Fridge Envy Storing Food Better, and Longer, Without the Crazy Price Tag

Fridge, Credit: Pittaya, FlickrCCFinding the right fridge—one with lots of energy-efficient features—no longer means you have to spend significantly more than you would on a traditional model. “Generally, the more energy-efficient models tended to be more expensive,” says Dan DiClerico, senior editor of Consumer Reports. “That’s not the case now. For consumers this is really great news.”

The Fridge Hunt

There are two rating resources to consult before hitting the showroom floor—Consumer Reports and Energy Star, a program run by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Energy Star designates refrigerators and other appliances that are performing 20% above the minimum energy standards established by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Refrigerators that meet the standards will bear the familiar blue-and-white Energy Star label, but you can simply vet them online at the Energy Star or manufacturer’s website. In print and online, Consumer Reports measures finer fridge details including performance, noise, usable capacity—and energy use. “You can have it all, finding a model that performs well, that is energy efficient and is offered at a decent price as well,” DiClerico says.

And bypass those side-by-side models if possible. In general, they’re more expensive and less energy efficient compared with similar-size models containing top or bottom freezers. Look for fridges under 25 cubic feet, too, since larger models tend to use much more energy.

How much of your family’s energy budget results from your power-hogging fridge? According to the DOE, your fridge consumes 8% of household energy on average. And the older the fridge, the more power it needs. In 2009, a refrigerator with a little less than 21-cubic-foot capacity used 450 kilowatt hours (kWh) a year. That’s almost 51% less energy than a fridge used in 1990. If you have a 10- or 15- year-old refrigerator, it’s wise to replace it. A refrigerator made in 1992, for instance, uses over 1,020 kWh and costs more than $100 a year to run, according to an EPA spokesperson.

The Latest and Greatest

The refrigerator industry is undergoing a makeover. Vacuum-insulated panels (VIPs) are starting to replace foam insulation, and “high-efficiency motors as well as optimized compressors are adding to the efficiency,” says DiClerico.

Consumer Reports has tested its first refrigerator with VIPs, GE’s GSH25JFX, and reported that these fridges do a better job of keeping cold air in and hot air out compared with foam insulation. “Compressors and motors do not have to work so hard,” DiClerico says. “The bottom line is that the refrigerator is using less electricity.”

Most of Kenmore’s 27-cubic-feet models use VIPs. “We continue to make strides in insulation, giving us more capacity in the same footprint at the same time using less energy,” says a spokesperson at Sears. In addition, Kenmore is beginning to use linear compressor technology on bottom freezers, which relies on electromagnetic energy instead of mechanical energy.

And when you swing open the door of a fresh-off-the-line, energy-efficient fridge, you”ll be able to scan your leftovers beneath the glow of LED lighting. Both GE’s latest Profile side-by-side refrigerators and the Kenmore Elite models feature LED lighting.

Fridges are getting smarter, too. GE’s FrostGuard technology allows refrigerators to adapt to how consumers use them, monitoring freezer temperatures and door openings to determine when defrosting is required. Kenmore’s technology maintains even temperatures throughout the fridge interior, keeping food safer longer.

Smartening Up

When appliances are linked to the smart grid—our national electrical grid gone digital—they’ll be even more energy-efficient. Jill A. Notini, vice president of communications for the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, says that during a brownout, the smart grid would send a signal to homeowners asking if the refrigerator can reduce the energy load by delaying a defrost cycle, for example. The fridge alert might reach us “through a Blackberry, the Internet or some other type of display in one’s home,” Notini says.

One final note: the Energy Star site recommends that you recycle your old fridge via the retailer, your state energy office or local waste pickup. If your old model is 10 years old or older, it contains some 120 pounds of recyclable steel—enough energy to run a new Energy Star refrigerator for eight months.