Electrify your holiday gift list


 Advances in electronics offer something for everyone

Electricity doesn’t just have to light up your tree this Christmas — it can also power your holiday gift list.

Electric gadgets can cook, entertain, help with chores and improve your health, says Brian Sloboda, a program and product manager at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA).

He says electric devices will almost always get the job done more quietly, cheaply and more efficiently.

Sloboda has a couple of tips before you head to the store or online to start shopping:

Don’t always buy the cheapest. Inexpensive rechargeable batteries, for example, can catch fire. Or their charges can be limited, giving just a few minutes of use at a time. Buy from reputable companies, and shop around to compare prices.

Be cyber-safe. Any internet-connected device can be hacked. Even security cameras and smart TVs come with a preset and lousy password. Change it. Keep the software updated — updates often include security fixes. He adds, “Don’t let the fear of hacking prevent you from enjoying these devices. Just be aware of what could happen and take necessary precautions.”

Holiday gift ideas

For the kitchen. Sous-vide is the latest kitchen trend. In French, it means “under vacuum,” but it’s basically a cooking technique that seals the food in a plastic bag and slow cooks it in water. “It is used by a number of restaurants,” says Sloboda. “It doesn’t get rid of the nutrients in the food through overcooking.” Sous-vide devices come as an electric pot, or for less money, as a wand that you stick into your own pot of water with the plastic bag. And of course, there’s an app for that — you can control the sous-vide cooking with your smart phone.

For the lawn and garden. Electric lawnmowers, trimmers and chain saws eliminate spills and trips to the gas station. But they’re not for everyone — Sloboda says professional landscapers need the power of gasoline. Rechargeable battery models are best for suburban yards where the job takes about 30 minutes. Plug-in versions have the hassle and distance limits of a cord, but are more powerful and less expensive. Another big advantage is electric models are quiet, and won’t disturb the neighbors. With leaf blowers in particular, Sloboda says, some states are passing noise-limiting regulations. Electric blowers pollute a lot less — Sloboda says the types of motors in gasoline leaf blowers “put more pollutants into the air than most gas-powered cars.”

For fun. “It’s a good time to buy electronics,” says Sloboda. “Televisions are getting thinner and lighter, and they’re coming down in price. All because LED (light-emitting diode) technology has improved.” If the video games in your house are a few years old, gamers will get much better graphics with an upgrade, and they will save energy, says Sloboda, because “we’ve seen the video game console manufacturers improve the efficiency of their products.”

For outdoor activities, remote-controlled drones have gotten popular, and they’re available in a range of prices. Before you buy, check battery life between recharges so you know whether your gift provides 30 minutes of fun, or three minutes.

E-readers make books quickly and cheaply available, and now you can even check out electronic books from most libraries. Virtual reality glasses or goggles not only put you right in the middle of the action in a video game, they can be useful in home repair — companies are starting to offer virtual reality diagnostics for their products that can show details like which way to turn the wrench to fix a problem.

Smart watches keep getting smarter.

For health. Smart watches and wrist bands not only keep track of how far you walk each day, but can appeal to your competitive streak by choosing a virtual walking or running mate. A wide range of power scooters are available for fun or for commuting. Some even have pedals to supplement the motor, so you can get a bit of exercise too. Be aware that good motorized bikes and scooters are expensive.

For the home. Amazon’s Alexa and Echo, as well as other smart speakers, are getting popular, but Sloboda says they’re not being used to their full potential yet — most people just ask their speaker to play music or give a weather report. Companies are working on addressing privacy concerns — smart speakers are listening all the time — but Sloboda says solving security questions would open up uses like home banking.

To recharge all your devices, you can choose options like smart power strips that avoid continuing to use electricity after a device is fully charged, or portable block chargers to extend your phone’s battery life while traveling. Sloboda advises against wireless charging devices because they use a lot of electricity to operate.

Keep an eye on your fur baby when you’re away. Consumers have numerous options for home video monitoring. The PetChatz system, shown here, allows pet owners to watch and talk to their pets when away — and even toss tasty treats!

For your pet. Electronics will shoot tennis balls for your dog to fetch, feed and water pets while you’re away, monitor their health, and cameras can keep track of what they’re up to when you leave. “I aimed one of my security cameras at my dog,” says Sloboda. “Now I always push the chairs up to the dining table before I leave, otherwise within five minutes our dog is standing in the middle of the table looking for anything he can chew on.”

Sloboda also advises supplementing all the electronic gifts with a good old-fashioned football or basketball.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Paul Wesslund writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national trade association representing more than 900 local electric cooperatives. From growing suburbs to remote farming communities, electric co-ops