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 Star 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-value 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…