smart spending

Do energy-efficient appliances add up?

Highlights
  • Buyers of energy-efficient appliances can get rebates up to $100.
  • Experts suggest a cost-benefit analysis before buying.
  • It sometimes can take years of savings to recoup the original cost.

Energy efficient appliances are in the spotlight these days, thanks to a $300 million rebate program from the Department of Energy. But do they really make financial sense?

Similar to the federal Cash for Clunkers program, the rebates are designed to help reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gases by replacing energy-guzzling home appliances with newer, more efficient models. The programs vary by state and rebates can provide up to $100 per appliance to go toward Energy Star-rated dishwashers, refrigerators, washers and dryers.

But, experts say, consumers should weigh the cost and benefits of new appliances carefully before making a purchase. You may save some money by replacing your 22-year-old refrigerator, but junking a 7-year-old working dishwasher may not save you enough to make the purchase worthwhile.

The average U.S. household spends approximately $2,200 per year on energy -- nearly half of which goes to heating and cooling, according to Energy Star and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Of the rest, about 14 percent goes to heating water, 12 percent to lighting and only 13 percent for appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines, dryers and dishwashers.

"It seems like a quick easy fix to feel better about energy efficiency, but you're not going to be able to demonstrate significant energy savings on a new dishwasher because that's such a small portion (of your energy usage)," says Corbett Lunsford, technical director of the Chicago-based Green Dream Group, which specializes in home energy audits and green building certification.

Lunsford says he typically stays clear of appliances in home audits since they don't always produce the best results in improving efficiency. Many homeowners jump on new, efficient appliances because they're easy to buy and look nice. But insulating attics and crawlspaces and replacing ductwork bring more dramatic savings even though they can be dirty and troublesome, he says.

But Pascale Maslin, founder and owner of Energy Efficiency Experts, says that while it is sometimes hard to measure and accurately quantify energy savings on appliances, replacing 20-year-old units can make a difference. Today's refrigerators are at least 70 percent more efficient than those made 20 years ago, he says. And although a refrigerator usually accounts for only 5 percent of a home's energy consumption, some homeowners could be spending twice as much as they should be by using an older model.

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"Just like a car, as they get old they don't run as well or they have to work harder to keep cool. I've seen cases where refrigerators were costing close to $70 per month," says Maslin.

Even Energy Star spokeswoman Maria Vargas says homeowners shouldn't be so quick to replace just any appliance. The rating system is designed to help consumers make more educated purchasing decisions, but Vargas says they should still put more focus on the heating and cooling of their home.

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