Dick Greenhaus and his assistant are going to a lot of trouble to reproduce in the lab one of life's little frustrations: the broken garbage bag. First they toss a carefully measured, uniform load into each bag. Then, one by one, they hoist the bags mechanically and drop them exactly 18 inches onto a synthetic sidewalk. Each bag, if it survives, is dropped two more times in precisely the same way to see how much abuse it will take before breaking.
A chemist and engineer who is a 15-year veteran of the product-testing laboratory here at Consumers Union, Mr. Greenhaus has run all sorts of tests on everything from sailboats to garden hoses, tampons to lipstick. He obviously enjoys talking about the exacting quality of the work. ``Consumer testing labs have to have reproducible standard dropping, standard dirt, standard grease and blood stains, standard dust,'' he explains. ``If we test windshield dirt, somewhere along the line we have to get a standard bug.''
In the appliance lab down the hall, electrical engineer Bob Volatile is running shirts through a squadron of washers to determine how much wear and tear the machines put on them. Mr. Volatile joined Consumers Union in 1957. ``At that time it was almost like academia in its quiet pursuit of research. Over the years the pace has grown somewhat frantic. Products have gotten more complicated, more feature-laden, and in many cases we simply test more of them.''
The organization evaluates 60 to 70 products and services a year. Which ones get picked depends partly on subscriber questionnaires, and partly on what consumers are buying in the marketplace. Some bread-and-butter items, like TVs and appliances, are on regular test cycles. Competition gets fierce for the 20 or 30 slots left.
The tests run, as media liaison Marnie Goodman quips, ``from the sublime to the Rube Goldberg-esque.'' Many of them are based on industry standards, but the staff doesn't hesitate to invent its own when necessary. ``We try to get tests as real as possible - as close to the way the product will actually be used - or misused,'' says Ms. Goodman.
Some recent tests include:
The sneeze machine. An embroidery hoop and spray gun contrivance tests the wet strength of tissues.
The mattress masher. A bowling ball split in two to resemble the human buttocks and attached to a piston pounds away on mattresses to simulate years of wear.
The CD shaker. A vibrating plywood cradle tests how much movement compact disc players can take without mistracking.
The lipstick bakeoff. Rows of lipsticks are placed in an oven to see how well they would hold up if left in a car on a hot day. Some do fine; others melt into surreal shapes no longer recognizable as sticks.
The environmental chamber. Air conditioners are tested in an eerie-looking room strung from floor to ceiling with a forest of toilet bowl floats. Inside the floats are thermometers that tell whether cool air is blowing evenly. In one test a couple of years ago, a majority of air conditioners blew to the left. The problem was, of course, noted in Consumer Reports.
``Manufacturers take what we say seriously and will redesign products because of it, but the only evidence we have is anecdotal,'' Goodman says. ``We notice a change later on, or sometimes research-and-design people will privately tell our engineers later at a convention.''