Shopping and Saving with Energy Star Appliances for Your Home

After reading plenty of articles with headlines like “Energy Star Homes Pay for Themselves,” I learned that many of them (like this one) forget to tell you exactly how that happens. Instead, you get some info-fluff making empty claims about a mere $7 in yearly energy savings from using an EnergyStar computer monitor – which is barely enough to buy a giant bag of gummi bears.

Let’s look at some recent facts about Energy Star appliances.

In the not-so-distant past, Energy Star qualified refrigerators costed about $30 to $200 more than their non-qualified versions in your average big box store. Yet over the past few years, demand among millennials for energy-efficient appliances has increased. Manufacturers responded by producing more Energy Star rated appliances than standard appliances.

In fact, in side-by-side comparisons, Energy Star qualifying appliances no longer cost more than their less-efficient counterparts. They are either the same price, or, in some cases, cost a few dollars less.

Technology Meets Marketing

Why? Generally speaking, energy efficiency has increased drastically in the past 20 years, particularly from innovations in electronics. For example, new refrigerators now use half the energy of those made in the 1990’s. The real percentages vary between appliances but broadly speaking, Energy Star products are required to use at least 10% less measured energy use than the minimum federal energy efficiency standards. Qualified refrigerators must be 20% more energy efficient than the minimum federal standard.

So, finding an additional 20-30% in energy savings is not a huge jump — especially since these devices pick up that extra percentage by making a few design changes. This includes motor and compressor sizes, door seals, insulation, lighting, coils, and/or including fewer conveniences (such as additional drawers, bigger through the door ice dispensers, etc).

Do some side-by-side comparisons of current models, such as those from General Electric or Frigidaire. You’ll learn that manufacturers have moved energy efficiency away from being an added-on luxury to being just an optional package. In most cases, you’ll pay the same amount of money for the Energy Star version of the same model, but have fewer conveniences. You’ll also find the same design/marketing strategy cropping up in washers, TVs, and computers.

Unfortunately, easy comparison shopping still remains a bit complicated.

New Energy Efficiency Standards

Currently, many Energy Star appliances on the market qualify under what’s called “EnergyStar 4.1”. This specification dates roughly from 2007. Energy labels are the familiar black print on a yellow background. If you look at the fine print, you’ll find that operating costs are based on a national average electricity cost for 2007.

Because the label was 6 years out of date and Energy Star 4.1 is being phased out, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) approved re-designed EnergyGuide labels for appliances in July 2013 with updated product information covering energy prices and cost of use that uses pricing from 2012.

So, if you go to a big box store, chances are good that you may still find a confusing combination of old EnergyStar v.4.1 labels and the newer transitional labels. Though both manufacturers and retailers are required to provide accurate information for comparison, errors will occur.

In addition, the new EnergyStar Version 5.0 labels only took effect for many appliances in 2014 and won’t be fully adopted until Fall 2015. This includes qualifying energy requirements for smart appliances. Look for yet another new energy label down coming out sometime later with even newer pricing averages. In the meantime, Version 6 development is well underway.

What to Watch For

This simple answer? You should pay attention to the fine print, know how much energy you use, and be prepared to do some math.

If you are looking to replace a ten-year-old appliance, carefully research the models you have in mind and make sure you are comparing apples to apples. The best thing is to set your priorities. Features differ between manufacturers, and you will find that trade-offs juggle energy efficiency with convenience and price. If you want push for energy efficiency, be ready to do without some convenience features within your price range. If you want those conveniences, be ready to lose some energy efficiency or pay more to have both.

The good news is that you don’t have to pay more for Energy Star appliances anymore. But without one, you will STILL pay more in energy costs over time .

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Vernon Trollinger is a writer with a background in home improvement, electronics, fiction writing, and archaeology. He now writes about green energy technology, home energy efficiency, the natural gas industry, and the electrical grid.

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