Friday: Energy Star Appliances

Summer is around the corner, and for many of us in the South, that means your home utility bills are going up, up, UP.  As temperatures rise, air conditioning systems work overtime to keep homes cool.  During the summer, more people may be at home during the day and will use more electricity in daylight hours than if they were at school or at work. These things add up in your utility costs and as your appliances are worked harder, they are also more prone to break.  If your appliances break or simply become worn out, there are lots of more energy efficient products out there that you can purchase.  ENERGY STAR is a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy to provide guidance and advice on products to increase energy efficiency in homes and businesses while saving money on energy costs. Buying energy efficient ENERGY STAR appliances, and performing routine maintenance, will not only allow you to do your part to be kinder to the environment by reducing your carbon footprint but also can save you a lot of money in operating costs over the lifetime of the appliance.

Routine Maintenance

According to EPA research, as much as half of the energy used in residential homes is dedicated to heating and coolingPerforming routine maintenance now will help in keeping your existing unit running well and make it run more efficiently.  For instance, dirty air filters slow down air flow and make heating and cooling units work harder to cool your air, which wastes energy.  Check your filter monthly to see if it needs replacing—filters  should be replaced every 3 months at a minimum.  ENERGY STAR provides a maintenance checklist for HVAC (home, ventilation, air conditioning) systems: Maintenance Checklist.

Programmable Thermostat

A great heating and cooling investment is the purchase of a programmable thermostat.  If you’re away from home at set periods of time during the week, you can pre-program your thermostat to have things nice and cool when you get home, but not run your system when you’re not at home.  More info on programmable thermostats can be found here.


There are many options in systems to cool your home.  So if you’re in the market to replace your existing HVAC unit, check out the ENERGY STAR guidance to see what best fits your needs here.

Water Heater

Another big source of energy usage in the home is hot water.  Showers, dishwashers, washing machines and sinks all use it , and EPA estimates that the national average cost of hot water per year per household is $400-$600 dollars. In fact, it’s the second largest household expenditure after heating and cooling.  As you can see from the chart below, over 50% of hot water usage comes from showering and doing laundry:

One way to save on hot water costs is to set your water heater thermostat to 120° F or lower. By doing this, you save energy on heat lost from water heater into the surrounding area and from water demand or use in your home. Lots of people love long, hot showers, but they are a big drain on energy and water use. Try your best to limit your shower to the time it takes to soap up, wash down and rinse off.  Also, the installation of a new 2.5 gallon-per-minute (low-flow) shower head can save energy — up to $145 each year on electricity, according to ENERGY STAR estimates — beating out both the bath and an old-fashioned showerhead on energy savings.

High efficiency water heaters use 10 to 50 percent less energy than standard models, saving homeowners money on their utility bills. If you’re water heater is reaching the end of it’s life, there are many energy efficient options to replace your old unit:

  • Demand (Tankless) Water Heaters Water circulated through a large coil is heated only on demand using gas or electricity; there is no storage tank continuously maintaining hot water. With these systems, there is an endless supply of hot water.
  • Heat Pump Water Heaters – Heat pumps transfer energy from the surrounding air to water in a storage tank. These water heaters are much more efficient than electric resistance water heaters and most effective in warm climates with long cooling seasons.
  • Solar Water Heating While the initial purchase price of solar water heaters is high compared to standard models, they can be cost effective. That is because the sun’s energy is harnessed to reduce operating costs up to 90 percent. Solar water heating systems require a conventional water heater as a backup water heating source to ensure hot water is available when solar energy is not.

Very often, gas or electric companies will offer steep discounts (if not free new water heaters) to homeowners if they are switching from a gas to electric or electric to gas water heaters – check with utility companies for local promotions. Water heaters generally have a useful life of 10-15 years (or more), so do your research to find out which system best fit’s your household’s needs.  Information on ENERGY STAR water heaters can be found here.

Washing Machines

Heating and cooling units, as well as water heaters, are the biggest utility energy-users, but washing machines and refrigerators come next on the list of biggest energy-using appliances.  There are a few practices to take up to make your current washing machine use less energy overall. Save on hot water costs by washing your laundry with cold water whenever possible. Switching to cold water can save the average household more than $40 annually (with an electric water heater) and more than $30 annually (with a gas water heater), according to ENERGY STAR research.   To save water, try to wash full loads, as EPA estimates that washing full loads can save you more than 3,400 gallons of water each year.   If it’s necessary to wash a partial load, reduce the level of water appropriately.

Generally speaking, front-loading machines have often been more efficient as they use less water to complete a cycle and use less electricity overall.  Now, however, there is a huge selection of ENERGY STAR qualified top-loading and front-loading washing machines to choose from.  According to the ENERGY STAR website, a full-sized ENERGY STAR qualified clothes washers uses 14 gallons of water per load, compared to the 27 gallons used by a standard machine, which is 50% less water used per load for a lifetime savings of 43,000 gallons of water. On average, a new ENERGY STAR qualified clothes washer uses 270 kWh of electricity, 30% less energy used than conventional washing machines.  To learn more about energy efficient washing machines, click here.

Incidentally, ENERGY STAR does not label dryers, but choosing a new dryer with a moisture sensor is a way to shut off the machine when clothes are dry, which saves energy over traditional timed settings.  Also, there is nature’s clothes dryer – the sun.  Provided you have no homeowner’s association covenants or city ordinances prohibiting clothes lines, and you have the space, hanging your clothes outside to dry on the line is the most energy efficient way to dry your clothing. Another option is a metal drying rack, especially if space is limited. They come in many sizes and styles, for both outdoor and indoor use.


Refrigerators are another big purchase that can consume a lot of energy.  Some easy ways to improve your current refrigerator’s efficiency is to make sure the seals around the door are airtight and keeping cool air in, keep the fridge temperature set at 35-38° F, and if possible, place your fridge in a cool place away from heat sources like ovens, dishwashers and direct sunlight.  Also, don’t have the refrigerator door open for longer than it takes to remove the beverage or food of your choice – you’re letting all the cold air out!

If your refrigerator has seen better days, there are a few things to keep in mind when shopping for a new one.  Models with top-mounted freezers use 10–25% less energy than bottom-mount or side-by-side models. Larger fridges use more energy, and unless you need a lot of storage, choose more energy efficient 16-20 cubic feet models.  Also features like automatic ice-makers and through-the-door dispensers increase energy use by 14–20%; those models also cost more.  For more information on ENERGY STAR refrigerators, click here.

Choosing the right appliances, and performing routine maintenance, are important ways to make you home more energy efficient.  Buying appliances like HVAC units, water heaters, washing machines and refrigerators are large investments that should last for many years, if not decades.  Remember to do your research to find the best products for your and your family’s needs and budget, because you’ll be living with these products for a while.

For more information and tips on energy efficient appliances, please visit:

The Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy website:

The Energy Star program website: