Reality check: Do energy-efficient appliances work as well as older models?

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Why your parents' appliances cost more to run than yours do
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A Samsung WiFi-enabled front-loading washer.

If you're shopping for new appliances, you might hear the argument that energy-efficient models don't perform as well as their power-hungry counterparts. Or that you'll have to spend more for maximum efficiency. A new report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and the Appliance Standards Awareness Project refutes both claims, and it does so with a deep analysis of real data, including more than 20 years' worth of findings from Consumer Reports' test labs.

The report, titled "Better Appliances: An Analysis of Performance, Features, and Price as Efficiency Has Improved," looks at how the marketplace has evolved over time as efficiency standards for various appliances and lighting products have taken effect. "Many of us tend to be nostalgic about the past, but what this report shows is that your parents' appliances not only cost more to run, but probably didn't perform as well either," said Andrew deLaski, ASAP executive director, in the news release.

Specifically, the report concludes that performance has stayed the same or improved and consumers have also benefited from the emergence of new features. As for pricing, it's dipped or stayed the same for many products. In cases where prices have gone up, the increases have been outweighed by savings on electricity. Consider these highlights from a few major appliance categories.

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Refrigerators

Performance. Temperature control has improved and noise levels have dropped. Refrigerators have gotten bigger too, even as their energy use has declined sharply. Our current refrigerator Ratings include a pair of recommended French-door bottom-freezers from Kenmore and LG with an industry-leading 33 cubic feet of claimed capacity.
Features. Newer conveniences include extra-tall water dispensers, in-the-door ice makers, theater lighting, and temperature-controlled drawers.
Price. Between 1987 and 2010, real prices decreased by about 35 percent and average energy use went down by more than 50 percent.

Washing machines

Performance. Many high-efficiency front-loading and top-loading models do an excellent job tackling stains and they are also gentler on clothes. While front-loaders were prone to vibration when they first came out, manufacturers have improved the technology, and we now have recommended washing machines in that category with excellent scores for vibration.
Features. Automatic dispensers, touchpad controls, and time-delay options are among the features that have made clothes washers easier to operate.
Price. Between 1987 and 2010, real prices decreased by about 45 percent while average energy use decreased by 75 percent.

Dishwashers

Performance. Dishwashers continue to deliver superb washing as they dial back on energy and water use. While cycle times can creep up when new energy-use requirements take effect, up around the three-hour mark in some cases, there are plenty of top-performers in our dishwasher Ratings that do the job in two hours or less.
Features. Stainless-steel tubs, adjustable racks, and delayed-start settings have become more common, even on low-price models
Price. Between 1987 and 2010, real prices decreased by about 30 percent while average energy use decreased by 50 percent.

The report found that a household with six products—refrigerator, washing machine and dryer, dishwasher, central air conditioner, and toilets—that just meet the current efficiency standards will save $360 on annual utility bills compared to a household with the same products purchased 20 years ago.

—Daniel DiClerico


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