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How to Buy Steam Irons

Steam irons might make you reconsider sending your clothes to the local dry cleaner for a fresh press. Newer irons are safer and more convenient to use and release more steam than earlier models. Even budget models can make your casual-Friday chinos look their best. Consumer Reports

Getting started - Steam iron guide
To get that crisp, pressed look, you don’t need to drop a bundle on an iron. Manufacturers are offering drudgery-cutting features like digital displays, retractable cords, and drip-free steaming. Souped-up models cost more than $100, but a top-rated iron can be had for less than half that amount. And we found cordless models and nonstick bottoms to be of dubious value. This steam iron guide will help you to choose.

Consider your clothing
If you often press natural fibers such as linen, or heavy ones like denim, choose irons that have burst-of-steam and spray features—and steam that can be turned off.

Test-drive before buying
Make sure the iron is comfortable to pick up and hold. Some irons we tested were too small for big hands. Others were too heavy to maneuver easily.

Look at the controls
Different irons have different types of controls: dials, slides, or even digital readouts. Make sure controls are easy to see and adjust, and that fabric settings are clearly marked.
After you buy your iron, there are a few things you can do to make it last longer and easier to use.

Use tap water
Nearly all irons work fine with tap water, unless your water is very hard.

Clean the surface occasionally
To remove residue, clean the iron's heating plate every once in a while, especially if you use starch. Follow the manufacturer's directions.

Minimize leaking
Leaking can occur when you press at lower temperatures. To prevent dribbles, press delicate fabrics first, before you add water. After ironing items requiring steam, empty the water chamber. This will reduce the chance of drips the next time and gives you another benefit: the heat will evaporate remaining moisture, so it won't leave deposits on the heating plate.

Press hanging fabrics
With some irons, you can use the "burst of steam" function for vertical steaming to remove wrinkles from hanging items such as clothing and curtains. Read the manual.

Types of steam irons
Irons differ in a number of ways, including soleplate material, size, weight, and features. Virtually all of the irons we tested were equal to the task of removing wrinkles from a range of fabrics. And you don't have to spend a lot to get very good performance. Here are the types of steam irons to consider.

Steam iron
These allow a small amount of hot steam to be applied to clothes when they are being ironed, making creases disappear faster and reducing the time spent ironing. Features like auto shutoff, self-cleaning, separate controls that let you set the amount of steaming, and vertical steaming capabilities, that were once available only on fairly expensive irons are now standard on less-expensive models. Also, most new models can use water from the tap, thanks to an anti-calcium valve or a resin filters.

Steam generator
This type of iron allows you to apply a constant flow of high-pressure steam while ironing. They take up a lot more space than conventional steam irons and should be placed on a chair or on a rack at the end of the ironing board (a common feature on European ironing boards). The steam production speeds ironing and will easily remove wrinkles from even dry linen. Generators have a delay between pressing the button for more steam and getting it, and lack a spray function, but that is irrelevant if the steam flow is high enough.

Cordless irons
These resemble conventional steam irons but do not have a power cord. While more maneuverable, the two models we tested scored good in ironing and poor in providing steam. These irons were among the lowest scoring.

Steam iron features
Features that were once available only on fairly expensive irons are now standard on less-expensive models. For example, auto shutoff--a safety feature that turns the iron off if you have not moved it for a preset period of time--comes on models that sell for as little as $25. Other features trickling down include self-cleaning (now on nearly all new irons), separate controls that let you set the amount of steaming, and vertical steaming. Here are the steam iron features to consider.

Auto shut-off
If you're forgetful, this is a must. Most irons available today have this feature and will turn off the power if the iron is left motionless while laid flat or propped up. Some irons will also shut off when left on their side. One caveat: auto shutoff can prevent a fire, but stored heat will still scorch fabric if the iron is left facedown.

Burst-of-steam button
This button delivers an extra blast of steam to subdue stubborn wrinkles.

Steam gauge
This lets you adjust the amount of steam or shut the steam off. An anti-drip feature, found on most irons, is designed to prevent leaks when you steam at lower settings.

Convenient controls
The fabric guide, with a list of settings for common fabrics, should be easy to see and effective. A temperature control that's clearly marked and easily accessible, preferably on the front of the handle, is a plus. Most irons have an indicator light to show that the power is on.

Transparent water reservoir
Some reservoirs are a small, vertical tube; others are a large chamber under the handle. A transparent chamber makes it easy to see the water level.

Removable water reservoir
This is easiest to fill, and you don't end up dripping water all over the iron when you pour water in.

Self-cleaning system
These flush mineral deposits from vents. But they're not always effective with prolonged use or with very hard water. Try the burst-of-steam feature to clean vents.

Retractable cord
This can keep the cord out of the way when you're using the iron or when storing it, but make sure the cord doesn't whip when it retracts.

Cordless irons
The cordless model we tested was only fair in performance and needed to be reheated in its base every few moments.

Water fill-hole cover
A growing number of irons have a hinged or sliding cover on the water-fill hole. This is supposed to prevent leaking, but it doesn't always work. Also, the cover can get in the way during filling or can be awkward to open or close.

Nonstick surface
Many irons have a bottom described as "nonstick." Some are stainless steel, while some budget models have aluminum. We found no significant difference between the two materials when ironing with steam. In addition, nonstick surfaces are more likely to be scratched by something like a zipper, which could impair the iron's ability to glide easily.

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Copyright © 2006-2011 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission.

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