Advances in technology have transformed refrigerators from giant energy hogs into smaller energy piglets. While still responsible for about 13 percent of your home’s energy use, fridges have ditched bulky insulation for slim line panels, drastically cutting down on their consumption and giving us much more space for the energy we use.
Because of these and other advances, holding off on replacing that “vintage” piece in your kitchen is actually hurting Mother Nature. You may be doing her a bigger favor by replacing it with an Energy Star model, and saving yourself the equivalent of enough energy to light your home for four months. Still not convinced? Try out this Refrigerator Retirement Calculator for the cold hard numbers.
However, not all Energy Star refrigerators are created equal, and to find the most eco-friendly option you need to look beyond that distinctive label. In this post, I’ll walk through what to look for and what to avoid when making the most eco-conscious choice.
Learn About Labels
Just because a refrigerator is Energy Star certified does not mean it is the most energy efficient model available; it means it is the most energy efficient in its class. The Energy Star system divides fridges into five categories and awards its labels to the units in each category that perform 20 percent above Department of Energy mandates (or in the case of the Energy Star Most Efficient Award, 30 percent more).
This LG top freezer refrigerator uses 438 kWh annually (costing about $47), compared to one of LG’s side-by-side models with a through-the-door ice dispenser, which uses 590 kWh ($63 annually).
As certain categories are far more energy efficient than others – Fridges with the freezer on top use up to 25 percent less electricity than side-by-side models – it is possible that the most efficient Energy Star model in one category will use more power than one in a different category that doesn’t even qualify for Energy Star. In order to compare apples to apples, you need to walk around a showroom and examine the yellow labels inside each model that detail its individual energy use.
Look for the bright yellow stickers to compare the electricity use of models directly.
So if you are looking purely for the most efficient refrigerator you can buy, and don’t need lots of bells, whistles or extra space, a top freezer fridge like this Maytag, which estimates it uses only 410 KWH a year (costing about $44 annually to operate), would be an excellent eco-friendly choice.
Seek Out a Super-Efficient Appliance
A further guide to choosing the most energy efficient model has been developed by the Consortium for Energy Efficiency. Its Super-Efficient Home Appliance Initiative is a complement to Energy Star labeling, providing consumers with more details of a model’s energy efficiency. Look for the following tiers indicated on product labels next to the Energy Star label:
- CEE Tier I: 20 percent more efficient, equal to Energy Star certification
- CEE Tier II: 25 percent more efficient
- CEE Tier III: 30 percent more energy efficient, equal to the Energy Star Most Efficient award.
You can view a list of all the CEE rated appliances here.
Size and shape do matter
Generally speaking, a larger fridge equals more energy consumption. However, because of better, thinner insulation a 30-cubic-foot model from 2014 may be far more energy efficient than its pint-sized 1995 counterpart. Of today’s models, somewhere between 16 and 20-cubic-feet is the sweet spot energy-wise, but it is always more efficient to run one large refrigerator than two smaller ones. If you have a family of four or more, bigger will be better. For the household who almost needs a second refrigerator, opting for a model like this new Samsung 4 door fridge, which at 32 cubic feet is the largest consumer model currently available, would be far more eco-friendly than buying a second fridge. Additionally, it has the option of turning one half of your freezer compartment into a refrigerator, giving you more capacity for fresh food than frozen.
The “convertible zone” of this new Samsung fridge can be either a freezer or a fridge, helping adjust your electricity use directly to your needs.
Cut Back on Hot Air
If an open refrigerator door is a common sight in your house, then you’ll want to incorporate some of these features to help cut back on wasted energy. No matter how energy efficient the fridge you buy is, every time the door opens, the energy bill goes up. An open door accounts for 7 percent of the appliance’s energy use, wasting 50 to 120 kWh a year. That’s equivalent to running a load of laundry every week for 50 weeks.
- A Door Alarm: As irritating as it is, an alarm that sounds when the door has been open too long is incredibly effective at helping remember to shut the door, or to alert you when someone else has failed to.
- A Door within the Door: French door models with the refrigerator on top help conserve energy more effectively than single door models, as you let less cold air out when opening just one door. The new door-in-door feature in some models goes a step further, allowing you to only open half of a door to access commonly used items, keeping more cold air in when the fourth person has reached for the milk in the morning.
The door within a door in action.
An External Third Drawer
Another recent innovation, designed predominantly with children in mind, the external drawer offers a third refrigeration space, easily accessible by those who have a penchant for fruit cups and squeezy yogurts. The energy savings come because when opened repeatedly, it doesn’t let as much hot air in as opening the whole fridge would. In addition, this third drawer offers a customizable third temperature zone, something in between “cold” and “frozen solid.” Some models also offer the option of a third freezer drawer, especially handy in hot climates where small hands rummage for popsicles frequently!
This LG model has a door in door and two freezer drawers, meaning less cold air escapes when any one compartment is opened, helping keep electricity use down.
Get Smart, To Go Green
Just as our phones have become smart, so have our refrigerators. A smart fridge can tell you if it’s running efficiently by tracking its own energy consumption and keeping you up to date with its progress through reports sent to your smartphone. You can also monitor energy usage and adjust temperatures remotely. Some will even alert you when your food is about to expire, helping save on waste.
Double the Compressor Is Best
Waste not, want not is the mantra of sustainable living. If throwing away perfectly serviceable materials is to be avoided at all costs, so should throwing away food. Choosing a fridge with dual compressors as opposed to a single less efficient compressor helps keep food fresher for longer. Dual compressors mean each compartment, fridge and freezer, is operated by independent refrigeration systems, allowing for more precise control of temperature in each section, resulting in longer lasting food.
Cut Out the CFLs
Most modern fridges use LED lighting, but not all. Especially in lower-end models, be sure to steer clear of compact fluorescent bulbs, which, in addition to being less energy efficient, actually give off heat, making your fridge work harder.
Ice Is Nice, But Less Is Greener
Through-the-door water and ice dispensers increase energy use by 14 to 20 per cent, and break the insulation between the interior and exterior. A pitcher-style water dispenser in the fridge is a good alternative, and if you really don’t want to deal with ice trays, an internal ice-maker is a better solution. Nearly all models come with the option of no through-the-door water dispenser, even if you don’t often see them on the showroom floor.
On the flip side, if you drink a lot of bottled water, you gain a significant eco-payoff with a water dispenser by ditching the plastic. Also the efficiency gained by removing the through-the-door water dispenser can be lost by how many times you open the door to retrieve a water pitcher. Additionally, in hot climates, a dispenser will eliminate the need to run the faucet for several seconds to draw cold water, reducing your water use.
This GE model’s “Twin Chill” technology uses double compressors to separate the climates in your fridge and freezer, it also has all LED lighting and no through the door ice dispenser, all factors that help contribute to its low estimated energy use of 483 kWh a year.
As with many sustainability choices, the greenest option isn’t always clear cut. It depends largely on lifestyle. But whether you are single or part of a large family, live in an apartment in Manhattan or a farmhouse in rural Idaho, by adopting these suggestions when you go fridge shopping, you’ll be sure to come home with the least hungry energy piglet for your needs.
Jennifer Tuohy writes about home technology innovations for Home Depot. Jennifer focuses on new features being incorporated into home appliances, including washers, ovens, and refrigerators. For the complete selection of refrigerators available at Home Depot, including the most energy efficient models, click here.