Smarter Living: Energy

One of the most important steps you can take to ensure that the gains you've put into place this year carry on into the next is to look at how you actually use the appliances in your home and determine whether you need to repair or replace any old and poorly functioning items. This isn't a command to run down to mall and spend your life savings restocking your home -- repairs and learning to use appliances effectively is more often than not the best choice, especially considering the energy and resources required to produce new machines. Still, there are good reasons to upgrade when regulations and innovations have produced newer versions that outperform their ancestors many times over.

What is the CO2 Smackdown? Read the overview.


Every homeowner has a mental list of those appliances he or she would replace with something new and shiny if the expense could be justified. Rather than give the urge free rein, however, there are concrete points to take into account when determining how best to upgrade. And if you do replace an old appliance, always remember to recycle the old one -- check with your sanitation department for recycling options in your area.

1. Refrigerator: Many refrigerators are well built appliances that can last for decades, but energy regulations that kicked in at the start of 2001 have improved fridge performance almost on an annual basis. Fridges dating to 2000 and earlier function at a disadvantage and this is even more the case for models manufactured prior to 1993. Compare your fridge's efficiency with current Energy Star rated models using our calculator. For more, see "Salvage or Scrap: Refrigerators."

Efficient operation:

  • Get rid of the second fridge! Perhaps the single best thing you can do is permanently retire and recycle the second fridge in the basement -- and don't buy another one. The 15-year old fridge chugging away in the garage or basement to chill a few bottles of beer can consume over 1,000 kilowatt hours per year, costing you more than $100 annually to operate.
  • Test the refrigerator seal: Close the door on a dollar bill at the top of the frame, leaving it hanging in the seal, and then tug it out slowly to determine if it is held firmly in place. Should the bill slide right out, you may need a new seal. Move the bill down a foot and repeat all the way down until you've tested the full seal. If the seal performed poorly, make sure items in the fridge aren't nudging the door open, then contact the manufacturer for help with a new seal.
  • Check the temperature: Internal temperature for your fridge should be set between 38 and 40 F. You may check it by leaving an appliance thermometer in a glass of water standing on a shelf for five to eight hours.
  • Clean the condenser coils: Built-up pet fur and dust can diminish your fridge's efficiency. Every three months, vacuum or use a condenser cleaning brush to remove dust from the coils on the back or beneath your fridge.

2. Air conditioner: If you have a window-mounted air conditioner that is more than 10 years old, set money aside to replace it with a new Energy Star rated unit before next summer. See "Salvage or Scrap: Air Conditioners" for help on choosing a right-sized model. But also consider cheap ways to cool your home that don't require air conditioning -- see "CO2 Smackdown, Step 5: Low-Cost Cooling."

[sidebar1]Efficient operation: Insulate the window frame spaces on either side of your air conditioner and remove the unit when the cold temperatures arrive to keep cold air outside. Set the temperature at 78 degrees to create a comfortable temperature without chilling the room.

3. Clothes Washer: Consider replacing top-loading models that have reached the age of seven or older and are starting to fail. Front-loaders are more expensive, but EPA Energy Star-rated models use much less water and that means much less energy to heat the water. See "Salvage or Scrap: Clothes Washer" for more details and compare your model with a current Energy Star-rated machine using our calculator.

Efficient operation: Avoid underloading or overloading your washing machine, always use cold water during the rinse cycle and as often as you can during the wash cycle (barring attempts to remove stubborn stains).

4. Dryer: If your clothes dryer is on the blink but is less than 13 years old and has a moisture sensor, get it repaired -- newer models have not made significant efficiency gains to justify the expense nor the resources required to manufacture them. See "Salvage or Scrap: Clothes Dryers" for more information.

Efficient operation: Line-dry at least half your clothing to cut down energy consumption. When the dryer is necessary, avoid underloading or overloading, use auto-dry rather than setting the time, dry multiple loads immediately after each other to take advantage of residual heat and clean the lint filter after each use.

5. Water Heater:
It's worth replacing a poorly functioning electric water heater if gas heat is available since Energy Star-rated gas heaters can trim energy use by 50 percent. Gas heaters, however, should be repaired if purchased within the last ten years. Older gas heaters will continue to function, but with such significantly diminished efficiency that their replacement with a new Energy Star-rated model is justifiable. The Energy Star site lists many varieties including whole home tankless heaters and heat pump options that may offer even greater gains in efficiency. For more, see "Salvage or Scrap: Water Heaters."

Efficient operation: Set the water temperature at 120 F or lower. Older models, which suffer standby losses, may also need insulation; for instructions, see "CO2 Smackdown, Step 2: Sealing and Insulating" (page 3).

6. Dish Washer: Dishwashers can keep going for years and those manufactured in the last two decades are generally better repaired than replaced. However, Energy Star-rated machines with a "light wash" or "energy saving" cycle use less than half the water than those produced in 1994 or earlier. And since 60 percent of a dishwasher's energy use goes to heating water, less water use means lower energy use. To compare your current model with new Energy Star-rated dishwashers, try our calculator. For more, see "Salvage or Scrap: Dishwashers."

Efficient operation: Always set your dishwasher on "water-saver" or allow a built-in soil sensor to set water levels automatically. Enabling the energy saver mode will ensure that room air is cycled in to dry dishes rather than baking them dry with a built-in element.

Reducing Costs

For Federal tax incentives, the Department of Energy (DOE) provides up-to-date tax credit information and the Tax Incentives Assistance Project offers information about the limits on energy efficient home improvements. Be sure to check out the DOE's 5 Things You Should Know Before You Claim Your Energy Tax Credit." For a listing of state incentives, see the DOE's list of approved rebate programs. Energy Star provides a searchable database of current rebates and special offers on Energy Star-qualified products. Searches are cross-referenced by product and zip code and include boilers, furnaces and thermostats.

Check with your utility to see if it offers rebates for purchasing Energy Star-rated appliances. You may also be able to take tax deductions based on your purchases in some cases.


There are many options to choose from when it comes to the appliance use and upgrading, but but here are some to consider:

  • Right-size -- just as you should get the right air conditioner for the size of your room, don't purchase more refrigerator space than you need (and remember that top-freezers are the most efficient configuration);
  • Handwashing dishes can be efficient if done using two wash basins, one with with soapy water and one to rinse, rather than using a flowing tap and an open drain;
  • Conserve hot water by reducing shower times, installing aerators on taps and 1 gallon-per-minute or less low-flow showerheads and avoiding baths;
  • Consider a solar water heater to cut your water often used in with an electric or gas backup. The Energy Star site states that they cut your heating bills in half.

last revised 4/15/2011

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