Home Appliances: How to Improve your Energy Efficiency

Though often taken for granted, home appliances exist to allow us to operate more efficiently on a day-to-day basis. And, though not critical to our well-being, they definitely save us time and labor, but questionable as to whether they save us money. Even those refrigerators, microwaves and dishwashers that come with energy and money-saving features need to be operated properly if one is to attain any monetary benefits.

Energy Efficiency in General

In purchasing a new appliance, the consumer needs to understand that there are actually two price tags:

  • Actual purchase price
  • Projected price of operation

Cheap appliances purchased at rock bottom prices may consume a lot of energy over it’s lifespan, where as a more expensive one may be more energy efficient, and could well pay for itself within a relatively short period of time. So, a key criterion in selecting a specific appliance is its efficiency.

  • Typically, this can be gleaned from the yellow and black EnergyGuide label that is affixed to the front of the appliance in accordance with Federal Trade Commission law. It states the appliance’s estimated annual energy usage, it’s capacity the efficiency ratings of comparable models.
  • Also, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administers the ENERGY STAR program, which identifies the more significantly energy efficient appliances. Appliances so classified use less energy and reduce emissions. According to the EPA, products that were certified to meet ENERGY STAR requirements saved consumers $17 billion on their utility bill.

Energy Efficiency among Specific Appliances

fridge energy


With recent improvements in insulation and compressors, refrigerators in general are much energy efficient. Consumers can realize further savings in energy consumption and costs with the purchase of an ENERGY STAR qualified refrigerator:

  • Per U.S. Department of Energy requirements, to receive the ENERGY STAR label all refrigerators and freezers must be at least 20 percent more efficient than the federal standard (NAECA).
  • In choosing ENERGY STAR qualified models over ones sold in the 1980s, a consumer’s energy bill will be reduced, on average, by $100 per year.
  • ENERGY STAR refrigerators use less energy and aid in reducing the release of greenhouse gasses.

The National Energy Conservation Act (NAECA) dictates minimum standards for energy consumption in refrigerators and freezers, the specifics of which vary by configuration, automatic vs. manual defrost, and type of ice service.

Other Considerations in Purchasing Energy Efficient Refrigerators

Independent of the decision to buy on not to buy ENERGY STAR refrigerators, the following items should be considered in making a purchase decision:

  • Review the Energy Guide label to determine and compare energy use and estimated annual operating costs with similar models.
  • Seriously consider the top-mounted freezer option as these models typically use 10 to 25 percent less energy than the side-by-side models at a comparable size.
  • Ensure an appropriately sized refrigerator recognizing that the most energy-efficient models range between 16 and 20 cubic feet.
  • Recognize that automatic ice-makers and through-the-door dispensers increase energy use by 14 to 20 percent and typically raise the purchase price by $75 to $250.

Best Practices

There are a number of practices that can further reduce the amount of energy a refrigerator uses. These include:

  • Keep the temperature of the refrigerator between 35 and 38 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Place the refrigerator away from major heat sources (e.g. oven, dishwasher, and direct sunlight)
  • Allow sufficient room (a few inches) between the wall and the refrigerator to maintain air circulation.
  • Routinely inspect the door seals to ensure they are airtight and replace them as necessary.
  • Minimize the amount of time the refrigerator door is open.

The refrigerator is among the highest energy users in a typical home, using between 1,000 and 1,500 kWh per year and operating at an average cost of $90 per year. As a point of comparison, the older models can cost upwards of $250 per year to operate. In selecting a refrigerator, models with the freezer on the top or bottom tend to be more efficient that the side-by-side models and a refrigerator with an “energy saver” switch allow the homeowner to turn down the heating coils. Optimal temperature settings in terms of energy efficiency range between 35 and 38 degrees F.

washing machine energy

Washing Machines

Conventional wisdom over the past 5 years has pointed to front-loading washers as more energy efficient. They use much less water than traditional top-loaded washers, meaning less water to heat and they have higher capacity tubs, meaning fewer loads to cycle. Therefore, less energy is presumed to be required. Though the initial price is considerably higher, ranging between $500 and $1,600, the economics in terms of long-term energy and water savings more than offset the incremental increase in cost.

Outside of the attractiveness of the appearance of front-loading washers, is there any practical reason why a top-loaded washer can’t be designed that is equally efficient?

Traditional Top-Loaded Washers

In answering this question, an understanding of how traditional top-loading washers work is appropriate:

  • With traditional washers, the consumer fills the tub with water and uses an agitator to manipulate the clothes until they are clean.
  • In filling up the tub, these traditional washers use 2 to 3 times the water of the front-loading models and the agitator takes up room, i.e. smaller loads.
  • Also, the spin cycle is less effective in removing water, meaning a longer drying cycle.

Though less expensive in terms of purchase price, the additional water and use of electricity adds to the utility bill, and the added wear and tear on clothes caused by the agitator means more frequent replacement of clothes.

Energy Efficient Top-Loaded Washers

Manufacturers have since made top-loading washing machines with features similar to those of the front-loading models:

  • They use less water in cleaning clothes by “tumbling” the clothes into the tub.
  • The tumbling action requires the lifting of clothes so they can tumble back down, for which a variety of mechanisms less intrusive than an agitator are used.

The bottom line is that these High Efficiency (HE) top-loaders offer the same benefits of using less water and requiring fewer rinse cycles, and are less expensive than the more popular counterparts.

Washing machines use around 800 kWh per year at an average annual cost of $75. Front loader machines tend to be more efficient that top loaders, but there are advantages and drawbacks to each configuration. The key items to look for include:

  • Control of temperature. Cold water consumes less energy without compromise cleaning effectiveness.
  • Control of water level. By being able to adjust the water level, one can wash smaller loads. Otherwise, the most efficient operation of a washer requires a full machine. In either case, one should not use too much detergent as it will tend to make the machine use more energy.

dryer energy efficiency


One can assume that a dryer uses the same amount of energy and incurs operating costs similar to a washing machine. Since dryers operate similarly across various makes and models and there is little, if any, variance in energy usage, they are not tracked by the ENERGY STAR program. That said, there are differences between gas and electric dryers, and there are some operational features to consider:

  • Gas dryers are more expensive to purchase but less expensive to operate.
  • Moisture sensors in the drum will allow the dryer to automatically shut off when the clothes are dry, obviously saving energy.
  • The “cool down” period capability provides for cooler air to finish the drying of clothes, reducing the use of heat throughout the entire cycle.
  • Cold water detergents are as effective as conventional detergents in cleaning clothing
  • If the water entering the home is exceptionally cold, liquid detergent is preferred over powder – most powders do not dissolve as well in cold water.
  • Whenever possible, full loads of laundry should be run, thereby using less electricity to power up the motor and experiencing lower overall water consumption.

And, applying some common sense ideas, the clothes drying process can also benefit.

  • When possible, hanging clothes to dry will avoid using any energy at all and has the added benefit of extending the life of the clothing.
  • If, on the other hand, using a clothes dryer is the preferable option, then ensure an aggressive spin cycle is used during the washing of the clothes. It takes less energy to dry clothes by jettisoning water than to apply heat to drenched clothing.

And, for safety and efficiency reasons, users should be sure to clean lint filters regularly.

dishwasher efficiency



The consumer appliance market is flooded with improved dishwasher models that apply advanced technology to clean dishes while using less water and energy. These technologies include

  • Soil sensors that can actually test the cleanliness of dishes throughout the wash cycle and adjust the cycle to maximize cleaning while minimizing water and energy use.
  • Filtration that removes food soils from the water, improving the efficiency of the detergent and water throughout the cycle.
  • Water jets that use less energy in spraying detergent and water over the dishes during the cleaning process.
  • Dish rack designs that have been improved to ensure the dishes are properly placed to maximize cleaning.

Energy Efficient Dishwashers Offer Tangible Benefits

Particularly if consumers have dishwashers made before 1994, there are tangible benefits that can be realized by installing new, energy efficient dishwashers. These include:

  • Annual utility bills will, on average, be reduced by $40 per year.
  • Approximately 8 gallons of wasted water will be saved per cycle.
  • Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will be reduced through reduced energy use and protection of lakes, streams and oceans will be enhanced due to reduced water consumption.

Even in comparing models made since 1994, if consumers select an ENERGY STAR qualified dishwasher they are guaranteed to be 10 percent more efficient than existing models that meet the federal minimum standard for energy efficiency.

Other Considerations in Purchasing Energy Efficient Dishwashers

Independent of the decision to buy on not to buy ENERGY STAR dishwashers, the following items should be considered in making a purchase decision:

  • Review the Energy Guide label to determine and compare energy use and estimated annual operating costs with similar models.
  • Ensure an appropriately sized dishwasher recognizing that standard capacity models hold more that 8 place settings and 6 serving pieces, while compact-sized models hold no more than that amount. Track current frequency of use, recognizing that greater frequency means higher energy use.
  • Look for several wash cycle options as slightly soiled dishes require less water for a shorter period of time.

Hand Washing vs. Dish Washing

Though possibly counter intuitive, the practice of hand washing dishes is:

  • More expensive, averaging $40 more per year per household,
  • More time consuming-on average because hand washing dishes takes an additional 230 hours per year,
  • Less effective because it is impossible to do hand wash using water at temperatures of 140 degrees Fahrenheit, and
  • Less efficient-use twice as much water per year.

Best Practices

There are a number of housekeeping practices that can further reduce the amount of energy a dishwasher uses. These include:

  • Scraping food off the dishes prior to washing (in lieu of rinsing) can conserve as much as 20 gallons of water per cycle. Today’s technology and detergents are designed to do the level of cleaning that rinsing seeks to eliminate and for dishes sitting overnight the rinse feature will suffice.
  • Run full loads whenever practicable as the amount of energy and water used is the same regardless of the number of dishes in the dishwasher.
  • Selecting the no-heat drying option provides good results in drying the dishes with less energy.

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