In this Leaf Score series on refrigerators, I ask questions such as, “is an Energy Star refrigerator really energy efficient?” and are there other certifications you can look for instead? When choosing a new refrigerator, however, you don’t want to just rely on green certifications and energy labels. Why? Because even models that look good in terms of energy use can be damaging to the environment in other ways.
By the way, my top overall pick for the best eco-friendly refrigerator is the Liebherr Monolith MRB3000 (View Price on Amazon). This model is very energy-efficient, using just 305 kWh/y, while similar models use up to 447 kWh/yr. Part of the energy saving capabilities of this refrigerator come courtesy of BioFresh, an advanced food preservation system featuring independent climate controls with the use of a divider. You can read my full review here.
Without further ado, here’s what to watch out for when buying a new refrigerator.
For customers in the US, coolant type is a major consideration when buying a new refrigerator. Most of us have heard of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), a type of coolant used for many years in refrigerators and freezers. In the 1970s, concerns arose over the effects of the chlorine in Freon and other CFCs. This chlorine gas breaks down in the upper atmosphere and causes a reaction that destroys ozone molecules, creating a hole in the ozone layer that allows damaging ultraviolet light to get through to the Earth.
By the 1980s, concerns about CFCs and the ozone layer were no longer confined to scientific circles and, in 1992, 86 nations agreed to end the production of CFCs in the industrialized world by 1995. By 2000, the use of CFCs was phased out under the Montreal Protocol, although some countries in the developing world still use CFCs.
Unfortunately, some of the replacements for CFCs, most notably hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), are also powerful greenhouse gases and affect the ozone layer. These are now banned in all domestic refrigerators and freezers in the EU (although they can still be used in commercial refrigeration) but, despite these concerns, HFCs and HCFCs are still widely used in the US.
As companies are aware of the damaging potential of HFCs, they tend not to list these as such on their labels. So, watch out for the following chemicals that are less damaging than CFCs for the ozone, but still have an effect as greenhouse gases:
Some US companies are now resorting to HFC-32 and HFC-152a. These two refrigerants do not deplete the ozone layer and have extremely low global warming potential. They’re still not ideal though, whichis why, in 2016, more than 170 nations signed a global pact to begin phasing out HFCs in 2019 from cooling appliances including refrigerators and air-conditioners.
Another major alternative to CFCs and HFCs is something called Greenfreeze technology which uses a mixture of propane (R290) and isobutane (R60Oa), or isobutane as a pure gas, for the refrigerant, and cyclopentane for blowing the insulation foam. Since 1992, Greenfreeze technology has largely taken over the European market, with the remaining HFC-based refrigerators almost always originating in the US. When buying a new refrigerator or freezer, check what refrigerant is used.
One of the worst features, in terms of energy efficiency, in modern refrigerators is the in-door ice and water dispenser. These are almost standard now for most US models, but they severely compromise the insulation of the appliance and, therefore, the energy efficiency. Keeping a pitcher of filtered water in the refrigerator and occasionally opening the door to refill a glass saves you money both on the initial purchase and the running costs for your refrigerator.
One other big energy suck is the coveted French door design. These side-by-side fridge-freezer models are typically much less efficient in energy usage than a unit with the freezer at the top or bottom. This is because the circulation of cool air is more complicated in side-by-side units. Cool air falls, so top freezer units have the advantage of cooling the freezer air first and then circulating air to the refrigerator. Bottom freezer units with drawers have the advantage of cool air staying put when you open the drawer, which is also why chest freezers are a good choice for energy efficiency. Bottom freezer units are also handy in that they offer easier, eye-level access to the main refrigerator space.
Automatic defrost is another energy-wasting feature in most fridge-freezers. Yes, keeping the inside of the freezer frost-free makes it run more efficiently (and gives you more space to fill with food), but the automatic defrost uses a significant amount of energy than one you manual defrost every month or so.
Some innovations in refrigerator technology are good, of course, including the use of precise temperature control systems. These allow you to set different areas of the refrigerator to different temperatures, which lets you minimize power consumption by avoiding cooling empty shelves or drawers. You can even use these settings to help you rapidly chill foods and help with thawing frozen items.
Some models also feature a powered-down, energy-saving mode that activates if the door is not opened for 24 hours. If you go on vacation for a few days or longer, this can help prevent you running up a big energy bill, even while your food stays cold while you’re gone.
It might sound like something your kids take in first period, but climatic class is not a discussion of what to do about climate change and is, instead, an indication of the minimum and maximum temperature limits within which the refrigerator is able to operate properly. There are four main climatic or climate classes for fridges and freezers:
- SN (Subnormal) suitable for use under ambient temperature range of 10 °C ~ 32 °C (50 °F ~ 90 °F)
- N (Normal) suitable for use under ambient temperature range of 16 °C ~ 32 °C (61 °F ~ 90 °F)
- ST (Subtropical) suitable for use under ambient temperature range of 18 °C ~ 38 °C (64 °F ~ 100 °F)
- T (Tropical) suitable for use under ambient temperature range of 18 °C ~ 43 °C (64 °F ~ 109 °F)
These abbreviations are regulated by international standards (IEC Clauses), so they apply regardless of country of production or brand.
Why does climate class matter? Well, if you buy a refrigerator unsuited to the climate where you live, that appliance will struggle to operate properly, which means greater energy usage and a higher risk of it breaking down prematurely. Excessive condensation can occur inside the refrigerator, and the viscosity of the oil inside the compressor may change, making compressor damage more likely.
Some fridges and freezers are deliberately designed to operate at a wider temperature range, so if you plan on using the appliance outdoors or in a volatile region, climatically, consider:
- N ~ ST suitable to operate under temperatures ranging from 16 °C ~ 38 °C (61 °F ~ 100 °F)
- SN ~ T suitable to operate under temperatures ranging from 10 °C ~ 43 °C (50 °F ~ 109 °F)
Now that you know what to watch out for when buying a new refrigerator, check out this article about questions to ask before buying a new refrigerator.