Energy-Efficient Appliances Gain Favor
By Dave Carpenter
11:36 a.m. August 20, 2008
CHICAGO Fast-rising utility bills have helped homeowners embrace something many previously acted only lukewarm about: energy efficiency.
When it comes to home appliances, consumers have learned they can do the right thing environmentally and save money at the same time.
Perhaps no household appliance offers more potential for savings than a washing machine. Homeowners thinking about ways to make their homes more energy-efficient may want to look into replacing their washer especially if it dates to before federal standards were established in 1994.
Rob Moore of Albany, N.Y., and his wife are motivated to both save money and the environment as they prepare to buy a front-loading washer that uses much less energy than a traditional or top-loading one.
The environmental concerns are definitely big in our household, said the 39-year-old Moore; he works for Environmental Advocates of New York and his wife Stephanie also works for an environmental group. But long-term it's also a pocketbook decision.
I think homeowners increasingly recognize that it's in their best interest to have energy-efficient products, he said.
While consumers have warmed to energy efficiency only gradually, the trend is increasingly evident with household appliances. Overall U.S. sales by appliance manufacturers fell to $23.4 billion last year and continue to slump as fewer homes are built in a tight economy, but energy-efficient models account for a growing share.
In a reflection of increased consumer demand as well as manufacturers' innovations, 55 percent of the major appliances shipped to stores and distributors in the first half of 2008 carried the government's Energy Star rating for high energy efficiency up from just under 50 percent a year earlier, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers.
Manufacturers don't break out sales of Energy Star appliances separately, but they total in the billions. Sales of washing machines alone accounted for $3.6 billion in 2007, and much of that was in front-loading washers.
Demand for front-loaders at Abt Electronics, a major retailer in Glenview, Ill., is up about 60 percent this year, according to general manager Marc Cook.
People come in and their first question is, 'Should I switch to a front-loader?' said Cook. They like the technology, and when you sweeten it by saying they'll be using less water and energy then it closes the deal in their mind.
Front-loaders and advanced top-loaders typically use only one-third the water of a conventional top-loader, using sophisticated wash systems to flip or spin clothes through a reduced amount of water while also dramatically decreasing the amount of hot water used.
In addition, enhanced motors spin clothes two to three times faster during the spin cycle to extract more water, reducing moisture in clothes and resulting in less time and energy in the dryer.
What energy-conscious buyers need to know most is to look for the yellow Energy Star label, which means a product is among approximately the top 25 percent of all product models in energy efficiency.
Energy Star is a 16-year-old joint program of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through energy efficiency. It provides labels for qualifying products in more than 50 categories from televisions to light bulbs to furnaces to clothes washers.
The label guarantees three things, according to program spokeswoman Maria Vargas: That the product is more energy-efficient than a conventional product delivering the same or better performance using less energy; that it's a cost-effective purchase that will pay for itself in five years or less; and that there's no sacrifice in performance.
Shoppers should also check products' EnergyGuide labels required by the Federal Trade Commission. The labels provide an estimate of the product's energy consumption and show comparisons with similar models.
An Energy Star-qualified clothes washer uses 15 to 25 gallons of water per load compared with 30 to 35 gallons by a standard machine, saving more than 7,000 gallons of water a year. Combined with lower electricity costs, the government says the machine can save the user $550 in operating costs over its lifetime compared to a regular clothes washer.
That can be welcome relief from increasingly burdensome household energy costs.
The average U.S. household will spend about $2,350 this year on energy costs, up from $2,100 in 2007, according to the Alliance to Save Energy, an energy information clearinghouse in Washington, D.C. Roughly a quarter of that is from appliances.
Of course, the added efficiency comes at a cost. Front-loaders can run $400 to $500 more than regular washers, with good-quality machines running $1,000 or more.
That's because of not only the increased energy and water efficiency but other innovations such as remote monitoring, use of steam for wrinkle reduction, reduced noise and vibration and bigger washing capacity.
People want larger capacity but they also want energy efficiency, said Paul Dougherty, manager of a Grand Appliance chain store in Zion, Ill. Two years ago they weren't asking about that too often.
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