CHICAGO — We ask a lot of our refrigerators.
That once-humble big white box still may be big and it still may be white, but manufacturers are trying hard to make it anything but humble, arming it with an array of capabilities ranging from spitting out three types of ice on command to alerting you that it's ailing, even if you're out of town.
Manufacturers who displayed their wares at the Kitchen/Bath Industry Show here in mid April said they're packing the next generation of refrigerators with all manner of techno-wizardry and just plain novelty because they have to. Your good old fridge is probably good (though it probably is, indeed, old), and you don't really need a new one.
So they want you to want one, instead.
"It's like the consumer is saying, 'I may drive a Honda, but I want a Lexus,' " said Allen Bundy, a spokesman for LG Electronics.
Bundy's car analogy was an apt one as he reeled off the attributes of a new "four-door" LG, though technically this particular refrigerator had four compartments (rather than doors): two side-by-side French doors for the refrigerator atop two separate slide-out freezer drawers.
Apparently, the more doors the better these days. The four-door models are just taking hold, but three-door combos — French doors for the refrigerator on top and one freezer door or drawer on the bottom — were ubiquitous at the trade show.
In the mere two-door category, side-by-side (refrigerator alongside the freezer) is still the largest-selling category, though it's starting to lose favor to models with the refrigerator on top and the freezer on the bottom, Sears spokesman Mike Kelly said.
Indeed, the top-mounted freezer may become an endangered species, he and other company reps said. The industry is pushing bottom-mount freezers, they said, because consumers use the refrigerator portion much more often than the freezer, so they reason that it's more practical to put the latter below. (Some of them even have two lower freezer drawers.) Baby boomers with achy knees, however, might think otherwise.
Figuring out how to rev up consumer desire through design shifts such as these is particularly critical to the appliance business as the housing downturn drones on. Last year, overall appliance sales slipped about 1.6 percent, to $25.6-billion, according to NPD Group, an industry researcher.
Though some appliance categories, such as dishwashers, did fairly well last year, refrigeration didn't. Sales fell nearly 10 percent in terms of dollar volume, NPD Group's data show.
Americans don't dash out and buy new refrigerators often because these days the appliances have a life expectancy of 12 to 15 years, said Lora Donoghue, a Charlotte, N.C., appliance distributor who's on the board of directors of the National Kitchen and Bath Association, the show's sponsor.
Packing the devices with technology is aimed at impressing younger buyers, who value innovation, Donoghue said.
"The older buyer is just looking for efficient storage," she said. "They want something that's energy-efficient and just keeps food cold." A basic freestanding refrigerator ranges in price from $1,000 to $2,500, she said. Built-ins are $3,800 to $10,000.
Bells and whistles, however, dominated the booths at K/BIS. Some highlights, a mix of recent introductions and models that will be available in the marketplace later this year, include:
• Manufacturers are falling all over themselves to ramp up the way refrigerators dispense ice or filtered water.
Sears' Kenmore Elite line, for instance, claims to have the only ice dispenser that can produce three varieties — cubed, crushed, and now shaved, apparently the better to make smoothies. The refrigerator dispenses 8 ounces in 20 seconds, direct from the front door.
Filtered-water dispensers aren't changing as much as the gizmos that support the vessel you're filling up. GE, for instance, has restyled its dispenser to accommodate pitchers. Its control graphics light up as you approach and switch off when you walk away.
• Refrigerators' original duty, keeping food chilled, has become increasingly complicated. One temperature no longer fits all.
Many manufacturers offer a temperature menu tailored to specific foods. Gaggenau, for example, lets you set a drawer temperature at 32 degrees for fish, 33 degrees for meat and poultry or 35 degrees for produce.
Siemens and Bosch, among others, offer quick-chill and quick-freeze settings — sort of a reverse microwave effect. Such features are designed to swiftly cool bottles of wine or foods fresh from the supermarket, and then return to normal settings.
• The manufacturers want you to be able to see what you're chilling: Many have outfitted their interiors with LED and halogen lighting that illuminate your leftover potato salad as if it were in a television studio. They're recessing the bulbs and lighting modules into the body of the refrigerator so as not to take up precious storage space.
• Antimicrobial weapons are spreading: Sears announced at the show that it was outfitting some crisper drawers with the Microban technology that retards germ growth. LG was touting its Bio Silver feature — tiny silver particles embedded into the coatings of the refrigerator walls and drawers that the company claims slows the growth of bacteria and mold.
• A color-trend forecast delivered during the trade show said that manufacturers aren't likely to budge anytime soon from their long-time favorites, stainless steel and black.
But alternative hues are trying to edge their way in. Smeg USA, an Italian manufacturer, showed an array of 24-inch-wide refrigerators in 10 lollipop colors, including pink, orange, baby blue and lime.
Fagor, touting "a new way of decorating your kitchen," unveiled a variation on the black theme with its BlackArt finish. Its 24-inch-wide refrigerator is, as the name would imply, black, but it sports such a sheen that you can literally see yourself reflected in the door.
• And finally, the appliance that tracks you down: Having the refrigerator break while you're out of town is an obvious bummer. Miele's RemoteVision feature uses wireless, local-area-network (LAN) technology to constantly monitor your refrigerator. If it picks up a malfunction, it alerts the Miele service center, which then contacts the homeowner or a designated individual to gain access to the home and fix the problem. The company says it plans to extend this technology to other appliances by the end of this year.
Mary Umberger is a freelance housing journalist based in Chicago.