Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene What's the Use?

Separating the worthwhile products from the worthless

By Walter Jowers

OCTOBER 25, 1999:  If you ask me, the very best thing about living in America is that if you can think of something you want, it's an almost sure bet that somebody has made it and you can buy it. In just the last few weeks, I've found out that if I wanted to, I could buy any and all of the following: a telephone that'll tell me if the party on the other end of the line is lying; a battery-powered nose-and-ear-hair razor; and a jock-and-cup designed especially for the female athlete.

Problem is, with so many products around, a fair number of them are sure to be useless. This is particularly true of home-improvement products. I figure it's my job to separate the good from the bad. So here goes.


Good: Laminate countertops

I'm talking about the amazingly durable and inexpensive stuff made by companies such as Formica, Wilsonart, and Nevamar. Laminate counters come in a dizzying array of patterns and styles. Want to jazz up the kitchen in your lakeside trailer with some fake butcher block counters? You can do that. Want counters that might pass for granite? They're available too. My personal favorites are the '50s-'60s speckle-and-swirl patterns that celebrate the fact that the countertops are made out of squeezed-together paper and plastic. I like good, honest, useful plastic.

Bad: Vinyl siding

Clearly, vinyl siding is a dishonest use of plastic. First of all, it's got that fake wood-grain pattern, like the side of an old Ford station wagon. It's not fooling anybody. Second, the stuff is marketed as a low- or no-maintenance material, even though it cracks, fades, and eventually wears out.

I admit, I can see a need for low-cost siding on some new houses. It's hard enough to afford a house these days, even without paying for brick or wood siding. I am a little bothered, though, by the fact that a vinyl-sided wall is so flimsy that a squirrel could gnaw his way through it in just a few minutes' time.

The worst thing about vinyl siding is that it's heavily marketed as a cure for peeling paint on old wood siding. Throw away that paintbrush! Never paint again!

Believe me when I tell you: Putting fake siding over peeling paint is not a cure. It's just a cover-up. It might even make things worse. Water can get behind it and rot the original siding and maybe even the wall framing.

For the cost of a vinyl-siding job, you could pay a painting crew to scrape, patch, prime, and repaint your house for as long as you live. Keeping the original wood siding in good shape will help the resale value of the house too.


Good: Kitchen Aid dishwashers

Every now and then, I'll walk into a 1950s house and find an original Kitchen Aid dishwasher in perfectly good working order. These 40-year-old ones are rare, but I see 15- and 20-year-old ones just about every day; I don't see any other brands lasting that long. We've got a 12-year-old Kitchen Aid dishwasher in our very own house. It's a little noisy, and we keep hoping it'll die so we can get a quieter model. But it's like a bad dog that won't mind or let you pet it: It won't die; it won't even get sick.

Bad: Ozone-spewing air purifiers

There is a cult of multi-level marketers out there selling what they call "air purifiers." Part of the sales pitch is that these gadgets clean the air the same way a thunderstorm does, with nature's own ozone. They claim the mighty ozone can go through walls and knock airborne pollutants to the floor, where they can be picked up with an ordinary vacuum cleaner. Trouble is, ozone is itself a pollutant, and it's just plain bad for human airways. If you've got one of these things, unplug it.


Good: Old-fashioned single-pane windows

If I built a house tomorrow, I'd order single-pane, divided-light windows, rather than the usual double-pane windows with the snap-in wood or plastic grids. Here's why: Double-pane windows eventually lose their seal and fog up. Sometimes it happens after just a few months, sometimes it happens 10 to 15 years after the window is installed. When the windows fog up, you can't see through them anymore. In our climate, I'm not sure that the double glazing saves money. I suspect that the cost of replacing the fogged panes is pretty close to the amount of energy saved by having double-glazed windows.

Bad: Ventless fireplaces

Walk into any fireplace shop, and you'll see freestanding, ventless fireplaces for sale. These things come with their own mantel and everything. Just pick a room that you think needs a fireplace and put one of these things in.

The problem is that despite the built-in safeguards, these things can spew indoor pollutants, including carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. I say if you're going to have a fireplace, you really need a chimney.


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