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An energy-efficient refrigerator can save you money

By Alice LaPierre
Tuesday September 04, 2001

Right now there are at least two programs under which Californians can save a significant amount of money by being energy efficient: the Governor’s 20/20 Rebate Program, and the 1-2-3 Cashback Program through Pacific Gas & Electric for energy-efficient appliances and fixtures. With a little up-front expense, the long-term benefits can mean more money in your wallet at the end of every month. Start by asking, “How efficient is your refrigerator?”  

A refrigerator at least 10 years old uses as much energy as two refrigerators carrying the EnergyStar label, according to PG&E and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Products with the government-backed EnergyStar label exceed energy-performance guidelines and therefore save owners money in the long run. 

A refrigerator made around 1990 uses more than 900 kilowatt-hours per year, about $125 a year at current rates of 14 cents per kilowatt-hour. The older the refrigerator the more power it burns, according to the EPA. An EnergyStar refrigerator exceeds government standards by at least 20 percent. Over the product's life span – estimated at about 20 years – it can save owners $2,200 in energy costs. If you haven’t purchased a new refrigerator in the last couple of years, you may have a “watt-hog” in your kitchen. Models that are at least 10 years old have many of the following traits: mechanical handles, magnetic strips holding the doors shut, colors of green, yellow, pink or blue, chrome handles, exposed house-door type hinges, or rounded “shoulders.” If you have one of these, you are spending more in energy than you need to. 

The payback period for a new energy-efficient refrigerator is about 2.4 years, based on electricity rates of about 14 cents per kilowatt hour. This assumes that an EnergyStar refrigerator is on average $97 more expensive than the same-sized non-EnergyStar model.  

Rebates of up to $200 for new EnergyStar efficient refrigerators available through PG&E, plus a rebate of $75 for recycling your old (but still working) refrigerator (free pickup included) through the Alameda County Waste Management Authority. Call 1-800-599-5798 for more details. 

Before shopping for a new refrigerator, go to the Department of Energy EnergyStar Website at to find the most efficient model for your needs. Also refer to Consumer Reports magazine for reliability and performance ratings (available in the libraries). 

Here’s what you can do in the meantime before you replace your refrigerator – or if you rent and are stuck with the refrigerator that came with your apartment. 

• Fill plastic bottles with water two inches from the top, and put them in your freezer to take up the excess space. Freezers work much harder cooling down large volumes of warm air, so keeping the refrigerator stocked with ice in between shopping trips will save energy.  

• When you need the freezer space, just move the bottles into the refrigerator section and it will keep the refrigerator from running to cool down air in there. You will now also have an emergency stock of water and ice if the power goes out! 

• Check the gasket around the door. Keep it clean and pliable, so that it makes a good seal. 

• Raise the cooling and freezing temperatures in both refrigerator and freezer sections to between two and three. Ice cream doesn’t have to be rock-hard! 

• Keep the ventilation space behind and on top of the refrigerator clear of objects. Blocking this airspace makes the refrigerator work harder and run longer to cool itself. 

• Lastly, don’t open the refrigerator door more than necessary, especially in hot weather. An open refrigerator door makes a poor air conditioner. 


Alice La Pierre is an energy analyst for the city’s Energy Office. Her column appears as a public service the first and third Tuesdays of the month.