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In a Crunch

By Marcia Schnedler

A trash compactor is "that wonderful device people put in their kitchens which magically turns 40 pounds of garbage into 40 pounds of garbage," a wag recently wrote in Spacing Wire, the online newsletter of a Toronto magazine.

It's just that the compacted 40 pounds of garbage takes up 75 percent less space.

A trash compactor is one of the more simple electric appliances. It consists of a trash container at the bottom of the unit, a motor either at the top or bottom, and a flat ram in the top above the container, says Repair Clinic, that's a source of appliance parts and repair assistance.

Trash goes into the trash container. You close the door and push or turn the start button. The motor starts, then rotates a set of gears or a belt-and-pulley system that lowers the ram.

The ram exerts tremendous pressure on the trash and flattens it. When the ram pressure reaches its set point, the motor reverses and raises the ram back up to the top of the compactor.

Mashed trash means you don't have to take out the garbage nearly as often. And you're less likely to have an overflowing garbage bin each week.

Compactors use specially designed bags made of paper with a protective lining or of multi-ply plastic. They cost more than normal kitchen trash bags, but you change them less frequently. Bags are for the most part interchangeable among brands.

A full bag of compacted trash weighs from 40 to 50 pounds, according to Repair Clinic, which may be more than some people can handle.

You can put almost anything into a trash masher that you'd normally ditch in the kitchen wastebasket. You shouldn't toss in aerosol cans, which explode under pressure. Chemicals that are poisonous or can catch fire or explode should never go in, either.

Items that can be recycled — cans, glass jars and bottles, newspapers, magazines and other paper products — should exit the house in that bin, not the compactor bag.

In pre-recycling days, there was debate about whether tossing sacks of compacted trash into landfills was ecologically sound. No longer.

"Trash compactors are good," says John Roberts, executive director of the Solid Waste Management District for Pulaski County, who has one at home and recycles avidly. "They are starting the process at home that is carried on in the trucks and at the landfills." As to recycling in conjunction with trash-mashing: "I think you'll find it's in the mind-set now."

Besides, if glass is compacted, it will break and shatter. The shards could cut and stick out of the bag's sides or bottom. So if you put in glass, try to keep it near the center of a partially filled bag and be careful when hauling it out.

Another potential problem occurs if you put food into the compactor. Bacteria and bad smells are bound to grow. Some compactors come with odor control systems.

On the upside, trash mashers don't require much maintenance other than regular cleaning. You unplug it, then use warm soapy water to wash the inside, the ram and any other part that comes in contact with the garbage. Repair Clinic suggests using a bacteriafighting cleaner-degreaser.

Before shopping for a compactor, figure out what type will meet your needs.

A freestanding compactor has a top (or one can be bought ) that can be used for extra counter space. It can sit by itself in the kitchen, garage or elsewhere. An under-the-counter compactor can be installed between cabinets. These come with different finishes on the front. Some can handle custom panels matching the cabinets. With others, you can slide a wood or laminate panel into the storage compartment door to integrate it with the decor.

A convertible one can be installed freestanding or under the counter. While various brands of trash compactors are more alike than different, there are features to understand and decide upon. Virtually all compactors have 1 a / 3 horsepower motor, although

1 Viking offers / 2 horsepower models. Viking also has the most expensive compactors. "It's the monster of the industry," says Joe Klett, appliance manager at Abt Electronics in suburban Chicago. "You're paying some for the aesthetics. They're sold mainly in the replacement market." Most models come in 12- and 15-inch widths; Viking's are 18 inches wide. All have a container with a 1.4-cubic-foot capacity, except Viking at 1.7 cubic feet. Although a full bag weighs about 40 pounds or more, the weight also depends on the kinds of things you compact and other factors. One brand talks about a "percent volume reduction compression ratio." Translation: If it's 5:1, it means the space the trash takes up is reduced by 80 percent. For virtually all others, it's 4: 1, or 75 percent.

The pressure the ram places on the trash is anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 pounds. "The higher the pressure, the better the compacting because at 5,000 pounds it can crush something smaller than at 2,000 pounds," Klett says. The more effectively the trash is mashed, the heavier the full bag will be.

A few models have a two- or three-point drive system; the majority have just one. "This has to do with the number of gears opening and closing the ram," Klett says. "Three-track is best because it means the drivers are going down at three different points to better hold the ram in line."

With some higher-end compactors, you can compress the trash and then leave the ram pressing down on it instead of automatically moving up again. This results in even greater overall compression, so that you can get more into the compactor. The ease of getting a full trash bag out of the compactor is very important. With some of the least expensive models, you must lift the full bag straight up to get it out, the least desirable way to remove it. There are those in which the container's side tilts out. On others, the entire door swings open so you can pull the bag out the front. Viking has a breakaway trash basket, a basket within the basket for extra support. It can be slid out with the full bag in it. "You don't even need to use bags in there," Klett says. "You can simply take the block out to the Dumpster in the basket. But that means more cleanup unless you only have dry stuff in there."

Not all compactors have an odor control system, which usually comprises a filter, fan and air freshener-deodorizer. Such systems "are more in the premium lines," Klett says. "With all the recycling and garbage disposals, on the whole people are throwing less food into their compactors." Instructions for models with built-in systems suggest you dispose of fish and chicken wrappers and trimmings elsewhere than in the compactor. The trash-mashing cycle lasts 25 to 35 seconds on average, Klett says. The length matters only to those who are impatient. Some models mention sound insulation. "There's not too much to this feature," Klett says. "You've got a motor that's cranking like a screw, but compactors don't make a lot of noise. Sound isn't as much of a factor like it is with a dishwasher because it doesn't last very long."

Foot release and touch-toe pedals mean that the bin will glide out when you have both hands full or dirty. Most models have a safety lock with a key that can be placed elsewhere. This prevents children from tossing in items that shouldn't be compacted or poking around among dangerous objects like broken glass. Many compactors have an automatic anti-jamming function. Controls are usually on the front, but some models have them hidden. Some have a built-in storage compartment for extra bags; it may be called a bag caddy. Most models have rear installation wheels that make it easier to move the compactor. Trash compactor brands include Broan, GE, Jenn-Air, Kenmore, KitchenAid, Whirlpool and Viking. Prices range from about $400 to $800, with Viking models from $1,450 to $1,770.

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