Identifying Refrigerators to Recycle Early: Replacing Your Refrigerator

In 2001, I had a chance to visit the headquarters and research laboratories of the Whirlpool Corporation.

January 01, 2001

The company was rolling out a new advertising campaign that highlights its line of energy efficient products. That was not a bad idea when the entire nation was talking about an energy crisis in California - as evidenced by impressive sales on the West Coast and elsewhere. It still isn't!

During one of the presentations a spokesperson talked about a picture that didn't make it into the ad campaign. It was a picture of an eight year old child standing in front of an eight year old refrigerator with the phrase "Eight year olds burn a lot of energy".

Indeed they do. But the point of the ad was to indicate that it can often make dollars and sense to replace an older appliance before the end of its useful life. The average service life of refrigerators, for instance, is about seventeen years, and many last considerably longer. Prior to the 1990 federal energy efficiency standards, however, many name brand refrigerators used vastly more electricity than current models. Even the models supplied to the market between 1990 and 1993, the year a second set of standard came into effect, often had energy ratings more than twice that of the Energy Star refrigerators of today.

But can it be cost-effective to replace a refrigerator that is still running as well as it did when it was new?

Often it is. For instance, if you have an 18 cubic foot refrigerator produced before 1990, there is a good chance that it has an energy rating above 1200 kilowatt-hours per year. Without great effort you can find a new 18 cubic foot refrigerator with standard features that costs under $450 and is rated to use less than 485 kilowatt-hours per year. Let's say that your utility rates are 10 cent per kilowatt-hour and you are getting 4 percent above inflation on your investments. Then ridding yourself of the old refrigerator when it has seven or more years of life left in it will be worthwhile. (Of course, most older refrigerators are operating much less efficiently than their rated usage level and thus should be replaced even if they have only a few years of service life left.)

This is not complicated math - just the simple discounting that you were supposed to learn in your economics or business class.

An important part of the equation is the energy rating of your old refrigerator. How can you tell what the energy rating is for your refrigerator? Linked to this web page is a database of refrigerator models and their energy ratings. Over the years I have collected and added to databases on the energy ratings of different refrigerators. In addition, Alex Moore and D&R International generously made available the large refrigerator database that they assembled for the U.S. Department of Energy's Weatherization program, and the Wisconsin Division of Energy supported the work of bringing together the various data. The linked web pages contain over 46,000 refrigerator models. Refrigerators built from 1975 until 2000 are included, and only units that are between 12 and 26 cubic feet in size. Though smaller and larger refrigerators are present in people's homes, we have a lot of models now searchable.

Here's how to use the information. Click to the refrigerator database and see if your brand of refrigerator appears. If it does, click on the radio button for that brand name (for example, Amana) and enter the model number for your unit. You'll find the model number on the nameplate of your refrigerator. If you can't read a number or letter on the nameplate, use an asterick (*) as a wildcard. A table will appear after the computer's search is complete. (The search may take a while - so please be patient.) The energy rating is listed in the far right column of the table. (For instance, you might have a Kenmore 50091 and learn that its energy rating is 1149 kilowatt-hours per year.)

Once you have the rating of your current refrigerator, you can find out whether it is cost-effective to replace it. To do this, we have created a web site that calculates the discounted present value of continuing to use your current refrigerator for the rest of its expected useful life or replacing it. The calculator web site needs a few pieces of information, including the cost of the replacement refrigerator that you may purchase and its energy rating. If you look in appliance stores you will find that things have changed over the past few years. Starting in July 2001, new energy standards went into effect. At that time all 15 cubic foot top-freezer refrigerator (with no through-the-door ice or water features) were required to have an energy rating of no more than 450 kilowatt-hours per year, a similarly featured 18 cubic foot model needed to have a rating of under 485 kilowatt-hours per year, and a 22 cubic foot unit needed to have a rating of less than 535 kilowatt-hours per year. So if your current refrigerator is 18 cubic feet and is rated at 1200, you could save 715 kilowatt-hours per year in electricity.

Before looking for a new appliance, you should check out a few web sites to help you choose wisely. Several are linked below. Most important is the web site of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE). This non-profit organization publishes a list of top rated energy efficient refrigerators (and other appliances) each year. You could add to your savings by choosing a model listed on that site.

Also very important is to look for the Energy Star label. Current refrigerators receiving the Energy Star designation must use 10 percent less energy than the 2001 Federal minimum efficiency standards.

Finally, I want to offer seven rules of thumb for purchasing a refrigerator. Perhaps the most important is not to let your old refrigerator wind up in your garage cooling beer and costing you money. Two refrigerators are not better than one.

The visit to Whirlpool headquarters turned out to be a stimulating experience. I wish, however, that they had used the ad of the eight year old child and the eight year old refrigerator. Letting more folks know that they can benefit from replacing their older refrigerator before the end of its service life would be good both for Whirlpool (and other refrigerator manufactures) as well as the consumer.

Here are some interesting links relating to refrigerators:

Here are some interesting links relating to refrigerators:


Top Rated Energy Efficient Appliances by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy

Energy Star Program

General Information
Store Locator for Energy Star appliances
Appliance Specifications (What makes an appliance Energy Star?)

U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy

Federal Trade Commission guide to energy efficient appliance purchases

Oak Ridge National Laboratory's technical guides on energy efficient buildings & appliances

Energy Guide

Consortium for Energy Efficiency

Appliance providers that participate in the CEE efficient refrigerator program

Sears includes EnergyGuide labels for products
Maytag does not include EnergyGuide labels for products
Whirlpool includes EnergyGuide labels for products


By James Cavallo, Associate Editor of Home Energy Magazine and Principal at Kouba-Cavallo Associates in Downers Grove, IL, with photograph by Mary James.

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