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Green Communities

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

This Department of Energy electrical consumption chart shows all of the major appliances typical annual consumption. The length of the bar is related to how often or long the appliance is running and what it draws when it is running. Appliances that have motors, pumps, compressors, and heating elements generally are the biggest consumers.
Image Credit: Department of Energy

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.

Energy Star Refrigerator Calculator

Energy Star Dishwasher Calculator

Energy Star Clothes Washer Calculator

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.

Recycling clothes washers and dishwashers

Recycling refrigerators and freezers

Recylcing other household appliances and items

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.”


  1. Jim Atkinson | | #1

    new green product
    I developed a filter for an electric clothes dryer which allows the user to return the hot, humid air back into the home. This filters out 99.5% of all contaminants including smell. With the extra heat added to the home, the furnace doesn't have to work as much, the moisture added to the environment gets rid of static electricity and in many cases, this filter shortens the time required to dry the clothes. So, this little filter saves energy for the furnace, saves electricity from the dryer and makes the home environment much better to live in.

    I have a very small company in Washington, MO, just my wife and myself but we both see this as a great energy saving device.
    Thank you,
    Jim Atkinson

  2. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Response to Jim
    I strongly advise GBA readers to avoid all gadgets that short-circuit dryer vents. Clothes dryers should always be vented outdoors.

    Deliberately introducing moisture into your home can lead to condensation problems and mold.

    Advice to builders: note that this strategy is illegal in new homes. According to the International Residential Code, section M1502.1, "Dryer exhaust systems shall be independent of all other systems, and shall convey the moisture to the outdoors."

    Installation of Jim Atkinson's invention would be a code violation.

  3. Interested Onlooker | | #3

    Energy use in dryers
    A frequent solution in Europe where external venting of dryers in apartments is difficult or impossible is to use a condensing dryer. As its name suggests, the outgoing humid air is used to heat the incoming air; the outgoing air is cooled and the resulting condensate is sent to a drain or, in some cases, a small tank which is emptied down a sink. Little loss, and hence use, of energy is entailed.

  4. Expert Member
    Peter Yost | | #4

    Introducing clothes dryer moisture to the basement
    Please take a look at this blog:

    Also, I have been weighing our clothes coming out of our horizontal axis clothes washer for the last several months--a typical full load contains 4 pounds of water, or 4 pints.

    Doing the math with a psychrometric chart (and confirming with hygrometer readings), that 4 pints raises the interior relative humidity in our basement (8,000 cubic feet, approximately) from about 40% to 80% (at an unchanged air temperature of 70 degrees F), if the basement is closed up. Bad idea in the summer.

    On the other hand, we hang those same clothes in the basement in the winter when the HRV is running (acting as a dehumidifier), and the interior relative humidity barely budges.

    While introducing warm moist air into a home is generally a bad idea, it's always about rates and capacities, and taking measurements to confirm the physics. If you are not measuring and calculating, don't do it.

  5. Wayne Yeo | | #5

    Energy savings
    I'm all for saving energy, but do your calculations carefully. Saving 30 dollars a year and having a 3 year payback over a non-energy star appliance is great. But, if you did not "need" the fridge in the first place, the 30 dollar savings over the cost of the appliance, plus premium, may not be a cost effective use of your money. A new fridge lasts about 12 years on average. These are not the old Frigidaires that lasted for ever. Pay attention to how much energy you are using, does it seem to run all the time ? Borrow or buy a Kill-o-Watt or similar device and find out. High usage, then consider a fix, if that is not a good choice then look at quality, up front cost, and lifetime cost, given the average life. Minimise lifetime costs all in. A spreadsheet is your friend. Use it. An old computer left on all the time, almost certainly is your worst energy offender. Simple energy rule. Not using it, turn it off, fridge excepted.

  6. Steve Barnhart | | #6

    Think before you buy
    I'd like to challenge your readers to follow the energy star links and do the math before buying. They have most older appliances in the database, so you can see what how your current unit compares to a new one (plus age-related innefficiency).

    In my case, it was a no-brainer for a new washer (front load) and dryer (had to replace). The dishwasher was a little harder to justify based on efficiency - it isn't always straightforward. I couldn't justify a new refrigerator, though, as much as I wanted to. When factoring in the purchase price and efficiency savings the payback was more than 20 years. Plus, there are factors more difficult to quantify - such as cost to manufacture and dispose of the old appliance. Consider if it's wasteful to dispose of a functional appliance that may be marginally less efficient than a newer unit if someone else has a genuine need for that appliance.

    I used energy star ratings to help select a new upright freezer recently. Unfortunately the manual defrost was only an option in some of the cheaper models. In the end I realized it was worth the extra $10 a year to not empty out the freezer and find a place for everything where it won't thaw while the freezer defrosts.

    Just do the math and think before you buy. If you're analytical, creating a spreadsheet might help compare various models and cost savings.

  7. SteveP | | #7

    Cottage is a good place for old appliances
    Lots of people have a cottage or have one in the family. Cottage appliances are often only used only a few months a year, so payback periods on newer appliances get pushed much farther out. Providing the fridge is emptied when unused, I think it makes sense to keep and use almost any functional appliance in this situation.

    The graph provided is obviously for California since we don't have too many spas and pools up here in the frozen northeast. It omits our number one energy user appliance (after space heating, of course) - the electric hot water heater. But again, at a cottage, any existing HWH which is switched off when the building is unoccupied is going to be a better financial bet than a new model. But as family members replace their primary home appliances, they should keep in mind substituting the best of the older units into the cottage.

    What does happen up here is that a lot of retired people spend part or all of the winter in a warmer climate. So a discussion of part-year usage of appliances and the economics of replacing them in such a case would be worthwhile. The fridge and freezer would likely remain on, but dishwashers and HWH are probably off. In the simplest terms, that means projecting payback periods for efficient appliances out another 25% or so. For a retired person on a fixed income, this can be significant.

  8. Anonymous | | #8

    Include manufacturing energy in the equation
    Why don't the new appliances last like the old Frigidaires did? We had a well-used deep freeze for over 50 years in the basement, and it's still running. Building and shipping new appliances takes a lot of energy - this should be factored in to the energy costs, not to mention the landfill when not recycled. Many newer appliances don't last long and break down too early or are not easily serviceable. This is a major problem in my mind - the ability to make long-lasting appliances apparently existed at one time - why has that stopped? Energy Star should also require a minimum lifespan for their appliances.

  9. Interested Onlooker | | #9

    "Many newer appliances don't last long and break down too early or are not easily serviceable. This is a major problem in my mind - the ability to make long-lasting appliances apparently existed at one time - why has that stopped?"

    Careful research and value engineering is now applied to the manufacture of most consumer goods. The aims of this are:

    To provide sufficient reliability to minimise warranty claims.
    To provide sufficient reliability that the mark is prepared to buy another unit from the same manufacturer.
    To build a sufficiently stylish product that, even if it is still running, the mark will consider it "old-fashioned" and wish to replace it anyway.
    To hinder, or even prevent, repair or maintenance by all legal means.
    To build a product which will fail sufficently frequently (preferably by a wide-enough variety of reasons that the maker does not develop a reputation for unreliable ggods) that a steady revenue stream exists for the shareholders.

    Counter-examples would be welcomed - particularly in the field of green building.

  10. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #10

    Response to Interested
    I have an 18-year-old Sunfrost refrigerator -- very energy-efficient -- that is still running fine. I know that many refrigerators built in the 1930s worked well for 40 years, so 18 years isn't particularly noteworthy. But I'm very happy with my purchase.

  11. rettalee55 | | #11

    Energy efficient clothes washers
    Energy efficiency in some appliances are well and good, however, from personal experience should not apply to clothes washers. I have used an HE washer for 3 years now. Totally not worth it. Because of lack of water usage and tumbling style in order to stab at cleaning while saving does not work. Clothes do not get clean, they tumble into balls never to open to allow for cleaning inside and causing wrinkles. Bottom line is when clothes and towels come out still dirty and stinky, I end up washing them over again two to three times. Therefore due to using the electricity and water thrice where is the savings? When older non-energy star rated machines used more water and got the job done at a shorter length of time, my opinion is that they saved more in water and electricity.

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