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Fridge Efficiency: Newer Is Better

I am remodeling my kitchen and I heard I should get a new, more efficient refrigerator, even though my 17-year-old one still works. What are my most efficient and functional options?—Jerry L.

New refrigerator/freezers are much more energy efficient than older models. Energy Star-qualified models are 20 percent more efficient than the most recent federal energy-efficiency standards. This means a new super-efficient model may use less than half as much electricity as your old one. This also reduces the amount of heat given to the kitchen during the summer.

The energy savings from a more efficient compressor and insulation should pay back the cost of a new model over its lifetime. My own refrigerator is about 16 years old. We had a power outage due to Hurricane Ike, and my food warmed within eight hours and had to be trashed. My neighbor has a new model, and the insulation kept food in his refrigerator safely below 40 degrees for the same time period.

When selecting a new refrigerator, size is the most important factor affecting its electricity use. Select as small a model as will meet your requirements. Base the size requirements on your existing refrigerator size and how full it typically is.

Don’t skimp and buy one that will be too small, with plans to buy another small backup or to keep the old one running in the basement or garage. This will use much more electricity than just buying a larger one. Features such as split shelves that crank up and down and pullout shelves can increase the usable interior space with a smaller exterior size.

A top-freezer style is the most energy efficient because the cool air naturally drops from the freezer to cool the refrigerator section.

French door models with the freezer below are becoming popular. These offer the convenience of greater access to items in the refrigerator portion with the two doors opened. The only drawback (besides lower efficiency with a freezer on the bottom) is one must bend down to access the freezer.

The proper temperature for the refrigerator section is about 38 to 40 degrees, and the freezer should be kept at zero degrees. If you buy fresh meats, particularly fresh fish, select a model with a meat-keeper drawer. This drawer stays above freezing, but is a few degrees colder than the rest of the refrigerator, which keeps the meat and fish fresher longer.

Some of the new models use LED lighting for energy efficiency and interior brightness. While a 75-watt incandescent light bulb will burn out after about 40 days of continuous use, an LED can run constantly for four years. And LEDs use roughly 66 percent less electricity than an incandescent bulb producing the same light. There are also secondary savings: LEDs produce less heat inside the refrigerator.

Select models with fewer through-the-door features, such as ice/water dispensers. These are expensive and they take up space that would otherwise be used for insulation. The door in a refrigerator is the area of least insulation and greatest air leakage, so its efficiency is already lower than the rest of the insulated cabinet.

For extreme energy savings, some unconventional refrigerator/freezers run on low DC (direct current) voltage. These can draw power from wall outlets, or directly from sources such as solar panels, wind turbines, and backup emergency battery packs. The low-voltage models have a boxy appearance with extremely heavy insulation.

The following companies offer refrigerator/freezers: Frigidaire, (800) 374-4432, www.frigidaire.com; General Electric, (800) 626-2000, www.geappliances.com; Kitchenaid, (800) 334-6889, www.kitchenaid.com LG, (800) 243-0000, www.lge.com; and Whirlpool, (866) 698-2538, www.whirlpool.com.

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