Straight Talk Articles

AN Appetite for savings: Which Appliance Should I Replace?
February, 2021

Dear Pat and Brad:

My husband and I just bought a home built in the 1970s. The kitchen appliances are so old they may be original, but we only have enough money for one appliance upgrade.  Which replacement will help reduce our electric bills the most? - Jessica

Dear Jessica:

You’re smart to consider energy use as you look at replacing appliances, because new appliances use less energy, sometimes dramatically less, than they did in the past.  Manufacturers have found innovative ways to reduce appliance energy use without sacrificing performance.  The federal government began tightening appliance standards in the 1980s and has continued as technological innovations became cost-effective.

It may seem like the oldest should go first. That may make sense if you want the looks and features of a newer oven or dishwasher. But with most appliances, the energy savings you get from a new one will take many years to pay for itself with the energy saved – if it ever does at all!

The appliance replacement most likely to produce the greatest energy savings is your refrigerator. An older fridge can cost about $20 to run every month. Replacing with a new ENERGY STAR labeled unit can cut that down to less than $5.  The ENERGY STAR label certifies that the appliance saves energy.  Refrigerators usually have another label, the Energy Guide label, which shows how much energy it uses each year and compares that to the most and least efficient models available.

Replacing other appliances can also reduce your energy use, but many of them use relatively little energy to begin with.   In order to use as much energy as an older frost-free refrigerator uses in a month, you’d have to:

  1. use your oven for about 65 hours

  2. microwave 1250 dishes for 5 minutes each time

  3. brew 1250 pots of coffee

  4. toast about 750 slices of bread

It’s possible to measure how much energy your fridge is using with a kWh meter.  Energy auditors use these meters, and it’s possible that your electric co-op will lend you one, or send someone to your house to measure your appliance use.  Sometimes the energy use of an older fridge can be reduced by replacing the seal around the door.

When looking to replace your old fridge, the style counts. A top-freezer setup is most efficient, a lower-freezer unit gives medium savings, and a side-by-side style uses the most energy.

If your goal is to save money on your energy bill, resist the urge to keep the old fridge in the basement or garage, because that won’t help you reduce your energy use.   An old fridge in an uninsulated garage on a hot summer day can use a lot of energy.  Maybe you just need more freezer space.  If so, we recommend the most efficient freezer you can find. You can find recommendations on the EnergyStar website. In my (Brad’s) experience, the freezer seems to get full no matter how big it is, so getting a smaller freezer can save money on your grocery bill, too!

If your fridge seems fine, another appliance you may want to look at next is the dishwasher. With most of us at home most of the time these days, chances are you’re using your dishwasher more than you used to. In my (Brad’s) house, we’re running the dishwasher at least twice as often as we used to.

In the end, if your main goal is to save money, you may want to focus on upgrading your heating and cooling system and getting rid of air leaks in your home (See the January 2019 and August 2020 articles on the Energy Tips website.) Heating and cooling take up almost half your home’s energy bill, and kitchen appliances only make up about 14 per cent.

This column was co-written by Pat Keegan and Brad Thiessen of Collaborative Efficiency. For more information on a more energy-efficient attic, go to the February 2021 More Information Page.

Skylights can be a beautiful feature on a home, but are often a source of heat loss.  Photo Credit: Darien and Neil, Flickr.com

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