Manufacturers and energy conservation experts agree that of all kitchen appliances, the refrigerator uses the most energy because it is always on.
But strategies for making the product more energy efficient vary, as companies experiment to find the best solutions. From improved insulation to new compressor technologies, appliance makers continue to introduce new ways to make refrigerators more efficient. And with Energy Star requirements tightening, energy costs rising, and green living taking center stage, pros should expect homeowners to begin demanding those resource-saving features just as much as stainless steel finishes and built-in ice makers.
Green building expert Michael McDonough says the solution is simple: Maximize insulation. "The refrigerator is like a jacket," says the New York City architect. "You want your jacket to be thick to keep the cold out, just like you want your refrigerator walls to be thick to keep the cold in.
"The zipper, cuff, collar, and string tie at the bottom of the jacket are the refrigerator gasket," he says. "You want to keep that as tightly closed as possible."
Manufacturers are vying to invent jackets with the tightest cuffs and collars by improving gasket technology. Trends in this sector include refrigerator doors that seal shut for a period of time and alarms that warn consumers when the door is left open.
The popularity of foam-in-place insulation, in which the walls, ceiling, and floor of refrigerators are filled with liquid expanding foam, also is growing. Tiny air pockets in the foam prevent heat transmission from the outside to the inside of the appliance. "It's like filling a balloon with water ... it coats everything, every crack and crevice," says Andy Sinclair, Whirlpool's Energy Star government relations specialist, who also notes that foam makes the fridge more rigid and sturdy, reducing the use of steel and cutting down on production energy costs.
Paralleling insulation-improvement feats are innovative manufacturing technologies in-volving compressors, defrosting systems, and specific low-energy consuming modes to reduce energy consumption.
Marc Perez, vice president of Liebherr North America, says more manufacturers are incorporating variable-speed compressors, whose functionality he compares to that of a car engine. "You use more energy when you turn your car on and off, and the same goes for your refrigerator compressor," he says. "Variable compressors conserve energy by barely ever going off; they keep running at what would be a very slow revolutions-per-minute rate."
Liebherr, SunFrost, and Sub-Zero offer dual refrigeration system technologies, which give both the refrigerator and the freezer their own compressor. Each compressor only runs enough to keep its specific compartment cool, cutting down on energy consumption and keeping the temperature more constant.
Progressive defrost systems also are emerging. Whirlpool and Sub-Zero employ an adaptive defrost-control system that electronically calculates the amount of time needed in between defrost cycles to conserve energy, instead of running on an automatic time cycle. Bosch models also have sensors that constantly measure interior temperature, to provide consistent cooling and aid in controlling the frequency of the defrost cycle.
SunFrost uses a partial auto defrost system. According to owner Larry Schlussler, there is no air passage between the refrigerator and the freezer, "so when you open the refrigerator door, the warm air that gets in doesn't form into ice around the freezer coils." Ice builds up very slowly, he says, "so we don't use the big 600-watt heater that comes on every day to melt [ice], like in conventional refrigerators." Instead, if consumers turn off the refrigerator for about 20 minutes the small amount of ice will melt.
In addition, some models offer mode settings that adjust energy output for lifestyle changes. Bosch models, for example, include a Sabbath mode, during which the unit uses less energy; an economy mode, which adjusts the temperature for extra efficiency when the fridge has minimal contents; and a vacation mode, which adjusts the temperature and disables water and lighting.
Bosch's Evolution models also offer exterior temperature controls that allow homeowners to make adjustments without opening the door and letting cold air out.
The driving force behind many of these energy-efficient efforts is competitive pressure. All refrigerators sold in the United States must meet the Department of Energy's efficiency standards, but many companies' units meet the more stringent Energy Star qualifications, as their major competitors are achieving the rating. As of April, to acquire an Energy Star logo, refrigerator models must use at least 20 percent less energy than the federal standard, a 5 percentage point increase versus previous requirements.
"Energy Star products continue to become more widely available across a variety of price points and are affordable to most groups," says John Brumleve, an engineer and systems manager for GE Refrigeration. "While there may be a slight price premium on Energy Star products, consumers will more than [make up] that investment in utility cost savings."
Still, while interest in energy efficiency may be increasing, some designers find that it is often not consumers' highest priority. For Suzanne M. Evensen, a certified kitchen and bath designer for Evensen Interiors in Topanga, Calif., "energy efficiency is only a priority for me if it is something my client is very conscious of," she says, "and while some of them have interest, it is not something that many clients prioritize." Evensen says about 10 percent of her clients are green and Energy Star-conscious.
"I can't say I see any trends in terms of requests for energy-efficient refrigerators in my experience," concurs Mark Kresge, a certified kitchen designer in Columbus, Ohio. Kresge thinks consumers "just assume that the refrigerators are eco-friendly because most have become more energy efficient."
While interest in energy-efficient refrigerators grows, consumers do not want to compromise other key factors such as appearance and performance. Here is a look at some other cool trends in the refrigeration market:
• Color: Though stainless steel continues to be a favorite, homeowners are opting for attention-grabbing colors, too, including new bronzes, blues, and greens, to match kitchen themes.
• French door with bottom freezer: A consistent favorite throughout the past few years is now being enhanced with water and ice dispensers, which previously were mainly found only on traditional side-by-side units.
• Built-in models: Most of these models can be customized with panels matching kitchen cabinetry, creating a seamless, modern look.
• Counter-depth: This style offers the look of a built-in refrigerator as it blends in with cabinets and looks more streamlined, without compromising the convenience and flexibility of a freestanding unit.
Thermador. The Freedom collection features the industry's first fully integrated, mounted modular refrigeration columns that can be placed anywhere in the kitchen, according to the maker. The Energy Star-rated units feature an electronic control board that utilizes sensors to keep temperatures consistent and a compressor that runs when needed rather than on a set timed schedule. 800-656-9226. www.thermador.com.
Whirlpool. Gold Fast Fill refrigerators feature a 50 percent larger dispenser area than traditional models, with extendable trays and rotating faucets. Settings for the dispenser include a wide or slow stream for no-splash filling. The measured-fill feature, which presets ounce, cup, and liter measurements, is 95 percent more accurate than traditional dispensers, according to the manufacturer. Some of the units carry the Energy Star rating. 866-698-2538. www.whirlpool.com.
Liebherr. The CS 1350 is an Energy Star-rated 24-inch freestanding unit, complete with a NoFrost freezer, optional ice maker, audible and visual temperature controls, and an alarm to signal when the door has been left ajar. It has a stainless steel finish with side-edge lighting. The manufacturer also eliminates lead, mercury, and cadmium—among other harmful substances—from the production process. 866-543-2437. www.liebherr-appliances.com.
GE. French door bottom-freezer refrigerators employ LED lighting, a setting to quickly restore proper temperature after frequent door openings, and easy-to-reach, easy-to-read temperature controls, according to the maker. The refrigerators use two evaporators to maintain higher humidity for fresh foods. These Energy Star-rated units include humidity-controlled Freshness Center drawers and one full-length adjustable-temperature deli drawer. 800-626-2005. www.geappliances.com.
Maytag. The Ice2O counter-depth refrigerator employs the French-door bottom-mount style with an external ice and water dispenser. The freezer drawer track system allows for up to 120 pounds of frozen food, and the impingement ice system can produce up to 8 pounds of ice in a 24-hour period. 800-688-9900. www.maytag.com.
• Maytag Refrigerator Product Brochure
• Maytag Refrigerators
Frigidaire. The counter-depth side-by-side Professional series employs door-ajar, temperature, and power failure alarms. Models also have backlit control panels with electronic digital displays and PureAir fan-forced air filters with filter change lights. These cabinet-like refrigerators feature smudge-resistant stainless steel doors. In addition, each model has two SpillSafe glass shelves, a clear Fresh Lok meat keeper, and a clear wine rack. 800-374-4432.www.frigidaire.com.
• Frigidaire Refrigerator Brochure
• Frigidaire Refrigerators
Gaggenau. The modular column refrigerator features a glass, aluminum, and stainless steel interior, which helps to prevent bacteria growth and allows for better conduction, maintaining an even temperature, according to the maker. Utilizing sensors within the unit, an electronic control panel with clear LCD display lets the user control temperatures within 1.5 degrees F. The columns, which are Energy Star-rated, are available in 24 and 30 inches, fully integrated into custom cabinetry or with aluminum or stainless steel doors. 877-44-244-3628. www.gaggenau.com.
• Refrigerator Installation Demos
Bosch. Counter-depth Evolution models have sensors in the refrigerator and the freezer that constantly measure the interior temperature and aid in controlling the frequency of the defrost cycle. The Energy Star-qualified units have an exterior temperature control and a covered condenser, which prevents dirt and dust buildup and allows the refrigerator to operate more efficiently, according to the maker. With color-matching sides and hidden hinges, the models offer a built-in look. 800-944-2904. www.boschappliances.com.