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The Green Life: New Fridge? Does Efficiency Outweigh Energy to Make It?

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April 24, 2014

New Fridge? Does Efficiency Outweigh Energy to Make It?

MrGreenPhotoHey Mr. Green,

I read your article on the amount of energy consumed by manufacturing a car with great interest. We hear constantly that we should scrap our old refrigerator, our old car, our old dishwasher, in favor of more efficient models. So, let's say I save 100 kilowatt hours (kWh) a year with my new fridge. How many years would it take to pay off the environmental debt of MAKING that new appliance?  Is there a place I can go to look up the environmental cost of making certain products? —Susan, Lakewood, New Jersey

Thanks for your kind words about reading “with interest.”

Manufacturing a refrigerator doesn’t demand as much from our dear old battered environment as you might think. A new fridge that saves you just 100 kWh a year will offset the energy used to procure its raw materials, manufacture it, ship it, and send it off to the afterlife in five years or so. One reason for this is that old fridges do have an afterlife: most of them get recycled.   

But the main reason for savings is the tremendous advance in efficiency mandated by the federal government, though you can be sure there are some philosophical wizards on the right wing who argue that this forced efficiency is an  intolerable violation of their sacred constitutional right to warm the globe to the boiling point.

Now if your old refrigerator was made before 2001, you can save a lot more than 100 kWh a year, because those ancient clunkers use almost twice as much power as the new Energy Star models. To find out just how much difference there is between antiquated models and new ones, check out the EPA’s calculator. You’ll find that some of the biggest of those ancient beasts were burning through more than 1,000 kWh a year,   which would cost you more than $150 annually at your present utility rate.   And by by next year, new Energy Star standards will improve efficiency by another 10 percent. 

It’s also important to note that SIZE MATTERS. You may have read my latest rant against the giantism of today’s new homes, which have bloated from an average of 980 square feet in 1950 to more than 2,400, despite the fact that families are smaller. We suffer from a similar megalophilia (love of the gigantic) with refrigerators. The proportion of bigger models has risen sharply, with the share of small ones down correspondingly, which maybe explains our obesity epidemic: The bigger the fridge, the more junk food it’ll harbor.   Like cars with low mileage, this trend eats away some of our total energy savings. For example, a 17.5 cubic foot Energy Star refrigerator-freezer takes about 380 kWh a year, while his behemoth 25-cubic-foot brothers are up around 580 kWh.   So if you do consider a new fridge, ask yourself if you really need a Goliath armed with all those gee-whiz automatic devices that you don’t really need. And keep in mind that side-by-side models are less efficient than those with the freezer at the bottom and that those with the freezer on top are the most efficient.

As for your question about where to find the environmental cost of a given product, your best bet is to search for “life + cycle + name of product.” If you really want to geek out on the topic, visit the International Standards Organization  and take a look at its body of life-cycle research.

Oh yeah, almost forgot: regarding the crazy notion of keeping the old fridge growling away in the garage just to chill beer for man-cave events or parties, take the damn thing off life support and send it to the recycler. You can greatly supplement your beverage supply with the money you’ll save. - Bob Schildgen


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