BOSTON — If you're shopping for a large appliance, you're probably looking for a good buy on a machine that does the job. Any "extras," such as a water and ice-cube dispenser in the refrigerator door, for instance, mean more money. Other factors are size, performance, noise, appearance, projected lifetime, manufacturer reputation, and repair record.
But what about energy efficiency? The phrase may not put the spin in your buying cycle, but consider this: Appliances account for close to 25 percent of household energy used. And while more-efficient appliances may cost more, energy savings over the years often swallow the difference - and save resources. As utility rates continue to rise, energy efficiency in appliances will save even more. In 1980, the average cost of electricity was 4.97 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh); today it's around 9 cents (it varies, depending on where you live).
By design, washers, dryers, dishwashers, and refrigerators have improved over the years; some models now qualify as "superefficient."
Front-loading washers, dryers with heat sensors, dishwashers with soil sensors, and more-efficient refrigerators are designed to reduce the kilowatt hours and water in the case of washers.
According to the American Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM), when a consumer replaces a 20-year-old appliance with a new model, savings can be significant: more than $50 a year for refrigerators and about $12 for cloths washers. The bugle call to "save the environment" has never been louder, or enough to awaken most consumers. Manufacturers, utility companies, and environmental groups all know that "save" must translate to pocketbooks as well as the planet. At the same time, federal regulations are pushing manufacturers to design more-efficient models. Increasingly, utility companies are offering rebate and promotional programs as added incentives. Enter the "Energy Star" label. It identifies appliances that exceed federal efficiency standards. Larger retail stores as well as local and regional outlets carry Energy Star products.
(Web site: www.energystar.gov) The Energy Star program is a partnership between the US Department of Energy, the US Environmental Protection Agency, product manufacturers and retailers, and local utilities.
In certain regions of New England, for example, homeowners who choose at least three appliances that have the Energy Star label receive $500 as an "incentive."
High-efficiency clothes washers qualify for utility-company rebates in parts of California, Washington, Oregon, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Colorado, and Texas as well. Other states are following suit.
"By offering more and more exposure to the Energy Star label, we hope it will be analogous to the recycle label," explains Ed Wizniewski, product manager for the Consortium for Energy Efficiency, based in Cambridge, Mass.
One of the greatest success stories in energy-efficient evolution has been refrigerator design, says Karen George, research director for E-Source in Boulder, Colo. Federal regulations keep upping the ante. (Because of regulations, all models use hydrofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons, which are less damaging to the ozone than chlorofluorocarbon.)
In the home, refrigerators use the most energy of any appliance. According to Ms. George, in 1972 the average refrigerator of 18 cubic feet used more than 1,600 kWh of electricity a year. In 1998 the average refrigerator of 20 cubic feet uses just over 600 kWh. (The National Appliance Energy Conservation Act - NAECA - sets compliance for new refrigerators at about 700 kWh per year.)
"Everybody has to meet very stringent energy rules set by the Department of Energy, so you can't go out and buy a guzzler," says Carolyn Verweyst, manager of marketing communications for Whirlpool Corp.
While most people shop for price not energy efficiency, she says, consumers should pay attention to the yellow energy guide on appliances. In southern California you may pay twice as much per kilowatt-hour as you do in Michigan, for example. Another success has been in clothes washers.
Front-loading tumble washers, such as the popular Maytag Neptune, are gaining ground. One sign that they save money is that newer laundromats install them. On average, tumble washers use 26 gallons of water per load; top-loaders use 40.
By reducing the amount of hot water used by one-third, tumble washers save on water and electricity (and often detergent.) Do they get clothes clean? Consumers, retailers, and testers say "yes."
With clothes dryers, the efficiency gain has been in moisture sensors that shut off the machine when clothes are dry.
Dishwashers, like clothes washers, use a lot of hot water. In fact, heating water accounts for more than 80 percent of the energy used in dishwashers, according to AHAM. Nowadays, soil sensors help conserve.
Not everyone has the luxury of extra funds up front, notes Mr. Wizniewski, but consumer education helps people realize that by buying energy-efficient appliances, they will be "saving" in the long run. TOP TIPS FOR HOME SAVINGS Going green is good for your house and your pocketbook.
And by using energy efficiently, you conserve natural resources, delay the need for new power plants, reduce emissions of gases that cause air pollution and acid rain, and reduce carbon-dioxide emissions that may contribute to global warming.
Here are some helpful hints for making your home more energy efficient: Washers and Dryers Use cooler water when running your clothes-washing machine. Remember that faster spin speeds in the washer can reduce energy required for drying. Clean your dryer's lint filter after each load. Check exhaust ducts for leaks or blockage, and make sure they're vented outside. Some hardware stores sell a simple kit to vent dryer heat indoors in winter. Don't overdry. It harms clothes and wastes energy. If your dryer has a moisture sensor, use it to turn off the unit automatically when clothes are dry. Refrigerator/Freezer Automatic defrost models use more energy than manual defrost models. Ice-cube makers and through-the-door water dispensers are convenient, but they increase energy use. Side-by-side models use more energy than those with freezer on top. Dishwashers When selecting a dishwasher, compare water-consumption levels - some use as little as 8 gallons of hot water per cycle, others use as much as 12. Look for a dishwasher with a heat booster that will raise the water temperature to 140 degrees, thus enabling you to turn down the thermostat on your water heater. - Caitlin Shannon