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The major appliances in your home -- refrigerators, clothes washers, dishwashers -- account for a big chunk of your monthly utility bill. And if your refrigerator or washing machine is more than a decade old, you're spending a lot more on energy than you need to.

Today's major appliances don't hog energy the way older models do because they must meet minimum federal energy efficiency standards. These standards have been tightened over the years, so any new appliance you buy today has to use less energy than the model you're replacing. For instance, if you buy one of today's most energy-efficient refrigerators, it will use less than half the energy of a model that's 12 years old or older.

Of course, efficient appliances don't just save you money; they're good for the environment. The less energy we all use, the lower our demand on power plants, which means less pollution. The trick is to figure out which models use the least energy. Here are some guidelines.

Energy Star label

Look for the Energy Star® label. Energy Star models are the most energy efficient in any product category, exceeding the energy efficiency minimums set by the federal government. If you remember only one rule when you shop, remember to look for the Energy Star label. In some parts of the country, utilities and state governments even sweeten the deal by offering rebates on Energy Star-rated models. Check http://www.energystar.gov for details.

Click to enlarge

Use the EnergyGuide label. Some uninformed salespeople might tell you that a model you're looking at is the most efficient because it has an EnergyGuide label. Not exactly. All new appliances must carry the EnergyGuide label, either on the appliance itself or on the packaging. The label allows you to compare the typical annual energy consumption and operating cost of different models of any type of appliance you're thinking of buying.

Get the right size. Make sure the product you're buying suits your needs. Oversized air conditioners, water heaters and refrigerators waste energy and money; in many cases they also don't perform as well.

Whenever possible choose appliances that run on natural gas rather than electricity. Usually it's more efficient to burn natural gas where it's needed -- in your home -- than to burn it at a power plant, convert the heat to electricity and then send the electricity over wires to your house. Look for dryers, stoves and water heaters that run on natural gas.

Think long term. Many of the most energy-efficient appliances cost more initially, but they'll save you money in the long run. Expect to keep most major appliances between 10 and 20 years. A more efficient appliance soon pays for itself; lower monthly utility bills over the lifetime of the appliance will more than offset a higher purchase price. In addition, the latest resource-efficient clothes washers and dishwashers not only save electricity, they also use a lot less water and can reduce your water bill.

Below is more specific information to keep in mind if you're in the market for any of the following major appliances.

 

REFRIGERATORS

If you are thinking of replacing an old appliance, the refrigerator is a good place to start. New refrigerators consume 75 percent less energy than those produced in the late 1970s. A family replacing a 1980 vintage fridge with one that meets today's standards will save more than $100 a year in utility costs. Go one step further and buy an Energy Star-qualified model, and your new refrigerator will save you an additional 15 percent or more by employing better insulation, more efficient compressors and more precise temperature control and defrost mechanisms.

Energy-Saving Purchasing Tips:

  • Refrigerators with freezers on top use 10 to 15 percent less energy than a side-by-side model of equivalent size.
  • Generally, the larger the refrigerator, the greater the energy consumption. But one large refrigerator will use less energy than two smaller ones with the same total volume or a smaller fridge plus a separate freezer.

 

CLOTHES WASHERS

The energy efficiency of standard top-loading washers has doubled over the last two decades, mostly by decreasing the amount of water used. (Most of a washer's energy consumption goes to heating water.) Front-loading washers have also become more readily available. They generally use less water than top-loaders because they don't have to totally submerge clothes. Their tumbling action constantly lifts water and drops it back down onto clothing. Energy Star top-loaders, however, can be just as efficient as front loaders. Look for the EnergyGuide or Energy Star labels to compare efficiencies.

Replacing a pre-1994 washer with an Energy Star model can save a family $110 a year on utility bills. Energy Star washers use 50 percent less energy than other standard models, and only 18 to 25 gallons of water for a full-sized load, compared to 40 gallons for standard full-size washers. Many Energy Star models also advertise lower fabric wear, better stain removal and briefer drying times.

Energy-Saving Purchasing Tips:

  • Choose the right size washer. A smaller washer may be more efficient for small households. But if you have a large family and have to do multiple loads in a washer that's too small for your needs, you could lose any possible energy savings.
  • Look for a washer with adjustable water levels. This gives you the option of using less water to wash small loads.
  • Choose a washer with a faster spin speed. This allows more water to be removed after the wash, reducing the drying time and your dryer's energy use.
  • Use a gas dryer rather than an electric dryer where possible.

 

DISHWASHERS

A new dishwasher is not only more efficient than older models, but it's also better at getting dishes clean. Manufacturers no longer recommend that you pre-wash your dishes. Simply scrape the remaining food off your plates and place them in the machine as is. This will save you time and save money on your water bill.

The most efficient dishwashers use less hot water, have energy-efficient motors and use sensors to determine the length of the wash cycle and the water temperature needed to do the job. The newest Energy Star dishwashers are 25 percent more efficient than the minimum federal standards. Replacing a pre-1994 dishwasher with an Energy Star model can save $25 a year on utility costs.

Energy-Saving Purchasing Tips:

  • Choose a dishwasher with a "light wash" or "energy-saving" wash cycle. It uses less water and operates for a shorter period of time for dishes that are just slightly soiled.
  • Look for dishwashers that have an energy-saving cycle that allows dishes to be air-dried with circulation fans, rather than heat-dried with energy-wasting heating coils.

 

ROOM AIR CONDITIONERS

The most efficient room air conditioners have higher-efficiency compressors, fan motors and heat-transfer surfaces than previous models. A high-efficiency unit reduces energy consumption by 20 to 50 percent. Replacing a 10-year-old model with an Energy Star model can cut energy bills by an average of $14 a year.

Energy-Saving Purchasing Tips:

  • Remember, the biggest unit isn't always the best choice, especially for small areas. A smaller unit running for a long period of time operates more efficiently and is more effective at decreasing humidity than a larger unit that goes on and off frequently.
  • If you're comparing several similar units, choose the one with the highest Energy Efficiency Ratio. You can find the EER on the unit or its packaging. The minimum EER required by federal law is 9.7; the most efficient air conditioners of 2003 have an EER of 11.7.

 

CENTRAL AIR CONDITIONERS

If your central air conditioning system is more than 10 years old, replacing it with an Energy Star model could reduce your energy consumption for cooling by 20 percent.

Energy-Saving Purchasing Tips:

  • Look for the seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER). Old units typically have a SEER of 6 or 7. New standards went into effect in 2006, raising the minimum SEER for central air conditioners to 13. Energy Star models already meet the SEER 13 standard, and also perform more efficiently when it's hot.
  • For maximum efficiency on the hottest days, the air conditioner should have a thermal expansion valve (TVX), and the high temperature rating (EER) on your unit should be at least 11.6.
  • For optimal performance, buy a matched system of indoor unit, condenser and even thermostat.
  • Get a reliable contractor to make sure your new unit is the right size for your home, and have it professionally installed. Even the most efficient system can't make up for the energy loss due to improper sizing and poor installation.
  • Have your contractor make sure all your ducts are sealed and insulated. Duct tests require a fan and a pressure gauge -- they cannot be done by sight.

 

WATER HEATERS

Water heating is typically the third largest energy expense in your home, accounting for about 14 percent of your energy bill. An old water heater can operate for years at very low efficiency before it finally fails. If your gas water heater is more than 10 years old, it probably operates at less than 50 percent efficiency.

Energy-Saving Purchasing Tips:

  • Calculate how much hot water your household uses at peak times. Figure that a clothes washer on hot wash/hot rinse can use about 32 gallons of hot water; a shower, 20 gallons. Washing dishes by hand can use 10 to 15 gallons, and automatic dishwashers, about 8 gallons.
  • Match this figure with the "first hour rating" (FHR) on the EnergyGuide label. The FHR measures how many gallons of hot water your heater can deliver during a busy hour. Don't be misled by the size of the tank -- it doesn't necessarily correlate with FHR.
  • Once you've found the right FHR range for your household, check the unit's Energy Factor (EF), which rates efficiency. A high-efficiency gas model would have an EF around 0.8.
  • A natural gas unit will cost less to operate than electric.

 

HOME ELECTRONICS

For most products, the Energy Star label is your assurance that the product will operate more efficiently than a standard model. But Energy Star TVs, audio equipment, telephones, computers and printers earn the label primarily because they draw only a small amount of power when not in use -- regardless of the amount of power they consume when operating. When buying electronics, do look for the Energy Star label, but also keep a few general caveats in mind.

Energy-Saving Purchasing Tips:

  • Ink jet printers tend to be more energy-efficient than lasers.

  • LCD televisions and monitors draw less power than CRT or plasma screens.

  • Small lightweight power supplies tend to be more energy efficient than large, heavy transformer-based power supplies.

 

MORE SMART SHOPPING TIPS

  • Check for incentives. Some states offer rewards for buying the most energy-efficient appliances. Connecticut and California, for example, have rebate programs that will refund part of the purchase price of certain new energy-efficient appliances. Maryland eliminates sales tax on some appliances with the Energy Star label. Check with your local utility and the Energy Star Rebate Locator to find out if cash rebates or other incentives are available in your area, or see our state-by-state listing.
  • Use the Internet. Several websites contain additional useful information. The EPA's Energy Star website has information on appliance models that carry the Energy Star label and where you can buy them. The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy publishes a yearly list of the most energy-efficient appliances. And the Consortium for Energy Efficiency has information on programs promoting energy efficiency in the home.

 

last revised 1/13/2010

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