home with central air, room air conditioners, or good, old-fashioned ceiling fans.

    If you’re replacing an old room or central air conditioner, the choices on the market today are likely to be more energy efficient than what you have. But don’t buy too little or too much—getting a cooling system that is the wrong size is the most common mistake people make, regardless of the type. Underestimate your cooling needs and you could be hot and sticky and still increase your electric bills. Buy more capacity than you need and you may wind up with a cool, damp space.

    To keep your cool, get the best performing and most reliable equipment. Consumer Reports has new Ratings of window air conditioners, and this year we talked to 34,000 readers about the reliability of their central air conditioning systems. We learned what made readers hot under the collar and which systems cooled when called upon. During our research and testing, we discovered which units to buy and which to avoid.

    Although more and more homes have central air conditioning, about 6.5 million window units are sold each year. Our latest tests of small, medium, and large window air conditioners found that all were excellent at cooling. What distinguished the best from the rest was quiet operation, convenient controls, and whether they kept working under brownout conditions. All of our top picks exceed federal Energy Star standards and use at least 10 percent less energy than conventional models. Those energy-savers often include other features, such as timers, digital displays, remote controls, and directional vents, which coax the most comfort from the machine.

    How to choose a room A/C

    Before going to the store, determine the size of the space you need to cool and where you’ll place the unit. An air conditioner that's too small won't cool the room. One that's too big will cool so quickly that it won’t have time to remove enough moisture, leaving your room cold and clammy.
     
    Get the right size. When calculating the size of the air conditioner you'll need, take into account not only the size of the room to be cooled but whether the unit will be placed in a window that gets shade or direct sunlight, the height of the ceilings, and even the part of the country where you live. The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers has a worksheet on its website that will help you make the right determination. All you need to get started is a tape measure, a scratch pad, and a calculator.

    Assess the airflow. Air conditioners generally do a better job blowing air in one direction than the other. To uniformly cool a room, you'll need to ensure that air is distributed throughout. When the window air conditioner is located near a corner, it must be able to direct air to the center, so check whether your air conditioner needs to blow air to the right or to the left.

    How quiet? If the unit is going to be placed in a bedroom or another quiet area, check our Ratings for noise. Models that scored excellent or very good in our noise tests are so quiet that the only sound you might hear is the fan running. But air conditioners that scored fair or worse for noise could disturb light sleepers when set on low and are distracting on high.
     
    Our latest tests of almost three dozen room air conditioners include an $580 model that cools superbly and quietly, and even comes in colors that match the drapes. But you don’t have to spend a lot to cool down as the mercury climbs; other top performers start at $160.

    Installation

    If you’re planning to install the air conditioner yourself, consider buying one with a slide-out chassis. That way you can attach the cabinet and adjustable side curtains to the window before sliding in the heavy working parts of the machine. One person can do it, but it’s easier with two.
     
    Check the electricity. Before installing an air conditioner, be sure that the electrical circuit to the room can handle the electrical load of the unit. Read the owner's manual; larger models usually need a dedicated circuit. Never use an extension cord with an air conditioner.
     
    Secure the unit. Always use the manufacturer's safety hardware, such as sash locks and mounting brackets. Unless the manufacturer's directions say otherwise, the window air conditioner should be level from left to right and pitched slightly toward the outdoors so water that condenses on the evaporator drains properly to the rear of the unit and doesn't leak into the home. Seal around the perimeter of the unit with new weatherstripping.

    Maintenance

    A clean machine will keep you cool and cost less to run. Plan on a thorough cleaning before and after the cooling season and regular filter checks during the season.

    Clean or replace dirty filters. You’ll need to clean the filter regularly. Depending on how much time the unit is actually operating and how clean the air is, cleaning may be needed every few weeks to monthly during the cooling season. With that in mind, make sure you determine how easy it is to remove the filter when selecting a new unit—some are trickier than others. Remove debris with a vacuum then wash the filter in warm, soapy water; be sure filters are dry before you reinstall them. Replace damaged filters.

    Vacuum coils and fins. When the filter is removed for cleaning, it's also a good time to check the surface of the evaporator coil, which will now be visible. If there is dust or debris on the surface, gently remove it. Taking care not to deform the soft fins, use an upholstery-brush attachment to vacuum the coils. If your unit has a slide-out chassis, you will usually have good access to the condenser coil when the chassis is removed from the cabinet. That's a good time to inspect and clean any debris off that coil.

    Seal the perimeter. Be sure to seal any air leaks around the unit.

    Avoid "short cycling.” Though most models with electronic controls now have built-in timers to prevent the unit from restarting immediately after shut-down, those with the “old-style” mechanical controls may not. Wait 5 minutes after shutting off the unit to restart it. That allows pressure in the refrigeration system to equalize, avoiding stress on the compressor.

    If your room has only one window or if window units aren’t allowed in your building, a portable air conditioner might seem like an ideal solution. But our latest tests found that portables aren’t as good at cooling as manufacturers claim. Plus they’re pricey and use more energy than similarly sized window units. And because all the mechanical parts are sitting in the room, they can be noisy.
     
    Even portable models with dual hoses, which vent through a window, didn’t impress in our tests. One hose brings air in from the outside to cool the condenser, and the other hose directs heated and moisture-laden air back outside. Dual-hose units did a slightly better job cooling off our test chamber than the single-hose models we tested, but their performance fell far short of similarly sized window units.
     
    If a portable is your only option, choose a dual-hose model. But in our tests, even those models produced less cooling than they claimed and didn’t cool the room to our required temperature. And rolling 85-pound “portables” around on carpeting isn’t for weaklings.

    Consumer Reports asked 34,000 readers about central air conditioning systems purchased between 2007 and mid-2013. Based on their experiences, you may want to give three brands the cold shoulder. All logged the most repairs in our latest reliability surveys. The good news: Choosing one of the more reliable brands can boost the odds that you’ll keep comfortable.

    How to choose central air

    Adding a central cooling system to your home can be relatively straightforward if you already have ductwork. But not all ductwork is equal, and duct systems that were originally designed for a heating system may not be able to handle the air volume required by a cooling system. Another obstacle can be the placement of supply registers. Systems originally designed only for heating might have registers placed in the floor or located low on the walls—good locations for heating but not the best choice for cooling. The less obvious issue is the amount of air being provided to each room, which really determines the amount of heating or cooling being supplied. For example, some rooms may actually require additional supply outlets in order to deliver the necessary cool air in summer, which would likely make them too warm in the winter.
     
    Your contractor should use a duct-sizing method such as the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) Manual D to make sure that the main plenums and all the supply ducts are adequately sized and properly constructed. Further, the system must have the proper number and location of supply registers to deliver sufficient air to the right spots. Leaky or uninsulated ducts can reduce system efficiency considerably. In fact, one of the most beneficial improvements to a ducted system is to have it properly sealed and insulated. If your home doesn’t have ducts, adding them can be expensive and messy, though that is the best option when cooling an entire home.
     
    When replacing or upgrading a central air system, don’t automatically buy the same-sized system. Any changes you’ve made to improve your home’s energy efficiency, such as replacing windows or adding insulation, can reduce your cooling needs. On the other hand, if you’ve added rooms, you might need more cooling.
     
    Have your contractor do a load calculation based on a recognized method, such as Manual J from the ACCA. The contractor’s evaluation should include whether the ducts need to be resized, sealed, and insulated, or replaced. Remember that an indoor evaporator coil and an outdoor condenser must be a matched set, or the performance, efficiency, and capacity claims might not be accurate. After the required cooling capacity has been determined, focus on installation.

    Installation

    Replacing central air conditioning equipment, especially components that are more than 15 years old, can result in energy savings. And if you choose an Energy Star qualified model, you can save even more—but savings will only be realized when a new matched system is correctly installed. A matched system is one in which the indoor evaporator or fan coil and the outdoor condensing unit were meant to be installed together—the manufacturer considers the two components a system with its own unique efficiency rating. If you allow a contractor to install an unmatched set, your home has essentially become a test site and your contractor is the system designer. Though the system may function, it's unlikely to deliver the claimed efficiency that was based on a matched set.
     
    Beyond the cooling hardware, there are other important issues that a good contractor will address in the installation. Under- or overcharging the refrigerant on even a matched indoor/outdoor split system can cause a loss of capacity, efficiency, or both, so proper system charging is critical. Likewise, the proper amount of airflow across the indoor coil (evaporator) is critical for proper operation. Finally, if the air is allowed to leak from supply or return ducts, those leaks will have a significant impact on the operating efficiency and costs. So ensuring that system ducts are properly sealed and insulated is one of the most important improvements you can make.
     
    Finding the right contractor is often a challenge. North American Technician Excellence (NATE) offers a certification program for contractors focusing on specific skill areas. Contractors who participate in that voluntary program differentiate themselves from their competitors. You can also find an installer at contractor associations such as the Air Conditioning Contractors of America. Energy Star follows the ACCA guidelines and recommends the following:
     
    Size the unit properly. Installing equipment that is the correct size is essential for getting the best performance. Bigger isn't always better—a system actually operates best when each component is properly sized. Oversized equipment may cycle on and off more frequently, which can make the home less comfortable and shorten the equipment’s life. Larger capacity cooling equipment requires greater airflow. If the duct system was not sized for that flow, it can become noisy or restrict the flow, causing performance or operational problems.
     
    Seal ducts. Ducts circulate air from the central air conditioner or heat pump throughout the house. The duct system is actually many individual pieces, meaning there are lots of seams and joints. Without sealing, air escapes from those cracks, sending your heated or cooled air directly outdoors, which is not a good use of your energy dollars. Sealing ducts can greatly improve the efficiency of your system.
     
    Optimize airflow. Every evaporator or fan coil is designed to have a specific amount of airflow to meet its efficiency and capacity claims. A duct system that is too small can restrict airflow, which not only negatively impacts efficiency and capacity but can cause operational problems as well. Too high of an airflow is not good either, as it can mean a noisy system.
     
    Check the refrigerant. It's important for a central air system to have the correct amount of refrigerant, or correct refrigerant charge. An improperly charged system may consume more energy and provide less cooling capacity.

    Maintenance

    One of the best ways to keep your air conditioner humming is to keep it clean. That means changing the filters regularly and making sure that no debris accumulates around the outside unit. Here’s some guidance from our experts.

    Call a pro. Have a licensed professional clean and flush the coils, drain pan, and drainage system; vacuum the blower compartments; and check the refrigerant charge and mechanical components.

    Seal and insulate ductwork. Make sure that ducts are sealed and insulated. Up to 40 percent of cooling energy can be lost due to leaks or when uninsulated ducts pass through uncooled spaces such as attics.

    Conduct seasonal checks. Clear debris and keep vegetation at least 2 feet away from the outdoor unit. Clean indoor grills and filters monthly.

    Use a programmable thermostat. You can reduce cooling costs by up to 20 percent by programming the thermostat to raise the temperature when you’re at work and lower it when you return home. Consider using a ceiling, table, or floor fan in occupied rooms so that you can set the thermostat to a higher temperature. For every degree you raise the setpoint, you will save about 2 percent on your cooling costs. And remember, don’t operate a fan in an unoccupied room. That just wastes energy because the breeze doesn’t cool the room, it cools people.

    If you live in an older home or one in which it would be difficult to install the ductwork for a central air system, there is another alternative to getting window units. Split ductless systems are similar to central air but need no ductwork. They have an outside condenser and one to four indoor units with blowers mounted high on the wall. Tubing connects the parts and circulates refrigerant. The tubing, along with an electric and drain line, is usually run through a 3-inch hole hidden behind the indoor unit. Each indoor unit cools the room in which it’s installed and has its own remote control.
     
    The systems we tested in the past had a single indoor unit, did an excellent cooling job, and were much quieter than window air conditioners. When they were set on low, they were barely audible. The systems were about 12,000 Btu/hr., enough to cool roughly 650 square feet, and handled brownouts with ease. And they all used an eco-friendly refrigerant.
     
    Split ductless systems are more expensive than window air conditioners, and professional installation is recommended, but it’s a way to add cooling without tearing up walls to install ducts. A drawback is the large indoor unit (evaporator and fan) that must be mounted on the wall in the room being cooled. The systems can be a good choice when you're only cooling a few rooms. But if you plan to cool many rooms, the cost can increase significantly, often making a ducted system the better choice.

    The average home spends almost 20 percent of its utility bill on cooling, according to Energy Star. But there are ways to save even on hot summer days. A good strategy may be to use air conditioning and ceiling fans in concert. Instead of setting the air conditioner at 74° F to 76° F, raise the temperature to 78° F and let the fans do the rest. Each degree you lower the thermostat increases cooling costs by 2 percent. Here are some simple moves you can make that are recommended by our experts and the Environmental Protection Agency.

    Switch to energy-saving lightbulbs.
    Less than 10 percent of the energy used by an incandescent bulb produces light; the rest escapes as heat. That’s one reason energy-wasting bulbs are being phased out. Energy Star qualified lighting not only uses less energy but also produces less heat, reducing your cooling costs.
     
    Set the thermostat. Use a programmable thermostat or the timer on a window unit to program cooling around your schedule. Avoid cooling an empty house by setting the thermostat a few degrees higher when no one is home and timing your window unit to go on an hour or so before you arrive.
     
    Use ceiling fans. Run the ceiling fan to create a cool breeze. If you raise the thermostat five degrees and use a ceiling fan, you can lower cooling costs by around 10 percent. Remember that a ceiling fan cools you, not the room, so turn it off when you go into another room.
     
    Pull the shades. Close the curtains and shades before you leave home to keep the sun’s rays from overheating the interior. If you don’t have natural shade, move container trees and plants in front of sun-exposed windows.
     
    Reduce oven time. Use a microwave instead of an oven to cook when you can. Ovens take longer to cook food and add heat to your home, working at odds with your air conditioning system. If you have a gas grill outside, consider using that.
     
    Check air conditioner filters. Check your cooling system’s air filter every month. If the filter looks dirty, change it. A dirty filter will slow airflow and make the system work harder.
     
    Plug leaky ducts. As much as 40 percent of your heating and cooling energy can be lost due to leaks and lack of insulation. Seal ductwork using mastic sealant or metal tape and insulate all the ducts that you can access (such as those in attics, crawl spaces, unfinished basements, and garages). Also make sure that connections at vents and registers are well sealed where they meet floors, walls, and ceilings. Those are common places to find leaks and disconnected ductwork.
     
    Work with your utility company. Many utility companies offer rebates to homeowners who upgrade their cooling systems with energy-efficient equipment. Some also offer homeowners free programmable thermostats or discounts and rebates to use an outdoor digital cycling unit (DCU) that “talks to” the utility via radio signals. When the electrical grid gets stressed during heat waves, the utility cycles your central air conditioner’s compressor on and off to decrease demand. Your home may get a little warmer, but it’s better than a blackout.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell

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

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