Forget the Maidenform Bra: For more than a decade, I've dreamed of myself with an Energy Star fridge -- but never thought I'd ever own one. Why dream? They make a big green difference. Refrigerators are the single most energy-draining appliance in the average home, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
To qualify for EPA's Energy Star, however, a new fridge must now use at least 20% less energy than federal regulations allow for a new model with comparable specs. That's up from 15% less in 2007. Depending on the age of the old fridge you replace, an Energy Star model can cut your refrigeration energy costs in half, the EPA says, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the fossil-fuel-burning power plants that supply 70% of our energy in the U.S. How cool is that?
Reader, I finally popped for the big-ticket item just last month, and, having learned my lesson, I'll tell you how you can do better.
But first, why didn't I make my dream reality years ago? Because, out of combined frugality and dread, I made do with the fridges that came with the apartments I rented or owned in New York City for 27 years. After all, they worked.
Savings on Utility Bills
My frugality was short-sighted, because an Energy Star fridge will save you $165 in electricity bills over its lifetime, and that's if you buy it instead of a new conventional model that has to meet stricter federal standards. If you replace a 20-year-old fridge with an Energy Star model, you'll save $100 a year, which climbs to $200 a year if your old one dates from the 1970s, EPA says. Plus, you get cash rebates in most states for Energy Star appliances.
My Energy Star fridge, which replaced a 20-year-old fridge and cost me $590 after a $50 state rebate, will pay for itself in electricity charges in six years. Since the average refrigerator lifespan is 10-14 years, the rest is gravy!
Reducing My Household Carbon Footprint
A fridge made prior to 2001 is responsible, on average, for releasing about 1,600 pounds of greenhouse gases from power plants. That's about one-fifth of the average U.S. home's 20,000-lb. carbon footprint.
Finally, Refrigerator Recycling I Can Trust
My dread was better founded. I didn't want my old fridge releasing ozone-depleting greenhouse gases and rusting in a landfill. Until recently, there was no way to responsibly recycle a fridge due to lack of manufacturer or retailer takeback programs in the U.S. Now, federal law requires that the cooling chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), banned in the U.S. since 1993, or newer hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) be recaptured. Most municipalities or states now have fridge pick-up and recycling programs. For how to recycle an old fridge in your locale, check out Energy Star's resources. And, in a voluntary partnership with EPA, Sears will take away and recycle your old fridge, no matter who made it, when it delivers your new Sears-purchased model.
I finally bought my long-desired Energy Star fridge when the old one broke down. My husband and I had recently taken over my old family home in Hawaii. The double-door fridge started slowing down and warming up noticeably after my birthday party, when the cranky old through-the-door ice dispenser got abused. First the ice melted into puddles on the floor and the ice cream was soft. A few days later, the fridge stopped cooling altogether.
First, being frugal, we called Mr. Lee, the trusted repairman who's fixed our family's appliances for decades. He shook his head. "Look at that. That's the coolant puddling," he said. So it wasn't water! "It's gone. Beyond repair," Mr. Lee said, and charged us $74 for the house call, which included a new copper water pipe and flow valve to which we would hook up the new fridge.
The freezer was full of precious frozen mango harvested all summer from our tree. We needed a new one now.
As luck would have it, there was a Sears appliance sale. It included Kenmore Energy Star refrigerators. We went to Sears and asked the salesman about the EPA program; he confirmed that they would haul away our old one and deliver it to a recycling company for a $20 fee. "They remove the coolant and recycle the steel," the salesman assured us. "Don't worry! It won't go into Waimanalo Gulch." (That's the overflowing landfill on our island, Oahu.)
How to Choose the Most Efficient Energy Star Fridge
As it turns out, not all Energy Star fridges are made alike. It's a staggered scale, depending on the size and features of any given unit; to get an Energy Star, a model has to save 20% of the energy used by a unit with comparable specs. Before going to the mall, I had quickly perused Energystar.gov and committed to memory the following tips:
*Size Matters: In general, EPA says, 15-20 cubic feet fridges are most efficient. We chose a 20.5 cubic foot Kenmore Energy Star model.
"Are you sure it's going to fit?" asked the salesman. Of course, my husband and I hadn't measured the doorways, having left our tape measure in New York.
"Sure," I said. After all, this one had to be a lot smaller than the side-by-side, double door avocado green giant that had dominated the kitchen for two decades or more. But as it turns out, it barely made it, even after the delivery guys pried out the door jamb.
That's how it earned the name My Big Fat Energy Star Fridge.
*Top-mounted freezers are most efficient, followed by bottom-mounted, then side-by-side. Our biggie, model number 253, comes with a top freezer.
*Avoid automatic and through-the-door icemakers and water dispensers, which use 14-20% more energy. We chose automatic defrost and icemaking, but stopped short of through-the-door.
*Check the Energy Guide label, which gives a model's estimated yearly electricity use and operating cost. Some Energy Star models use less energy than the required 20% below the federal standard for fridges with the same capacity and features. Learn more about the FTC's Energy Guide rules here. The model we chose was at the low end of the spectrum for cost and kWh.
We chose right. Right? To guard against buyers' remorse, I called the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE).
"Do you want me to praise you or criticize you?" asked Harvey Sachs, senior fellow at ACEEE.
I sucked it up and urged him to be honest.
"You did the best you could in the circumstances. If you'd been really brilliant, you'd have started shopping 30 days before it failed," Sachs said.
Although I hope there won't be a next time for me anytime soon, here, for your benefit, are Harvey Sachs' Rules for Choosing an Energy Star Fridge:
"Trust me as someone who's been through three kitchen remodels in the last three decades," Sachs said. "The happier you are with your fridge, the less likely you'll feel inclined to change your kitchen."
Last but not least, here's my tip:
Measure your doorway and dimensions of the space that will hold the fridge before you go and buy!
I did make one style decision: The fridge came in white, beige, black or, for extra, stainless steel. I chose black, because it matched the stove. One of my brothers complained that I didn't choose white, and he misses the through-the-door ice dispenser. But the brother who most insistently used this feature, and quite possibly triggered its crash at my birthday party, said he didn't miss this little luxury at all. Go figure!
Start with the Energy Star Refrigerator Buyers' Guide at energystar.gov, and explore all the different charts and tips.
For more fridge selection and energy-saving advice and information, go to ACEEE.
See the Union of Concerned Scientists' Greentips for refrigerators.
Figure out what you can save with an Energy Star fridge on EPA's Calculator.
To calculate your fridge's emissions, first determine its wattage (for how-to, see DOE's energy efficiency site), and follow this formula, which uses a national average of 1/34 lbs. of CO2 per kWh (kilowatt hour):
(# of Watts x # of Hours Used Daily x 365 days)/ 1000 x 1.34 lbs CO2/kWh = x lbs. CO2/yr.
If you want to get a more exact personalized number, use your state's coefficient (which depends on whether your energy mostly comes from coal, fuel oil, or natural gas), which you can find here.
To see what kind of incentives/rebates are offered for buying Energy Star appliances in your state, type in your zip code at DSIREUSA.org's database.
Mindy Pennybacker, former editor-in-chief of The Green Guide, is founder of the green living website and blog GreenerPenny.com. See her "My One Green Thing Today" tips on GreenerPenny.com's Facebook page or follow GreenerPenny on Twitter.
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