Non-Contact Pocket Thermometer

08/07/10 | by theprofessor [mail] | Categories: Hot Buys, Novel Uses, Measurement, Material Handling & Safety


Non-Contact Thermometer
Item: Non-Contact Compact Thermometer
Item number: 93983
Retail price: $14.99
Frequent sale price: $9.99
Target price: $7.99 (with coupon)
Item Link

We love this small, non-contact thermometer available periodically at our incredibly low target price of $7.99. It takes fast and reasonably accurate readings without direct contact on the surface being measured. It holds the reading for easy viewing until the button is depressed to take another reading, and it turns itself off automatically after 15 seconds.

We especially like this non-contact thermometer for chasing down cold spots and air leaks in our insulation and HVAC systems. The only drawback is that you have to be within an inch or two of the spot being measured, otherwise you'll be averaging your surface temperature with the ambient temperature (i.e., this isn't a true, narrow-angle spot meter but then it doesn't claim to be one). It is quite amazing to see how much cold air leaks in from a small crack or single-pane window. Need some feedback that replacing old caulk around a window or door is actually doing something? This is the ticket that will make you feel good about the job you've done and encourage you to seal up even more. It easily detects cold air sources that are undetectable as drafts or by physical sensation. It should be similarly useful for detecting air leaks by the temperature differential (i.e., 'leaking air' vs. surrounding space temperatures).

Some might complain that the accuracy of this device is only within 4 degrees Fahrenheit, but accuracy is not really the important variable for most applications where a non-contact thermometer is useful. What is more important is the reliability of the readings, and this thermometer produces consistent (i.e., reliable) readings. For example, when the wall temperature is measuring 68 degrees and the suspected air leak measures 45 degrees, it doesn't really matter much whether the air leak is actually 41 or 49 degrees compared with a wall temperature of 64 or 72 degrees; what matters is the large temperature differential between the two surfaces. In our tests we've found the thermometer to be more accurate than advertised, falling within a degree for normal ambient room temperatures.

Let your imagination run with this baby and you'll find a lot of novel uses for it. With a maximum reading of 230 degrees Fahrenheit, it falls a little short of the temperature needed for my wife's homemade taffy, but it can confirm that you're getting closer when the analog candy thermometer seems stuck at the same reading. Think you might need additional cooling on your computer or home theater system? Use this to locate hot-spots that would benefit from the addition of another cooling fan or two. Experimenting with solar heating? This will give you immediate feedback on which configurations are working best. And the list of possible uses goes on and on and on.

There are a lot of novel uses for this inexpensive non-contact thermometer. For example, when I was doing some cold-weather painting last fall I used it to check the surface temperature of the material I was about to paint. For proper adhesion it is important to make sure the actual item being painted is within the parameters specified by the paint manufacturer. Depending on the amount of sunlight that strikes the material (e.g., shade or direct exposure, east- or west-facing), the surface temperature can be quite different than the actual air temperature. When pushing the low temperature limits for painting, this pocket non-contact thermometer was invaluable for squeezing out quite a few extra days.

At our target price of $7.99 this is an absolute steal, but it's not a bad buy at its frequent sale price of $9.99 either. The regular retail price of $14.99 is probably realistic for this device too, but no astute Harbor Freight shopper would actually pay full retail except in an emergency. And if you need one last reason to grab one of these little wonders: well, you know that watch pocket on the right-hand side of your jeans? This pocket thermometer fits perfectly in that pocket so you can carry it around with you, measuring ambient and surface temperatures anywhere you go.

So why was this non-contact thermometer included in our "Materials Handling and Safety" category? Why not measure the temperature of that hot blade or drill bit BEFORE you touch it?! (I'm guessing that I'm not the only one who has foolishly grabbed the tip of a hot drill bit without letting it cool down.) Want to know just how well that coolant is keeping your tile-cutting saw blade? Maybe you need to clean your pump filter to increase the water flow.)

Bottom line: A great buy for a fine little instrument, quickly and reliably measures temperatures without direct contact. Grab one at our target price of $7.99 when you can and feel guilty about the steal deal later.


4-Piece Nesting Toolbox Set

08/06/10 | by theprofessor [mail] | Categories: Hand Tools, Hot Buys, Power Tools


4-Piece Nesting Toolbox Set
Item: 4-Piece Nesting Toolbox Set
Item number: 03721 (3721-HHH)
Regular retail price: $29.99
Frequent sale price: $24.99
Target price: $19.99 (with 20%-off coupon)
Item Link (not available for online purchase; check your local retail outlet)

This is one of the few items that we're reviewing that is not available from Harbor Freight™ online. Check with your Harbor Freight outlet to see if it's available locally. Our store has been carrying this item on a regular basis, and it's frequently on-sale for our target price. Don't fret if you can't find it, it's not one of the best buys at Harbor Freight but it does serve a purpose.

Our usual vision of a toolbox by its very nature is a heavy-duty item. It totes around lots of heavy tools (e.g., all of those socket sets and wrenches weight a ton), is subjected to abuse (e.g., dropping, piling on of other toolboxes), and can create quite a mess if it fails (e.g., flops open from a broken latch). In our everyday routine there would seem to be little use for a light-duty set of toolboxes, but alas, there is indeed a niche to be filled by this 4-piece set from Harbor Freight.

We use the smaller toolboxes in this set to carry tools for specialized work such as home electrical maintenance, soldering, and automotive electrical repairs. The larger two toolboxes work well to carry power tools such as electric drills and power sanders. We have one used for a corded electric drill complete with accessories and another used for an electric sander complete with sandpaper. We don't really care that this set nests one inside the other. After all, we use toolboxes for storing things not as things to be stored. (I suppose it does make it easy to carry the set home.)

Our moderate-priced Craftsman™ variable speed power drill from the 1970s (corded, of course) is still running strong and was purchased in the days when only the more expensive tools came with an injection molded case. The larger toolbox in this set works well to carry our corded drill along with its accessories such as a full set of drill bits, nut drivers, and even a sanding disc and wire wheel set. All of this fits neatly in the larger box with room leftover for an extension cord and flashlight.

How well do we like this set? Well, we've purchased two different sets on two different occasions. Even after the latch on the smaller box broke after light use we still considered this set worthy of buying a second set. We only buy when the set is on-sale for $24.99 and on our second purchase combined that sale with a 20%-off coupon landing our toolbox set for only $19.99 which is where we consider this a real deal.

Be well advised that this is a light-duty set of toolboxes. Yes, some might consider this a medium-duty set, but let's not digress again on a discussion of light-duty versus medium-duty and the theory of relativity. Just consider it a light-duty set and you won't be disappointed. In any case, don't overload or otherwise abuse this set or it will seek its revenge upon you by falling apart (e.g., broken latch) at the least opportune moment (e.g., carrying your tools over rough terrain on a dark night). But then again, if you're light enough you might get by with using the larger box as a stool once-in-awhile (not recommended) but don't even think about using it to gain that extra couple of inches necessary to reach a high spot where you're drilling unless you're trying to break a leg. (Hum, do you now understand why we usually consider toolboxes to be acceptable only in their heavy-duty form? ;))

Bottom line: A good buy for the right guy. If you can use several light-duty tool boxes, this set from Harbor Freight is a great value.


Kenmore Conical Burr Grinder, Programmable 12-Cup Coffee Maker

08/05/10 | by theprofessor [mail] | Categories: Uncategorized, Hot Buys


Kenmore Coffeemaker/Grinder
Item: Kenmore Conical Burr Grinder, Programmable 12-Cup Coffee Maker with Stainless Steel Trim
Item number: 00894006000 (Model #239401)
Retail price: $149.99
Frequent sale price: $104.99
Target price: $104.99 or less
Item Link (not available)

Click here to read the web page version of this review. Updates will be made to the web page only.

With this review we’re setting precedence in two ways—first, we’re introducing our reviews of a Sears™ product from their Kenmore™ line. Of course we’re dedicated to the ultimate tool-review, but sometimes a guy just needs a decent cup of coffee to get him started on that next big project. This review also breaks precedence for another reason that only those who know me well personally would appreciate—it’s a review for an automatic coffeemaker. Why is this second point so unusual? Well, I haven’t used an automatic coffeemaker since around 1978! Nothing personal, I just don’t like the quality of coffee they brew and therefore opted-out of the standard American practice of using an automatic drip coffeemaker. (I did use an automatic coffeemaker for providing coffee in my research laboratory from late 1987 to around 1994.) So how do I usually make my coffee?—one cup at a time. And therein lies the point of this review.

I started using a drip-style coffeemaker in the early 1970s when most Americans were using percolators. I discovered that I liked restaurant coffee, usually made with the Bunn™-style drip basket, but not home-brewed coffee. My mother found an old 1940s electric coffeemaker that used a direct immersion method of brewing coffee which was very similar to the drip-style found in many commercial coffeemakers. Of course when Mr. Coffee™ came on the seen I was one of the first to line up and begin brewing my coffee with their revolutionary machine.

This Kenmore coffeemaker is so convenient and so good that it brews a cup of coffee that even I find satisfying. Push the little button and let the grinding begin. Or for those of you who get up on a regular schedule, you can set the automatic timer to have your coffee ready and waiting. I like my coffee very strong so I have to use a couple of tricks to brew just the right cup of morning refreshment. This Kenmore coffeemaker allows me to customize my brew. I make individual cups by using the fine grind with the strong setting brewed for 4 cups with only 2 cups of water added. An unbleached paper filter is also usually used although unnecessary if using the gold-mesh filter included with the coffeemaker. (Bleached paper filters are also fine when the unbleached variety is unavailable.) This ‘recipe’ makes a robust cup of coffee just short of the quality obtained with the single-cup Melita™ filter method most often preferred for the very best coffee. It propels one from the typical café Americano to a truly European-quality brew.

Having my morning coffee ready waiting for me doesn’t really work with my personal habits. My schedule is too variable and my coffee can’t sit very long without become bitter and undrinkable. When coffee made by my formula simmers on the hotplate for a while it becomes a really nasty syrup.

Combining the coffee grinder with the brewer in a single package is an innovation that allows those picky about our coffee to be satisfied with minimal effort. The beans are ground just before use and automatically fall into the filter basket awaiting the hot water brought to just the right temperature. The process is then the same as with any other coffeemaker, this model has perhaps a few other convenience features but the brew process is basically the same.

Americans drink a lot of coffee but they drink it weaker than most other countries in the world. My normal morning or evening coffee has about the same amount of coffee used for a single cup as most Americans would use for a pot. Americans tend to favor coffee quantity over quality, drinking their favorite brew throughout the day, whereas Europeans (and myself) tend to punctuate the day and evening with real coffee breaks, where the coffee (and often good conversation) is the center of their activity. In other words, when they’re drinking coffee they’re drinking coffee and little else.

Americans drink a coarser grind of coffee than do Europeans. The finer grind common elsewhere releases more of the coffee's flavor and aroma producing a much higher quality of coffee. It also requires considerably less coffee to produce this more satisfying product.

Why the courser ground coffee? There are probably several reasons. First, it’s a holdover from the days of percolators where anything but coarsely ground coffee would pass through the holes in the brew basket. Second, it sells more coffee, much more coffee. Without getting into conspiracy theoriesB), let’s just acknowledge that the coffee manufactures are well aware that pound-for-pound the finer the grind the less coffee is required to produced a satisfying cup of coffee. And thirdly, not unrelated to the ‘conspiracy theory’ that we’re not exploring here, grinding the coffee to a fine grind is considerably more wear on the coffee processor’s machinery (not to mention that fact it requires more time and electricity). So there you have it – the one, two, three’s of why American’s brew their coffee with a coarse grind. A combination of habit (what Americans are use to and what they will accept) and economics (less cost, more money for the coffee industry).

Too many people are hung up on silly discussions about which coffee is the best—Arabian, Colombian, African. They often ignore the fundamental basics necessary to make a great cup of coffee. (Personally, I like all of these coffees, each having its own unique characteristics.) There are really three components to making a great cup of coffee which are often overlooked in this “higher-level” discussion of which coffee is “best.”

Start with fresh coffee beans. It doesn’t matter what kind of coffee you are using, it must be fresh (and I’m presuming properly roasted) coffee beans. Next it needs to be finely ground (not burned by friction in a cheap [not really a] coffee "grinder"), and it should be ground just before use. Coffee beans start to loose their important oils shortly after grinding and will dry out rather quickly. Lastly, the actual brewing method is important but there are several choices for an excellent cup of coffee. Like the various coffees, each has its own distinctive characteristics and each can make a great cup of coffee.

  1. drip basket (American)
  2. pressed (French)
  3. high-pressure (Italian espresso)
  4. direct brew (Turkish)

And of course the water has to be at just the right temperature, slightly under boiling. If it's too cold it won't release all of the flavor from the coffee beans, and if it's too hot, well that's not 'cool' either.;) Most commercial automatic coffeemakers have been designed to provide the correct water temperature for brewing.

Cheap coffee "grinders" don't really grind the coffee; they chop it up more like a piece of celery. This doesn't produce a very uniform "grind" and it certainly doesn't produce a good cup of coffee. A quality coffee grinder uses a burr- or mill-method of truly grinding the coffee beans and they're expensive.

The Kenmore conical burr grinder/coffeemaker is a fully programmable grind-before-you-brew coffeemaker. The grinding is by a burr and performs well, with an even fine grind obtainable with negligible spillage. This method of grinding coffee beans is essential for a proper grind and coffee grinders using this method are pricey themselves. A tight seal on the hopper keeps the coffee beans fresh until they are ready to be ground.

Certain things I’m very picky about, coffee being one of them. I can’t give a coffeemaker a stronger endorsement than to say that I personally use it to produce a very satisfying cup of coffee. My rank-ordered preference for the perfect cup remains espresso or cappuccino made with my Pavoni™ Professional, followed by coffee made with the French press method or, you guessed it, one cup at-a-time using my single cup Melita™ filter holder. This latter method is particularly good for making the extra strong coffee needed for a great cup of Irish coffee!

My Irish coffee recipe: four scoops of finely ground coffee, two shots of John Jameson™, a touch of sugar, and an inch of so of French vanilla creamer, all reheated for about 20 seconds in a microwave. Cheers:D, I think it’s time to break and have one now.

The convenience of an automatically brewed cup of satisfying coffee out weights my quest for the perfect cup these days. I discovered the Kenmore™ grind-before-you-brew coffeemaker at just the right time as the reality of aging overcomes the desire for perfection. Therefore, this machine sees a lot of use as my daily coffeemaker while the Pavoni™ and other instruments of coffee making usually sit idly by on the kitchen counter-top. It’s that good.

Bottom line: One of the best automatic coffeemakers on the market meeting the requirements of a fresh grind with automatic brewing. If you've learned to appreciate fresh-ground coffee and need automatic brewing, this is the machine for you.


Electric Leaf Eater and Shredder

08/04/10 | by theprofessor [mail] | Categories: Outdoor Living


Leaf Shredder
Item: Electric Leaf Eater and Shredder
Item number: 66133
Retail price: $89.99
Frequent sale price: $69.99
Best price: $59.99
Target price: $59.99 or less
Item Link

We have mixed feelings about this item so it doesn't make our "Hot Buys" list but neither does it make our list of "The Junk." It works, shredding leaves to mulch-sized particles quickly and effectively. Its two problems lie in the durability of its housing and in its price. The housing seems to deteriorate and break apart rather easily, and the price is simply $10 or $20 too high even on sale.

It uses a string cutter basically the same as the line cutters used for grass trimming except it has a larger motor. The lines break frequently but they're cheap and easy to replace. Just keep a bunch of pre-cut lines nearby and replacement is a snap. The housing, on the other hand, is potentially a problem.

Harbor Freight's copy writers were overly generous in writing this item's specifications.:no: It doesn't really have four blades as stated, but rather, it has two strings each with two ends. The string cutters work OK, but they're a long ways from being blades.

The unit's housing is a hard plastic that can be chipped fairly easily. Once it starts cracking, the drum is gone. (Notice how I avoided saying "it's a drum roll for the drum?" Oops, it slipped out. ;D) Also, the blades do not reach the entire diameter inside the drum so mulched material accumulates along the edge which has to be periodically dislodged manually. This doesn't present a significant problem, just any annoying one that could have been prevented through better design.

The shredder only has a 90-day warranty, so you'll want to fully assess the condition of the drum during the first 30 days in case you want to return the item under Harbor Freight's 30-day satisfaction guarantee policy. If it's starting to crack, dump it; the cracks develop faster after the first few emerge.

We use the mulch in our garden so we are more concerned with how well it mulches than with how much it reduces the volume of yard waste to be removed by pick-up services. For our purposes the final product is terrific. We really like being able to recycle our own yard waste and gain the benefits of free mulch. And not having to work on the city's yard-waste pick-up schedule is bonus.

Be well aware that this is a leaf shredder -- no sticks or twigs, please. It only has the cutting ability of its string-cutter blades and can't handle small sticks any better than the string trimmer many people use for grass trimming. Harbor Freight sells a separate product which works well for small sticks (see our review of their 2.5-hp Chipper Shredder). And it works well with DRY leaves, the kind that gently fall in abundance in the fall. The leftover, wet-mushy leaves revealed after the winter thaw aren't shredded well with this machine, but then you didn't really expect it to work on that crap, did you?

Hint: Using one of Harbor Freight's 20%-off coupons brings the sale price down to $55.92 which is close enough to our target price to make it a "buy" if you think you'll enjoy shredding your leaves. Don't know about Harbor Freight's 20%-off coupons? You should read our Notes for the Novice Shopper to learn about this and other pointers for shopping at Harbor Freight.

Bottom line: Watch for this item to go on super-sale for under $50 and then give it a whirl (pun intended; it just slipped out ;)). It's probably worth even $60, but we feel its current low sale price of $69.99 is just a bit too much for its cheap construction.


80-Piece Rotary Tool Set

08/04/10 | by theprofessor [mail] | Categories: Hand Tools


Rotary Tool Set
Item: 80-Piece Rotary Tool Set
Item number: 97626
Retail price: $19.99
Frequent sale price: $6.99 (with coupon)
Target price: $6.99
Best price: $4.99
Item Link

This is an example of the really cheap tools some people associate with Harbor Freight™. Cheap price, yes, but cheaply constructed as well. The savvy Harbor Freight™ shopper knows that this is only half true -- this item is cheaply constructed, yes, but this is NOT the quality we usually associate with Harbor Freight™ tools.

The 80-piece rotary tools set contains a nice assortment of accessories which alone are almost worth the target price. Unfortunately, the rotary tool itself is very poorly constructed. The motor has high rpm but very little torque. This leads it to bog down with only light resistance, so don't expect to drill through much more than plastic and even that has to be taken slowly. The bearings also seem to be poor quality, and this suggests that the tool won't last long even in its limited capacity. So what are the redeeming features? Well, it has a very nice assortment of accessories and it does work, somewhat.

We bought this tool are our "best price" and adjusted our expectations according; we were not disappointed for an occasional-use, light-duty tool. In our tests the sanding discs quickly separated and the chuck had to be re-tightened repeatedly, but it did work its way through several small projects. Therefore we see some value in this tool and did not add it to our list of "The Junk." On the other hand, it's certainly not a "Hot Buy" and thus falls in the gray zone between the good and the bad purchases from Harbor Freight™.

The "regular retail price" of $19.99 is ridiculously high -- $9.99 maybe, but even that's pushing it. The hyper-inflated "regular retail price" sets the buyer's expectations too high and is part of the reason that Harbor Freight™ tools have a bad reputation with some people. Adjust your expectations with what you pay which should be no more than our target price and it's not a bad value-for-the-money.

We can only recommend this product as an introduction to rotary tools (Not sure they're useful for your application? Try it; you'll probably like it.) or as an occasional-use, light-duty item. At the target price one who doesn't already own a rotary tool might be well advised to buy it and see if you can find any use for it. And it does handle occasional light-duty work well, such as grinding the corrosion off of AA battery terminals (oops, left those old batteries in the device too long). If you're doing any serious work that requires this type of tool, invest in a better quality rotary tool.

Bottom line: If you don't already own a rotary tool or need a light-duty tool, then this is an OK buy at our target price. Otherwise, stay clear of this item; it's one of the lower quality products from Harbor Freight™.


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This review and discussion forum was created for those of us who love Harbor Freight(tm). It's well known to those who frequent the store that the prices are always cycling up and down, and most of us usually accept it as a personal challenge to get the lowest price possible. It's also well appreciated that some products at Harbor Freight are good, even very good, but that many others are also substandard, yes, even junk. This review and discussion forum is dedicated to the savvy Harbor Freight shopper and is intended to provide some guidance to the best and the worse buys. Similar products from other retailers will also be reviewed from time-to-time. Please be advised that everyone's experience is unique, and what works well (or doesn't work at all) for the reviewers here may or may not suit your personal needs. With this caveat and with notification that Harbor Freight Reviews assumes no liability for the accuracy of information provided here for educational purposes, enjoy the forum and good 'sa(i)ling' at Harbor Freight!


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