The following is excerpted from “Home Sweet Zero Energy Home” by Barry Rehfeld (New Society Publishers, 2012). The excerpt is from Chapter 9: Cool and Bright Ideas Well Done.
Buying a good, inexpensive, energy-efficient refrigerator is like throwing darts at a target with only one big bullseye to hit. It’s hard to miss.
For the replacement market, it will mean zero energy-level savings over the model that is likely to be replaced. Refrigerator producers have made steady strides in improving their products’ efficiency over the past several decades. A refrigerator’s useful life is about 12 to 15 years and a model that old may be 60 percent less efficient than a new replacement, if the buyer chooses the right size and model.
The low-cost choice for the new and replacement market is the classic 18-cubic-foot Energy Star top freezer. It’s universally available, simple, dependable and suitable in size for a typical 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. They are familiar names like Whirlpool, General Electric, Maytag and Frigidaire and they all make very energy-efficient refrigerators, including one or more 18-cubic-foot Energy Star models, at prices that should be impossible to ignore.
Just the same, the market is doing just that when it comes to the 18-cubic-foot Energy Star top freezer. Buyers have opted for models that are less efficient or that use more energy — and producers have encouraged the trend. Buyers want bigger refrigerators or home builders are giving it to them. With homes larger than in the past, there’s more room for them, too, and the bigger they are the more energy they use. Refrigerator size increased regularly in the nineties from an average of under 20 cubic feet to 22 cubic feet a decade later where they remain, even as household sizes have shrunk.
The market is also resisting Energy Star, which requires that refrigerators be 20 percent more efficient that the federal standard. Their market penetration peaked at about a third of all fridges sold in 2005 and drifted down to 31 percent in 2008.
Lastly, there is also a move away from the top freezer. Long the workhorse of refrigerators, it has 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-sides range several cubic feet larger. They also often have energy-wasteful ice makers in their doors.
Popular culture can’t seem to get enough of them, either. They are symbols of the good or, at least, prosperous life and can be found in many popular television shows. In 2010, these included Desperate Housewives, The Good Wife, Modern Family and House, ensuring their high profile in the market — Kitchen Queen Rachel Ray’s standard top freezer model notwithstanding.
The worst trend in refrigerators, though, is the rapid rise of the two refrigerator house. It was up to 22 percent in 2005 and the DOE expected the percentage to rise. The second refrigerator was an antique that remained running in the house — dispatched to renovated basements — when a new one was purchased.
Energy Star offers no resistance to the side-by-side movement. Side-by-side refrigerators earn Energy Star labels even though they often use 200 kilowatts a year more than top freezers. They just need to beat the separate 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 levels, but they too are bigger than the top freezers and are also taking market share away from them.
Manufacturers are pushing the side-by-sides and the bottom freezer refrigerators because they offer better profit margins than the top freezers. Yet, for their greater cost and inefficiency the only advantages they offer are the larger, though unnecessary, size and less bending. Perhaps the only natural market for them are ice tray-challenged homeowners who don’t like to bend (or can’t) and who have large families — not a big market, but manufacturers have been successful in selling side-by-sides and bottoms to an increasingly larger share of the refrigerator market anyway.
Energy Star top freezer models nevertheless remain plentiful and inexpensive. Eight of the TopTenUSA ranked refrigerators were top freezers, ranging in size from 18 to 22 cubic feet. The cost-effective winner in the winter of 2011 ranked fifth. It was a General Electric 18-cubic-foot model priced then at $500 that used 335 kilowatts a year. The energy savings during a 12-year span before replacing the refrigerator was calculated at $207 or more than enough to make up for any extra cost over a standard model, such as a non-Energy Star Hotpoint model that went for $450 and used 480 kilowatts — a whopping 43 percent more.