Using EnergyStar to Save Money? Buyer Beware.

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With summer heat inspiring thousands to shop for air conditioners, the search is on for a consumer brand that combines low prices and efficient energy consumption. For many purchasers, that quest points to Energy Star, the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) appliance-rating program, which represents a gold standard for energy-efficient value. Created in 1992, the distinctive blue stickers indicate that a device uses 20%-30% less electricity than mandated by federal standards. Within the last two years, however, the program has come under attack for making dubious claims, mislabeling its products, or insufficiently verifying manufacturers' claims.

The first chink in the Energy Star brand came late in 2008, when the EPA's Inspector General found that the many of the program's alleged benefits could not be demonstrated. In 2006, for example, Energy Star claimed to have reduced carbon waste by 37 million metric tons and saved consumers $14 billion in electric costs. The Inspector General's office found that these claims were unproven, and that the EPA had relied upon "unverified third-party reporting." This latter finding was to prove particularly damaging: ApplianceAdvisor noted that (among other problems) much of the Energy Star testing was conducted by appliance manufacturers who had a vested interest in getting the program's coveted blue label -- and charging customers extra money for it.

Earlier this year, Congressional auditors submitted twenty fictitious appliances for Energy Star certification. The whimsical products -- including a gasoline-powered alarm clock, an air filter with attached feather duster, and a metal roof panel -- were submitted with insufficient documentation and no third-party verification of their energy consumption claims. Yet fifteen were granted Energy Star verification, often within days of the request. Of the five that didn't get the certification, only two were rejected by the program. The other three were voluntarily withdrawn.

There are other ratings systems for appliances: the California Energy Commission has a useful website, and Consumer Reports covers energy usage in many of its reviews. Unfortunately, both alternatives have shortcomings: the CEC's listings can be confusing, and Consumer Reports charges for access. Moreover, neither has the potential reach of the EPA. Perhaps most importantly, it's worth asking if something as important as energy efficiency should be subcontracted to a state agency, a consumer advocate magazine or -- worst of all -- an appliance manufacturer that can charge more for products that carry a blue sticker.
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