[Energy] Star–Crossed Consumers

By Megan McKoy

Lots of folks are cutting down energy use, improving a home’s insulation, turning lights off, or exchanging traditional lightbulbs for more efficient lighting options. So when consumers shop for new appliances it’s common to focus on finding a product with an Energy Star rating.

But how do appliances get this rating? And why don’t all appliances have them? The answer may surprise you.

Computers and monitors were the first products to receive an efficiency rating from Energy Star, a program launched in 1992 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy. Since then, more than 60 product categories have been added, from dishwashers to windows and DVD players. According to the program, Energy Star-rated products deliver the same or better performance as comparable models while using less energy and saving money.

“We’re recognizing the top performers when it comes to energy efficiency,” explains Katharine Kaplan, Energy Star program manager. She notes the initiative works closely with folks in a wide variety of areas, including industry experts, governments, non-profit organizations, and utilities. “We agree on a fair way to test products. Manufacturers test products using that procedure, submit the data to us, and we say, ‘These are the top performers. This is how much energy you can use to be considered a leader by Energy Star.’ Generally, that means you’re in the top 25 percent.”

For example, qualified refrigerators must be at least 15 percent more efficient than the minimum federal efficiency standard. Energy Star-rated TVs consume 3 watts or less when switched off, compared to a standard TV, which consumes almost 6 watts on average. By pushing for the manufacturing of more efficient products, Energy Star estimates the rating system saved businesses, organizations, and consumers $19 billion in 2008 alone.

Consumers are taking advantage of the program. A survey by the Consortium for Energy Efficiency—a group including members like the quasi-governmental Tennessee Valley Authority and Bonneville Power Administration, a federal power marketing administration in the Northwest—discovered 76 percent of American households recognize the Energy Star brand. Of these consumers, 73 percent purchased an Energy Star-labeled product within the last year.

But not all products are rated by Energy Star. The program gauges the average energy efficiency of different appliance technologies and evaluates whether there’s potential for increased efficiency—generally at least 25 percent higher than minimum standards. According to Energy Star, the most efficient electric resistance water heaters on the market have an Energy Factor of 0.95, about 5 percent more efficient than the minimum federal standard. Since there’s little room for improvement, Energy Star does not have a category for the product.

“The technology doesn’t qualify for the Energy Star program—not because it’s not efficient, but because it’s already as efficient as possible,” remarks Steve Koep, a regional manager for REEM/Marathon Water Heaters. “When it comes to purchasing an electric water heater, consumers should consider durability and energy factor [EF], a mandatory evaluation done on all water heaters regardless of fuel source. EF takes into account fuel use, standby energy loss, and insulation under simulated actual conditions.”

Last October the New York Times revealed some manufacturers of household appliances were testing products for Energy Star-certification internally instead of using independent laboratories. In response, Energy Star ramped up oversight of product ratings and by the end of the year had revoked the Energy Star label for some refrigerators while raising the bar for the efficiency expected from TVs.

Energy Star remains a driving force not just in the United States, but in other counties as well―Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Taiwan, and the European Union. Federal energy efficiency tax credits for appliances and home heating and air systems typically require qualifying products to be Energy Star-rated.

To learn more about the Energy Star program, visit http://www.energystar.gov.

Sources: Energy Star; REEM/Marathon Water Heaters; “Energy Star Appliances May Not All Be Efficient Audit Finds, New York Times, Oct. 19, 2009; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Air and Radiation; Climate Protection Partnerships Division; National Awareness of ENERGY STAR for 2008: Analysis of 2008 CEE Household Survey. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2009.

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