Trying to buy a green fridge

RefrigeratorAs a freedom nut, I put a lot of stock in the power of consumers making the right choices when they’re given full and accurate information, and clear and accurate labelling of relevant information is a key part of that. So I was surprised to read Heather Rae at Cleantech (referred there by the Wall Street Journal) writing about the unexpected meaning of EnergyStar labels.

They’re supposed to mark durable goods, in this case refrigerators, that are notably energy-efficient. And they do, just in a sense different from what I expected.

On outings to appliance stores, I carried a list of EPAs Energy Star-rated refrigerators. The list was long. It also created a quandary, the kind that deepens the crease in my brow. I am like the dumb cartoon character who figures out hes the butt of a joke and, finally catching on and peeved, grumbles, hey, wait a minuteIf I were to buy a refrigerator on the low end of the price spectrum a top freezer model it would more than likely be more energy efficient than all of the high-end Energy Star-rated side-by-sides and some of the bottom freezer models — even if it did not carry the Energy Star label. I started to wonder, does the Energy Star label mean anything? Really?

Even a cursory look at the Enviromental Protection Agency’s list of EnergyStar fridges reveals how right she is (Canada’s is substantially the same.) You can practically tell whether a fridge is a side-by-side or freezer-on-top model by how much energy it uses. If it’s in the 400-kilowatt-hours-a-year range, the freezer’s pretty definitely on top; if it’s 500 or more, it’s a side-by-side. Volume doesn’t seem to make a difference.

Side-by-side refrigerators are, I read, harder to insulate; more space in the unit is taken up by a vertical “wall” than a horizontal one, and there’s more perimeter to seal up on the freezer door. They are, however, popularly considered higher-class. You don’t often see an enormous brushed-metal icebox in the show kitchen of a home-and-garden magazine with the freezer compartment up top; there are always gracefully swooping long vertical handles for the freezer on the left and the refrigerator on the right.

Now, side-by-sides with the EnergyStar label are all still significantly better than the benchmark for energy-efficiency, so that’s something, but there are different benchmarks for the different models. You might be buying the housewares equivalent of a Hummer with a hybrid engine. Yeah, it’s better, but …

Very much worth knowing if you’re kitting out a house and are trying to be environmentally conscious about it. And it sure would be nice if somebody trustworthy set power-consumption standards independent of design — in the case of fridges, some number of kilowatt-hours a year per cubic foot of usable space — and created a sticker for that.

Fridge photo by Flickr user Editor B,
used under a Creative Commons licence

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