White Appliances

by Heather Rae

I went to Sears. I went to Home Depot. I went to the regional appliance store, Agren Appliance, and drooled over a Fisher & Paykel refrigerator.

Agren had already sold me a Fisher & Paykel clothes washer and dryer. I opted for an older washer model, the same one that I had bought for a house in Denver several years ago. It’s an energy-efficient top loader and in the passing years, its price had come down $100, and there was a small rebate. This old house did not come with a washer and dryer, so there was no fretting about replacement costs, and that Fisher & Paykel washer had been a beautiful workhorse, so the choice of what to buy was easy.

The old Kenmore refrigerator in this old house, though, had to go — not because it was energy inefficient (it was) but because the compressor cycling on and off in the the middle the night repeatedly jolted me awake. The speckles of rust on the front door didn’t help its survivability.

At Agren, I oggled their wood-panelled Sub Zero refrigerator in the demonstration kitchen, opening and closing the refrigerator’s doors the way other people might open and close the doors of fancy cars with out-of-reach price tags — it’s the solid thud that gets me.

I opened the doors of every refrigerator in every one of those stores and read the average annual kWh consumption printed on their yellow Energy Guide tags. I consoled myself that I could not even consider purchasing a high-end refrigerator — basically anything with side-by-side doors and a through-the-door water/ice dispenser, because, comparatively speaking, they consume too much electricity. That was my rationale, anyway. As with most everything in fixing up this house, the refrigerator would be a compromise of desire, quality and price.

There’s lots of information on energy-efficient refrigerators on the web, but a couple of resources came in very useful. One is a calculator on the Home Energy Magazine website that told me whether replacing the old refrigerator would be cost-effective: “Below is a calculator to find out if you can buy a new refrigerator with the energy savings from recycling your old unit. Just fill out the tables below with the information requested. If you don’t know the energy rating of your current refrigerator check out if it is listed in the refrigerator database.” I plugged in the numbers for my rusty Sears Kenmore Coldspot 20 side-by-side (model number 106.8490010). The affirmative answer fueled my mission to rid the beast from the house. (OK, so I fudged the number of years I thought it would last, reducing them until I got my answer.)

On outings to appliance stores, I carried a list of EPA’s Energy Star-rated refrigerators. The list was long. It also created a quandary, the kind that deepens the crease in my brow. I am like the dumb cartoon character who figures out he’s the butt of a joke and, finally catching on and peeved, grumbles, hey, wait a minute!

If I were to buy a refrigerator on the low end of the price spectrum (a top freezer model) it would more than likely be more energy efficient than all of the high-end Energy Star-rated side-by-sides and some of the bottom freezer models — even if it did not carry the Energy Star label. I started to wonder, does the Energy Star label mean anything? Really? I set an artifical annual kWh limit of 500kWh/year. The new refrigerator couldn’t go over that limit, but I got so tired of reading labels and poking around that I just wanted to punt: If I could find a bottom-freezer unit that I liked and it had the Energy Star label, it wouldn’t necessarily be the most energy-efficient choice, but I could feel good about it.

John Rooks of Dwell Creative might put my buying rationale in the “Hummer in the Whole Foods parking lot” category.

In the midst of the Great Refrigerator Hunt, a man who works for an appliance store, replacing refrigerators for low-income weatherization programs, just happened to stop to look at the brae bio-bus. We got to talking. I described my refrigerator travails. “Energy Star-rated refrigerators are a joke,” he harumphed.

But I just couldn’t see myself NOT buying an Energy Star-rated appliance…and there would be the burden of explaining the whole Energy Star low-end, high-end ridiculousness to the energy efficiency folks with whom I work. While opening and closing those refrigerator doors, I started to call the Energy Star label “beaucoup de caca.” You can do the translation.

An LG Energy Star-rated refrigerator with bottom-mounted freezer, automatic defrost and no through-the-door-ice service stands in my kitchen. Its Energy Guide says: “This model uses 482 kWh/year” — one kWh below the lowest in the range of all similar models. It’s gorgeous. It’s quiet. I’m content. And now that I’m in Maine, I’ve begun to fill it with eggs and other produce from Goranson’s Farm‘s “community-supported agriculture” about two miles from this old house. That’s 69 acres of vegetables, berries and hay in certified organic production. If I’m down in Portland, I’ll stop by the Whole Foods that opened there recently and whose parking lot is always full. A small consolation, I won’t be driving a Hummer to get there.

Heather Rae, a contributor to cleantechblog.com, manages a ‘whole house’ home performance program in Maine. In 2006, she built a biobus and drove it from Colorado to Maine. In 2007, she begins renovation of an 1880 farmhouse using building science and green building principles.

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