Energy Star: Not So Reliable After All

Energy StarThe U.S. government's Energy Star program is shining a little less brightly this week, after an investigation by the Government Accountability Office highlighted some embarrassing lapses. As The New York Timesreported late last week, the GAO, acting at the behest of Congress, was able to obtain Energy Star approval for phony products including a comically large, gasoline-powered alarm clock and an air purifier jury-rigged with a feather duster.

While Energy Star, a partnership between the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency, repairs its credibility, consumers looking for energy efficient appliances may have to do more of their own legwork.

In response to the GAO report, the EPA and DOE issued an statement saying they had begun testing "some of the most commonly used appliances, which account for more than 25 percent of a household's energy bill, and both agencies are now developing a system to test all products that earn the ENERGY STAR label."

In the meantime, here are some tips and alternatives for consumers looking for the most efficient appliances.

Useful Information:

For starters, rather than just looking for the Energy Star seal, you can look at energy usage guides -- those big stickers that are stuck to the floor models of most large appliances. They tell you how much power a particular refrigerator or air conditioner uses and how that compares to other models. It also tells you about how much it will cost to run the appliance each year, based on the average price of energy across the country (which could vary greatly from your cost).

Of course, these numbers are based on data supplied by the manufacturers and some energy hawks believe they are often overly optimistic. Consumer Reports conducts its own energy usage tests when it puts products through their paces, and claims that its efficiency ratings are more accurate. If you aren't willing to shell out $26 a year for full access to CR's website (or $6 a month, which might be worth it if you're making a large purchase like a new fridge or washer/dryer), the website offers free buying guides that include explanations of what makes a particular kind of appliance more or less energy efficient.

Some Tips:

In addition, the California Energy Commission, Good Housekeeping Research Institute and the NRDC all provide some worthwhile tips for choosing products that will shrink your gas or electric bill. For example:

• Front-loading washing machines generally use less energy and water than top-loaders.

• Gas-powered dryers are typically more efficient than electric ones and quickly make up for their higher upfront cost.

• Freezer-on-top refrigerators use less energy than side-by-sides.

• More appliances these days have energy savings features, like washers that let you adjust the water level, dryers that tell you when you're clothes are dry instead of just finishing out the cycle, and dishwashers that use circulating air instead of high heat to dry.

• Older products built before a certain year (the year varies from one kind of appliance to another) are bigger energy eaters, since minimum efficiency requirements have gotten stricter over time.

• Buy just as much capacity as you need in any appliance so you aren't paying for excess energy use. This is especially good advice when it comes to a refrigerator, which runs non-stop and is one the biggest electricity suckers in your house.

Some Tools

Good Housekeeping provides a calculator to help you find the right size air conditioner for your place -- an appliance where people often buy way more capacity than they need and then feel burned when the electric bill comes.

• The NRDC has an interactive house that provides advice for buying energy-saving appliances and using them in the most efficient ways.

It will be great news when Energy Star gets its act together and its sticker really provides the seal of approval that it's meant to be. But it's good to know that in the meantime, you can still do more than take a manufacturer's word for it when it comes to saving energy – and money.
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