Appliances shopping: tags say more

So you're in the market for a new dishwasher, room air conditioner, or water heater this summer? You can count on a little help from Uncle Sam.

This trio of home appliances, plus refrigerators and refrigerator-freezers, food freezers, clothes washers, and furnaces, now carry a 5-by-7-inch tag that emblazons in big figures the estimated cost to run the device one year and the energy efficiency of the appliance, or tells you where to get the figures you need to help up costs.

In other words, the yellow-and-black Energy Guide tags give consumers the information they need so they can compare the energy cost of efficiency of competing products in the marketplaces.

then it's up to the consumer to make up his own mind.

Up to now the appliance industry has provided energy- cost figures on room air conditioners, refrigeratos, and freezers on a voluntary basis.

Next year the government will require labels on central air conditioners and heat pumps.

Simply, the tags are comparative guides. There are three kinds of labels:

* Energy cost.

* Energy Efficiency.

* Generic.

The energy-cost label is used on refrigerators, refrigerator-freezers, and water heaters. In small type on the left is the one-year cost for operating the model with lowest energy cost. On the far right is the annual cost of running the model with the highest energy cost. Then, in large numbers in the center, is the average cost for running thism specific model.

Below is a chart listing the kilowatt-hour cost of electricity, ranging from 2 to 12 cents. The appliances buyer, if he knows the power cost in his own town , can reach for a pencil and pad or a calculator and figure the specific cost in his own case.

The energy-efficiency tag is used for room air conditioners because of the impact of climate on the operational cost of the unit.

In small type at the left and right of the label are ratings for the least-efficient and most-efficient models. In the center in large type is the efficiency ratting for Thism specific model.

The generic label is used on furnaces and directs the buyer to get the comparative information from the contractor with whom he plans to do business. Central air conditioners will also use a generic label when the labeling law is extended to them.

The seven appliances now covered in the labeling program account for nearly 80 percent of all the energy used in US homes, according to the Department of Energy -- or the equivalent of 2.3 billion barrels of oil a year.

The Federal Trade Commission has exempted kitchen ranges and ovens, clothes dryers, humidifiers, dehumidifiers, TV sets, and portable space heaters, because they vary little in operating cost or the annual cost is small.

Clothes dryers vary an average $4 to $5 in yearly operating cost, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers. The maximum difference between electric ranges is no more than $7 or $8 a year. Microwave ovens cost $ 5 or less a year to run.

Jean Pruitt, an educator and manager of the appliance- labeling program, has made a mighty effort in alerting consumers to the tags.

"It's an important program," she asserts.

"I think that education is the most important part of the whole project," she adds. "I believe that consumers will have to become smarter consumer. Simply, I feel they've got to be willing to make a few calculations before they buy."

Suppose you want to compare two refrigerators of the same size and comparable features but with different costs ($500 VS. $400). Also suppose the estimated annual operating cost of the higher-priced unit is less than the operating cost for the "bargain" model ($40 VS. $70).

Find the difference in purchase between the two machines ($500 minus $100). Subtract the lower operating cost ($40) from the highest yearly operating cost ( price by the difference in yearly operating cost. Simply divide $100 by $30 and the answer is 3.33 years.

It will take 3 1/3 years for the lower operating cost of the more energy-efficient model to offset its higher initial purchase price.

By saving $30 a year in running the appliance, you end up with a $450 energy saving over the expected 15-years life span of the refrigerator. And since the more energy-efficient unit costs only $100 more, you'd save an estimated $350 over the refrigerator's lifetime.

The Department of Energy says the life expectancy of water heaters, dishwashers, and clothes is 11 years; room air conditioners, 13 years; freezers, 19 years; and furnaces, 20 years.

Meanwhile, the department expects a storm of protest by the appliances industry over the proposed energy-efficiency standards for eight home appliances because of the impact on the design as well as the cost. Not only refrigerators and freezers, but room and central air conditioners, furnitures, water heaters, and clothes are affected.

Clothes washers, dishwashers, TV sets and heat pumps are expected to be included in the future. The cost could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, although the Energy Department asserts that the higher purchase costs will be offset by the saving on utility bills.

The initial stage of the standards could go into effect next summer and the final phase for appliances built after 1985.

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