WIDE DISCREPANCY Senior program leader Emilio Gonzalez tests the LG LMX25981ST refrigerator. That French-door model and others we tested used significantly more energy than other manufacturers' comparable refrigerators.
If you need a new refrigerator, you might be drawn to the Samsung RF267ABRS. This sharp-looking bottom-freezer is equipped with French doors, through-the-door ice and water dispensers, and many other inviting features.
This refrigerator might also appeal because it carries the Energy Star badge of honor, thanks to its claimed 540-kilowatt-hour annual consumption. "By being Energy Star compliant you are assured that your Samsung model is helping the environment by using less energy while saving you money," a blurb on the company's Web site says.
But in our comparative energy tests, which are tougher than the Department of Energy's and better resemble how you use a refrigerator, it used 890 kWh per year.
There's an even larger difference between company claims and our measurements for the LG LMX25981ST French-door fridge. LG says it uses an Energy Star compliant 547 kWh per year. We found through our tests that real-life energy use would be more than double.
Why the energy-use gap? DOE procedures call for a refrigerator's icemaker to be off during testing. On the LG, turning off the icemaker also shuts off cooling to the ice-making compartment, located on the refrigerator door.
In our preliminary tests with the icemaker off, the energy use we measured was much closer to LG's figure. But that's not how you'd use the feature at home since doing so melts all the ice. When we gauged energy use with the LG's icemaker on, we got a consumption of 1,110 kWh per year.
Such a loophole lets manufacturers label products more energy efficient than we've found them to be, and they get the Energy Star and its cachet when you won't see those savings.
The issue highlights a fundamental drawback to Energy Star, a 16-year-old federal program administered by the DOE and the Environmental Protection Agency that covers more than 50 product categories and is voluntary for manufacturers.
Qualifying Energy Star appliances and consumer electronics should use less energy-about 10 to 25 percent less than the DOE's maximum allowed amount for that category. Last year alone, according to Energy Star, the program slashed greenhouse-gas emissions equivalent to those of 27 million vehicles and saved Americans $16 billion in energy costs. But our investigation has revealed some flaws:
Qualifying standards are lax
About 25 percent of products in a category should qualify, according to the EPA. But until recently, for example, 92 percent of all dishwashers qualified. Under a tighter standard, it's now about 50 percent. A high number of residential-use oil-fired boilers (67 percent) and dehumidifiers (60 percent) also qualify for the Energy Star program.
Tests are out of date
Federal test procedures haven't kept pace with technology, a point Energy Star leadership conceded in a meeting with Consumers Union, nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports.
"A number of test procedures are out of date or problematic," says David B. Goldstein, codirector of the energy program at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "Part of the reason is that the DOE doesn't have the staff they need to do very much on test procedures. There's also willpower. They don't want to do it."
What's more, it usually takes the DOE three years to publish new rules-a period that includes comments from manufacturers, organizations such as Consumers Union, and others-and another three years for the updated minimum efficiency requirements to take effect. Comment cycles at other federal agencies are much shorter.
Input into the rule-making process by those who have a vested interest in easy-to-meet standards, such as manufacturers, can also help dilute those standards. "Because of all the parties involved, you may get a level that isn't as aggressive as it could be," says Jennifer Thorne Amann, director of the buildings program for the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.
Companies test their own products
The DOE does not test products for compliance with its Energy Star standards; manufacturers do it. And there's no independent verification of what they report. Rather, the government relies on manufacturers to test their competitors' appliances and notify it of suspicious energy-use claims.
Don't shop by the label alone
Appliances and other items that qualify for the federal government's Energy Star program use less energy than other products in their category. An Energy Star-qualified refrigerator, for example, uses at least 20 percent less energy than the maximum amount allowed under the current federal standards.
But in an interesting twist, Energy Star qualification could lead some people to buy a product that uses more energy than one that doesn't. How's that?
A look at snack foods can help explain this conundrum. In recent years, health experts have warned consumers against ignoring the serving sizes of low-fat snack foods, as noted in a study from Cornell University. It turns out that some folks tend to wolf down more of a food labeled low-fat and end up eating as many as or more calories than they otherwise would have. A similar thing happens when people buy a more power-hungry product just because it carries the Energy Star sticker.
"Energy Star, in some cases, can be somewhat misleading for consumers and can even lead to a perverse incentive for people to purchase larger and more energy-consumptive products," says Jennifer Thorne Amann, director of the buildings program for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes energy efficiency. "By buying on Energy Star alone, some people are actually costing themselves a lot-not only by buying a more expensive product but also by spending much more to operate it."
Consider the 48-inch GE Profile PSB48LSRBV built-in side-by-side and the 327/8-inch GE GTS22ISSRSS top-freezer. The $6,950 side-by-side uses 645 kWh annually and is Energy Star qualified while the $1,179 top-freezer uses about 18 percent less energy but does not qualify for Energy Star because it uses more energy than the most efficient top-freezers with similar capacity.
We're not suggesting that these are apples-to-apples comparisons-consumers who prefer the above side-by-side should buy it, knowing that it is among the most efficient built-in side-by-sides on the market. But you don't want to shop based on Energy Star qualification alone since it does not guarantee absolute energy savings.
You'll also need to use the information on the Federal Trade Commission's EnergyGuide label (shown) for the products you're considering and compare their annual energy use. (Before you shop, refer to your monthly utility bill to see how much you pay for electricity and/or gas. That cost will help you determine the annual operating cost of an appliance or other product.)