Consumers’ most visible tool for locating efficient appliances is the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star label. Energy Star’s objectives are to diminish air pollution (including greenhouse gas) and to offer consumers a simple way to select energy-efficient appliances to lower electricity consumption.
Energy Star is a useful guide, but it’s not perfect and it’s not as ambitious as some would wish. The Energy Star label is for appliances that “deliver the features and performance demanded by consumers.” That means that if consumers are “demanding” an energy-intensive feature, even if it doesn’t perform a critical function (like a refrigerator’s in-door icemaker), an Energy Star label will be applied to a percentage of models with that feature. The label notes the relative efficiency of products within a subcategory (e.g., side-by-side refrigerators), not within the broad category (refrigerators). So, if you’re after the best of the best, you need to first determine which subcategory offers the most efficient model before you put any weight on an Energy Star label.
The Energy Star label is used only on models for which consumers recoup any premium on the price tag within a “reasonable period of time.” This means that an out-of-this-world efficient appliance that doesn’t run much of the time (therefore doesn’t add much to your utility bill) and costs 30% more than an energy-hog model would not get the label. Finally, Energy Star ratings are based on testing done by the manufacturer. In addition to the problems inherent in self-reporting, this testing is not always done under typical operating conditions, leading to misleading rankings in some cases.
The selections here are based, by necessity, on Energy Star data, but also rely on the Consortium for Energy Efficiency’s ranking, which divides Energy Star-qualified appliances into two or three tiers. Not all of these models are a cinch to find (like some of the window air-conditioners listed), so we’ve included the hard-to-find models along with some easier-to-find ones, even if they’re slightly less energy efficient.
Models and availability constantly change, but you can use this article as a sample roadmap for your future appliance purchases.