November 23, 2014

Energy Star Might Not be Such a Star

Most consumers who are shopping for a new, energy efficient appliance know to look for the Blue EnergyStar label.  The Energy Star label alerts shoppers to supposedly very energy efficient appliances.  Many appliances also have a yellow energy guide label.  That label tells shoppers specifically how much energy they can save by buying that particular appliance. 

Buying an efficient appliance really can help save money by saving energy.  Over the past five years, the nation has saved over $61 billion according to the Web site EnergyStar.gov.  That translates to a reduction of greenhouse gases equal to taking half the country’s vehicles off the roads for one year.

There’s a problem though, according to Business Week, consumer and environmental groups say it’s often too easy for companies to win the right to display the star. According to descriptions from the Department of Energy (DOE), which manages the Energy Star appliance program, the coveted logo should ideally appear on dishwashers, refrigerators, and other appliances that score in the top 25% for energy efficiency in their categories. But in 2007 some 60% of all dishwasher models on the market qualified, the DOE says. The year before, 92% of them hit the mark. “If the DOE gives Energy Star to everyone, eventually it’s worthless,” says David B. Goldstein, a director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

NO INDEPENDENT AUDITS

This past summer the nonprofit Consumers Union complained that some companies were gaming the system. Its testing labs discovered that two refrigerators—one from Samsung and one from LG Electronics—displayed the logos but only measured up if their icemakers were switched off. When the icemakers were on, the machines exceeded the power consumption stated on their Energy Star labels by 65% and by more than 100%, respectively. “Consumers don’t buy a fridge with this sort or feature to leave it off,” says Steven Saltzman, a deputy editor at Consumer Reports. It turned out that when the refrigerator rule was revised in 2001 and 2004, the icemaking feature was rare for this type of model, and there was no requirement to turn it on during the tests. Spokespeople from both LG and Samsung say the companies are in full compliance with DOE standards.

Critics also gripe that there is no independent auditor for appliance testing. The DOE can spot-check products, but it mainly relies on companies to test rivals’ wares and to complain if something looks fishy. Such complaints are rare—and it’s not just consumers who suffer. Federal and state governments require the Energy Star for billions of dollars of purchases each year. Last month, Texas offered a statewide sales-tax-free day for Energy Star goods. If the mark loses credibility, that could weaken official efforts to improve efficiency.

Until this issue is resolved, read those yellow labels carefully, the fact that an appliance carries the Energy Star label no longer seems to mean that it meets the highest standards of efficiency.