Refrigerators: The Newest Space Stations

Top-Freezer • Bottom-Freezer • Side-By-Side • Built-In

The latest refrigerators are larger, more energy-efficient and more versatile than were the newest models from 2 years ago. Unfortunately, all of these modifications have come at a sizeable cost.

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Fitting juice, milk and other bulky grocery items into a cramped refrigerator can be a chore. The good news is that refrigerator capacity has increased, so more storage space exists for your soft drinks and leftovers. Plus, in the face of coming higher energy standards, manufacturers have become more versatile in creating more storage space on the shelves and in the drawers and doors.

However, that larger refrigerator will cost you more. Refrigerators that are in all price ranges received a markup of at least 10 percent compared with similar models from 2 years ago, according to Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM).

ENERGY CONSCIOUS. Refrigerator manufacturers are working to meet federal minimum energy-efficiency standards that will go into effect in January 2014. These standards require top-freezer and side-by-side models to be at least 25 percent more efficient than are the models that meet minimum energy-efficiency standards from 2 years ago. Bottom-freezer models must be 20 percent more efficient.

All new models by major manufacturers have been modified to meet the 2014 standards. Manufacturers accomplished this by adding more-efficient fans on the evaporator and the compressor, which provide the cooling. They also added compressor motors that have variable speeds, so instead of cooling the refrigerator at a constant cold-air cycle, the fan blows cold air only at the speed that’s necessary to cool the contents. Finally, manufacturers tightened the door frames on their models to keep cold air from escaping, as well as added improved insulation.

The reason that today’s refrigerators are at least 10 percent higher in price compared with similar models of 2 years ago is partly because of these changes and the cost of materials and labor, according to AHAM. AHAM couldn’t say what percentage of the increased price is due to those modifications, however.

Department of Energy implies that as a result of the improved energy standards, you’ll pay less today for a refrigerator over its lifetime than you would have if you had bought a similar model in 2011. This is true, DOE says, despite a higher purchase price on today’s model, because the energy savings would make up the difference.

According to our calculations, if you owned a standard top-freezer refrigerator that consumed 400 kilowatt-hours (kwh) per year, you’d pay $48 in annual energy costs to operate the refrigerator at the national average of 12 cents per kwh for electricity. However, if you purchased a refrigerator that was 25 percent more efficient, you’d use only 300 kwh per year and pay $36 in annual energy costs, which is $12 per year in savings. If you multiply $12 by 19 years (DOE’s average life expectancy of a refrigerator), that equals a savings of $228 throughout the lifetime of the refrigerator. Whether that exceeds the difference in the purchase price between the two models depends on several factors, including your usage and the rate of electricity that you pay.

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Our previous economy top-freezer refrigerator Best Buy selection cost $599 in 2011. The same model now costs $749, but it’s 25 percent more energy-efficient than the 2011 version was. In Chicago, electricity costs 8.3 cents per kwh. At 400 kwh of electricity, the 2011 version would cost $33.20 to operate per year in Chicago and $630.80 over its 19-year lifetime, assuming no rate increases. Thus, we would expect to pay about $1,231 to own and operate the 2011 refrigerator. The 2013 version, however, would cost $24.90 to operate per year in Chicago and $473.10 over its lifetime. The total cost would be about $1,222—less, as DOE says, but insignificantly so.

IN A VACUUM. The use of vacuum insulation panels (VIPs) as insulation long has been a goal of refrigerator manufacturers. VIPs, which are made of glass fiber and polystyrene, allow refrigeration insulation to deliver one-third of the thickness of conventional foam and better hold in cold temperatures. The results are energy savings and more capacity, because the insulation is thinner.

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