Are Energy-Efficient Appliances Worth It?
The price premiums for Energy Star dishwashers, clothes washers, refrigerators, and freezers are small and pay for themselves in no time
When homes turn over, is it green to automatically turn over all of the major appliances as well? The answer is likely to be yes. Unlike many other goods, major appliances in the US over the last 20 years have gone way UP in energy efficiency while going DOWN in price. Research by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories shows that between 1980 and 2001, the energy efficiency of refrigerators and freezers improved by about 60% while at the same time real consumer prices dropped by 40%!
The Energy Star price premium
Ok, so if all new major appliances are so much better than the old ones, why pay the extra for an even more energy efficient one such as an Energy Star labeled appliance? Doing side-by-side comparisons of Energy Star-labeled and non-labeled models having the same or similar features is no easy task. But as an example, EPA estimates that the average price premium for Energy Star-labeled refrigerator is about $30 with annual energy cost savings that mean less than a 3-year payback — well under the expected service life of the refrigerator.
A walk around any one of the big box stores reveals price premiums for Energy Star-labeled major appliances ranging from $50 to as much as $200 — but with operating cost savings, the payback is as little as 2 years, depending on patterns of appliance use and actual energy costs. EPA Energy Star has a number of calculators that do the math for appliances; they are straightforward and easy to use.
What should I do with the old appliances?
It’s tempting to leave that old fridge as a back-up in the garage or consider donating old appliances. But in fact the best thing you can do with an inefficient appliance may be to retire it; it’s likely use enough energy and/or water to warrant recycling rather than reuse.
Some buying tips
Buy just as big as needed, but no bigger – While this adage is most applicable to refrigerators and freezers, it holds true across the board. Extra capacity means extra energy; operate your appliances at full capacity as much as you can for best efficiency.
Use the EnergyGuide label – It’s that big yellow sticker that shows you how much energy each model typically uses in a year in comparison to all other models in its category. Yes, there are instances where the tests used can give questionable results, but all in all, the EnergyGuide label is a useful tool.
Avoid side-by-side refrigerators – They use significantly more energy per cubic foot of capacity than either bottom or top freezer refrigerators.
Think hard about that basement or garage freezer – Lots of folks have the best of intentions for efficiently using their freezers but many of us use them poorly and they can be real energy hogs. If you or your clients are going to get a stand-alone freezer, try or recommend a manual defrost model. They use much less energy and limiting both the number and length of time per opening can mean a full year (or more) between defrosts.
Check for rebates and incentives – There are two comprehensive and easy places to look for information on local, state, and federal rebates and incentives:
Energy Star Special Offer/Rebate Finder – you just type in your zip code and check off the boxes of the appliances in which you are interested.
Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE) – On the home page, just de-select Renewables to focus on energy efficient appliance information and then click on your state. Then at the top you can click on “See Federal Incentives” or “See Residential Incentives Only.”
- Department of Energy
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