Picking the Right ENERGY STAR® Appliances

Q: We’re planning to redo our kitchen and started looking at new appliances. When we asked the salesperson about ENERGY STAR® and energy efficiency in general, he basically said it’s all a bunch of hype and we should get appliances with the features we want. My husband said he saw something on the news that the whole ENERGY STAR program was bogus. Is this stuff worth paying attention to?

A: There are three issues here, so let’s talk about them one at a time. There were reports last year by the Government Accounting Office that the ENERGY STAR program is vulnerable to fraud and abuse. Some bogus products were certified, and some serious weaknesses in the process for certifying products were identified. To throw out the whole program, however, is like saying we should abolish the U.S. Department of Defense because they were paying $600 for a hammer a few years ago. The same report indicated that 98% of the ENERGY STAR products met or exceeded the standards. The U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, who jointly manage the ENERGY STAR program, acknowledged the problems and have put processes in place to improve the program.

The bottom line: the ENERGY STAR label is a reliable indicator of whether a product will save energy when compared with other similar products. Whether it will save you money depends on how much extra it costs (if any), how much you pay for energy, what will happen to energy prices in the future, how much you use the product, how long it lasts, and how much it will cost to maintain it. The ENERGY STAR label should never be the only thing you look for, but in most cases it’s a valuable feature. Generally, it tells you that this particular model is in the top 25% of similar products in terms of energy efficiency.

In addition, you should always look at the yellow energy label on the appliance. This is also a good indicator of how much it will cost you to operate. Saving a couple of hundred dollars on the dishwasher, for instance, may be a false economy if it uses much more hot water than an efficient model. Over time, the more efficient model will usually save you money.

Finally, consider the features you really need and want. Appliances nowadays come covered with gizmos that add cost and sometimes add to the energy use. A great example is the thru-the-door ice and chilled water dispenser on a refrigerator.  While some people really use this feature, many folks I’ve talked with quit using it after a few months. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it, except that it does cause the refrigerator to use more energy and cost you more each month, and is one more thing that will eventually break and need to be fixed.

A friend of mine who’s in the floor finishing business loves refrigerators with automatic ice makers. He once told me a large portion of his business was re-finishing floors ruined by leaking water lines from refrigerators. The point is simply to think about how much you really need or want or will use a particular feature, and then decide whether the extra costs—both at purchase and for energy—are actually worth it to you.

Finally, do your homework. There’s no reason to expect an appliance salesperson to know much about the energy efficiency of the products. Some of them are very informed, but since most people still don’t ask about it, energy efficiency is usually way down the list of features they learn about. The best source of information is the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. It regularly publishes test results on a variety of appliances, giving make and model, and has excellent independent consumer information on its website: www.aceee.org/consumerguide/mostenef.htm.

Most of us are spending hundreds of dollars a year to run our appliances. The refrigerator or dishwasher you buy today will—you hope—last for at least 10-15 years or more. The energy costs to run it will probably be a lot more than what you pay to buy it in the first place. It just makes sense to consider how much that might be.