In-Home IQ Expands
February 27th, 2012 by Megan McKoy-Noe

Technological innovations make appliances smarter about their energy use

Samsung’s Flex Duo Oven uses a “smart divider” to cut wasted cooking space. The divider also allows you to cook two things simultaneously at different temperatures. Photo courtesy of Samsung

Samsung’s Flex Duo Oven uses a “smart divider” to cut wasted cooking space. The divider also allows you to cook two things simultaneously at different temperatures. Photo courtesy of Samsung

Does your refrigerator have Wi-Fi or a door with a view? Select dishwashers self-dispense detergent and clean based on the number of dishes. And you might be surprised to learn some ovens double as refrigerators. Leave dinner in the oven in the morning, then send a text message for the oven to switch from cooling to cooking mode. “When it comes to appliances in the kitchen, things are getting smarter,” says Kevin Dexter, senior vice president of home appliance sales and marketing at Samsung Electronics America. “We’re listening closely to consumers and adding improvements that busy moms want.”

During the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show, Samsung unveiled several appliance twists, including an LCD refrigerator featuring Wi-Fi with a grocery app and a Flex Duo Oven using a “smart divider” to cut wasted cooking space. Samsung isn’t alone. Other manufacturers also are looking for twists to make appliances smarter and keep consumers happy.

“At GE Appliances, we’re rapidly expanding our Energy Star offerings because it’s what consumers demand and it’s the right thing to do,” says Rod Barry, director of efficiency and environmental relations. He claims a kitchen equipped with GE’s ecomagination appliances reduces electricity use by 20 percent compared to standard models. But with so many cooks in the kitchen, not all innovations make energy sense. Appliances use 13 percent of a home’s energy—a hefty chunk. Public electric utilities are evaluating emerging technologies to find the recipe for innovative appliance success.

Manufacturers constantly enhance appliances to comply with consumer requests and to meet ever-evolving federal efficiency standards. These standards, first enacted in 1987, drive efficiency innovations and are credited with saving more than $300 billion in electric bills during the past quarter-century, according to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. Current standards set the bar for furnaces, air conditioners, water heaters, refrigerators, freezers, washers, dryers, motors, lamps and other products. In 2011, a U.S. Senate committee considered tightening appliance standards even more, but the bill has not moved forward for a vote.

After an influx of appliance rebate funds—almost $300 million—from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, many consumers bought efficient appliances in 2010 and 2011. Although rebates also were offered for HVAC systems and water heaters, kitchen and laundry workhorses were the clear favorites, garnering 88 percent of all redeemed rebates. About 586,000 consumers added refrigerators, 551,000 added clothes washers and 297,600 dishwashers were updated.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates this influx of efficient appliances will save $48 million in energy costs annually. But these savings are only realized when consumers follow the adage, “Out with the old, in with the new.” Unfortunately, a national electric cooperative survey shows that is not always the case.

“A lot of folks buy these great new Energy Star refrigerators, then put the old energy hog model in the basement as a soda fridge for the kids,” says Brian Sloboda, a program manager for the Cooperative Research Network, a division of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association that monitors, evaluates and applies technologies to help electric cooperatives control costs, increase productivity and enhance service to their members.

“As a result, a lot of potential savings are lost. Sure, it’s convenient to have the extra space, but these folks are paying significantly more just to have cold drinks handy.” CRN partnered with E-Source, a Colorado-based efficiency group, to conduct a national survey of appliances. The study found 19 percent of American homes plug in two refrigerators, and 40 percent of households run a stand-alone freezer, adding expensive cold storage to electric bills. Older models drain energy dollars. A refrigerator from the 1970s costs $200 more to operate every year than a current model. A 1980s fridge is not much better, wasting $100 in energy dollars annually.

Consumers should look beyond fancy bells and whistles and research appliances to guarantee energy savings, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The agency enforces mandatory EnergyGuide labels to help consumers compare brands and shop effectively. “Most of the differences are on the inside—in the motors, compressors, pumps, valves, gaskets and seals, or in electronic sensors that make appliances ‘smarter,’” warns the FTC. “Even if two models look the same from the outside, less-obvious inside features can mean a big difference in monthly utility bills.” Appliance Aid Most states have exhausted their allocated appliance rebate funds.

As of January 30, 2012, Alaska, Oregon and California still had federally approved appliance rebate programs. Some states and local utilities provide rebates and appliance loans. Check for local incentives or contact your local electric utility to see if appliance aid is available. Megan McKoy-Noe writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Learn More About Appliances With the EnergyGuide Label
You can learn about the energy efficiency of an appliance that you are thinking about buying through the yellow-and-black EnergyGuide label.

The Federal Trade Commission’s Appliance Labeling Rule requires appliance manufacturers to put these labels on refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers, clothes washers, water heaters, furnaces, boilers, central air conditioners, room air conditioners, heat pumps and pool heaters.

When you shop for one of these appliances in a dealer’s showroom, you should find the labels hanging on the inside of an appliance or secured to the outside. The law requires that the labels specify:

  • The capacity of the particular model.
  • The estimated annual energy consumption for refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers, clothes washers and water heaters.
  • The energy-efficiency rating for air conditioners, heat pumps, furnaces, boilers and pool heaters.
  • The range of estimated annual energy consumption, or energy-efficiency ratings, of comparable appliances.

Some appliances also might feature the Energy Star logo, which means the appliance is significantly more energy efficient than the average comparable model.