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Choosing an Energy-Efficient Refrigerator

Select a small refrigerator with the freezer at the top — one without a through-the-door ice dispenser

Posted on May 18 2012 by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Because federal appliance efficiency standards have gotten more stringent, new refrigerators use much less energy than those sold in the 1970s. These days, it’s fairly easy to find a full-size refrigerator that requires only 350 to 500 kWh per year — significantly less than the 1,000 kWh/year energy hogs of yore.

Beginning in 2014, the minimum federal efficiency standard for refrigerators will ratchet up another notch, lowering the annual energy bill for a 20-cubic-foot refrigerator to about 390 kWh. Energy StarLabeling system sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Energy for labeling the most energy-efficient products on the market; applies to a wide range of products, from computers and office equipment to refrigerators and air conditioners. models will use even less energy.

To reduce the amount of energy used by the typical American refrigerator, several steps are necessary. Engineers, government regulators, and consumers all have a role to play:

  • Engineers need to design more efficient refrigerators; this is done by specifying efficient compressors, thick insulation, and high-performance heat-exchange coils. To varying degrees, appliance designers have been working at this goal for at least 90 years.
  • Since history shows that appliance manufacturers are unlikely to build efficient appliances voluntarily — even when efficiency improvements are demonstrably cost-effective — we need stringent federal regulations requiring refrigerators to meet minimum efficiency standards. Fortunately, after years of shameful inaction, the U.S. Department of Energy has finally enacted better standards.
  • Consumers need to choose small, simple refrigerators without the bells and whistles that waste energy.

Designing an efficient refrigerator

Designing an efficient refrigerator isn’t rocket science; the principles are fairly simple. You want the smallest possible compressor. You want the compressor to be efficient. You want the heat-exchange coils to be generously sized and located somewhere where smooth air flow is possible. And you want thick insulation with a high R-valueMeasure of resistance to heat flow; the higher the R-value, the lower the heat loss. The inverse of U-factor. per inch.

Engineers have traditionally compromised on many of these features. Since thicker insulation reduces the interior volume of the refrigerator, appliance manufacturers have often skimped on insulation so they could brag about the refrigerator’s volume. Similarly, no one wants to look at heat-exchange coils, so they are usually located at the back of the refrigerator, where air flow may not be ideal.

Engineers know that there are two other factors that can improve refrigerator efficiency:

  • You can design a chest-style refrigerator that opens from the top (like a chest-style freezer). This design can save a lot of energy (because the cold air in the fridge doesn't spill out onto the floor every time the door is opened), but consumers don’t like the inconvenience of rummaging around to find what’s on the bottom layer of their refrigerator, and most kitchens can’t accommodate refrigerators that open from the top. (If you’re interested in buying this type of refrigerator, SunDanzer makes extremely efficient models that operate on either 12-volt DC or 24-volt DC.)
  • You can locate the compressor on top of the refrigerator instead of underneath, so that the compressor’s waste heat doesn’t warm the bottom of your refrigerator.

Only a few refrigerator designers have paid attention to this last point. (Refrigerators with top-mounted compressors are currently available from Sun Frost.) The most famous refrigerator with a top-mounted compressor was undoubtedly the General Electric Monitor-Top refrigerator sold during the 1920s and 1930s.

The Monitor-Top refrigerator

It's worth delving into the history of the Monitor-Top refrigerator, for two reasons: it was very energy-efficient, and my grandfather played an important role in its history.

The GE Monitor-Top was the Model T Ford of refrigerators. General Electric introduced the Monitor-Top in 1925 and manufactured it continuously for 12 years. (A monitor — an architectural feature of some barns — is a ventilating ridge that projects above a barn roof like a crown. As applied to GE refrigerators, the nickname was undoubtedly influenced by the shape of a famous warship, the USS Monitor.)

Early versions of the Monitor-Top (the DR and CA models) had recurring maintenance problems. These problems were all overcome, however, when GE introduced its improved version of the Monitor-Top, the CK model, in 1933. The CK version of the GE Monitor-Top was famously energy-efficient, reliable, and long-lived.

My grandfather, William L. Holladay, was a mechanical engineer who specialized in refrigeration and air conditioning. Among my grandfather’s many accomplishments: he was appointed president of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAEAmerican Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). International organization dedicated to the advancement of heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration through research, standards writing, publishing, and continuing education. Membership is open to anyone in the HVAC&R field; the organization has about 50,000 members. ) in 1968. (Another fun fact about my grandfather: two decades before becoming ASHRAE president, he wrote a prescient article on ground-source heat pumps.)

Fresh out of Caltech, my grandfather was hired by General Electric in 1924 as the company’s first sales representative for refrigerators. After working for a year at GE headquarters in Schenectady, New York, he was dispatched to Dallas; evidently company executives decided that Texas was a good place to sell refrigerators. As a GE engineer, William Holladay was directly involved in diagnosing and fixing problems with the early Monitor-Top refrigerators. (My grandfather was later hired away from GE by the George Belsey Company, a distributor of GE refrigerators in Los Angeles, Pasadena, and Glendale.)

One of my grandfather’s proudest possessions was a 1934 Monitor-Top refrigerator which operated continuously for more than 69 years. When he died in 2001 at the age of 98, Grandfather's refrigerator was still running — and it was still running two years layer, when his house was sold in 2003.

My grandfather had strong opinions on refrigerator design, and he loved the Monitor-Top. I remember talking with him about refrigerator compressors. He told me (to the best of my recollection), “It makes sense to put the compressor on top. The compressor is hot, and it shouldn’t be located underneath the cabinet. Moving the compressor under the cabinet was a stupid idea.”

A very early energy-monitoring study

Old Monitor-Tops from the mid-1930s used significantly less electricity than modern refrigerators — a fact that my grandfather was well aware of. William Holladay was one of the first engineers to conduct energy-use research on residential refrigerators. He conducted a 12-month energy monitoring study in 1935-1936 involving 114 Monitor-Top refrigerators in Los Angeles. According to my grandfather, he used “souped-up kWh meters accurate to 0.1 kWh.” The results of my grandfather’s study were published in the 1937 issue of Refrigerating Engineering magazine. According to his measurements, the average energy used by these 114 refrigerators was 20.3 kWh per month (243.6 kWh per year). Few modern-day refrigerators can boast of such a low level of energy use. As my grandfather wrote in 1994, “Present-day refrigerators, with larger freezers, run from 60 to 100 kWh per month.”

Several factors contributed to the low energy requirements of the Monitor-Top refrigerator. One factor was good engineering; the other was the refrigerator’s small size. (The two most common sizes of the Monitor-Top were 5 and 7 cubic feet.) Before we conclude that the small size of 1930s refrigerators makes my grandfather’s energy-monitoring data irrelevant, however, we should consider whether we really need to have a 22-cubic-foot monster in our kitchens. (I’ll return to the issue of refrigerator size shortly.)

Years later, my grandfather wrote “The General Electric Monitor Top Refrigerator,” an article published in the September 1994 issue of the ASHRAE Journal. Among the facts he shared in that article:

  • Monitor-Top refrigerators were insulated with corrugated cardboard.
  • The refrigerant used in the most successful Monitor-Top (the CK model) was sulfur dioxide.
  • The failure rate on the Scotch Yoke compressor used for the CK model of the Monitor-Top was only 0.2% per year.
  • The CK evaporator was made of stainless steel.

In that 1994 article, my grandfather wrote, “A proud possession of my family is a CK-2 unit on an X-7 cabinet, now more than 60 years old, still faithfully preserving food and making ice cubes in our second home in the mountains. ... We have replaced the starting relay once and the door gasket several times. … The Monitor-Top ... was the DC-3 airplane of household refrigeration: simple, efficient, and long-lived. We will not see its equal again.”

Problems with the Energy Star program and yellow EnergyGuide labels

If you are shopping for a new energy-efficient refrigerator, you might be tempted to focus on the yellow EnergyGuide labels you see in the appliance showroom, or you might look for an Energy Star label. Beware: neither label is necessarily a faithful indicator of energy use.

The Energy Star program doesn’t award its label to refrigerators based on low energy use; rather, the program divides refrigerators into five categories and awards Energy Star labels to the best-performing refrigerators in each category. The five categories are:

  • Top-mount freezer models without through-the-door ice dispensers;
  • Side-mount freezer models without through-the-door ice dispensers;
  • Bottom-mount freezer models without through-the-door ice dispensers;
  • Top-mount freezer models with through-the-door ice dispensers;
  • Side-mount freezer models with through-the-door ice dispensers.

The basic problem with this method is that some of these categories could be called energy-hog categories. For example, federal regulations for side-mount freezer models with through-the-door ice dispensers (otherwise known as the energy-hog category) require that a 20-cubic-foot model use no more than 608 kWh/year. A refrigerator in this category can get an Energy Star label if it uses 486 kWh/per year (20% less than the federal maximum).

The depressing fact, however, is that such an Energy Star refrigerator still uses more energy than a non-Energy Star 20-cubic-foot top-mount freezer model without a through-the-door ice dispenser, which could use between 379 kWh/year and 472 kWh/year and still not be eligible for an Energy Star label.

The same problem exists with the yellow EnergyGuide labels seen in appliance showrooms. The yellow sticker compares electricity consumption only with models in the same category — side-by-side refrigerator-freezers are only compared to other side-by-side refrigerator-freezers, and not with models with top-mount freezers.

Energy-use numbers are self-reported

The Energy Star program suffers from another weakness: the federal government doesn’t measure the energy use of refrigerators. All the numbers on the yellow labels are self-reported numbers provided by the manufacturers.

Are these numbers accurate? It’s hard to say. When Consumer Reports did their own testing, they found that at least one refrigerator manufacturer, LG, was providing misleading energy-use data. LG rigged one of their refrigerators (model LRFC25750) to turn off a 100-watt electric resistance heater that kept the freezer gasket pliable and frost-free. A relay turned off the heater under only one condition: when the ambient temperature of the room was at 90°F. Not coincidentally, this happens to be the temperature of the test chamber used during EnergyGuide monitoring tests.

Consumer Reports found other problems as well. In an October 2008 article titled “Energy Star Has Lost Some Luster,” the magazine criticized the Energy Star program for its lax standards, out-of-date test protocols, and rules allowing appliance manufacturers to test their own products with little oversight. The article noted that the EnergyGuide label on the Samsung RF267ABRS refrigerator claims that it uses only 540 kWh per year. However, in Consumer Reports tests, which the magazine described as “tougher than the Department of Energy’s” and more likely to reflect the way refrigerators are typically used, the refrigerator’s actual electricity use was found to be 890 kWh per year, about 65% higher than the usage noted on the label. The article continued, “There’s an even larger difference between company claims and our measurements for the LG LMX25981ST French-door fridge. LG says it uses an Energy Star compliant 547 kWh per year. We found through our tests that real-life energy use would be more than double.”

Fortunately, the Energy Star program responded to the Consumer Reports criticism by tightening its protocols and forcing a settlement with LG.

Should we trust the numbers on the yellow EnergyGuide labels? For the time being, we have to. Even though these self-reported energy-use numbers may not be accurate, these labels are currently the best guide consumers have available when refrigerator shopping.

Remember, though: you should only use the yellow EnergyGuide labels to determine the number of kWh used per year. Ignore the chart that compares the refrigerator to other similar models.

Choosing an efficient refrigerator

What are the key features of an efficient refrigerator-freezer? If you want low energy bills, your refrigerator:

  • Should be small. Consider buying a refrigerator that with a capacity of 14 to 18 cubic feet.
  • Should be a model with the freezer on top. Side-by-side models are energy hogs.
  • Should not have a through-the-door ice dispenser.
  • Should have a yellow EnergyGuide label that shows very low annual energy use. (If possible, aim for 350 kWh/year or less.)

If your refrigerator has an “anti-sweat” feature — a heater to limit condensation — turn it off. (This switch is often labeled the “energy saver” switch.)

For more information on refrigerator specifications, check out the following resources:

Refrigerators in Europe

How big a refrigerator do you need? Most Americans are used to living with a refrigerator measuring anywhere from 20 to 26 cubic feet. When Americans visit European homes, however, they are often startled to discover that most Europeans are happy with refrigerators that are only half as big.

It’s hard to find up-to-date data on the average size of European refrigerators. One source, however, described the “average European fridge-freezer” as one with 215 liters [7.6 cu. ft.] of refrigerator space and 60 liters [2.1 cu. ft.] of freezer space — that is, an appliance with a total volume of only 9.7 cubic feet.

Anecdotal reports by Americans who are surprised at the small size of European refrigerators are common. Here are some examples from blogs written by Americans living in Europe:

So, here’s my bold suggestion of the week: the next time you buy a refrigerator, consider buying a small one. I’m an enthusiastic cook who enjoys preparing large home-cooked meals three times a day, and my family of four has lived happily with a 10-cubic-foot Sun Frost refrigerator freezer (an RF-12) for 20 years. It uses only 171 kWh per year.

Another option: you can always visit a local antique store and look for an old GE Monitor-Top. If you’re lucky, you may be able to buy a working model for $150 to $800.

Last week’s blog: “When Do I Need to Perform a Load Calculation?”


Tags: , , , ,

Image Credits:

  1. William L. Holladay
  2. General Electric

1.
Fri, 05/18/2012 - 08:14

Bottom drawer freezer?
by Jason Miller

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You didn't mention the option of a freezer drawer on the bottom. Do you have an opinion on that style? I've assumed that less cold air is lost than on a freezer with a door. One model I like is the Fisher & Paykel RF175.


2.
Fri, 05/18/2012 - 08:47

Response to Jason Miller
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

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Jason,
That model uses 440 kWh a year -- considerably more than my recommended maximum of 350 kWh/year.

When in doubt about manufacturers' claims, just compare the kWh/year number with other brands.

There are lots of better choices; see this Excel spreadsheet with Energy Star models:
http://downloads.energystar.gov/bi/qplist/refrigerators.xls?3549-cb6a

I notice that Frigidaire makes a 21-cu.-ft. model (model 970-4215) that uses only 335 kWh/year. Other manufacturers also make efficient models of refrigerators.


3.
Fri, 05/18/2012 - 09:27

Chest with rising lazy Susan
by James Howison

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I've used chest fridges on boats quite a lot. The one design element that I wonder about is this: could you have shelves that rose out of the chest for access? Imagine a central column with shelves surrounding it. For access to other than the very top layer you raise the column and rotate it for access to the back and side shelves.

Sure the raising mechanism would need engineering, but seems like it could be done (rack and pinion?). And yes, you'd have warm air penetrating everything while it was raised, but I wonder I the cold would fall back into the 'well'. Mostly though you access the top level, so it would only get used like once a day.

Oh an it would suck on a boat at sea :) But in a kitchen perhaps not.

I'm shocked and annoyed that the Emergy Star comparison diagram is such a joke and thank you for bringing it up here (and i enjoyed the fun story about Mr Holladay :)


4.
Fri, 05/18/2012 - 09:37

Reply to James Howison
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

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James,
The usual solution for users of chest-style refrigerators is to include stacked wire racks that can be lifted out for access to the bottom layers of the fridge.

But I like your suggestion of a rising lazy Susan. It's clearly time for backyard tinkerers to start inventing better racks for chest-style refrigerators.


5.
Fri, 05/18/2012 - 11:30

Lessons from the past
by Larry Weingarten

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Martin: Thanks for reminding us that some really smart people came before we did. There are answers to current questions waiting to be found in old equipment, books and buildings. I think our predecessors understood the concept of elegant simplicity much better than we do now. You must have learned at your grandfather's knee!


6.
Fri, 05/18/2012 - 11:43

Edited Fri, 05/18/2012 - 11:45.

Response to Larry Weingarten
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

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Larry,
My grandfather was precise about data and measurement. He was reluctant to acquire unnecessary appliances.

He loved his slide rule. He also loved his recording thermometer; he had decades of data on outdoor temperatures recorded at his house in Altadena, California. His machine had a vertical cylinder that rotated slowly, once every 24 hours. A mechanical pen recorded the outdoor temperature on a paper tube that slipped over the cylinder. Every morning he removed the old paper tube from the outside of the cylinder and inserted a new paper tube. Each paper tube had a fluctuating line on it, drawn in ink, recording outdoor temperatures over the previous 24 hours. The paper graphs were carefully filed away.

He saw no reason to replace his refrigerator as long as it still worked. Eventually, toward the end of his life, my grandmother convinced him to finally buy a new refrigerator, and he moved his Monitor Top to a vacation home in the mountains.

He worked for years as a consultant on air conditioning systems. He never installed air conditioning at his Altadena house, though, because he thought that residential air conditioning wasn't necessary. "All you need is a whole-house fan," he said. When the weather got warm, he opened the windows at bedtime and turned on his fan; when he woke up in the morning, he closed the windows.


7.
Fri, 05/18/2012 - 12:25

No mention of CEE Tiers?
by Eric Sandeen

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I'd advise looking for a CEE TIer III fridge - that'll go well beyond the current energy star standards. Two years ago I did a blog post ("Going beyond Energy Star") about just this, when I noticed a little "CEE Tier3" tag on a fridge when I was shopping, and found out that it was 30% better than the Energy Star minimum! It was cheap, too.

FWIW, http://www.toptenusa.org does a good job of weeding through what's available,and presenting a top-ten efficient list.


8.
Fri, 05/18/2012 - 12:43

Edited Thu, 05/24/2012 - 08:11.

Reply to Eric Sandeen
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

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Eric,
Thanks for suggesting some excellent resources.

For those interested in further information, here is an explanation of the Super Efficient Home Appliances Initiative (SEHA) launched by the Consortium for Energy Efficiency (CEE). Tier III appliances are more efficient than Tier I or Tier II appliances.

An Excel file of the CEE's list of refrigerator specs can be found here.

A much more user-friendly document is the Top Ten Medium Refrigerators list from Top Ten USA. For specific model numbers, you have to click a link for further information. They suggest you choose the Hotpoint model HTH17CBC refrigerator with a capacity of 16.5 cubic feet ($626). It has an annual energy use rating of 300 kWh.

I will include these links in the blog. Thanks for the suggestions, Eric.


9.
Fri, 05/18/2012 - 12:53

Thanks Martin
by Eric Sandeen

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Martin, if you click through to the product's specific page (where it says "multiple models") you'll get a more detailed list with model numbers:

General Electric GTH17BBC, GTH17DBC, GTH17JBC, GTJ17BCC, GTK17JBC, Hotpoint HTH17CBC, HTJ17CBC

The fridge I ended up with is very similar to those. Rated at 324kWh/yr, but I've been closer to 157 - thanks I'm sure to it being a beer/overflow fridge, seldom opened, in a cool basement.


10.
Fri, 05/18/2012 - 13:05

Response to Eric Sandeen
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

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Eric,
Thanks for the further information. Your only crime: energy nerds aren't allowed to have a beer fridge in the basement.


11.
Fri, 05/18/2012 - 13:08

Edited Fri, 05/18/2012 - 13:20.

We get no vices?
by Eric Sandeen

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It's my guilty pleasure. And you should see the tiny fridge in the kitchen. Combined they probably use less than most households' single fridge. ;)


12.
Fri, 05/18/2012 - 16:59

Edited Fri, 05/18/2012 - 17:00.

Looks Familiar
by John Brooks

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the "Monitor-Top" looks familiar

monitor.JPG


13.
Sat, 05/19/2012 - 02:43

This reminds me of a Green Architect's Lounge Podcast
by J S

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They were talking about designing more energy efficient refridgerators and wondering if it could be possible to design one where it opens up to the outside during colder months to take advantage of the winter.


14.
Sat, 05/19/2012 - 07:44

Response to Martin Holladay's response to Eric Sandeen
by James Morgan

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Y'all would be surprised how often I have to remind folks who are installing a new energy-efficient refrigerator as part of a renovation that it's NOT OK to put the old one in a (hot) garage as backup.

Or maybe you wouldn't.


15.
Sat, 05/19/2012 - 08:31

Edited Sat, 05/19/2012 - 08:32.

Is it OK to have a beer fridge in the basement?
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

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I think we can all agree with James that an old (not very efficient) second refrigerator doesn't belong in a hot garage.

I'll leave it to James and Eric to settle the question of whether energy nerds are allowed to have a new energy-efficient beer fridge in a cool basement. I'm going to stay neutral on the question for the time being.


16.
Sat, 05/19/2012 - 15:58

Beer in the basement?
by James Morgan

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I'll not quibble about a few kWh a year in a good cause.

But.... (the Brit in me is tempted to ask) if the basement is cool, why refrigerate the beer? (ducks head to dodge imminent hail of missiles in the beer wars)


17.
Sat, 05/19/2012 - 16:11

Beer at cellar temperature?
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

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I'm all in favor of beer at cellar temperature, as it is traditionally consumed in Britain -- but only in winter, and only if you have an old-fashioned cellar without any heating appliances.


18.
Sat, 05/19/2012 - 19:33

Edited Sat, 05/19/2012 - 19:36.

fridge size
by Curt Kinder

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We are a family of 5 and I am not at all willing to give up much fridge size. Much of the time we use every darned bit of the fridge space. I do agree with the advice to stick with top freezers and interior ice makers. I bought the largest such model I could find, keeping an eye on energy consumption. This ties into one of the hallmarks of my energy solutions company - give folks what they want, but at the lowest feasible energy cost.

I can't sell people on 3 minute showers using 95 degree water, 25 Watt-equivalent light bulbs, heating setpoints of 60 or cooling setpoints of 85, tiny TV sets, etc.

There is more in play than the mere fact that euro fridges are smaller. Europeans are themselves smaller, eat less, shop for food more often and closer to home. I'm not saying these are good or bad differences, just noting them.

A large fridge allows us to buy in bulk at lower prices, shop less often,keep more leftovers, not have a 2nd fridge. I buy beer in refillable growlers from a local microbrewery near where I work, but they must be kept cold from the moment of purchase.

We do have a small, 7 Cuft manual defrost chest freezer also in our kitchen. We designed the kitchen for it - our kitchen cabinet guy says he has never seen a chest freezer incorporated into a new kitchen.

The extra buck or so per month in electricity a larger fridge uses is more than offset in shopping economy and convenience.

Martin's article is long, informative, and thought provoking, but he didn't write much on one of the features of modern refrigerators that makes them energy pigs - automatic defrost. You gotta be really old to remember when manual defrost fridges were sold new.

Auto defrost, especially as it has been done for decades, is the energy pig within. Every few hours a timer shuts off the compressor and then heats the entire evaporator coil with an adjacent heating element similar to one found in an oven or dishwasher. This does melt water off the coil, and some of it then drains off, but much of it also evaporates into the cabinet. The heating element also adds a bunch of heat to the cainet which the compressor has to remove during the next cycle.

There have to be better ways to manage the defrost - hot gas in the coil itself, demand based, minimize heat and humidity added into the cabinet. Maybe the newer fridges already have better defrost...


19.
Sat, 05/19/2012 - 22:05

Curt makes several excellent points
by James Morgan

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not least of which is not wasting food. To that end I have to admit I like the fresh produce at eye level and the less-used freezer drawer below. Perhaps a reasonable trade against an extra ~ 50 kWh per year.


20.
Sat, 05/19/2012 - 22:36

On wasted food and cold beer
by Eric Sandeen

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TBH, I think a larger fridge would cause us to waste more food. Even our tiny little LG in the kitchen (only one that would fit in the existing cutout space) winds up with too much forgotten stuff in the back. Hm, I wonder if anyone could make a 6ft wide, 1ft deep fridge.

As for energy nerds being allowed a 2nd fridge, I'll be glad to go up against most of you on electric bills ;) 366kWh/month avg over the past year, family of 4, gas heat, no (ok, rarely window) AC, electric dryer & range & oven. We're under half the state average; I think I've earned a cold beer. :)


21.
Sun, 05/20/2012 - 04:20

Edited Sun, 05/20/2012 - 10:00.

Response to Curt Kinder
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Curt,
You wrote, "There is more in play than the mere fact that euro fridges are smaller. Europeans are themselves smaller [and] eat less."

You have proposed an intriguing possibility: a possible correlation between the fact that Americans are larger than Europeans and the relative size of their refrigerators.

Your observation may be accurate, but it's not a very compelling argument in favor of Americans buying bigger fridges.


22.
Sun, 05/20/2012 - 08:06

Yep.
by James Morgan

Helpful? 0

USA is number one.
http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/hea_obe-health-obesity


23.
Sun, 05/20/2012 - 08:20

American "size" to the side
by 5C8rvfuWev

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... and perhaps our obesity epidemic with it (if that's where the conversation is headed), the previous several posts demonstrate how this topic, more than any other you've covered recently Martin, is susceptible to "occupant behavior." ... like the efficient top-freezer refrigerator I once owned and my former wife's propensity for leaving the door open while she cooked!

I do have a couple of questions, though:

Given the propensity of cold air to settle to the bottom, why is a top door freezer more efficient than a bottom "awning" door freezer? Doesn't the cold air flow out of the top door every time it is opened while the bottom unit retains the temperature better?

And: assuming that people are going to use ice and/or chilled water for drinking, why is it less efficient to have a door mounted ice/water dispenser than it is to open the door ten times a day to get ice or a pitcher of cold water? Why isn't opening/closing the door more of an issue than the dispenser for energy efficiency.

My own objection to the dispenser in the door is the oft-noted repairs required for such refrigerators -- it's a constant complaint from CR's ratings. And, though they don't measure it, a source of "embodied" waste every time a repairman has to putter with the damn thing.


24.
Sun, 05/20/2012 - 10:07

Response to Joe W
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Joe W.,
To the best of my knowledge, freezer compartments were originally located at the top of a refrigerator-freezer because that was the coldest compartment. Once the refrigerant coils cooled the freezer, a convection loop inside the refrigeration compartment brought cold air from the underside of the freezer compartment down to the refrigeration compartment, because cold air sinks.

These days, refrigerator-freezers with bottom-mounted freezers are almost as efficient as units with top-mounted freezers. The real hogs to avoid are the side-by-side models.

My guess is that opening the door of your refrigerator a few extra times a day doesn't incur as much of an energy penalty as the inherent penalty that comes with units equipped with a through-the-door ice dispenser. However, I'm not aware of a monitoring study that has looked into the issue.

I agree with you that it's important to consider the frequency of required repairs when choosing a refrigerator. I doubt whether a mechanism that dispenses ice cubes through a door will last 69 years, like my grandfather's refrigerator.


25.
Mon, 05/21/2012 - 10:48

commercial under counter drawer refrigerator
by MIke Truxillo

Helpful? 0

Martin,

I would think that these drawer refrigerators would/could be more efficient. shallow drawers make it easy to find items, drawers keep cold air from spilling out similar to a chest freezer. Unfortunately all the ones I can find are energy hogs with auto defrost and commercial features.


26.
Mon, 05/21/2012 - 17:00

Response to Mike Truxillo
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Mike,
You're probably right that a drawer refrigerator could be made to be relatively efficient. All of the usual design principals apply:
1. The insulation has to be thick.
2. The gasket that seals the door/drawer has to be airtight.
3. The compressor has to be located so that its heat doesn't degrade the performance of the unit.
4. The heat exchange coils need to be located somewhere that gets decent air flow.

My guess is that designers don't care much about these issues. But if someone wanted to address these issues, they could.


27.
Mon, 05/21/2012 - 19:05

Drawer refrigerators, re Martin's list -
by James Morgan

Helpful? 0

1) surface area to volume ratio is high, so poor material efficiency
2) as we know from window technology, compression seals consistently outperform sliding seals in airtightness.
3), 4) - drawer refrigerators are sold on their sleek in-cabinet installation. Not promising for compressor/heat exchanger performance.

In addition, drawer refrigerators, though expensive, tend to have a poor reliability profile. All in all, despite the chill retention effect, probably not the most profitable format to explore for energy efficiency.


28.
Wed, 05/23/2012 - 15:29

Small Fridges Make Good Cities
by Lloyd Alter

Helpful? 0

Architect Donald Chong coined the phrase "small fridges make good cities", noting that people in Europe tend to shop every day for fresh food, interact with their neighbours and support their local greengrocers, instead of driving the minivan to Walmart to fill up the 48" side-by-side once a week. If you really want to see the difference, watch Oprah tour a Danish apartment and flip out at the size of the fridge http://www.treehugger.com/sustainable-product-design/small-fridges-make-...


29.
Wed, 05/23/2012 - 16:44

Response to Lloyd Alter
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Lloyd,
Thanks! Great link.


30.
Wed, 05/23/2012 - 19:54

Auto defrost - the energy hog?
by Pam Kueber

Helpful? 0

I write a blog about 1940s and 1950s homes, and whenever the subject of keeping refrigerators from this era comes up, some folks inevitably pipe up and exclaim "but they are energy hogs not efficient as today." Others have replied: "As long as the vintage fridges don't have auto defrost they may likely use LESS electric than a fridge with auto defrost today." Now, I see @curt kinder saying (above):

"Martin's article is long, informative, and thought provoking, but he didn't write much on one of the features of modern refrigerators that makes them energy pigs - automatic defrost. You gotta be really old to remember when manual defrost fridges were sold new....Auto defrost, especially as it has been done for decades, is the energy pig within. Every few hours a timer shuts off the compressor and then heats the entire evaporator coil with an adjacent heating element similar to one found in an oven or dishwasher. This does melt water off the coil, and some of it then drains off, but much of it also evaporates into the cabinet. The heating element also adds a bunch of heat to the cainet which the compressor has to remove during the next cycle."

Short of putting a meter on a 50s fridge-sans-defrost and checking the kilowatt usage, do you have any data on this subject, Martin and/or Curt? The discussion often gets quite heated -- haha -- and I would love to know. Note, 1950s fridges were also smaller, I believe.... so even with the meter on, there's also a kilowatt-per-cu.ft issue here - which is also what Martin discusses: e.g. smaller is better. Thank you.


31.
Wed, 05/23/2012 - 19:54

Change the fridge light bulb?
by Brett Little

Helpful? 0

I sadly inherited a side by side, ice dispenser fridge (yet energy star!) when i bought this house. I did however change all incandescents over to LEDs immediately in the fridge and freezer. They have been doing fine for months.


32.
Wed, 05/23/2012 - 21:09

more notes on the monitor top
by Joe Hammes

Helpful? 0

Great article Martin. I've been using a two-door 1927 Monitor Top as our three-person family's one and only fridge for 8 years. It's a 1927 cabinet with a 1936 CK series top unit, and despite the relatively big compartment size of around 11 cubic feet, it uses $48/year in electricity at our rate of 13 cents/kw, according to my Kill-a-Watt meter. We do use a small chest freezer in the basement to supplement the tiny freezer shelf in the GE. It does need a defrost every 6 to 8 weeks, but it's a great excuse to clean the interior. About the beer - when there's more than I can fit, it gets cooled nicely on the basement floor by our GE Geospring heat pump water heater. Wonder if that will still be running in 76 years?


33.
Wed, 05/23/2012 - 22:09

Maybe it's not all about kWh.
by James Morgan

Helpful? 0

Loved the monitor-top history and the heads-up about Energy Star ratings. Led me to a little online reading which revealed that a) appliance manufacturers are more than a trifle coy about actual energy use but b) like the children of Lake Wobegone, all the fridges are apparently above average. Nary a one without an Energy Star label, but to find actual numbers you have to hunt around and download a PDF of the little yellow sticker (LG doesn't even seem to let you do that). Bottom line - the average ES refrigerator from a mainstream manufacturer seems to run about 550kWh/yr for a full-size model with thru-door ice and water, about 100kWh/yr less without that function.

That's up to 60% more than Martin's preferred number - seems a lot, yes? But in the real world that's just an extra twenty bucks worth of electricity a year - depending on where you live maybe thirty, tops. About the cost of dinner for two at a casual restaurant, no wine or dessert. In return a homeowner gets a year's worth of excellent storage of fresh produce from the farmer's market and the CSA, not to mention a convenient source of chilled tap water in place of the plastic bottles of soda and packaged water your kids otherwise love to to grab. If you're not off-grid and counting every electron, that begins to sounds like a green bargain. Even with the dreaded (but oh so tidy) auto-defrost.

Sidebar - for putting all that good fresh stuff at eye level where you can see it and use it before it goes bad, I'm liking the french-door layout. Preferably counter-depth so science projects don't proliferate in the depths.


34.
Thu, 05/24/2012 - 03:17

Edited Thu, 05/24/2012 - 03:19.

Response to Pam Kueber
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Pam,
The only way I know to check the electrical consumption of your 1950s refrigerator is with a meter (for example, the Kill-a-Watt meter, which is available online for $16 to $20). Some public libraries lend out Kill-a-Watt meters; some utility programs also have free meters to lend out to homeowners.

Concerning the auto defrost feature: yes, it wastes energy; and yes, it's convenient. Not all refrigerators have auto defrost; for example, my Sun Frost does not. It has to be defrosted the old-fashioned way.


35.
Thu, 05/24/2012 - 03:21

Response to Brett Little
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Brett,
I'm glad to hear that LED bulbs work well in your refrigerator. However, I hesitate to recommend such a swap, because the payback period is likely to be very long indeed for bulbs that are used for only a few minutes each day.


36.
Thu, 05/24/2012 - 03:22

Response to Joe Hammes
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Joe,
It's great to hear from a reader with a functioning Monitor-Top. I hope you get several more decades from your appliance.


37.
Thu, 05/24/2012 - 03:28

Response to James Morgan
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

James,
You're right, of course -- most Americans can easily afford to pay for the extra electricity to run a refrigerator that uses 60% more energy than a more efficient model.

Most Americans can also afford to pay their heating and cooling bills, even though these bills are higher than necessary because of basic design and construction flaws in most homes.

Nevertheless, I will continue to provide advice to the small number of readers who are interested in lowering their energy bills (and their carbon footprint). It's possible that one of these days, new carbon taxes will raise our energy bills; those who live in efficient homes will be ready.

The other possibility: political leaders will prove unable to address global climate change with a coherent energy policy, and America will sail along -- "business as usual" -- as temperatures rise.


38.
Thu, 05/24/2012 - 07:10

Response to Martin
by James Morgan

Helpful? 0

Respectfully Martin I think you're missing the point. A homeowner could save even more by not having a refrigerator at all: I spent my early years in such a household, and to the day she died my mother felt that her ~ 8 cubic foot model was more than adequate. Of course that was in another culture and another climate. But we should recognize there are benefits as well as costs to refrigerator use, benefits which are environmental as well as economic, and the balance doesn't necessarily support clipping refrigerator energy use to the bone at the cost of utility.

I live and work in an area where families with two working adults are the norm, where a family of four commonly spends well over $200 a month on its cell phone and cable bills, where nevertheless many are smart and well-educated and want to do the right thing environmentally. Not unreasonably, they would take a lot of convincing that the appliance they use to safely store the family's weekly haul from the CSA or the farmer's market should be judged entirely on its energy cost and not also on the considerable benefits it brings to the family well-being. And compared to the gasoline these good folks pour into the family minivan to get their kids to cello practice and tai chi, the energy used by the family refrig isn't even in the noise. For sure I'll continue to encourage them to read the energy specs on ALL their appliance purchases, and for sure I'll point out the dumbassness of putting the old refrig in the garage 'for overflow'. But I'll also encourage them to go for maximum use value in those new appliances so the backup unit is visibly redundant, and while there's something called opportunity cost for the always-limited and always carefully considered resources they're prepared to allocate to energy upgrades I'm not going to try and sell them on a $3,000 Sunfrost with lower functionality than a $2,000 mainstream model. Even if it saves them twenty bucks a year.


39.
Thu, 05/24/2012 - 08:14

Response to James Morgan
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

James,
Your points are all valid. Every family is different, and every family will, of course, make their refrigerator purchasing decision based on their own needs, family budget, and ability to pay their electric bills.

For those interested in a low-energy refrigerator, my blog provides guidance. For those who are happy with a large refrigerator, and happy to pay more for the electricity to run it, there is no need to follow my suggestions.

One of your points is particularly compelling: for those who are grid-connected, the high cost of a Sun Frost refrigerator can't be justified by any conceivable energy savings. It only makes sense for off-grid homeowners.

That's why, for some but not all families, a better choice is a model like the one mentioned in comment #8: the Hotpoint model HTH17CBC refrigerator with a capacity of 16.5 cubic feet. It has an annual energy use rating of 300 kWh. At a cost of $626, I think it makes more sense than a $3,000 Sun Frost or your suggested $2,000 "mainstream model" -- for some but not all families.


40.
Thu, 05/24/2012 - 09:53

Hotpoint model HTH17CBC
by James Morgan

Helpful? 0

Thanks Martin for referring back to the excellent-value Hotpoint model, and it's worth noting that its spec sheet reinforces your initial point about how misleading the Energy Star tag can be. Despite its extremely low 300kWh/yr rating this unit is listed as *NOT* ES compliant.


41.
Thu, 05/24/2012 - 10:04

Beer Fridge efficiency
by T.C. Feick

Helpful? 0

A couple of slightly off topic comments; 1: I mourn the loss of the "Best Beer Fridge EVER" that fell victim to my overzealous attempts to reduce home electricity consumption. I had noted, but not measured, that my old fridge used little electricity, and I assumed it had to do with 1: no frost free freezer, thick wall insulation, and thick, well maintained door gasketing. Why best fridge ever? It was beautifully styled, had a freezer for frosty mugs, and lazy susan shelves. It was able to hold 7 cases of beer with the crisper drawers removed. I miss it dearly. My embittered self disgust is brought to a full boil as I think of watching the power company subcontractor load my old friend in a truck and hand me a $35 check with a smile. 2:fridge maintenance. Clean the heat exchange coils and intake grates to help airflow and reduce energy consumption on your fridge


42.
Thu, 05/24/2012 - 10:12

Response to James Morgan
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

James,
According to the Excel spreadsheet of Energy-Star-compliant refrigerators, the Hotpoint HTH17CBC is Energy Star rated.


43.
Thu, 05/24/2012 - 10:15

Edited Thu, 05/24/2012 - 10:16.

Response to T.C. Feick
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

T.C.,
Once again, the age-old story about cleaning refrigerator coils rears its ugly head. I thought I had driven a wooden stake through that story in a previous blog, More Energy Myths.

At this point, I should probably stop fighting this harmless suggestion. So: anyone who wants to clean their refrigerator coils, go ahead. Just don't expect your electric bill to drop.


44.
Thu, 05/24/2012 - 17:31

Edited Thu, 05/24/2012 - 17:32.

Response to Martin
by James Morgan

Helpful? 0

Someone should tell Hotpoint marketing dept.:

Screenshot of Firefox.png


45.
Fri, 05/25/2012 - 16:59

a warmer fridge?
by Derek Roff

Helpful? 0

Refrigerators are supposed to stay below 39 degrees F, mostly to protect meat. Fruits, vegetables, and bread, which fill a fair amount of space in the average healthy person's fridge, actually keep better/last longer at 45 or 50 degrees, according to sources I have read. Is this true? Is there a reasonably efficient way to store some things in a warmer fridge, in a modern urban household? Or in an off-grid homestead?


46.
Sat, 05/26/2012 - 04:17

Response to Derek Roff
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Derek,
Some parts of every fridge are a little colder than other parts. In my fridge, the coldest area is in the back, and the warmest area is on the door rack. If you want to take advantages of these differences in temperature, you can.

As far as I know, as long as foods don't freeze (freezing can obviously hurt the texture of many foods), colder is better than warmer if all you care about is storing food as long as possible. However, if you want your food to taste good, you don't necessarily want it to be cold. The only fruits I would ever put in a refrigerator are apples and possibly grapes; other fruit -- bananas, peaches, pears, and tomatoes -- should definitely be kept at room temperature.

I hate cold bread. If you don't plan on toasting it, bread is also best stored at room temperature. Of course, that means you should bake frequently, or stop by your local bakery frequently if you are lucky enough to live near one.


47.
Sun, 02/17/2013 - 17:40

Sun Frost refrigerator
by Bonnie Barnes

Helpful? 0

Martin, I read your months-old post on energy-efficient refrigerators just yesterday, and thanks for the useful information as well as the story of the Monitor-Top. I am remodeling my 30-year-old kitchen for the first and last time, and after reading your comments about your Sun Frost jumped to their website. Now I am thoroughly smitten, but a little further web-surfing has left me cautious--a few complaints about door gaskets, condensation and the like. Would you be willing to share some more of your experience with your Sun Frost with a fellow Vermont resident, although one who alas does not live off the grid and moved away from the Northeast Kingdom many years ago? If you are, but feel such a conversation does not belong in this post, I'm happy to continue it via email.


48.
Mon, 02/18/2013 - 08:31

Response to Bonnie Barnes
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Bonnie,
My 12-volt Sunfrost refrigerator-freezer is now about 21 years old. It still works fine.

The original compressor has never needed any maintenance. I replaced the thermostat once. With telephone advice from people at Sunfrost, it was easy for me to replace the failed thermostat myself.

The original shelves on the door had plastic components that failed. I had new aluminum shelves made by a local sheet-metal worker. These work fine.

One of the glass shelves in the main compartment broke when I took it out to clean it. I replaced it with an aluminum shelf (again, made by a local sheet-metal contractor).

There is occasional condensation. If everything works well, the condensation drips out a tube in the back and evaporates. Occasionally this tube gets clogged and needs to be cleaned out.

You need to do some trial-and-error adjustment of the thermostat so that lettuce doesn't freeze in the refrigerator compartment, but ice cream still stays hard in the freezer. For mysterious reasons, the thermostat has to be adjusted seasonally -- you need a slightly different adjustment in hot weather than in cold weather.

The refrigerator has a different shape from most refrigerators. It's deep. You may find that inconvenient.

If efficiency is your number-one priority, it's hard to beat the Sunfost.


49.
Mon, 07/08/2013 - 12:41

Solar Powered Refrigerators and Freezers
by D G

Helpful? 0

Talking about efficiency and saving power, did you know that solar powered fridges and freezers existed?! Well here you go http://www.ecosolarcool.com/


50.
Mon, 07/08/2013 - 13:23

Edited Mon, 07/08/2013 - 13:25.

Response to DG
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

DG,
Q. "Did you know that solar powered fridges and freezers existed?"

A. Yes. I've had one in my home for 21 years. (It's a 12 volt DC Sunfrost.)


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