Millions of consumers each year look for the big yellow label on consumer appliances to check an appliance’s energy consumption and whether it meets Energy Star standards for energy efficiency. That’s why it’s troubling to ask whether the Energy Star label itself is still relevant or meaningful. Yet that was precisely the unasked question behind the comments left by a reader in a recent EcoVillageGreen article.
The reader was annoyed that he had bought an LG refrigerator that supposedly met Energy Star standards, but when he did more research he discovered that the fridge actually consumed more than double the listed energy when used normally, a gross violation of Energy Star. How could this be? He had relied on the Energy Star label but nevertheless failed to save energy or lower his carbon footprint. He was understandably furious.
I started to dig, and came across this October 2008 article from Consumer Reports (CR), which took a close look at Energy Star. It cited the same example of an LG refrigerator found to consume twice as much energy as listed. According to CR, this was because LG followed an Energy Star testing rule that allowed it to turn off the ice maker, which in the LG model also turned off power to the ice compartment. The resulting lower energy use allowed it to comply with Energy Star. But CR rightfully questioned whether this is a realistic scenario for a purchaser of the refrigerator (clearly it is not.)
CR concluded that the program does save energy, but its standards are antiquated and full of flaws. In particular:
- there is no objective third party used to certify appliances as Energy Star compliant. Instead, companies are left to test their own products and label them as compliant. That’s kind of like leaving the fox in charge of the henhouse.
- Testing rules are out of date, and it can take the Department of Energy (DOE) up to three years to pass new rules for the Energy Star program.
- Testing standards are lax. CR found, for example, that 92% of dishwashers qualified until a recent rule change.
DOE ended up stripping the Energy Star label from the offending LG refrigerators, but its government partner EPA took issue with CR’s findings about Energy Star. In regards to how products are tested, it said:
The ENERGY STAR program includes a comprehensive set of activities to maintain the integrity of the label. Activities include testing of the performance of products where warranted, spot checking products pulled from the marketplace and coordination with a number of product testing certification programs. When issues are identified, they are addressed.
My view? Nice try, but wrong approach. If you’re promoting a government-sponsored label that millions of people are supposed to use in their purchasing decisions, it’s not enough to “spot check” products “when warranted” and “address issues as they’re identified.” Who identifies and spot checks? What is considered “warranted?” If it weren’t for CR’s sleuthing, the LG problem may have never been discovered. That’s unacceptable for such an important label.
There needs to be independent third party testing of all appliances, using strict and up-to-date rules without loopholes. Anything less is a disservice to the consumer who’s trying to do the right thing by saving energy and lowering their carbon emissions.
Where does this leave us? Is Energy Star still relevant? Despite the current problems with the label, the answer is an unqualified YES. Even if people save only half as much energy as advertised by Energy Star that is still a tremendous amount of savings.
We can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Testing is taking place, even if it’s flawed. New rules are being applied, even if they’re slow in the making (for example, the 92% of refrigerators meeting the standards dropped to 50% when new rules were adopted).
Unfortunately, this all means is that we can’t just rely on the Energy Star label; we have to do more research ourselves. Consumer Reports can help. I’m a huge fan of CR–while they charge for viewing their ratings online, it’s well worth the nominal fee if you’re about to invest in expensive appliances. Their testing is rigorous and documented. If an appliance is an energy hog, they’ll know it and report it.
Energy Star is incredibly important to our nation’s goals of increasing energy efficiency and reducing global warming. Hopefully the good folks over at Consumer Reports and other independent testers will continue to keep the heat on DOE and EPA to improve the program. Meanwhile, we should continue to look for the label, while keeping our eyes wide open before we purchase.