canam flagIn an uncharacteristic fit of virtue I recently vowed to start eating better. Among other things, this means I’m stocking the freezer so that I don’t get lured by the wealth of take-out in my ‘hood.

In fact, I even bought a chest freezer so that I’d have a place to stash all food I’m making (and buying). Naturally, I did a bit of research before buying, but apparently not enough.

I have a feeling that if I lived in Canada I would have made a better choice. Both the US and Canada provide reasonably detailed product information to consumers but there’s a big difference in context when it comes to understanding energy use and operating costs.

  • Here’s how it went down. I went home with a sporty little 7.2 cubic foot number from Sears. For $200, it compared favorably with other models both on price and on energy use. Everything else in that size-range either cost more or used more energy. (In hindsight, I probably could have saved a couple of bucks and a few kilowatt-hours with a slightly smaller unit; 7.2 cubic feet is a lot of home made soup.) I didn’t go with an Energy Star appliance, but only because there are apparently no small super-efficient freezers. As far as I can tell, the only freezers than earn the Energy Star rating are much bigger, which means that they’re not only more expensive but that they actually consume more energy than mine.

    energyguideThe official EnergyGuide card (pictured at right) shows my freezer’s energy efficiency. As you can see it’s not terrific, but it’s better than average. At typical US electricity prices, it would cost a little more than $2 per month to keep it plugged in. At Seattle’s ridiculously low rates—which are a big obstacle to conservation by the way—it should cost me around $1.

    What you can’t see until after you’ve wrestled the freezer into the garage is that the Canadian energy ratings—available on the flip side of the US ratings card — tell a different story. In Canada my freezer isn’t “better than average,” it’s the very worst of the lot. Obviously, my freezer uses the same amount of energy in both countries, but in Canada the comparable ratings are more genuinely comparable. (I don’t have an image of the Canadian rating, but you can imagine a line graph from 215 to 279 kWh—with an arrow for my freezer at the very upper end.)

    The difference is that in the Canadian energy ratings, my freezer is classed with other small freezers—from 5.5 to 7.4 cubic feet—which is as it should be. In the US, however, as near as I can figure, my freezer must be classed with freezers that are about twice as big. (In US you can’t tell for sure which size freezers are used for the comparison as you can in Canada.) Being classed with much bigger units gives my little freezer the somewhat misleading appearance of doing pretty well. 

    Annoying. For one thing, I no longer have the smug sense of virtue that comes from being better than average. For another, if I’d been shown a more realistic comparison I might have made a better choice, thereby saving myself a bit of money and using a bit less energy too.

    There are probably a few lessons here, but one of them is that there are still surprising information barriers to good energy decision-making. Among energy geeks it’s conventional wisdom that consumers are wildly irrational about the savings from energy efficiency. There’s some truth to that but it’s also true that consumers are presented with pretty imperfect information. Even if when consumers want to make the right choice—and even when they’re reasonably well-informed—they may end up going astray.

    That’s my excuse anyway.

    I will say, however, that the US ratings are better in one important respect. The consumer information in the US includes an average annual cost of operation. That’s an absolutely critical explanation for buyers. In Canada, consumers are given only the number of kilowatt hours—279 kWh/year, in my case—along with the little comparison axis. But kWh is not a super helpful expression and it doesn’t make clear that the cost of higher energy use is, um, higher costs.