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Do energy-efficient appliances really save you money?

Published: Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012 1:30 p.m. CDT

You’ve purchased a new energy-efficient washing machine and refrigerator. So, will your utility bill reflect a huge savings?

The easy answer is: It depends.

It depends on the size and age of the appliance you’re replacing, as well as your definition of “huge” savings.

The average U.S. household spends $2,200 per year on energy – nearly half of which goes to heating and cooling, according to Energy Star and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Of the rest, 14 percent goes to heating water, 12 percent to lighting and 13 percent to appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines, dryers and dishwashers.

Replace a 3-year-old dishwasher with a new, energy-efficient model, and you’re not likely to see a significant savings because it represents such a small portion of your overall energy usage.

On the other hand, if you’re replacing a major appliance that’s at least a dozen years old, you will realize some savings. Those older models don’t meet today’s more stringent federal energy standards. For instance, a new energy-efficient refrigerator will use less than half the energy of a model that’s more than 12 years old.

Read labels

When shopping for new appliances, remember that those carrying the “Energy Star” label are the most energy efficient in any product category, exceeding federally established energy efficiency minimums. In some parts of the country, utilities and state governments offer rebates on Energy Star-rated models. Don’t confuse the “Energy Star” label with the “EnergyGuide” label, which all new appliances must carry. The EnergyGuide label allows you to compare the typical annual energy consumption and operating costs of different models of the type of appliance, but it doesn’t indicate the one you’re looking at is necessarily among the most energy efficient.

Size matters

Make an effort to buy appliances that suit your needs – no bigger and no smaller. Oversized air conditioners, water heaters and refrigerators waste both energy and money.

Air conditioners: When shopping for an air conditioner, know the square footage of the space you’re trying to cool. Similarly, water heater capacity will be based on the number of bathrooms and bedrooms in your home.

Refrigerators: Refrigerator size is determined by the size of your family and how much cooking or entertaining you do. A 14-cubic-foot model is generally adequate for a family of four, but a larger family will require a larger refrigerator. If this fridge is a spare or just for beverages, you might consider a compact model (11-cubic-footer). Generally, larger refrigerators use more energy, but one large refrigerator will use less energy than two smaller ones with the same total volume or a smaller fridge plus a separate freezer.

Dishwashers: When it comes to dishwashers, consider buying one with a “light wash” or “energy-saving” cycle. This option uses less water and operates for a shorter period of time for dishes that are just slightly soiled. Some energy-saving cycles also allow dishes to air dry with circulation fans rather than firing up heating coils to do the job.

Washing machine: Are you in the market for a washing machine? A smaller washer may be more efficient for small households, but if you end up doing multiple loads in a washer that’s too small for your needs, you’ll cancel out any possible energy savings. Shop for a washer with adjustable water levels, so you can use less water to wash smaller loads. Also be on the lookout for a washer with a faster spin speed; this allows more water to be removed after the wash, reducing drying time.

Be patient

While most energy-efficient appliances cost more than their less-efficient counterparts, the small amount they’ll save you monthly in lower utility bills will eventually add up.

By replacing a pre-1994 washer with a new Energy Saver model, the average family of four can save about $110 per year on utility bills. Consider that most major appliances are expected to last 10 to 20 years, and you’ll see that, over time, you’ll not only make back the difference in upfront cost, but you’ll also likely save some green.

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