Is an Energy Star Refrigerator Really Energy-Efficient?

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Written by Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, H.Dip. NT


Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, H.Dip. NT

Sustainability Expert

Leigh Matthews is a sustainability expert and long time vegan. Her work on solar policy has been published in Canada's National Observer.


How important is the Energy Star® rating when choosing a new refrigerator? Let’s dig in and find out.

In the US, residential refrigerators can be certified by Energy Star®, which rates their energy efficiency. On the face of it, the Energy Star program seems to make it much easier to spot an eco-friendly refrigerator that won’t guzzle energy. However, there are some odd little quirks in the application of the Energy Star certification system that mean you might want to do some math and ask, “is this Energy Star Refrigerator really energy efficient?”

See also: Energy efficient refrigerator reviews

And, if you’re in the market for a new refrigerator, there are other green certifications you’ll want to watch out for. 

One of our top picks for energy-efficient refrigerators, scoring five out of five leaves on our Leaf Score rating scale (a feat for such energy-consuming appliances), is Smeg.

What’s wrong with Energy Star?

What we like

  • Overseen by the EPA
  • Major progress in energy efficiency from the macro level

What could be better

  • Classification system rewards some very inefficient refrigerators

Let’s start with the positives. Prior to 2011, Energy Star® products were self-certified by partners. Unsurprisingly, this led to some less than accurate energy labels. As such, the EPA increased their investment in the program and implemented a requirement for third-party certification. The EPA now oversees this third-party certification and manages certified product lists. By gradually decreasing the energy allowances for Energy Star products, the program has helped the industry as a whole to make huge strides in energy efficiency. Nice work, regulation!

This doesn’t mean that the Energy Star program is problem-free, however. That’s because instead of awarding top marks to the refrigerators with the lowest energy use, it divides refrigerators into several categories and awards the best performer in each. As such, it’s perfectly possible to buy an appliance with a top Energy Star rating that is still a huge energy hog, while a much better model remains ineligible for the certification.

How can this happen? Well, the current regulations state that a refrigerator that is 7.75 cubic feet or larger (up to 30 cu ft) that uses 10 percent less energy than the minimum federal efficiency standards can be awarded an Energy Star rating.

For any refrigerator with manual defrost to be awarded an Energy Star rating, it must use 10 percent less than the 193.6W standard plus 6.79 x adjusted volume (AV) in cubic feet. However, the following standards apply for other types of refrigerators:

  • Refrigerator-freezer with automatic defrost with top-mounted freezer without an automatic icemaker, – maximum energy use is 233.7 plus 8.07AV
  • Refrigerator-freezer with automatic defrost with side-mounted freezer without an automatic icemaker – max. energy use is 297.8 plus 8.51AV
  • Refrigerator-freezer with automatic defrost with bottom-mounted freezer with through-the-door ice service – 475.4 plus 9.25AV

Confused? It’s not surprising. Let’s see what this looks like in practice:

Refrigerator 1 – a 15 cu ft manual defrost using 270W per year.

At the time of writing, the energy maximum for this model would be: 193.6W plus 101.85W (the AV allowance) = 295.45W. 

To qualify for Energy Star certification the refrigerator would need to use 10 percent less than this figure, i.e. 265.9W.

Refrigerator 2 – a 15 cu ft with automatic defrost with bottom-mounted freezer with through-the-door ice service using 550W per year.

At the time of writing, the energy maximum for this model would be: 475.4W plus 139 (the AV allowance) = 614.4W.

To qualify for Energy Star certification the refrigerator would need to use 10 percent less than this figure, i.e. 553W.

As you can see, different types of Energy Star certified refrigerators can vary significantly, with the energy allowance in some categories almost double that of others. Rather depressingly, the manual defrost refrigerator above, which uses 270W would not be eligible for the Energy Star seal of approval, while a comparably sized automatic defrost, bottom-mounted freezer with ice dispenser that uses more than twice as much energy (550W) would be eligible. 

If you don’t want to go to all the trouble of figuring out the fairness of the Energy Star awarded to any given model, there is some simpler math that might help. One of the best ways to figure out how good a refrigerator really is, is to divide the kilowatt hours per year (kWhr/yr) figure by the cubic foot capacity of the model. After all, if you end up needing more space, which means you buy a ‘back-up’ freezer or refrigerator or keep an older model running in a hot garage, there’s a net loss for the environment and your annual electricity bill.

Let’s look at an example where, at first glance, the smaller model might look like the most energy-efficient option:

Model 1Model 2
Capacity (Total Volume) (cu ft) 10 Capacity (Total Volume) (ft3) 20
Annual Energy Use (kWh/yr) 360 Annual Energy Use (kWh/yr) 500
kWhr/cu. Ft: 36 kWhr/cu. Ft: 25

As you can see, Model 2 is actually more energy-efficient per cubic foot of space. So, if you suspect you’ll need more space than Model 1 would provide, it’s better to opt for a larger single unit than a smaller unit you’ll end up supplementing at a later date. And, if you’re comparing a side-by-side model with an ice dispenser to a top-freezer model without, chances are that the latter will be significantly better per cubic foot of capacity.

All this to say, when looking for an eco-friendly refrigerator, by all means use the Energy Star ratings as a guide but pay attention to the actual numbers and to the product’s eco-friendliness overall.

Now, let’s look at other green certifications that apply to refrigerators.

Green certifications for refrigerators

In Europe, a variety of certifications exist for refrigerators and freezers. So, when looking for a new kitchen appliance, it can help to check out the eco-credentials of a product in Europe and then see if the same model is available in the States. A few of the labels to look out for include:

  • The European Energy Label
  • European Eco Label
  • Energy Saving Trust Recommended

You can find more information on each of these certifications and why they’re good to see on our certifications page.

Some other things to consider

Energy efficient appliances sometimes come with a rebate or other incentives in addition to keeping your utility costs low and helping the planet’s health.

The more information a manufacturer offers about an appliance, and the longer the warranty available, the more likely it is to be a higher quality product. Beware cheap ranges, stovetops, and ovens with no warranty and no clear product details. 

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