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A Guide to the Best Energy-Efficient Appliances

In the market for energy savings? Read this no-nonsense guide to the best energy-efficient appliances available.
By Barry Rehfeld
July/August 2012
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As we aim to make our homes more efficient and affordable to live in, we may wonder whether replacing outdated appliances is worth the investment. But most appliances last for a decade or more, which means old models are way behind the technological times—much less efficient than their modern counterparts. In his book Home Sweet Zero Energy Home, author Barry Rehfeld breaks down energy-efficient appliances and gives you a realistic look at where it’s best to spend and save. Get his take on a few major appliances to create a less expensive, more energy-efficient place to live.

Clothes Washers

Shopping for a clothes washer can lead a buyer into a swamp of information. When choosing a washer on the basis of price and energy- and water-efficiency, shoppers should consider two options: the standard-size Energy Star top-loading model and the Energy Star front-loading version. Both types can be found with relative ease, and both can achieve energy and water savings of 50 percent or more over older, non-Energy Star models.

Energy Star washers must be at least 30 percent more efficient than standard units, but many models do much better. While a standard model may use more than 400 kilowatt-hours of electricity and 12,000 gallons of water annually, a huge selection of Energy Star washers use less than 200 kilowatt-hours and 7,000 gallons annually. The cheapest Energy Star washers achieve the gains nearly as well (sometimes even better) as the most expensive ones. The cost difference between the least-expensive Energy Star models and non-Energy Star models is not great, and Energy Star washers easily earn back the extra expense within their typical lifespan of 11 years—much faster with cheaper models.

If Energy Star models have a disadvantage, other than a slightly higher upfront price, it’s a lack of market penetration. While overall, Energy Star appliances have increased their market share to more than a third, Energy Star clothes washers make up little more than 10 percent of the market. Still, some three dozen manufacturers, including virtually all of the major producers, make Energy Star models. Seven of the dominant brands—Frigidaire, General Electric, Kenmore, LG Electronics, Maytag, Samsung and Whirlpool—have the most models to offer on the Energy Star list.

Front-loading washers are more energy- and water-efficient than top-loading models. Front-loaders are space savers, too, as they can be stacked with the dryer—not an inconsiderable advantage in homes where space efficiency matters. But front-loaders are at a disadvantage to top-loaders in some ways. First, front-loaders generally cost more. They also typically require high-efficiency (HE) detergent (although it’s readily available in supermarkets), and their doors must be left open occasionally to ward off mold and mildew.

Despite the efficiency advantages of front-loading machines, top-loaders have a two-to-one edge over front-loaders in the United States. Nevertheless, there’s good reason to think front-loaders could soon take over the U.S. market. They’re relative newcomers to the market, having been introduced in the ’90s, about 50 years behind the top-loading washers, and front-loaders already account for 90 percent of European residential washers.

The entire list for all Energy Star models—replete with annual water and energy use—as well as an energy-savings calculator can be found on the Energy Star website. Another website, begun in 2010, does the hard work of shopping for clothes washers and other household products for you. Called TopTenUSA the site is run by a nonprofit organization and ranks the most efficient products and what they cost from a number of web sources.

Any choice, top-loader or front-loader, Energy Star or not, will be more energy-efficient if buyers “use cold water for the wash cycle instead of warm or hot (except for greasy stains), and only use cold for rinses,” according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), a fact confirmed by many other groups including the California Energy Commission and the Consumer Energy Center. (I’ve given three sources here because it seems that human nature tends to associate getting things clean with using warm water.)

Clothes Dryers

Clothes dryers are so much alike that Energy Star doesn’t even rate them. (Neither does TopTenUSA.) But when it comes to choosing a new dryer, a few energy-efficient features are better criteria than color, brand and style. Dryers that have moisture sensors, air-dry options and cool down or permanent press cycles use less energy and take better care of clothes. These features are not huge energy savers, but they come with less expensive models as often as with high-priced dryers. The cost range for electric dryers can be anywhere from a few hundred dollars to about $1,000.

Hanging at least some clothes on a line to dry is a low-cost energy saver that revives the practice, in a limited way, of how almost everyone dried their clothes before 1960, when dryer sales took off. However, it doesn’t mean a complete return to days past. Instead of drying clothes outside, they could be dried inside—on a small indoor clothesline apparatus. That way, buyers can save money on energy by using their dryers less frequently without risking their neighbors’ ire over what makes for appropriate backyard views. If you have enough space for one indoors, you can also buy an indoor floor model.

Dishwashers

Dishwashers are a great way to save water, as they use very little of it to effectively clean dishes. And as little water as they use, dishwashers are becoming even more efficient at using it. A standard model used 15 gallons in the ’80s, while the typical unit 20 years later used only 9 gallons. Today, the Energy Star limit is 5 gallons of water a cycle, while standard is around 6.5. As with clothes washers, a complete list of Energy Star-qualified dishwashers can be found on the Energy Star website.

Energy Star models are again the right ones for an efficient home. A huge brand selection is available, including the same ones manufacturing clothes washers, plus several other producers such as Asko, Blomberg, Bosch and KitchenAid.

Dishwashers are listed by efficiency at the TopTenUSA site, which also calculates the savings for them. Ironically though, the savings listed show that for what they cost, none of the top-rated dishwashers would earn back the price paid for them with their portion of the utility bill savings. A better strategy might be to hunt among websites for inexpensive but efficient options. Frigidaire, for example, has several Energy Star models that cost little more than their standard units, but much less than their most efficient models. The verdict: The more inexpensive Energy Star dishwashers are better buys than the more expensive models. The more expensive models cost too much to justify the expense and will almost never pay back the investment in them.

Refrigerators

Refrigerator manufacturers have made strides in improving efficiency over the past several decades. A refrigerator’s useful life is 12 to 15 years—a model that old may be 60 percent less efficient than a new replacement. The low-cost choice for a replacement is the classic, 18-cubic-foot, Energy Star top-freezer refrigerator. It’s universally available, dependable and suitable in size for a household of two to four people. Chances are it will be 30 to 40 percent more efficient than the refrigerator found in most other homes.

As with clothes washers, a few companies manufacture nearly all refrigerators. Whirlpool, General Electric, Maytag and Frigidaire all make very efficient refrigerators, including one or more 18-cubic-foot Energy Star model at very affordable prices. Just the same, buyers often opt for models that are less efficient or that use more energy—and producers encourage the trend. Larger homes have allowed more room for bigger refrigerators, and the bigger they are, the more energy they use. Refrigerator size increased regularly in the ’90s from an average of less than 20 cubic feet to 22 cubic feet a decade later where they’ve remained, even as household sizes have shrunk.

There is also a move away from top-freezer refrigerator models. Long the workhorses of refrigerators, top-freezers have been losing ground to side-by-side refrigerators, which may be a third less efficient for the same size. The side-by-sides are also at least partially responsible for the size inflation. Top-freezers have volumes no bigger than 22 cubic feet, while side-by-side refrigerators range several cubic feet larger. They also often have energy-intensive ice makers in their doors. Side-by-side refrigerators earn Energy Star labels even though they use 200 kilowatt-hours a year more than top-freezers. They only need to beat the federal standards for side-by-sides—which is not an absolute standard—to get the label. Bottom-freezer models are a third, least-chosen option. Their efficiency is between the top and side-by-side models, but they too are bigger than top-freezers and are also taking market share away from them.

Manufacturers are pushing side-by-sides and the bottom-freezer refrigerators because they offer better profit margins than top-freezers. For their greater cost and inefficiency, the only advantages they offer are the larger size—yet manufacturers have been successfully selling side-by-sides and bottoms to an increasingly larger share of the refrigerator market. Fortunately, Energy Star top-freezer models nevertheless remain plentiful and inexpensive.

Finally, the worst trend in refrigerator efficiency is the rapid rise of the two-refrigerator house. It was up to 22 percent when last counted in 2005, and the Department of Energy expected the percentage to rise. The second refrigerator is generally an inefficient antique that remains running in the house—dispatched to garages or renovated basements—when a new one is purchased.

Adapted with permission from Home Sweet Zero Energy Home by Barry Rehfeld. 


Best Picks for Energy-Efficient Appliances

These models combine high efficiency with a relatively low price tag. (To see a photo of each product, visit the Image Gallery.)

Clothes Washers 

1. Frigidaire FAFS4272LW
3.81 cubic feet
Annual Energy Use (kWh): 96
Annual Water Use (gallons/year): 4,929
Price: $585

2. LG WM2140CW
3.5 cubic feet
Annual Energy Use (kWh): 97
Annual Water Use (gallons/year): 4,761
Price: $799

3. Whirlpool WFW9050XW
3.5 cubic feet
Annual Energy Use (kWh): 125
Annual Water Use (gallons/year): 4,883
Price: $749

Clothes Dryers 

1. Outdoor/Indoor Retractable Clothes Line
12.25-foot extension for 67 feet of drying space
Annual Energy Use: 0
Price: $13

2. Five Line Retractable Clothes Line
34-foot extension for 170 feet of drying space
Annual Energy Use: 0
Price: $79

3. Small Sunshine Clothes Dryer
easy-assemble, foldable clothesline made in Iowa; holds up to three loads of laundry
Annual Energy Use: 0
Price: $120

Refrigerators 

1. GE GTH18CBDRWW
18.1 cubic feet
Annual Energy Use (kWh): 383
Price: $579

2. Hotpoint HTH18EBDCC
18.1 cubic feet
Annual Energy Use (kWh): 383
Price: $579

3. Kenmore 68892 and 6889
18.2 cubic feet
Annual Energy Use (kWh): 383
Price: $699

Dishwashers 

1. Bosch 24-inch Recessed Handle Dishwasher Ascenta Series SHE3AR76UC and SHE3AR72UC
Annual Energy Use (kWh): 279
Water Use (gallons/load): 2.95
Price: $599

2. Kenmore Model 1327
Annual Energy Use (kWh): 254
Water Use (gallons/load): 2.90
Price: $500

3. Whirlpool WDF310PCAW
Annual Energy Use (kWh): 282
Water Use (gallons/load): 3.35
Price: $379


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