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Unplugged: Should You Trust Energy Star?

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View Jonathan Wiener's blog posts
17 June 2011, 7:35 AM
Things the label doesn't tell you, and what you can do about it

The Energy Star logo is one of the most trusted labels for consumers looking to make environmentally conscious purchasing decisions. But the familiar blue-and-white stickers do not always indicate what consumers think.

Appliances that carry the label are among the most energy efficient in their category. And, generally speaking, consumers can save a lot of energy and money by choosing them over less efficient alternatives. Here are a few reasons why that is not always true.

Testing requirements are weak

Until recently, the program did not test products to verify their compliance with Energy Star standards. Investigators with the Government Accountability Office were able to get Energy Star certifications for a number of bogus and laughably inefficient products, including a gas-powered alarm clock and a space heater with a feather duster and fly strips attached.

A pilot testing program last year revealed that one in six Energy Star-certified appliances fell short of the applicable standard. Proposed testing programs to both certify and verify compliance will help, but the Department of Energy will only be able to test a handful of products; third parties will be responsible for the bulk. More importantly, the proposals only require companies to get close to the standard (within about 5 percent), not to actually meet it.

Labels are out of date

Energy Star appliance standards are periodically upgraded to reflect changes in the marketplace. In the past, this has happened too slowly. At one point, 92 percent of all dishwashers on the market qualified for the label. 

But even when standards do change, labels can remain on products that no longer qualify. When washing machine standards were upgraded on Jan. 1 of this year, few retailers removed Energy Star labels from models on the showroom floor or even the warehouse. The problem is worse online, where listings can carry Energy Star labels for years after a product no longer qualifies. 

Gains vary

Energy Star is supposed to mark the most efficient 25 percent of products on the market. But the label doesn’t tell you how much energy you’re saving by buying one of those products. Washing machines have to be 37 percent more efficient than the least efficient model to earn an Energy Star certification. But in the case of dishwashers, freezers and room air conditioners, an Energy Star model only has to be 10 percent more efficient than the least efficient model. 

Products are graded on a curve

In many cases, the Energy Star label is only comparing the product in question to a narrow slice of similar products. There are separate standards for seven different types of room air conditioners. Compact refrigerators alone are split into five different categories, each of which has a standard that varies with the size of the product. 

This can hide the energy demands of certain features within the category. For example, take this Energy-Star–certified refrigerator. According to its Energy Guide label, this product uses an estimated 532 KWH per year. That’s efficient compared to other models of this size with through-the-door ice dispensers and bottom-mounted freezers. But it’s worse than every other similarly sized refrigerator with a top-freezer and no through-the-door ice dispenser. 


While Earthjustice continues to advocate for better verification testing and improved labeling policies, there are some simple steps you can take to make sure the products you’re buying will actually save you energy.

Double-check a product’s certification

Check the Energy Star website’s lists of currently certified models to see if the product you’re considering still qualifies for the program. If you see a product in a store or online carrying the label without qualifying for it, let us know. 

Focus on absolute numbers

Look for a product's estimated cost and energy consumption figures on its Energy Guide label. These yellow stickers are on most common household products that qualify for Energy Star, including refrigerators, room air conditioners, dishwashers, washing machines, water heaters and televisions. The comparison scales on these labels suffer from some of the same problems as Energy Star, often comparing products within narrow categories and underestimating the efficiency of competing models. But consumers can still look at the absolute figures to compare products from different categories and assess the potential gains to be had from buying an Energy Star model.


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