Hidden gems of the iKitchen: high tech appliances go beyond smart fridges
Smart fridges and invisible extractor fans are just two of many new innovations leading the way in high-tech appliances
It's a warm day. The children run in from the garden, help themselves to cereal and leave the milk on the countertop. Again! After an hour or so, the fridge begins to worry about it. Its weight sensors tell it that the milk has been removed. Its thermostat tells it that the room is warm. It's also aware that there's no more milk. "Oh my God!" thinks the fridge. "This is a disaster! That milk will go off in this heat and it's the last carton we have. Her nibs will go ballistic if there's no milk for her morning cup of tea."
Obviously, the fridge thinks in binary code - I'm interpreting - but its sense of emergency is quite real. The owners of the fridge have programmed the priority settings so that a no-milk-situation activates red alert. If it ran out of something less important, ketchup for example, the fridge would simply put it on the weekly shopping list.
But, in this household, running out of milk is a serious matter and the fridge has been authorised to respond to this crisis autonomously. It gets in touch with the local supermarket and asks them to send round a carton of milk. The delivery van arrives. Here, automation fails. A real live person carries the milk to the door, which is answered by another human being, who puts the milk in the fridge. Job done! The fridge breathes a sigh of relief.
This is neither futuristic fiction nor a flight of fancy. Appliances that can talk to each other are the next big thing in kitchen tech. "The technology is there," says David Rafter of Arena Kitchens. "The phone lines are there. They just need to be connected." The Sub-Zero range includes fridges that offer this kind of service, for a price. They cost between €12,000 to €30,000. This is more than most of us pay for an entire kitchen, including appliances, but it's only a matter of time before the technology in high-end appliances filters down into affordability and to the high street.
To me, the notion of a calculating, communicative fridge is mind-boggling, but Rafter points out that this kind of connectivity became mainstream in car design long before it emerged in kitchen appliances. We have become used to the idea that we can plan our journey by using a device that predicts the traffic, via satellite signals, but a fridge that knows what's inside it seems like sci-fi. It reminds me of The Simpsons episode, 'Treehouse of Horror V', where Homer sticks his hand in the toaster and it becomes an inter-dimensional portal, transporting him back to prehistoric times.
Sadly, there is nothing as interesting as this on the market yet.
One of the great things about the latest kitchen technology is that it's more or less invisible. Appliances tend to be integrated into the overall kitchen design, often concealed beneath stylish units. One of the advantages of this trend is that it doesn't tie you down to any particular style of kitchen. A homely country kitchen can be just as technologically enabled as a streamlined modernist design.
"Wireless charging is very popular," Rafter explains. "The charger is integrated in the countertop so that you only need to put your phone down for it to charge. It means that nobody can steal your charger." If you're buying a kitchen from Arena, wireless charging will cost around €200 extra, but will limit your choice of countertop. "It only works with timber or Corian - that's a good conductor - and it doesn't work with stone."
The technology will charge all the modern iPhones and top-of-the-range Samsung phones, but you can forget about your vintage brick. "If you're buying that kind of kitchen, you'll probably have an up-to-date phone," Rafter says pragmatically.
"It's very interesting to see how the trends in kitchen appliances reflect a societal shift in values about the environment, nutrition and space," says Geraldine O'Donoghue of the In-House Appliance Centre. Combination ovens (from €899) combine the functionality of a steam oven with a conventional one. They are said to cook food faster than conventional ovens, heating the ingredients evenly without losing moisture, and score highly on taste and nutrition. Also, because they have defrosting and reheating settings, they eliminate the need for microwaves. As children, we were told not to look at microwave ovens in case they zapped our eyeballs. Now, several decades later, people still don't quite trust them. Possibly for good reason. Who knows? O'Donoghue's third tip for upcoming kitchen tech is the InSinkErator. This is a kind of terminator for your sink. InSinkErator disposal units (€299 from the In-House Appliance Centre) grinds down food waste into tiny particles and washes it down the drain. I'm not sure how this compares ecologically to other methods of disposing food waste. Is it more, or less, beneficial to the planet than feeding it to the dog? But according to O'Donoghue, in-sink kitchen waste disposal units are here to stay. For Peter Slankster of Kube Kitchens, hobs with built-in downdraft extraction fans are a game changer. Downdraft extraction fans are quiet, effective, and replace that greasy monster, the overhead extraction hood.
They work by sucking the air, including cooking fumes, down into the hob. The air is then filtered and either eliminated through a vent in the wall or blown out the front of the hob. This results in a strange but pleasing draught of air at ankle level. The benefits of this arrangement is that the hob can be placed practically anywhere - it doesn't need to be mounted on a wall. Manufacturers include Siemens, Miele and Bora. "Bora hobs are highly customisable," Slankster says. "They start at €2,200. On the top end, the sky is the limit." If you love canopy extractor fans, the brand Elica has elevated the appliance to an art form. They include models that pose as light fittings - the Shining (€2,299 from Harvey Norman) takes its shape from a lampshade and the Interstellar looks like a chandelier. Others are wall mounted. The Om range, which comes in funky colours, looks for all the world like a high-end speaker.
See arenakitchens.com and kubeinteriors.com. For information on where to buy Elica products, see kal.ie; for the In-House Appliance Centre, see panellingcentre.ie.