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Article: How to use Household Appliances - Where to Start?

Where to Start?

Table of Contents
  1. Where to Start?

Being 50-ish I really never thought of this as a problem needing a solution – everyone knows how to use appliances, right?  Well, when my mother passed away, I found out that my father didn’t know the difference between the washer and the dryer, let alone how to use either one.  The successful operation of these systems is important to someone who would like to remain in their home and community and are key to nutrition, hygiene, health and safety. And it is a REAL problem.

So where to start?

This is going to sound crazy, but once you have figured out what the appliance is, you might still have the owner’s manual.  Then again you might not, but the internet can be helpful.

Taking a quick survey of my father’s house yielded the following information:

1. Kitchen:

  • Refrigerator: Kenmore 29” wide Model 363 refrigerator (smaller for frequent access)
  • Stove: Kenmore – needed to pull it out to find a model number
  • Toaster Oven/Broiler – Black & Decker
  • Microwave – Sharp Carousel
  • Sink Disposal – Badger

2. Basement:

  • Washer – Maytag Centennial – top loader
  • Dryer Kenmore Elite – Front loader
  • A Boiler for Hot Water baseboard Heat, each baseboard radiator has bleeders
  • A Rinnai Tankless Hotwater Heater
  • A 32” wide Kenmore refrigerator/Freezer for less frequently accessed food
  • A Bissell bagless vacuum cleaner

Other appliances that may be found include trash compactors, humidifiers, de-humidifiers, and water treatment systems, waste treatment systems including septic systems.

I was somewhat surprised out how difficult it was to find a model number, and if a label or model plate was to be found, the font size required a magnifying glass to make out any information.  So Rule #1 – try to keep the operation manuals in a central location, as you replace appliances. 

Appliances are designed to help with daily chores, but they can also be a source of danger.  Many of them provide significant heat as an example.  They are also generally designed for use by persons who have full motor and visual and cognitive skills and this may not be the situation.

As always refer to the operations manual if you can find one, generally you can find the manual on-line if you can find the model number.  Just enter the Model number, manufacturer and the words Operation Manual and it will usually pop-up as a “PDF”, which can be downloaded or printed using Adobe’s free pdf Reader.  I found it very difficult to do this for about half the appliances in Dad’s home because the model numbers were hard to get to or find.  So here are some general appliance tips:

Microwave Ovens:

  • Don’t operate the Microwave when it is empty or with the door open.
  • Check the food package for recommended cook levels and times.
  • Use only dishes that are safe for microwave ovens.  Metal bowls, pans plates or ones with metal trim are generally not safe, unless specifically noted as such by the manufacturer. Twist ties and staples in packaging can have the same effect – remove them.
  • Never heat containers with small openings such as syrup bottles. Pierce the skins of non-porous food items like potatoes to keep them from building up steam and exploding.  Don’t boil eggs in the shell for the same reason.  
  • As some foods warm they may splatter.  As an example, when warming up a bowl of chili, it will probably be wise to place a paper towel over the bowl during heating.  The paper towel will allow steam to escape, but will contain splatter.
  • It is remarkable how quickly food and containers can get very hot in a microwave. Remove food containers using pot-holders.  Test the heat of the food prior to putting a regular sized portion in one’s mouth. It is VERY easy to get painful burns from overheated food.  When experimenting with the correct cooking times, especially for rewarming, it may work best to cook it for 20 seconds, test to see if it is warm enough, if not then cook another 20 seconds and so forth. Significant time differences will exist between pre-thawed food and that which his taken right out of the freezer.


  • The stove and oven get VERY hot and special care needs to be used.  It is generally recommended that when burners are set to medium or hotter that the stove not be left unattended.  Heating elements can look cool even when they are hot and someone else may not realize the stove is “on”, or the cook may get distracted and leave something on too long and quickly cause a fire.
  • Be VERY careful of hot fat or grease.  You will be able to quickly see if the heat being applied is too hot by the smoke – don’t rely on your smoke detector in this case.  Carefully draining excess hot grease into a proper container during cooking may be helpful.  Never attempt to put out a grease fire with water or by throwing sugar or flour on it - the results are extremely explosive.  A dry chemical fire extinguisher from a distance may be the best idea. Throwing a wet towel over the pan or area is another often used successful method.  Quickly call the fire department if you have any doubt and evacuate the household occupants, especially if someone is home who has limited mobility.
  • Do not use the oven for a storage area.  One preheat and the house is aflame.  If kids items are stored there, they may be tempted to open the oven on their own – this is not usually a good idea.  Prior to preheating, it is a very good idea to check to make sure nothing is in the oven and that it is relatively clean.  It is also a great time to move the oven racks to their desired positions as they are still cool.
  • Use dry potholders – wet ones can cause steam burns, and don’t wear loose-fitting or baggy shirts or blouses when using the stove as they can catch fire while reaching over a hot burner.
  • Boiling water and things of that nature are pretty simple – just put it on “High”.  Teapots are nice because they whistle for you when they are ready.  Aluminum pans are not so polite and may melt into the stove if neglected for too long.   Cooking burgers, bacon, eggs and other foods by frying may work best in medium settings. Low settings are good for needs below boiling, like simmering.  Stove element settings are related to the rate of heat transfer, not a specific temperature, and are related to the stove element size and wattage for electric stoves.   It will take some experimentation, and it is easy to increase the heat because it isn’t cooking then to try to un-burn the food.    Unlike Microwaves, stoves utilize metal utensils well and covers and metal splatter screens may be of good use.
  • When using pans on the stove burners, turn the pan handles in towards the center of the range so that they don’t extend over the floor in front of the range or over the other heating elements.  In this position there is less likelihood of getting pulled off of the stove and having a burn or other serious accident.


  • If you have a drying element for the heated sanitizing cycle – don’t forget that the contents of the washer are quite hot.  Let them cool of prior to unloading the dishwasher.
  • Knives and sharp prongs can injure – loading them points-down can make it safer to  unload.
  • Liquid dish soap is great at making bubbles in the sink.  Dishwasher soap is designed to NOT make bubbles.  If you use liquid dish soap in the dishwasher, you will have a foam factory.
  • Some types of plastics and other materials may not be dishwasher safe, If they are, there is often a label letting you know “dishwasher-safe” when purchased.


  • These should be cleaned out every so often.  If you put something in the freezer for use later, it may be useful to write on the bag or box the date you put it in.  Having a plastic bottle of frozen water in the freezer can be helpful in keeping things cold during a power failure.
  • Freezers and refrigerators work using a heat exchanger typically located on the back of the unit.  It requires air flow to work properly.  It is also the reason why you can’t cool your house by leaving the fridge door open.
  • Bacteria and germs like dark and cool places. A refrigerator is no exception.  For food safety reasons it is important to clean these out periodically with soap and water.
  • Generally the door mounts on refrigerator units and doors are switchable. You can move the hinges and handles without too much effort, though the main door may be a little awkward.  This simple change may make the unit much more accessible if implemented in some situations. 
  • Refrigerator/Freezers often have setting switches which allow you to change the temperature in each.  A thermometer placed inside for a period of time will tell you what the current setting is.  The ideal refrigerator temperature is somewhere between 35 and 38 degrees (F)  or 1.7  to 3.3 degrees (C).  Freezer ideals are 0 (F) or -18 Celsius for storage and -10 (-23C) for freezing.  For every 5 degrees F above zero, the recommended food storage time is cut in half.  Food stored above 0-F loses more nutrients and quality faster.  A myth is that a cold freezer causes “freezer burn”.  Freezer burn is the dehydration of food by air.  Careful storage of food in airtight containers will limit this problem. 
  • Refrigerators and Freezers are designed to be air-tight and placing people or pets requiring oxygen in them is very dangerous.  Many areas have laws requiring door removal on unused refrigerators.

Washers & Dryers

  • Don’t reach into the washer or dryer when it is spinning.  Wait until it has stopped.
  • Use laundry detergent in the washer.  Combining products can harm clothing or worse.  Ammonia and bleach together produces poison gas.
  • Check the labels on unusual clothing prior to washing.  You will probably need to find the magnifying glass again… often things are safe for washing, but they should be hung on hangers or lines to dry.  Examples include wool sweaters or other “delicates”.
  • Dryers also strain lint from clothing and have a lint trap or tray.  This must be cleaned after each load. 
  • In the winter static electricity builds up and a fabric softer or sheet may be helpful.  If clothing is left in the dryer too long after drying is complete, it may severely wrinkle, requiring a rewash/re-dry or extensive ironing.
  • If children or pets are present take care with front loading dryers.  Check to make sure no one has crawled in prior to turning the dryer on.

Trash Compactors

  • Don’t shove trash down into the compactor with your hand or feet.
  • Don’t compact pressurized cans or those containing poisonous or explosive products.

Things with Filters

Your air conditioning air handler or window unit, water purifier, dryer and vacuum cleaner all have filters.  These need to be cleaned or replaced or they will cause problems or safety issues.  Know where they are and perhaps have a log next to the less frequently cleaned ones to remind you when to do so.  If they need a spare filter, it might make it easy to include on the shopping list prior to needing it, so it will be easy to replace when it is needed or when someone is available to help.


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Last Updated on 5/24/2021