Sunday, September 30, 2012

Refrigerators--A Great Success Story

When our 90s era refrigerator began to run more than usual, I tried vacuuming out the coils underneath, cleaned the seal and checked the settings. But the rubber on the seal had begun to break off, and though a new seal would have cost one or two hundred dollars, it wasn't clear that that was the only problem. Calls on the home front for a newer, more attractive model won out.

Using a Kilowatt meter, I was able to document how much energy the old refrigerator was using, and then compare it to the new one. A little research shows that refrigerators have been one of the great success stories of government regulation driving technological innovation. Since the first efficiency standards were put in place in 1978, the annual energy use of a typical refrigerator has dropped from 1800 kilowatt hours down to 450. Though some in the industry complained about the standards, predicting increased costs for the consumer, costs have in fact steadily dropped as a series of new, more stringent standards have been adopted. (Google "refrigerator efficiency standards graph" for a great visual of this.)

Our old refrigerator was fairly efficient, thanks to standards put in place in 1993. But when it was on, it was using 150 watts compared to the new one, which uses 70. The old one also had coils underneath that had to be periodically cleaned, and the incandescent lightbulb quickly heated up the interior whenever we opened the door. Even when completely silent, the frig would periodically start gobbling up 650 watts of energy to heat up its walls and thereby defrost itself.

The new one, thanks to efficiency standards put in place in 2001 and the American ingenuity that ensued, is engineered to reduce these counterproductive aspects. The Kilowatt meter measures not only how much energy the frig is using at any particular moment, but also can track how much is used over time. In the case of our new frig, measurements confirmed that the manufacturer's estimated annual use of 450 kilowatt hours is accurate.

The Kilowatt meter and similar devices are available on the web for $20 or so, or can be checked out of the Princeton Public Library, thanks to a donation by the Princeton Environmental Commission a few years back.

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