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Hiding In Plain Sight

Jill Notini, vice president of communication and marketing for the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, says, “When you consider that the average useful life of a side-by-side refrigerator is 12 years, it’s most likely that the owner of one hasn’t strolled down the aisle of their appliance retailer in quite some time.”

When they do walk in, they’re finding several surprises.

At Cumberland Appliance Center in Somerset, store owner Gary Eaton says, “When shoppers open the doors and see how much brighter the new LED lighting is inside, that’s really an improvement. Today’s shoppers also like the new touch controls instead of slide switches. Compared to something they bought 10 or more years ago, today’s refrigerators are fancier-looking and very high-tech.”

There’s a new door configuration available, too. Traditional freezer-on-the-top designs and the popular side-by-side styles now compete with a three-door option: a pair of French doors at eye level and the freezer compartment on the bottom.

Behind the yellow label
But while appliance manufacturers have spent the last two decades adding features to catch consumers’ eyes, they were also quietly working on the invisible details inside.

Eaton says, “The first things our customers want to know is if a model will fit in their kitchens and if the price tag is within their budget.”

Eaton says only about 10 percent of his customers take a careful look at the yellow EnergyGuide label to see how much electricity the appliance will use. Those few who do still may not realize what big changes have taken place.

Notini says, “In today’s marketplace there are more configurations offered with more storage space available inside, yet the bigger size still fits in the same footprint. And best of all, the newest products use substantially less energy.”

In only 20 years, the energy needed to operate a refrigerator was cut in half. Figures just now available for 2011 show continued improvements in energy efficiency. Notini says, “Refrigerators shipped last year use 60 percent less energy than similar models in 1990.”

Since the late 1980s, federal policy makers have tried to think of ways to get consumers more interested in energy efficiency. EnergyGuide labels were developed as an important first step—providing consumers with authoritative information to compare appliances. So beginning in 1993, the U.S. Department of Energy set standards that require manufacturers to change their products.

“The DOE standards are a formula,” Notini says, “and every configuration is subject to a different standard level based on the size and type of the unit. For all styles of refrigerators, a second set of standards went into effect in 2001, which still cover models in the marketplace today. The third set of revised standards will become effective in 2014. As a general rule of thumb, these new standards will result in a 25 percent reduction in energy consumption compared to the levels of prior standards.”

Internet innovations
A new line of refrigerators with popular features such as French doors and a bottom freezer, now being manufactured at General Electric’s Appliance Park in Louisville, features LED lights and touch controls. But hidden inside are the real energy savers: re-engineered chilling technology and thinner, yet more effective, insulation materials.

Appliance manufacturers are also looking ahead to a time when their products will need to be connected to the electric grid by more than a power cord. Tiny electronic radio signal devices are included inside GE’s new refrigerators.

These devices can operate in two different ways to make the appliance use energy more wisely. One option allows the appliance to follow the consumer’s instructions about when to operate certain features, such as the defrosting cycle, to take full advantage of electricity price differences. Another option allows the appliance to respond to signals from a local utility to delay starting an energy-intensive cycle for a few minutes when demand for power throughout the grid needs to be managed more carefully.

Next month: GE’s Kentucky manufacturing innovations.


Even an energy writer doesn’t pay attention to the icebox—until it goes bad

Sixteen years ago, my husband and I chose a 25.2 cubic foot side-by-side refrigerator, with a through-the-door chilled water and ice dispenser, for our new home. We both enjoy cooking and prepare a lot of meals at home for our family every week. And we like to give parties, too.

We didn’t pay much attention to the label estimating 1,022 kilowatt-hours of electricity needed to operate it each year.

That was then.

Now, the icemaker’s starting to make weird noises, the finish is rubbed off both door handles, and closing the fresh veggie bin is an exercise in creative jiggling.

So I’ve been doing some preshopping.

We can get a brand-new side-by-side refrigerator that will fit in the same area, have 25.9 cubic feet of interior space, with a price tag $130 lower than the old one—and use only 583 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year.

That’ll be really cool!


WHAT’S IN THE FRIDGE?

If you haven’t gone refrigerator shopping in a while, here is some of what you’ll find on new models like those being manufactured by GE at its Louisville Appliance Park plant:
• Brighter and more efficient LED lights
• Less than half the energy use of 20-year-old refrigerators
• Electronic touch controls
• Upscale and modern appearance
• An EnergyGuide label with efficiency ratings
• Models with three doors and a freezer on the bottom
• More efficient chilling technology
• Thinner, more effective insulation
• Radio devices that make them Internet and smart-grid ready to take advantage of future improvements in convenience and efficiency

A BETTER REFRIGERATOR
More space, less energy

An Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers survey compares the size and energy needed to operate all the different kinds of refrigerators shipped for sale in the United States. For side-by-side refrigerators:

Average Size     Annual Energy Use
1990

20.45 cubic feet    916 kilowatt-hours
2000
21.90 cubic feet    704 kilowatt-hours
2010
22.53 cubic feet    462 kilowatt-hours

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