Nothing will make the average consumer crazier than shopping for major home appliances such as furnaces, air conditioners, dish washers, and refrigerators. You are bound to spend a lot of money, and it’s almost impossible to get truly accurate information about an appliance once you are already in the store. Moreover, if you are looking for a “green” appliance, you’ll have to wade through a bevy of green certifications and ratings provided by manufacturers determined to greenwash their products for consumers.
How can you tell what sticker to believe? Here are some a few factors to keep in mind when you purchase that new, and hopefully “green”, device:
- Arrange for your old appliance to be recycled. Home appliances are typically made out of metal and plastic. These materials, of course, can be recycled. So if you want to be a green consumer, the first step is to make sure that your old appliances are recycled, and not simply dropped in a landfill. When the appliance you are replacing is a very large one, such as a refrigerator or a furnace, you can usually arrange for your local waste collection service to pick it up (there may be a fee). Though the appliance may be delivered to a landfill, that doesn’t mean it will end up there, as many landfills stockpile large appliances until they have enough to sell to a scrap metal processor, where they can be recycled. But as a green label savvy consumer, you will want to check with your local landfill to verify its practices. You may want to ask your landfill operator how much of a particular kind of appliance is likely to be recycled - talking to landfill operators can be an eye-opening experience. I talked to one once, for example, who told me that at his landfill, steel is reclaimed and recycled but plastic parts are tossed back into the
landfill. The recycling process varies from landfill to landfill, so do your homework.
- A new appliance is a new appliance is a new appliance. There just isn’t any way around that fact. My point is, the new “green” appliances didn’t just arrive in your local home improvement store as a gift from the home appliance fairy. To the extent that the product you are considering buying is made out of steel, chances are good that it does contain some recycled materials, because steel is a commonly recycled metal. However, bear in mind that recycling itself is a
process that uses resources. Even if you manage to find an appliance that is entirely made of recycled materials, does that make it “green”? All industry uses resources - so consider how old your current appliances are and how much you will be able to reduce your carbon footprint by upgrading to a more energy efficient appliance. Is it really worth it, or could you get by with your current appliances a little while longer?
- Know your certifications. When you start the process of doing your homework on this issue, you’ll find that there are more “green” certifications out there than you can shake a stick at - you’ll find LEED, SEER, AHUE, Energy Star, Green Chill, and more. Here’s a quick cheat sheet:
- LEED - Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEED certifications are used for home building supplies, and are more reliable than many other certification systems, because they are independently verified by third parties.
- SEER - Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio. SEER ratings are used for air conditioners. All central air conditioners sold in the United States are required to be rated as at least SEER 13. But there are air conditioners on the market that have SEER ratings as high as 18, these days.
- AFUE - Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency. AFUE ratings apply to furnaces and boilers. AFUE ratings are marked as a percentage. For example, a 90 percent AFUE rating means that 90 percent of the fuel you use will be turned into heat for your home - the other ten percent is wasted.
- Energy Star - a program established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to certify appliances that are more energy-efficient than average. Ah, the EPA. They’re from the government, and they’re here to help. But more about that below.
- Green Chill - an EPA program for refrigerators. Now that the EPA has perfected the Energy Star program, they’ve started a new program to reduce the emissions that come from the chemicals used as refrigerants in refrigerators, to reduce the impact of these emissions on Earth’s ozone layer.
- Don’t assume Energy Star sticker statistics are accurate. According to a Government Accountability Office study that came out last year, the Energy Star certification process is subject to a certain amount of fraud and abuse. GAO did a sting operation in which it submitted 15 fake products to Energy Star, including a gas-powered alarm clock, and got them certified. In addition, Consumer Reports has done its own investigation of Energy Star certified appliances, and reports that many Energy Star rated products use much more energy than their labels say that they do. Deputy home editor Celia Kuperszmid-Lehrman told NPR last year that the government doesn’t independently test appliances that are being considered for Energy Star certification, but instead relies on data provided by the manufacturer. Even in cases in which Energy Star required a product to be tested by a third party, the data on the sticker may still not be up-to-date or may not match your particular circumstances. You’ll want to check consumer reviews to find out how an appliance is performing in your area and for people who use that appliance in about the same way you do - to heat or cool the same size house, for example.
- Appliances need regular maintenance to work as advertised. One of the reasons that consumers get such different results from the same appliance, some of the time, is that different consumers maintain their appliances differently. When it comes to heating and cooling, for example, you’ll get better efficiency from your air conditioner or furnace by cleaning and maintaining your units seasonally (or more often if needed) and by keeping a relatively air-tight house, with a well-insulated duct system. Some of the difference, though, is out of your hands - it depends on what part of the country you live in, what the climate is like, and whether or not your home is sheltered (by trees, for example) or is sitting out in the open.
When you start to delve into the world of green certifications for home appliances, you’ll see that what I’ve told you here is only the tip of the iceberg. Not all new appliances are as green as their marketing materials make them out to be - and not all old appliances are as bad for the environment as the makers of new appliances would like you to believe. The best advice is to research and do your homework to find out which appliance is for you. George Rollins is a home enthusiast at FurnaceCompare.com, a site that not only has extensive information on furnaces, boilers and air conditioners, but also includes consumer reviews and tips on choosing HVAC contractors. George has a passion for educating consumers on home renovation and improvements, as he feels that the right information helps consumer choose more wisely.