Refrigerators and Freezers

Modern refrigerators illustrate perfectly how energy efficiency standards can improve appliances and save consumers money.

The California Energy Commission established the first standards for efficiency in refrigerators in 1976, standards that were eventually adopted by the U.S. Department of Energy in 1987. Since the standards were put in place, the energy efficiency of home refrigerators has improved by an estimated 2 percent per year.

An average refrigerator today uses just 25 percent of the energy a 1975 model required, even though today's model refrigerator has increased in size by almost 20 percent and has features such as icemakers and water dispensers. According to the Department of Energy today's refrigerators, compared to those of the 1970s, save the the nation about $20 billion per year in energy costs, or $150 per year for the average American family.

Even though refrigerators are more efficient, they still need to keep food cool or frozen 24 hours a day. On average, a refrigerator uses 13.7 percent of a home's energy, the largest energy-user behind an air conditioner, which uses 16 percent. Since the normal refrigerator lasts between 15 and 20 years, the energy efficiency decision you make when buying one will likely be with you for years.

Types of refrigerators

Refrigerators and freezers come in a wide array of styles and sizes. These are the basic configurations.

  • Refrigerator with freezer
    The simplest models have a single large door, behind which is a freezer compartment and refrigerated space. These models can cost less initially, but are less energy efficient; each time the single door is opened, warm air will raise the temperature of the freezer and require energy to cool it again. The freezer compartments are usually small.
  • Top-mount refrigerator
    Probably the most traditional and economical style, this model has separate doors for the refrigerator and the smaller freezer area above it. It uses less energy since freezer temperatures remain more constant behind a separate door.
  • Bottom-mount refrigerator
    These designs put the freezer section under the refrigerator. Both sections have their own doors, but since the refrigerator is opened more often than the freezer, items needed most frequently are more often at eye level and consumers have to bend less to retrieve them. Refrigerators with the freezer on the bottom are usually more expensive than more common top-mount models. Bottom freezers can be laid out with shelving or a pull-out basket with a door or a pull-out drawer;
  • Side-by-side refrigerator
    Installing a freezer on the left alongside a refrigerated compartment makes it easier for consumers to organize, view and retrieve frozen food. This design is more expensive and less efficient than the traditional top-mount design and is available usually only in larger-sized refrigerators of 22 cubic feet or more. While the freezer section may have a larger capacity, refrigerated sections may be smaller, which can be a drawback.
  • French-door refrigerator
    A fairly recent design that combines the best of both the bottom mount and side-by-side design, French-door refrigerators offer two side-by-side doors opening on a refrigerator section placed above a single pullout freezer drawer. This provides a full-width refrigerator with the convenience of swing doors. If only one narrow refrigerator door is opened, less cold air escapes. French-door refrigerators tend to be the most expensive models, with most selling for between $1,500 and $2,500. They come in most standard sizes, but sometimes need extra space for the doors to open properly.
  • All refrigerator
    It's possible to buy a refrigerator without a freezer. This is usually the simplest, most economical refrigerator to purchase and provides the largest capacity. Since it has no freezer compartment, however, most homeowners need a separate freezer.

    Stand-alone freezers come in two styles

    • Chest freezers
      Freezers that open from the top are the most economical type because nearly every interior inch of the appliance provides usable storage. Heavy insulation makes chest freezers hold cold well and means they require the least energy to maintain. The boxy appliances can have a large horizontal footprint, however, and need adequate space above them so that the lid can be opened. Sorting through the contents can require stretching and bending.
    • Upright freezers
      Upright freezers, which look much like refrigerators, cost more and provide about 15 percent less usable storage capacity than chest models. On the other hand, they have a smaller footprint and make organizing the contents much easier, since they typically have adjustable shelves and other options to make food easy to reach.

Check the efficiency labels

Refrigerators have to meet federal or California standards for minimum operating efficiency. It's possible, however, to purchase a refrigerator that is better than the minimum. Refrigerators that exceed minimum standards will run more efficiently and provide you with long-term savings on your monthly utility bill, often repaying their added up-front cost many times over.

Manufacturers and retailers can voluntarily place ENERGY STAR labels on appliances that meet or exceed standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy. ENERGY STAR qualified refrigerators are required to use 20 percent less energy than models not labeled with the ENERGY STAR logo.

Also look for an EnergyGuide label that tells you in kilowatt-hours (kWh) how much electricity a particular refrigerator model uses in a year. The smaller the number, the less energy the refrigerator uses and the less it will cost you to operate.

While these energy labels can help consumers make wise choices, they also can be confusing. Read them carefully. The Energy Star program doesn't simply indicate the most efficient refrigerator; it divides refrigerators into five categories and awards Energy Star labels to the best-performing refrigerators in each category:

  • Top-mount refrigerators without through-the-door ice dispensers;
  • Top-mount refrigerators with through-the-door ice dispensers;
  • Bottom-mount refrigerators without through-the-door ice dispensers;
  • Side-by-side (side-mount freezer) refrigerators without through-the-door ice dispensers;
  • Side-by-side (side-mount freezer) refrigerators with through-the-door ice dispensers.

Keep in mind: Refrigerators in some of these categories use much more energy than refrigerators in other categories. The most efficient Energy Star-qualified side-by-side with an ice dispenser, for example, still may use much more power than a top-mount model of the same size that doesn't even qualify for Energy Star status.

Likewise, the yellow EnergyGuide label details the "energy use (kWh/year) range of all similar models." The yellow sticker compares electricity consumption only with models in the same category - side-by-side refrigerator-freezers are only compared to other side-by-side refrigerator-freezers, for example, and not with other models.

The best way to use EnergyGuide labels is to look at the listing "this model uses" which details the expected energy use in kilowatt/hours per year. Compare that figure with the expected energy use of all other models to make the wisest energy choice.

When the yellow label estimates an appliance's yearly operating cost, the figure is based on the average cost of electricity. Rates at your utility may be higher or lower than the national average, and your costs will vary.

Smart Buying

Consider these tips when shopping for a new refrigerator or freezer:

  • Measure the space available in your kitchen for a refrigerator before you shop. Leave at least a 1-inch clearance around the unit for adequate airflow, and factor in how much space the door needs to swing open in relation to adjacent walls, cabinets, and appliances.
  • Explore the ENERGY STAR® product database. It lists high efficiency refrigerators, refrigerator-freezers, and freezers that exceed appliance efficiency standards by at least 20 percent. The more efficient models may qualify for rebates - check with your local utility.
  • In the showroom, compare the ACTUAL energy use numbers on EnergyGuide labels, and compare different models to find the most efficient. This is likely to be a top-mount refrigerator. Top-mount models use 10 percent to 30 percent less energy than same-sized side-by-side models, which the federal government holds to different standards.
  • Consider your family's needs and purchase the right-sized refrigerator. Generally, the larger the refrigerator, the greater its energy consumption. The most energy-efficient models are typically 16-20 cubic feet. But remember that it is usually more efficient to operate one big refrigerator rather than two smaller ones.
  • Consider skipping the ice-maker and dispenser. Through-the-door icemakers and water dispensers are convenient and reduce the need to open the door, which helps maintain a more constant temperature. But these convenient items increase a refrigerator's energy use by 14 percent to 20 percent and may raise the purchase price by $75 to $250.
  • A manual defrost refrigerator uses half the energy of an automatic defrost model but must be defrosted regularly to stay energy efficient.
  • Refrigerators with anti-sweat heaters consume 5 percent to 10 percent more energy. Look for models with an "energy saver" switch that lets you turn down - or off - the heating coils that prevent condensation.
  • Chest freezers are usually more efficient than upright models. Chest freezers are better insulated, and cold air doesn't spill out when the door is opened.
  • Automatic defrost freezers can consume 40 percent more electricity than similar manual defrost models.

Smart Use

Consider these tips to minimize the amount of energy your refrigerator uses.

  • Don't put the refrigerator near a heat source - an oven, dishwasher or even direct sunlight from a window - or it will have to work harder to maintain cool temperatures. If you must install a dishwasher or stove next to the refrigerator, place a sheet of foam insulation between them.
  • Make sure air can circulate around the condenser coils. Leave at least a one-inch space between the appliance and the wall or cabinets.
  • Check door seals to make sure they are airtight. To test them, close the door on a dollar bill and try to pull it out. Or place a bright flashlight inside the refrigerator and direct the light toward a section of the door seal. With the door closed and the room dark, look for light through the door seal.
  • Check the temperature - a fridge that is 10 degrees colder than necessary can use 25 percent more energy. Refrigerators should be kept between 35 and 38 degrees, and freezers at 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • A full refrigerator retains cold better than an empty one. If your refrigerator is nearly empty, store water-filled containers inside. The mass of cold items will enable the refrigerator to recover more quickly after the door has been opened. On the other hand, don't overfill it, since that will interfere with the circulation of cold air inside. The simplest solution is to buy the right size for your family in the first place.
  • Open the door as little as possible. Get in and out quickly. Label leftovers so you can quickly see what they are.
  • Regularly defrost manual-defrost models. Frost buildup increases the amount of energy needed to keep the motor running.
  • Many refrigerators have small heaters built into the walls to prevent moisture from condensing on the outer surface - as if the refrigerator doesn't have to work hard enough already! On some units, this feature can be turned off with an energy-saver or power-saver switch. Unless you have noticeable condensation, keep this switch on the energy-saving setting.
  • Get rid of that older, energy-hogging second refrigerator in your garage! It can cost you hundreds of dollars a year. One large refrigerator is cheaper to run than two smaller ones.