Refrigerators & energy

The real scoop on making your fridge more efficient
By Arnie Katz
Refrigerators & energy

Cleaning your refrigerator’s coils will get rid of unwanted dust, but it won’t save you much on electricity.

Have you heard the one about cleaning your refrigerator's coils every year in order to save on electricity use? The actual research on this shows the real savings to range from very little to non-existent. It certainly won't hurt anything to clean the coils, and it may save a little bit. If you had to pay someone $20 to do it, it's unlikely you'll get that back in energy savings.

Another common suggestion is to check the door gasket with a dollar bill. You close the refrigerator door on a dollar bill and try to pull it out. If it pulls out easily, the gasket isn't sealing well, cold air is leaking out of the fridge, and you're using excess electricity. This is all probably true as far as it goes, and it's common sense that you want the door to seal as well as possible. The problem is with the recommended solution, which is usually to replace the gasket. Depending upon the make and model of your fridge, door gaskets typically range between $50-100, and sometimes considerably more. They are not easy to install and can take a couple of hours. And, again, the research doesn't show significant energy savings from replacing them. If the gasket is seriously damaged, then it needs to be replaced; otherwise, it's not a high priority item.

Refrigerator-costs-graphic

If your fridge is pretty old (pre-1992) then it's using much more electricity than a modern fridge and the saving might be higher. If it's pre-1980, it's using so much more electricity than new ones that you should consider replacing yours, even if the old one's still working. You'll probably save about $200 a year, so the new fridge will pay for itself in a few years.

There are some other things to consider. Do you have an icemaker and/or a cold-water dispenser in the fridge? These can increase energy consumption by a lot. If you can live without them, turn them off.

If you decide to get a new refrigerator, here are a few suggestions:

  • Get one with the Energy Star label.
  • Get the smallest one that will meet your needs.
  • Side-by-side units use the most energy. Top freezer units usually use the least.

To save a few bucks without spending anything:

  • Always use cold water in the ice trays. (No, it's NOT more efficient to use hot water.)
  • If you're chilling water in your fridge, always fill the pitcher with COLD water from the tap.
  • Thaw frozen food in the fridge instead of on the counter, if you have time. The frozen food will help keep the fridge cooler while it's defrosting.
  • Don't put hot food into the fridge.
  • Use a thermometer to check the temperature in the fridge and the freezer. Set the dials so the fridge stays at 40 degrees and the freezer at 0. Keeping them colder than this is a waste of your money.

It's a good idea to periodically clean behind the refrigerator, including carefully cleaning the fan blades and around the compressor. It might save a few dollars worth of electricity, and more importantly, might extend the life of the fridge. But don't lose any sleep over losing lots of money because you haven't cleaned the coils.

About the Author

Arnie Katz is the former building science consultant for Advanced Energy in Raleigh. advancedenergy.org

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