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energy star refrigerator

ENERGY STAR Refrigerators: Are They Worth It?

By Kate KnuthRise Writer
Jul 17, 2021

A refrigerator is the workhorse of any modern kitchen. Refrigerators keep food cool, which slows down bacterial growth and the spoilage of food. Reducing food spoilage not only saves money, but it can also help reduce food waste, a significant contributor to climate change.

On the flip side, keeping food cool requires a refrigerator to operate 24-hours a day. A result of refrigerators continually running all the time is the fact that refrigerators are one of the top energy consumers in the home, after heating, cooling, and water heating. Maintaining your refrigerator is an essential way to keep your refrigerator running well, which will save energy and money over time.

Replacing an older refrigerator with a newer model is also a great option to save you money, especially since refrigerators have seen significant gains in efficiency in recent years. Looking for ENERGY STAR-rated refrigerators is the best way to take advantage of efficiency gains and the benefits they provide for the planet and your pocketbook.

One thing to remember when purchasing a new refrigerator is that it matters what you do with the old one. Keeping an old refrigerator plugged in in the basement or garage means you are doubling the usage of one of your home's biggest energy-using appliances. A second refrigerator is also likely older and, therefore, much less efficient. For example, one couple found an old refrigerator in their basement cost them over $325 a year in electricity costs.

basement fridge
Photo Credit: Frugalwoods

A Brief History of Refrigerators

The history of refrigeration goes back centuries. The oldest methods of refrigeration involve using ice to keep food cold. People would cut blocks of ice from frozen lakes and streams, then use them to keep food cold in warmer months. This ice was first used in outdoor ice houses and then inside dwellings with iceboxes. These iceboxes helped keep food fresh, but replacing the ice and removing the melted water also meant these appliances needed constant maintenance.

Experimentation with the technology that would develop into the modern refrigerator began in the 1700s and continued through the 1800s. The first electric refrigerator was developed in the early 1900s, though it would take until the 1940s until refrigerators achieved more widespread use among households. 

French Door Refrigerator

Types/Styles of Refrigerators

Modern refrigerators come in a few main types. The first thing to consider is size, with compact or mini-refrigerators being used for small spaces and sometimes as second refrigerators to keep things like beverages cool. Regular-sized refrigerators have many different styles driven by both freezer placement and door style—all of which have implications for their efficiency level. 

What Are the Most Efficient Types of Refrigerators?

When thinking about buying a regular-sized refrigerator, size is the first consideration for efficiency. Generally speaking, the bigger the fridge, the more energy it uses. The size of refrigerators is measured in cubic feet, and refrigerators can range from 9 cubic feet on the small end up to 30 on the high end. The most efficient refrigerators are usually between 16 and 20 cubic feet, which is comfortable for a family of four, depending on food-buying and -eating habits, of course.

Refrigerator styles depend primarily on the placement of doors and freezer and refrigerator compartments. On average, the French door style is least efficient because it lets out lots of air when opened. A side-by-side refrigerator is also less efficient because the surface area of the freezer doors makes the loss of cold air more of a problem.

Reimagine Designs
Photo Credit: Reimagine Designs

Refrigerators with freezers on the bottom can be better, but the most efficient options are most often the freezer on top models. Why? The freezer-on-top model is the most efficient because refrigerators rely on compressors to achieve the cooling necessary to work correctly. These compressors take a lot of energy to function, and they produce heat when operating. The compressors are on the bottom of refrigerators, which is why the vent at the bottom of your refrigerator can feel warm. So, freezer-on-top models separate the colder freezer from the compressor's heat—making them the most efficient design. 

ENERGY STAR Refrigerator Ratings and Wattage

If you're looking for the most energy-efficient refrigerator options to meet your needs, you are in luck. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's ENERGY STAR Program, which helps businesses and consumers save money by certifying more energy-efficient products, has a refrigerator program.

energy star refrigerator
Photo Credit: Energy.gov

How Much Energy Do ENERGY STAR Refrigerators Save?

ENERGY STAR refrigerators are excellent options because they use less energy and save money over time—usually about 9 percent over non-ENERGY STAR models. Given the improvements in the efficiency of refrigerators over the years, replacing an older model with a new ENERGY STAR model will save even more. The better energy efficiency in these newer ENERGY STAR refrigerators comes from improved insulation and more efficient compressor technology. 

The wattage of newer ENERGY STAR refrigerators is impressive. While refrigerators typically range in 100-150 in wattage, an ENERGY STAR model with the freezer on top can use less energy than a 60-watt light bulb.

When thinking about how many watts of electricity it uses, it is essential to remember that refrigerators don't use power consistently throughout the day. The fridge's compressor cycles on and off throughout the day; when it is on, it uses more energy. You can hear it too when your refrigerator kicks in and starts making noise.

LG Smart ENERGY STAR Refrigerator
LG Smart ENERGY STAR Refrigerator. Photo Credit: LG

How to Calculate the Payback of a New Refrigerator?

Because refrigerators run all the time and are some of the more significant energy users in a home, the payback from buying an ENERGY STAR refrigerator can be pretty fast. The ENERGY STAR program has a calculator that can help you figure out payback time. All you need is how much you currently pay for electricity in terms of cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). You can look at your electricity bill, or the calculator has an average price for each U.S. state. You'll also need to know the approximate size and the approximate age of your refrigerator.

For example, say you own a 1980s-era side-by-side 22-cubic feet refrigerator. If you live in California, your average cost per kilowatt-hour is 16.49 cents. By replacing your fridge, you will save $1,559 and 3,259 pounds of carbon pollution over five years. That’s a savings of $312 every year on your electricity bill. A new ENERGY STAR certified 22.1 cubic feet side-by-side Frigidaire costs $1,282 (prices will vary). If you divide $1,282 (your upfront cost) by $312 (your annual savings), you get 4.1, which equals the years' payback. So in your fourth year of owning your fridge, you will have already paid for your new refrigerator through energy savings!

Refrigerator PlaidFox
Photo Credit: PlaidFox

Final Refrigerator Tips

  • If you do decide to get a new refrigerator, here are a few final tips.
  • Check out the availability of rebates in your area. Some utilities offer them to support energy efficiency.
  • Consider getting rid of your old refrigerator. Many utilities offer a refrigerator takeback program, where they haul away your old one for free. This is particularly useful to help refrigerators are disposed of appropriately. Proper disposal is important because the chemicals used as refrigerants are potent greenhouse gasses that need to be correctly managed.
  • Finally, enjoy your new refrigerator. An ENERGY STAR refrigerator is a beautiful, valuable addition to any sustainable home.

In terms of costs, a new refrigerator does cost money. However, an ENERGY STAR refrigerator will not require any additional dollars compared to a non-ENERGY STAR refrigerator, given that refrigerators are significant energy users and the quick payback of a more efficient refrigerator, an ENERGY STAR refrigerator is an excellent choice for every home. 

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-07-17T17:13:23+0000
Kate Knuth

Article by:

Kate Knuth

Dr. Kate Knuth is founder, strategist, and writer at Democracy and Climate LLC; and a fellow at the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment. Kate was the first chief resilience officer for the City of Minneapolis and founding director of the Boreas Leadership Program. She served six years in the Minnesota House of Representatives, where she championed clean energy, climate, and toxic chemical policy reform policy. Kate also served six years on the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board. She earned a PhD from the University of Minnesota, a MSc from Oxford University, and a BA from the University of Chicago. She was a Fulbright Fellow in Norway.