Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Refrigerator Saga, Part 2: What makes a star a star?

(Part 1 is here.)

The first part of this post was drafted back at the end of September. I received some more information since then, and I finally have some time to give you an update. Reader warning: the following contains some grumpiness, and probably far more detail about fridges than you could ever want.

Now, about that fridge. I spent quite a bit of time at the Office of Energy Efficiency (OEE) website, reviewing their refrigerator energy efficiency ratings, and getting irritated. The fridges are grouped by volume and features, so you can examine a set of comparable fridges and see which models are most efficient. Volume categories don't work very well for me, because I have a definite width limit (24" max.) and the volume category I'm looking at (10.5 to 12.4 cu. ft.) includes a mixture of wider and narrower fridges. Feature categories just get in the way, because the features are less important to me than the efficiency. However, I persisted, wading through all the different menu combinations, and checking manufacturer or retailer specs for each model in turn to find out which ones actually are 24" wide. I looked at a lot of ratings. I became convinced that there is something fishy here.

EnergyStar models are supposed to be the most efficient. Within a given category, the EnergyStar fridges should have better EnerGuide ratings than the other fridges in that category.

They don't.

Take, for example, the 10.5 to 12.4 cu. ft. category, with auto defrost, any freezer location. Out of 35 fridges listed, three are EnergyStar qualified. All three have the same EnerGuide rating, 439 kWh/yr. Only two fridges in the whole list have worse EnerGuide ratings. Fully 29 of the non-EnergyStar models have ratings that are better by at least 30 kWh/yr.

What's going on?

What's more, those three EnergyStar fridges are all "Liebherr" brand, not available this side of Ontario as far as I can tell. What good is an incentive to buy a fridge, if the fridge isn't available?

In the same size category, without auto defrost, the EnerGuide ratings are better (across the board), and there are no EnergyStar fridges at all. How can that be? Somebody has to be the best in the category; there can't be a blank at the top. A salesman explained that the standard to qualify for EnergyStar labelling is set higher for smaller fridges, and almost no fridges meet the standard. Huh?

I sent an inquiry to the Office of Energy Efficiency:
Why do you set the efficiency standards higher for smaller fridges? The higher standard means that if I want to buy an EnergyStar fridge (no provincial sales tax here in SK), I have to buy a larger fridge, which actually uses more energy per year!
They replied:
Dear Ms. Herman: This is in response to your question from August 22, 2005 regarding refrigerators. Your questions/statements are not necessary [sic] correct.
They went on to tell me (as if I didn't know) that "today's refrigerators are much better energy performers than older models..." Then they repeated exactly what I had asked about:
To be ENERGY STAR qualified, standard-size refrigerators must exceed Government of Canada minimum regulated energy efficiency levels by at least 15 percent. Compact refrigerators must achieve energy efficiency levels that are at least 20 percent higher than the minimum regulated standard in Canada.
Then, without bothering to answer my question, they listed a bunch of places where I could get the same specifications and ratings that I had already reviewed. They went on to state that "the best energy performers are ENERGY STAR qualified refrigerators," and then gave a general description of how energy performance standards and test procedures are set. They didn't mention how the EnergyStar targets are set. Finally they informed me that
The ENERGY STAR is a voluntary (not regulatory) labeling program designed to identify and promote energy-efficient products to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and aimed at market penetration. ENERGY STAR specifications are intended to recognize the most energy-efficient models in the market; not add cost to these models. Please visit our website (listed above) for more information on energy efficient appliances and other issue [sic] related to energy efficiency. Best Regards, Office of Energy Efficiency
How can they claim that EnergyStar models are best, if the program is voluntary? That small point, buried in their rambling reply, could explain a lot.

I wrote again, pointing out that they hadn't answered my question, and finally got something more like an answer:
As a general rule when developing product specifications, the approach is to recognize the TOP performing models in the marketplace in terms of energy-efficiency. This usually works out to be approximately the top 25% of the best performing products of a given category available in the market.
This is why the 20% was the case for the smaller refrigerators. The selection of the refrigerator size is a personal consumer choice. You are correct, the smaller refrigerators will consume less energy, and choosing an Energy Star product will result in even better energy savings (please refer to 2005 EnerGuide Appliance Directory). The availability and diversity of the products is market driven and controlled by the manufacturers and supply and demand to give the consumers the choice of products based on their lifestyle.
It's more like an answer, but it isn't an answer. If the top 25% of models in a category should be EnergyStar qualified, why are there 0% of models qualifying in the small-fridge category?

I finally decided to give up on the EnergyStar label (even though it confers a sales tax exemption here in Saskatchewan) and just consider the EnerGuide ratings. That makes everything much easier.

So... why do we have the EnergyStar program? How often do people choose EnergyStar as "better," without checking the EnerGuide ratings, and actually get a worse performer? They might even step up to a larger size, or an unnecessary energy-consuming feature, just to get the EnergyStar label. I'm baffled. The only rationale I can think of for the EnergyStar program, is that it helps manufacturers highlight their products as best in a category, instead of having to compete on the full scale of EnerGuide ratings over the full range of products. On the consumer side, the EnergyStar program actively hides the choices that consumers can make to adjust their lifestyle to conserve energy. For example, it gives equal approval to the following products:
  • a 26 cu. ft. side-by-side fridge/freezer with auto defrost and through-the-door ice service, at 618 kWh/yr
  • a 17 cu. ft. all-fridge, at 335 kWh/yr
and it denies approval to the 10.5 cu. ft. fridge that meets my needs at 328 kWh/yr. As I see it, the cost that goes into administering this program would be much better spent by simply providing a more powerful interface to the EnerGuide directory, so that consumers can short-list models based on their own specific requirements (not generalized categories), and then see for themselves which model has the best rating. A better rating is a better rating.

That concludes what I wrote in September. When I finished, I decided to try just a couple more questions, and give the OEE another chance to give me a clear answer. Here's an update:

Well, well. They took another run at answering my question about smaller fridges, and instead of a clearer answer, I got a different answer. I suspect that this is (finally) the correct one:
As mentioned in earlier email from my group, the ENERGY STAR levels are based on the potential for energy efficiency improvements of a current technology. Smaller fridges have a greater potential for energy efficiency improvements, which is why the level was placed at 20%.
As for that "earlier email," if it exists, it wasn't delivered to me. At any rate, this answer makes more sense than the previous ones. It surprised me, because I would have thought that the high surface-to-volume ratio in a smaller refrigerator would limit the potential for efficiency improvements. (Smaller objects have more surface area for their volume; hence shrews have to eat a lot more for their size than do elephants, because they lose their body heat very fast.) Now that I think of it, if you had two refrigerators equally insulated, one larger and one smaller, the smaller would have to work harder per unit volume. If you increase the insulation equally on both fridges, it should make more difference to the efficiency of the smaller one. Okay, I see the reasoning. It makes sense, but it does nothing to address my objections about the actual impacts of the EnergyStar program.

As for my question about the Liebherr fridges getting EnergyStar qualification even though they are nearly the worst for their size: they tell me it's because they have the freezer on the bottom, and they are competing only with other bottom-freezer fridges. As I suspected, this program is designed for manufacturers, not for consumers. If you're buying an appliance, ignore the EnergyStar labels. The EnerGuide is all you need.


Anonymous said...

Intresting, Does that mean smaller fridges run harder?

Unknown said...

Interesting. I've always looked at energuide ratings when looking at appliances. I've only recently discovered energy star rating (mentioned to me by the salesman because of the tax exemption.) I ran into the same dilemma as you of course. It doesn't make sense to buy a bigger freezer when a smaller one fits my use but did not qualify as a "Star" I also wonder how the appliance is tested. (Is it the efficiency of the temperature maintaining or the actual kwh consumption of the compressor? Some freezer runs more often than the others and really , who needs temp. control on a freezer? As long as everything remains frozen, and the freezer sits indoors (where temp. does not fluctuates too much) My freezer went recently and 2 days later, stuff inside is still frozen. I figured out what's wrong (thermostat not functioning) I jerry rigged it so it just runs all the time. I plan on getting a timer for it and set it so it'll run 4 separate 1/2 hour cycle during a 24 hr. period. If time allows I'll try to figure out the kwh running that way. I think instead of spending 600 bucks for a new freezer, that money could run my old freezer for another 8 years.