Home Appliance Efficiency Hits and Misses


In 1937, when being green had much more to do with envy than the environment, a group of engineers at Bendix Home Appliances invented the first automatic front loading washing mahine. Unlike the top loading basin and wringer washers of the time, the new Bendix used significantly less water and applied a high speed water extracting spin cycle.

The success of the brand new concept washer vaulted Bendix Home Appliances to the top of the appliance heap; peaking in 1950 when Bendix commanded an industry leading twelve dolars million in sales. Nevertheless, the accomplishment of the Bendix washer was short lived.

Soon other appliance manufacturers introduced cheaper top loading machines that were much less efficient and offered a smaller price tag. With modern aqueducts bringing large amounts of water to the west as well as powerful new clothes dryers available in many brand new homes, water use and drying time not significantly impacted consumer purchasing decisions.

The United States paid a price environmentally when it abandoned front loading washing machine in the 1960s. While European appliance manufactures worked to help the efficiency of horizontal washers, the U.S. residential washing machine market became dominated by top loading machines for over 3 decades.

New ENERGY STAR clothes washers initiatives in the 1990s finally brought change the appliance business. Through partnerships with makers and financial incentives for development and research, ENERGY STAR, was able to persuade major appliance makers to redesign, retool and ultimately produce a new generation of front loading machines. Nevertheless, only some ENERGY STAR initiatives have been so effective.

From the beginning, ENERGY STAR allowed appliance manufactures to self test, report and regulate, with predictably bad results. For instance, separate efficiency standards for different refrigerator configurations have enabled manufactures to produce side-by-side models that are a considerably less productive than similar-sized bottom-mount freezer models. Additionally, large 36″ inch professional style refrigerators have been given the ENERGY STAR seal of approval while they take in an average of 600 KWh of electricity annually.

Cheating has also been a problem. In September 2008, a test by Consumer Reports found that LG’s French door refrigerator energy usage was hundred % higher than what was listed on the government mandated DOE yellow sticker adhered to the service. LG subsequently apologized for the mishap, paid a fine to the DOE and reimbursed consumers who bought the item. And although the fridge wasn’t ENERGY STAR rated, it nevertheless demonstrates that some manufactures cannot be trusted to evaluate and publish accurate efficiency data.

Separately, Consumers Reports found that energy efficiency data reported on many refrigerators didn’t include the use of through door ice and water dispensers. Assuming that many consumers make use of this feature, Consumer Reports did efficiency testing with through door system in operation. The tests showed that the refrigerator models used hundreds more kilowatts of electricity annually than was reported on the yellow energy sticker. Consumer Reports concluded, “if the refrigerators are used as intended, the owners won’t save as much electricity as they had been led to believe when they purchased the appliance.”

Moving forward:

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With the exception of clothes washing machines, ENERGY STAR has failed to systematically change efficiency standards within the appliance business. ENERGY STAR’s decision to hand efficiency standard development and testing over to manufactures is akin to asking high school students to assign their very own homework and grade the own final exams of theirs. The results have been predictably below expectations.

If greater efficiency is to be achieved, ENERGY STAR must set a very high standards and challenge appliance manufactures to rise above the bar. Additionally, oversight has to be done by third party laboratories that do not have a vested interest in fudging results to meet up with a desired standard. There are many testing facilities which are equipped to test appliances including safely certification firms like ETL and UL.

New advancements exist that can lower energy consumption, including advanced insulation for refrigerators and ovens, and more effective heating elements for cooking appliances and clothes dryers. The technology exists but only ENERGY STAR has the capability to push it to sell.


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