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New year, new energy standards for fridges

Residential refrigerator and freezer energy standards are changing -- here's what you need to know.

The new congressional budget might give incandescent light bulbs a reprieve from new federal energy conservation guidelines, but new standards for large appliance energy efficiency remain intact. These new guidelines, made possible by the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act and set forth by the Department of Energy, outline the maximum amount of allowable energy in kilowatt-hours per year (kWh/yr) for residential refrigerators, freezers, and fridge-freezer combos. On September 15, 2014, these standards will be changing -- both for regular and Energy Star-certified appliances. That may seem far off, but some overachieving manufacturers are already selling their redesigned models in stores.

The DOE estimates that this update will save roughly 5.6 quads (that's 5.6 quadrillion BTUs) of energy as well as $97 billion in energy bills for models shipped from 2014 to 2043. It is also expected to eliminate approximately 295 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. That's roughly equivalent to the yearly greenhouse gas emissions of 57.8 million vehicles.

Manufacturer response
Since select manufacturers have already begun updating models in anticipation of the September deadline, some of the fridges in stores now were built according to the new energy guidelines (while others still have the old standards). That can get confusing because the energy labels aren't intuitive at all. The new products might even show a higher energy usage than past models. Why? The new standards rely on new measurements and updated electricity cost rates (using the national average of 12 cents per kWh). For that reason, it's a bit difficult to compare the new standard to the old standard. But, you can sift through appendix A of subpart B to learn more about the equations used to calculate the new energy standards for refrigerators and refrigerator-freezer combos and appendix B of subpart B for freezers. And, you can distinguish models with the old standard from models with the new standard by the yellow EnergyGuide label -- they look slightly different.

Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM)

In response to the changes in regular refrigerators and freezers, Energy Star appliances must also meet revised energy standards. New Energy Star fridges and freezers must use at least 10 percent less energy than the 2014 federal efficiency standards minimum. Up to this point, connected appliances have also been excluded from consideration for an Energy Star rating. But beginning on September 15 of this year, Energy Star will be able to extend ratings to eligible "connected" refrigerators and freezers -- and manufacturers of Energy Star appliances can consider adding smart features to their products.

What does this mean for you?
The DOE claims that about 13 percent of your energy bill comes from your home appliances. And it's probably no surprise that your continuously-running refrigerator makes up a large portion of that.

The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM)'s Vice President of Communications and Marketing, Jill Notini, says that replacing an old fridge is one of the simplest ways to make a difference in your energy bill. The good news is that models with the new energy standards don't seem to cost much more. I spotted a $3,299 25-cubic-foot Samsung fridge (model RF25HMEDBSR) on Samsung's site that has a new EnergyGuide label. There's a similar, 26-cubic-foot Samsung fridge (model RF4267HARS) on Samsung's site for $3,199 with the old energy label.

Unfortunately, Notini says, a lot of people transfer old fridges to a basement or garage as a backup for grocery overflow. Keeping an old fridge after buying a newer, more efficient model definitely isn't going to help you save money. But, if you actually replace an older model (as long as you aren't going from a small fridge with no ice maker to a very large fridge with an ice maker, or some other extreme) you should see significant savings.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

That's because refrigerators sold today are a lot more efficient than their predecessors. According to AHAM, newer fridges use up to 50 percent less energy than models manufactured in 1990. So take a moment to calculate your current energy usage and see how that compares with the newer models coming out this year. It might just save you a bunch of money over time.