In 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.
Find this article interesting? Support more research like this with a gift!
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.
The 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.
Is it too late to take it back in exchange for a different freezer?
Unlike the car fuel efficiency example, I’m not convinced the Canadian approach is better for most people. By comparing freezers to all other models, and not just those in the same size class, the US system should also persuade people to choose smaller units, and that will also save energy. In the end it doesn’t matter how many kWh are used per cubic foot of cold air – it’s how many kWh that are used altogether that matters.I suppose an analogy would be a Prius vs a Hummer – the Prius uses less fuel not only because it has a more efficient type of engine, but also because it’s a lot less steel being hauled around to get the same number of people from A to B.
With what you know now, what model would you purchase? I’m in the market for a smallish freezer as well and I would love to be able to avoid doing all the research and just follow your advise!
Eric de Place
Elaine,For what it’s worth, I’d probably go with one of the smallest units—like in the 5 cubic feet range. They’re a big more cost- and energ-wise and they take up less space, which I’m a bit short on. Sears has a basic but efficient 5.0 Kenmore for $170 right now. That’s probably what I should I gone with.Also, Eldan—that’s a really good point.
Consumer Reports has recently taken DOE to task for its lame Energy-Star efficiency ratings of US refrigerators: Outdated test methods, qualifying standards are lax, and mfgrs do their own testing. Really two categories of refrigerators and freezers: automatic and manual defrost. Automatics use energy to extract moisture so it won’t frost up inside. The manual defrost, well, you’ve got to take your food out and melt accumulated frost maybe once or twice a year (depending on how often you open it). But manual uses a LOT less energy. See http://www.avantiproducts.com for a nice range of small, reasonably priced, manual-defrost freezers. We and our friends have bought their products, and are happy with them.
What’s really needed—what I have been trying (in vain) for years to get some interest in—is “full cost pricing” required for participation in Energy Star and to qualify for any energy rebates or promotions.That is, makers of goods with Energy Guide ratings should be required to advertise BOTH costs wherever the purchase price appears. That is, instead of just seeing “Freezer $199!” in the newspaper, it should be required to say “Freezer $199, $25/yr.”This should be required in EVERY medium where consumer goods are sold—if you’re going to mention the purchase price in a radio ad, you have to say (in the same voice) the annual energy cost. In magazines, on the web, in catalogs, etc.Consumers would be SO much better off if we simply made dealers and advertisers provide them with the information that’s already in hand. That way, when you get the Sunday shopper or cruise the web, even the most energy-unaware person would start to get an inkling that maybe the cheaper machine is a lot more expensive in the long run.Please, Sightline, steal my idea! Make it your own, and help make this a condition for dealers to offer energy incentives (i.e., if you want your customers to be able to get the rebates, you have to follow the rules for advertising all your appliances).
There’s another problem with Energy Star ratings as well. Many programs, including the Oregon Residential Energy Tax Credit for refrigerator/freezers, base their rating on the % better than the federal minimum for that size class and feature, such as thru the door ice. The minimums for each category is calculated by an arcane formula that is much more forgiving the larger the unit and if it has thru the door ice. As a result a refrigerator with thru the door ice could be rated at 20% better than federal minimum (as of 2008 the basic criteria for Energy Star) while another refrigerator without through the door ice could be rated 15% better but actually have lower kilowatt hour usage. This same situation occurs between size categories as well. Fortunately anyone can easily export the current Energy Star list to Excel and sort it by kWh. But realistically, how often is that going to happen?
Dave points out yet another problem with Energy Star, a system of which the best that can be said is that it’s better than nothing.What Energy Star desperately needs is a rethink so that the standards keep going up. The presence of absolute energy hogs in any device means that current Energy Star ratings are actually getting weaker in that device category; instead of a rating system that keeps pushing the market towards better performance, Energy Star serves to greenwash degrading performance.Freezers are especially tricky because of the sizes made; the bottom line really ought to that all freezers should be ranked by the energy used per year per cubic foot of usable interior volume (kWh-yr/ft^3) and the Energy Star award only given to those freezers who truly lead on this size-independent measure.
dude is talking about a freezer that cost 2 dollars a month, (1 dollar a month in Seattle!) and felt the need to write this article?
but then again, what can you expect from a guy that wants higher energy bills…
“At Seattle’s ridiculously low rates—which are a big obstacle to conservation by the way”
I’m so sorry I wasted the time I did to read this.