Non-native insects costs taxpayers billions each year

Damage from non-native insects is costing taxpayers billions a year, according to a new study published today in the PLoS One journal. Conducted by a group of U.S. and Canadian scientists and the U.S. Forest Service the study estimates that the invaders cost governments and homeowners almost $4 billion per year. It’s a double-whammy for homeowners who are also sustaining property value losses.

“It is costing taxpayers billions as the government tries to eradicate these invaders,” says Betsy Von Holle, a University of Central Florida Biologist and one of the authors of the study. “We’re losing a variety of native species as a result of importing these pests. It’s not just aesthetics. It’s impacting our economy and our analysis shows just how much it is costing all of us, not just government.”

The authors looked at three types of invasive pests that feed on U.S. trees, the emerald ash borer, gypsy moth, and hemlock woolly adelgid. When they calculated the economic damages, the costs were staggering. Local governments spend more than $2 billion per year and residential property value loss due to forest insects averages $1.5 billion a year, according to the researchers.The federal government spends on average about $216 million a year.

Wood-boring insects such as the emerald ash borer, which often hitch a ride in packing materials, cost the most to control and do the most damage. But foliage feeders and sap feeders cause an estimated $410 million and $260 million, respectively, in lost residential property value each year. The researchers say that at least 455 types of non-native insects have established themselves in the U.S.

While there is little an individual homeowner can do, the researchers say that their information can be used in cost-benefit analysis to help governments establish import taxes or fees that can be used to fund prevention and eradication efforts.

—Mary H.J. Farrell

Future tech: British researchers create safer, cheaper gel battery

Rechargeable lithium-based batteries are the heart and soul of power-hungry electronics, such as the new speedyMotorola Droid Bionic, which drained the life of its hefty battery way too fast for our liking. But in the future, they could be replaced by polymer jelly batteries that could also make all sorts of gadgets both cheaper and safer.

Researchers at the University of Leeds came up with a way to replace the volatile and hazardous liquid electrolyte currently used in most lithium batteries with a polymer jelly. The researchers blended a rubber-like polymer with a conductive, liquid electrolyte into a flexible film that sits between the battery electrodes.

So even lighter laptops and more efficient electric cars, such as the Nissan Leaf, could be in our future. However, just as importantly, this technology could also be the answer to the long standing issue of batteries posing a fire hazard. The BBC, which reported the gel battery news, pointed to the 2006 recall of 4 million Dell laptop batteries because they were a fire hazard.

More recently, we reported product recalls due to the fire hazard posed by batteries, both toys and computers:Recall expanded for HP notebook computer batteries that are a—fire hazard, and Toy helicopter recall for fire and burn danger.

Jelly batteries: Safer, cheaper, smaller, more powerful [BBC]

Clutter-cutting blenders

With an immersion blender you take the appliance to the food. You dunk it directly into smoothies, soups, and other fare. It also fits in a drawer, saving counter space.

Our tests whipped up three top picks, including a CR Best Buy that ran circles around a pricey “professional” model for a fraction of the cost.

We puréed chicken bouillon and vegetables for soup and blended frozen fruit and yogurt for smoothies, typical tasks for these machines. Our testers grated cheese, and chopped garlic and other foods with models that have a chopping option.

Even the best immersion blenders aren’t nearly as fast or as powerful as a countertop model, but they’re a useful complement. Here’s what else our tough tests revealed:

Don’t buy by price

2 Miallegro, a CR Best Buy at $50, blended and puréed nearly as well as 1 Breville. In its chopping mode it grated cheese more finely for half the money. It also left the $180 6 Bamix far behind.

Weigh the features

All three of our picks have an auxiliary mixing beaker, chopper assembly, and a whisk for beating. Metal parts that come off for cleaning are another handy item on all but the Bamix. But having three blade tips instead of the usual two made no difference on 3 DeLonghi.

Don’t assume that faster is better

As the Ratings show, the models with the highest speeds aren’t necessarily the best performers. And although 3 DeLonghi is one of two machines with a high-speed turbo mode, it was barely faster than the nonturbo Breville.

Take “pro” with a lump of salt

The Bamix and 5 Waring are two of the three “professional” models that were included in our tests. But neither the Waring nor the Bamix, with its heavy-duty parts, delivered when it came to performance.

Small sedans & hatchbacks

The Honda Civic rolls backwards while the Ford Focus moves ahead

We have seen a number of redesigned models do worse in our overall road-test score than the ones they replaced. But the 2012 Honda Civic (available to subscribers) sets a new mark. That highly anticipated redesign dropped a whopping 17 points— from a very good 78 to a mediocre 61. The Civic was once one of our highest-rated small sedans and was our Top Pick in that category as recently as 2007, but it now scores too low to be recommended(available to subscribers).

Compared with its predecessor, the 2012 Civic is less agile and has lower interior quality. It also suffers from a choppy ride, long stopping distances, and pronounced road noise. On the positive side the Civic provides decent rear-seat room, and it achieved 30 mpg overall, which gives it the second-best fuel economy in its class—behind only the Toyota Corolla’s 32 mpg. We are also testing the Civic Hybrid and will report on it next month.

While other models, including the class-leading Hyundai Elantra, have gotten better after being redesigned, the Civic now ranks near the bottom of its category. It’s ahead of only the Volkswagen Jetta, which plunged 16 points after its own recent redesign.

New from Ford and Kia

For this issue, we also tested sedan and hatchback versions of the redesigned-for-2012Ford Focus and the hatchback version of the Kia Forte (both available to subscribers).

We found the Focus to be fun to drive and more polished than its predecessor, with the type of agile handling, supple ride, and solid feel that we’d expect from a compact sports sedan. Both versions also got a commendable 28 mpg overall. But a snug rear seat, complicated controls, and annoying behavior by the transmission took a toll on their overall scores. The more upscale and versatile SEL hatchback earned a very good 74, positioning it just below the class-leading Volkswagen Golf, Mazda3, and Subaru Impreza Outback Sport. The lower-trim SE sedan scored 68, which is slightly better than its predecessor’s 65 and about the same as the Chevrolet Cruze.

The 5-Door hatchback is Kia’s latest addition to the Forte line, which also includes the four-door sedan and the sportier two-door Koup. The well-equipped, relatively roomy hatchback offers a lot for the money. But its noise isolation, ride, and interior quality are middling, relegating it to a mid-pack score of 71, which is similar to the Toyota Matrix.

The as-tested prices of this month’s group range from $19,340 for the Forte EX 5-Door to $22,185 for the Ford Focus SEL hatchback. None of the cars from this group isrecommended (available to subscribers). Although they scored well enough, the Focus models and the Forte hatchback are too new for us to have reliability data. And while we expect the redesigned Civic to provide better-than-average reliability, it didn’t score highly enough in our tests to be recommended (available to subscribers).

Auto Test Extra: Ford F-150

We tested two versions of the Ford F-150 pickup, perennially the top-selling model in the U.S. A freshening for 2011 brought it a new 5.0-liter V8 engine as well as a turbocharged EcoBoost 3.5-liter V6, which provides more towing capability. Both of our trucks got the same good fuel economy. We also took a quick look at three heavy-duty pickups: the Chevrolet Silverado 2500, Dodge Ram 2500, and Ford F-250. See how they size up in Three heavy-duty workhorses.

Getting started – Crib guide

While you might consider a bassinet, cradle, or bedside sleeper at first (some common alternatives for your baby’s first four months or so), your child is safest in a crib. Certification by the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Associate on a bassinet can offer a layer of protection that uncertified models cannot, but a JPMA label is no guarantee of safety. We don’t recommend bedside sleepers (also referred to as “co-sleepers”) at all because there are neither voluntary nor mandatory standards covering them. This crib guide will help you to make your buying decision.

Basic is best

The safest cribs are basic, with simple lines and no scrollwork or finials-infants can strangle if their clothing gets caught in such detail work. Heeding this advice will get you a safer crib-and save you money. New Consumer Product Safety Commission regulations for full-size and portable cribs require the elimination of drop-side models that have been related to at least 32 deaths over the past few years. The standards also include rigorous new durability testing, and require improved warnings and labeling. Consumer Reports’ tests, which are based on the previous safety standards, do not address the durability issues addressed by the newer durability standards.

Buy new

If possible, avoid buying or accepting a used crib. Older models might not meet current safety standards or might be in disrepair. If you must use an older crib, avoid those built before 2000, about a year after the latest voluntary standards for slat-attachment strength took effect. By law, the production date of the crib has to be displayed on the crib and on its shipping carton.

Still, be on the lookout for safety hazards. Even when you’re buying new, bring a ruler with you when you shop. If the spaces between the slats–or anywhere else on the crib–are greater than 2 ¿ inches (2.375 inches) wide, they are too far apart. If you buy online, measure any openings immediately when the crib arrives at your home.

Check for sharp edges and protruding screws, nuts, corner posts, decorative knobs, and other pieces that could catch a baby’s clothing at the neck. Buying new could help to protect your baby from hidden dangers such as drop sides, slats, or hardware that might have been weakened by rough use, or excessive dampness or heat during storage.

Check construction and workmanship

The simplest in-store test is to shake the crib slightly to see if the frame seems loose. But be aware that display models aren’t always as tightly assembled as they could be. Without applying excessive pressure, try rotating each slat to see if it’s well secured to the railings. You shouldn’t find loose bars on a new crib, or any cracking if they are made of wood.

Buy the mattress at the same time

In the store, pair the mattress and crib you plan to buy to make sure that they’re a good fit. (Mattresses typically are sold separately.) By law, a mattress used in a full-size crib must be at least 27 1/4 inches wide by 51 5/8 inches long and no more than 6 inches thick. Still, do a quick check. If you can place more than two fingers between the mattress and the crib frame, the fit isn’t snug enough.

Arrange for assembly

Cribs are shipped unassembled, so if you’re not sure that you can put a crib together correctly (typically a two-person job that requires up to an hour-from unpacking to complete assembly), ask the retailer to send a qualified assembly crew to your home. That can cost an extra $70 or more unless assembly is included in the retail price, but it can give you valuable peace of mind. Besides saving tempers and fingers, crib assembly by the store allows you to inspect the crib on the spot-and reject it if you discover flaws.

Assemble the crib or have it assembled where your baby will be sleeping initially, such as in your bedroom (recommended for your baby’s first six months). Once it’s put together, the crib might not fit through a small doorway, and you might need to disassemble and reassemble it in your baby’s nursery six months later. Having the baby in your room might not be convenient, but you’ll have the reassurance that your baby is sleeping in the safest possible place.

Adjust the mattress to the right height

Most cribs have this feature, some with only three levels and some with several levels. The higher levels make it easier to take your infant out of the crib but become dangerous when your child is able to pull herself to a standing position. Before your child reaches that stage-about 6 months-the mattress should be at its lowest setting. Bumper pads and large toys help your little escape artists to climb out, which is another reason that they don’t belong in the crib.

Place your baby’s crib well away from windows, window blinds, wall hangings, curtains, toys, and other furniture so that an adventurous baby can’t get to anything dangerous.

For safety’s sake, monitor your child’s development closely and stop using a crib as soon as your toddler can climb out. At that point, consider a toddler bed with child railings or put the mattress on the floor. Don’t put your child back into the crib after the first “escape,” regardless of his age. A child attempting to climb out of a crib can fall and be seriously injured.

Use the proper sheets

When buying the mattress, make sure you also buy sheets that fit. If a sheet isn’t the correct fit, your baby might pull it up and become entangled. Test the sheet by pulling up on each corner to make sure it doesn’t pop off the mattress corner.

After you crib has been in use for awhile, make sure to check all the hardware periodically and tighten or replace anything that’s missing or loose. Missing and loose parts are a leading cause of accidents and death, because they can create gaps where a baby can wedge his head and neck, and suffocate or strangle. Tighten all nuts, bolts, and screws. Check mattress support attachments regularly to make sure none of them are bent or broken. If you move a crib, double-check that all support hangers are secure.

Safe sleeping

Let your baby sleep unencumbered. Don’t wrap your bundle of joy in blankets or comforters when he’s in the crib. He can quickly become entangled and might not be able to free himself. Pillows, quilts, comforters, sheepskins, stuffed animals, or dolls don’t belong in the bassinet or crib. And remember that babies can quickly overheat. Put yours to sleep in lightweight clothes and set the thermostat at a comfortable 70 degrees. Infant sleepwear should fit snuggly and be made of flame-resistant fabric, with no drawstrings, ribbons, or anything else that might catch on something. Buttons and snaps should be firmly attached to avoid becoming a choking hazard.

Always put your baby to sleep on his back, not his stomach, to minimize the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and rebreathing, a sometimes fatal circumstance that can occur when a baby is sleeping on his stomach or trapped in soft bedding. As a result the child “rebreathes” his own carbon dioxide rather than breathing in oxygen-rich fresh air. The lack of oxygen can cause death.

Don’t use a sleep positioner to keep your baby on his or her back. Many sleep positioner models, including some made of memory foam, can be lethal. If the infant moves down and presses his or her face against the soft surface, the air passages can be blocked, causing suffocation.

Where to buy appliances

Abt, Amazon, and QVC beat the big chains

It’s not just about the big retail stores anymore.

Online stores, independent local retailers, and even a TV shopping channel have been among the most satisfying places to buy, according to more than 16,000 subscribers who told us about their recent appliance purchases.

Abt Electronics, which is based in the Chicago area and ships nationwide, reaped praise from shoppers who bought one or more appliances in the past year. Amazon and the QVC shopping channel topped the list for small appliances.

The latest survey from the Consumer Reports National Research Center added questions on satisfaction with shipping and installation. It also asked about haul-away of old appliances and about returns.

We didn’t have enough responses to report on every appliance retailer, but Sears and Best Buy in particular received low grades for returns.

Respondents had some criticism about shopping for small appliances such as vacuum cleaners, gas grills, and coffeemakers. Product selection, service at the time of purchase, and the checkout experience were particular sore points, especially at Walmart and its warehouse-club sibling, Sam’s Club.

Here are some tips for shopping:

Plan ahead to get good prices

Overall, people were generally happy with their experiences shopping for appliances, especially compared with other consumer services we measure. But some strategies they tried made shopping more successful.

Almost 30 percent of those shopping for major appliances looked up buying advice on retailers’ websites before making their purchase. Of those shoppers, 75 percent found it helpful. Close to 80 percent who phoned the retailer and more than half who e-mailed for information considered it worth their while.

Timing purchases can help, too. Sales before and after the winter holidays are common. In September or October, retailers also tend to cut prices on cooking appliances to make room for next year’s models. Refrigerators might go on sale around May for the same reason.

You can sometimes combine special offers from a product’s manufacturer and from a store, or save by buying multiple appliances. But first you have to find the offers. If you sign up on a retailer’s website weeks before a purchase, you can get e-mail offering coupons and other promotional deals such as rebates, free shipping, and so-called VIP sales.

Haggling often helps as well, according to the 35 percent of major-appliance shoppers who tried to negotiate prices: Seventy-two percent of them said they were successful. The payoff was a median savings of $97. Only 8 percent of small-appliance shoppers tried to bargain, but 62 percent haggled their way to victory and a median savings of $59.

Choose a store for its selection

Survey respondents who bought major appliances praised Abt Electronics and the Best Buy-owned Pacific Sales for having an ample selection. Home Depot got low marks for its selection of small and major appliances.

Abt is an unusually large store, with 350,000 square feet of space, a 7,500-gallon aquarium in the center, and a big selection. It has a staff of 1,100 and up to 1,500 customers a day.

Amazon received high marks overall from shoppers for small appliances and was a standout for selection.

“From our very founding we said we were going to be customer obsessed,” said Jeff Bezos, chairman and chief executive of Amazon, on a recent visit to our Yonkers, N.Y., headquarters.

Respondents were less pleased with the range of choices at Costco and Sam’s Club, the two warehouse clubs in our survey, than with other retailers selling small appliances.