This story is part of, CNET's collection of practical advice for getting the most out of your home, inside and out.
The Energy Star logo -- that light blue square with some white writing on it -- is seemingly everywhere. It lets you know which washers, refrigerators, light bulbs, computers and even windows are the most energy-efficient.
It makes sense that energy-efficient options would save money over the alternative, especially when it comes to big, energy-hungry appliances, but you likely still have questions. Is it worthwhile to buy an Energy Star-certified product? Just how much more energy-efficient will the product be compared to noncertified products? Who decides which products get certified?
The more an appliance costs, the more important these questions feel. Let's take a closer look at the Energy Star label and what it means.
What is Energy Star?
Energy Star is a government-backed program for identifying products and appliances that meet certain energy efficiency standards. It was established in 1992 by the US Environmental Protection Agency as a way to promote products designed to use less energy and, hopefully, reduce costs for consumers.
What does the Energy Star designation actually mean?
The EPA and Department of Energy define which products receive the Energy Star designation and the agencies grade products in more than 75 different categories, with the standards varying depending on the specific appliance.
As a general rule, the EPA uses a few guiding principles to determine which products get the Energy Star label. Those principles are:
- Products must be in a category that could contribute significant energy savings.
- Products must have the features and performance preferred by consumers, as well as provide energy efficiency.
- Certified products that cost more than less efficient alternatives must provide savings in energy costs within a reasonable period of time.
- Energy-efficiency technology can be achieved by other manufacturers and not through proprietary solutions.
- Energy savings can be confirmed in testing.
How this determination is made is different for each category. For instance, refrigerators must be at least 15% more efficient than the minimum federal efficiency standard. TVs must consume 3 watts or less when turned off -- about 50% less than the average TV. Light bulbs must use two-thirds less energy than a standard incandescent bulb.
What types of appliances are eligible to receive an Energy Star rating?
The EPA and Department of Energy have designated 75 categories of products that are eligible to be certified. Some of those categories include appliances like washers, dryers, air conditioners and refrigerators. Computer monitors and televisions also get graded, as do ceiling fans, pool pumps and a number of other products.
A full list of products that Energy Star will certify is available on the Energy Star website.
Are there different levels of Energy Star ratings?
Energy Star does not create different levels of energy efficiency. It applies certification to any product that qualifies. However, it does keep a list of the most efficient products in each category. Products that earn this achievement receive an Energy Star label that specifies the product is considered the most efficient in its category for a given year. A full list of Energy Star's Most Efficient products can be found on the Energy Star website.
Energy Star also offers scores for commercial buildings, ranging from 1 to 100. This is based on comparisons to other buildings with a similar primary use that have been graded on energy efficiency. But for consumer products, you either qualify or you don't.
If you're looking for a way to determine the energy efficiency of a particular Energy Star product, check its EnergyGuide label. This label, required by the US Federal Trade Commission, tells consumers how much energy a product consumes and how it compares to other products in the same category. This label typically appears in yellow on a product or online on the company's product page.
Can Energy Star appliances actually save you money?
There are a number of ways that Energy Star products can save you money. The first way is through energy efficiency. Products that are more energy-efficient tend to save you money over the long run because they lower your energy bill. The Energy Star certification is given to products that save consumers money compared to less efficient alternatives by cutting down on energy costs.
It is worth noting that the impact of an Energy Star product will vary depending on your overall usage. Additionally, suppliers in some regions charge more for energy consumed during peak hours. If your utility company operates on a time-of-use system, you may end up paying more for using your appliances at times when energy demand is higher. Energy Star products will still operate more efficiently and consume less energy, but the savings may not be as much as you expect.
The other way that Energy Star products can save you money is through tax credits. Some cities, states and even the federal government have incentive programs to encourage consumers to buy energy-efficient products. This makes it more affordable to pick products that are energy-efficient, even if they might cost more upfront than less efficient options.
The Energy Star label is an important tool for consumers who are in the market for any number of new products and appliances. By looking for the Energy Star label, you can ensure that the product you end up buying is more energy-efficient than most alternatives. This will save you money and help to lower your impact on the environment.