By BUILDER Magazine Staff. Perhaps more than any other product category, appliances have made life easier and more convenient for American homeowners. Over the years, manufacturers have developed high-output ranges with enough BTUs to flash-fry a buffalo, energy-efficient dishwashers that use very little water yet provide extremely clean dishes, and high-speed ovens that cook dinner in the time it would take to set the table--if people still did that sort of thing.

But what have manufacturers done for consumers lately? Quite a bit, it turns out. In the last few years alone, they have tweaked and tuned appliances, providing simple, yet important, features and have added new offerings to make life easier still.

Modern conveniences

"With people spending more time at home, they want simple comfort and conveniences," says Tony Evans, a representative for Augusta, Ga.-based Frigidaire. "So they want things like quiet operation dishwashers and refrigerators that offer built-in ice and water filtration."

The most popular features are driven by electronics, says Kim Freeman, a representative of GE in Louisville, Ky. The features that save consumers' time and offer unheard of convenience are especially hot, she says. The company's Arctica refrigerator, for example, has an "express thaw" feature for meats and an "express ice" feature that accelerates ice production but also produces up to 50 percent more for a party or an unexpected social gathering.

Rebecca Silliman, a representative for Whirlpool in Benton Harbor, Mich., says the company conducts countless consumer research panels to get an idea of what people are looking for in their appliances. And the company is listening. Most of the advances and features it has introduced over the years are the results of those consumer focus groups.

At the International Builders' Show this past February, Whirlpool introduced the Polara, a range that allows users to refrigerate food for 24 hours before the unit automatically cooks it. The manufacturer also has the Duet, a washing machine with a sanitizing cycle that eliminates 99.99 percent of common infectious bacteria. Whirlpool says the sanitizing feature is for people who want to get rid of bacteria without the use of chemicals. To top things off, the machine uses 68 percent less water and 67 percent less electricity than standard washing machines.

Not to be out done on electronic features, Newton, Iowa-based Amana introduced the Messenger, a side-by-side refrigerator with a built-in voice memo function that allows family members to leave messages for each other. The feature also monitors and alerts homeowners to a variety of the refrigerator's functions. For example, it lets you know when to change the water filter, and it lets homeowners know if the doors have accidentally been left open.

Simple pleasures

But not all innovations are electronics-based; some are simple additions. One example is Amana's KidZone side-by-side refrigerator, which has an easy-to-access kid's area at the bottom of the unit. Though this feature may not seem all that important, Amana says it's a mother's dream come true. Kids get their own area for juice and other snacks, while mom gets a cleaner more organized refrigerator, the company says.

Refrigerator organization may not be important to everyone, but for some people it's an absolute necessity. Though most refrigerators come with adjustable shelves, the fridge's interior is still a preset configuration, and what you see is usually what you get--until now. Newton, Iowa-based Jenn-Air has introduced a new Luxury Series line of side-by-side refrigerators that can be personalized on the inside as much as it can on the outside. Consumers may choose from a stainless steel or paneled exterior, but they can also choose one of two modular designs for the interior. Buyers also may choose different options or buy additional components as time goes on.

For those who are still concerned about energy, manufacturers are making appliances even stingier than they already are. Frigidaire, for instance, has introduced a new 18-cubic-foot refrigerator that uses less electricity than a 60-watt light bulb. The unit has a total operating cost of about $41 per year, so it can pay for itself in a few years. With homeowners keeping their refrigerators for about 15 years, Frigidaire says a saving like this can be substantial.

Photo: Courtesy KitchenAid

Double duty: Briva is a combination wash system that can be used as a dishwasher, a sink, or a food preparation area. Sized to fit a 42- or 48-inch cabinet, the system features four cycle selections, a silverware basket, electronic controls, capacity for five place settings, and a stainless steel lid and interior. It also has a quick wash system that can wash and dry a load in 18 minutes. KitchenAid. 800-887-5243.

Photo: Courtesy Jenn-Air

Interior design: The Luxury Series side-by-side refrigerator can be customized inside with one of two modular designs that include a la carte storage drawers, tilt-down bins, and elevator shelves. Other combinations are available, and homeowners may purchase additional components. Available in 42- or 48-inch versions, the unit comes in either stainless steel or a custom front panel. Jenn-Air. 800-536-6247.

Photo: Courtesy Maytag

Level three: Jetclean II's three-rack dishwasher can accommodate large odd-shaped dishes and pans that are normally hard to fit in a dishwasher. The product has semi-integrated controls that slip under the lip of the countertop and offers enough space for 14 place settings in a single load. The dishwasher's Split and Fit silverware basket can be moved within the unit. Maytag. 641-792-7000.

Photo: Courtesy Amana

Child's play: The KidZone's easy-to-access area at the bottom of the fresh food section stores juice containers, pudding cups, and other treats for kids. Bright colors and a penguin character let kids know that this area is for them. Once the kids get older, the section can be replaced with the manufacturer's temperature controlled beverage chiller. The refrigerator is available in white, black, and stainless steel. Amana. 800-843-0304.

Photo: Courtesy Whirlpool

Two big: The Duet has 3.7 cubic feet of space or 23 percent more than traditional washing machines, which means it can wash up to 22 bath towels in a single load, the manufacturer says. It uses 68 percent less water and 67 percent less electricity than standard washing machines, and it features a sanitizing cycle that eliminates 99.99 percent of bacteria such as e-coli. Whirlpool. 616-923-5000.