December 19, 2014

Save Energy and Save Money or Not?

Energy costs are going up and we’re surrounded by warnings of global warming.  What’s a conscien-tious consumer to do?  Buy an energy efficient appliance of course.

From washing machines that use steam instead of hot water, to refrigerators that use low-energy compressors, to low-power computer screens, electronics companies are furiously developing energy-efficient products and heavily promoting lines already on the market that use less electricity than competitors’ brands.

Homemakers are increasingly buying front-load washing machines, which use gravity to move water instead of agitators as in top loaders.

And now, new washers from LG Electronics and Whirlpool offer an option to use steam instead of hot water, cutting water and power use by more than 70 percent compared with some top-load models.

LG expects 4 out of 10 front-load washers it sells in North America to use steam technology by the end of this year, compared with 2 out of 10  currently.

Their biggest appliance plant in South Korea makes mostly front loaders, while recently built plants like one in Russia have stopped manufacturing top loaders altogether.

Among refrigerators, which consume 30 percent of overall power in a typical home, traditional compressors are giving way to linear compressors that use up to 40 percent less power and make less noise.

In the computing industry, power-saving has long been a key priority as bigger and hungrier gadgets challenge battery life.  PC makers from Apple to the Lenovo Group are replacing screens lit by conventional cold cathode fluorescent lamps with light emitting diode (LED) displays.  “LED saves up to 40 percent of the power used in traditional backlights,” said Jeff Kim, an analyst at Hyundai Securities. “Next year they will be commonly found in notebook screens, and will be increasingly used in TV panels from 2010.”

But too often, these energy-efficient products carry a hefty price premium to reflect the cost of developing new technologies, which in turn hampers faster adoption.  For instance, Whirlpool’s washing machines with steam are sold at $1,300 to $1,500, compared with a traditional machine priced at $700.  Still, makers argue that the lifetime savings from green products could amount to the price of the appliance itself.

Sometimes a little incentive helps.

The Japanese electronics retailer Bic Camera is running a campaign in which buyers of eco-friendly products get extra credit points that can be used for future purchases. “That’s a little nudge to help people buy products that are more efficient, even if they are slightly more expensive,” said Naoko Ito, a Bic Camera spokeswoman. “Consumer interest is high.”

How to Pick an Energy Efficient Appliance

If you are confused by the different claims of energy efficiency by appliance manufacturers, JamesDulley of the Detroit Free Press has some helpful advice.

Depending upon the type of product and the fuel it uses, efficiency ratings can mean different things. Also, some manufacturers and/or salespeople play fast and loose with the accuracy of efficiency claims.

A basic definition of efficiency for any energy-consuming product is the amount of usable energy (heat, light, sound, etc.) output divided by the energy input. The energy input is usually an electric plug in the wall or a gas or propane line coming into your house. Electricity input is usually measured as wattage and gas or propane input as Btuh (Btu per hour).

Most plug-in electric heating devices and heaters, from the cheapest to the heavily advertised ones for $400, are nearly 100% efficient. All of the electricity consumed ends up as heat inside your house. The actual differences in operating costs depend upon how you use one and if the design is the proper one for your needs.

Always read efficiency claims thoroughly when comparing products. For example, some lower-quality gas space heaters may claim a very high 90% combustion efficiency. Combustion efficiency refers to how efficient the gas burns, not how efficiently the heat is transferred into your house. Its actual heating efficiency may be only 70%.

For electrical appliances, such as window air conditioners, you can calculate the efficiency by dividing the Btuh cooling output by the electric wattage shown on the nameplate.

For other major appliances, such as washers and refrigerators, rely on the yellow energy label. Your usage habits often have more impact on the overall efficiency than the appliance design itself.

For central heating and cooling equipment, the manufacturer’s efficiency ratings should be accurate.

They are AFUE (annual fuel utilization efficiency for furnaces), SEER (seasonal energy efficiency ratio for air conditioners) and HSPF (heating seasonal performance factor for heat pumps).