UCS's Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices explains that the refrigerator is the worst energy hog in a home, sucking up 1,383 kilowatt hours per year in a typical household. According to the Department of Energy, refrigerators use 14% of a household's electricity. That makes sense since a refrigerator is usually the only large appliance that's constantly in use. Replacing my 60s and 70s-era appliances was already at the top of my to-do list. Aesthetically they just looked bad, and old appliances are significantly less efficient than contemporary ones, according to the Guide and elsewhere.
The Department of Energy's ENERGY STAR web site, a clearinghouse of information on energy efficient appliances, suggests that a fridge more than a decade old should be replaced. Mine was probably older than some of UCS's interns, but it still worked. Aesthetic concerns aside, the fact that the yellowing monstrosity still kept my food cold made me wonder if it made financial sense to replace it.
ENERGY STAR asserts that even an old but functional model is "dramatically" less efficient than new ENERGY STAR fridges. The site estimates that an average fridge built before 1993 costs $50 more to run per year than a new ENERGY STAR model; those in use before 1980 likely cost $150 more in utility costs. My fridge likely fell somewhere in between. With savings like that, a new fridge would easily pay for itself during its operational lifetime.
And if you're planning on buying a new refrigerator anyway, the lower operating costs of energy-efficient models can make up for their larger up-front costs in just a few years. The Kenmore model I purchased was $50 more than a similar model without the ENERGY STAR label. Pepco, the utility that serves DC, charges $.0803 per kilowatt hour. Annually I'll be using 72 kilowatt hours fewer with the ENERGY STAR model versus a conventional one, which will save me just under $6 a year.
ENERGY STAR will help you make the calculations.
Even without these long term savings, however, Washington, DC offers a generous $100 rebate on energy-efficient appliances which made an ENERGY STAR refrigerator cheaper than the alternatives to start with.
Next time, I'll tell you how I picked out a new refrigerator and followed in my colleagues' steps by cashing in on rebates for energy-efficient appliances.