Go beyond Energy Star to get the highest-efficiency appliances. Here’s our guide to choosing models for your home that save energy and shave your utility bills.
The evolution of household appliances spanned the 20th century, a period of time when the United States saw an abundance of new energy sources. Electric-powered household appliances proliferated. Refrigerators were common in urban homes by the 1930s. By the 1940s, a majority of American households had electric clothes washers, which co-existed with growing numbers of other consumer appliances that hummed, stirred, blinked and glowed in American homes.
Consumption of electricity burgeoned. Between 1950 and today, home electricity use increased 20-fold. In a world with no apparent energy constraints, appliance size and features steadily grew and multiplied. But that’s changed: Faced with a dwindling supply of fossil fuels and unpredictable electricity rates, we’re getting smarter about household energy use.
The Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program has been one of the leaders in establishing higher standards of energy efficiency. Other groups have joined the movement, including the Consortium for Energy Efficiency, a nonprofit energy-efficiency advocacy group, making choosing new, energy-smart appliances easier than ever.
The models listed here are among the most energy-efficient models widely available. If you think that you need features that these models don’t have, consult directly with the organizations that compile the data and query it with your needs in mind. The Consortium for Energy Efficiency (CEE) takes Energy Star data and pushes energy efficiency advocacy a few steps further, focusing on the most efficient end of the Energy Star spectrum. CEE’s Super Efficient Home Appliances Initiative ranks appliances in two or three tiers, and encourages manufacturers toward even more rigorous efficiency. The CEE updates its appliance lists every month on its website—an excellent place for up-to-date listings of the most energy-efficient appliances.
When you need to replace an appliance, doing your homework will pay off. Efficiency standards will take a big jump in the next few years—a coalition of appliance manufacturers and energy efficiency advocates recently reached an agreement on new, more stringent efficiency requirements, and their recommendations were adopted by the U.S. Department of Energy in September 2010. Those new federal efficiency standards will go into effect in late 2014 and early 2015.
When is it prudent to replace an inefficient but still functioning machine? Check out Energy Star’s history of standards revisions—if your appliance is old and standards have raised the bar well beyond what it can achieve, it may be beneficial (financially and environmentally) to buy a new one. If your old machine is of a style that inherently guzzles electricity, you have yet more reason to consider replacing it now rather than waiting.
The most efficient models are sometimes not the cheapest ones up-front. While payback is usually defined in terms of money saved, it can also mean lightening the load on the electrical grid, consuming less of our increasingly limited resources and emitting fewer greenhouse gases.
By replacing an appliance, you’ll spend less money month to month. In many cases, the savings over time is greater than the purchase cost. In other cases, the higher price of the efficient model may never be recouped within the life of the appliance, particularly if your electricity is cheap. In this case, you won’t see a payback in terms of actual dollars, yet you’ll have attained other non-economic goals from the day you plugged it in.