Should I buy new, energy-efficient appliances at Labor Day sales?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Aug. 26 2008 6:05 PM

Is It Time To Buy New Appliances?

Checking the Labor Day sales for green bargains.

With Labor Day sales coming up this weekend, my wife and I are talking about replacing our 13-year-old fridge. It still works fine, but we've been told we can save a lot of energy by switching to an Energy Star-rated model. Shouldn't we run the old one into the ground before replacing it?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Walking into a big-box store has always been an exercise in hearing why whatever you bought the last time is no longer good enough. If you're looking at a new refrigerator, washing machine, or dishwasher, you'll be told that the new models don't just work better—they also save money and protect the environment.

The Lantern understands if that makes you feel a bit wary. Appliance manufacturers have a strong interest in convincing you that your old unit—whether you bought it in 2006 or 1986—needs to be replaced. That's not always such a bad thing: It creates a strong incentive for companies to continue making more and more energy-efficient machines. But given that the average refrigerator will work pretty well for 15 years or more, replacing a functioning appliance can seem a bit wasteful. Those big Energy Star stickers only show you how much energy the machines save, but they cover over the fact that making a new machine has an environmental cost, too. (As the Lantern has noted, replacing your old car with a new hybrid presents a similar problem.)

The problem here is that you have to make a comparison that's something like apples to a full fruit basket. Let's take the case of refrigerators—which, along with freezers, account for about 17 percent of the average household's electricity consumption. We can start by comparing the energy it takes to run the refrigerator vs. the amount needed to manufacture it. Producing the plastic and the refrigerants, mining the metal, putting the machine together, and packaging it also generates other waste and depletes natural resources. Finally you need to get rid of your old fridge: About 70 percent to 80 percent of it can be recycled, but some parts (like the plastic) end up in a landfill.

So it's worth buying a new refrigerator only if its increased operating efficiency outweighs all the costs of production. Much of the data on new appliances comes directly from the manufacturers, but the general consensus is that the average energy consumption of new dishwashers, washing machines, refrigerators and the like has gone down by at least 20 percent over the last decade. You also have to remember that the clunker you have in your kitchen is likely to lose efficiency the older it gets—so your savings might be even greater than that. (Cleaning off or replacing your refrigerator coils probably won't help, either.)

Let's say you've got a General Electric fridge from 13 years ago, which, after taking aging into account, uses about 959 kilowatt-hours of energy per year. (This site provides a pretty good database of refrigerator energy ratings.) By comparison, a new similarly sized Energy Star fridge from GE might use about 540 kwh per year even if it has an electricity-sucking ice maker. The best research the Lantern has found suggests that producing, shipping, and eventually recycling a refrigerator takes between 1,000 and 1,500 kilowatt-hours of energy. Since you'd be saving more than 400 kilowatt-hours per year, it would probably take no more than four years for your purchase to break even, from an energy-use and emissions perspective. Even if you account for the fact that part of your old fridge will end up in the landfill or that your new fridge requires raw materials to be extracted, it seems clear that it's probably time for you to go shopping. In fact, the Lantern—with help from these two life-cycle analyses (PDF and PDF)—believes that the replacement sweet spot often occurs just five to seven years into the life of a refrigerator. (The optimal life span for a dishwasher or washing machine is probably a few years longer, since they consume less energy.)

Here's the rub: Replacing your appliances that frequently may be good for the environment, but it won't necessarily save you money. A study by a team of researchers at the University of Michigan estimated that scheduling your fridge purchases to minimize energy use may increase what you pay by 36 percent to 50 percent. (After all, even if you are saving $50 a year on electricity, it takes a while for that to add up to the cost of a new fridge.) It would be nice if the most environmentally friendly choice were always the best one financially, but that's often not the case: You'll have to pay a little more to make your kitchen as green as possible.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

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