Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Cooling Things Down

or, Purchasing an Extremely Energy Efficient Refrigerator
...and reducing our electric bill by almost 40% overnight.

A Purloined Letter from the Raven

Since my partner David and I moved into our house a dozen years ago, we've been thinking about the day when we would have to replace the 1970 refrigerator. As the years passed, the old white Kenmore continued to work perfectly--but it was incredibly inefficient, using about 1800 kilowatts per year.

Because the refrigerator was relatively small and surrounded by cabinets, our choices were quite limited. Unless we wanted to redo that entire half of our tiny kitchen, we would need to stick with a super-small model. When we first started looking at our options, their were no Energy Star models made by the major companies that could fit into the spot. Despite this fact that they were not Energy Star, the energy use of these small refrigerators was still less than the large Energy Star fridges with ice-makers.

We waited for a few years. The next time we looked, we found that Energy Stars in the size we needed were being manufactured by several mainstream companies. But all the refrigerators that fit in the spot were actually significantly smaller than our original 1970 fridge--and we now have a 10yo son sharing that fridge with us. Stepping down in size did not seem like an especially easy transition.

We made a commitment this year to consider how we could reach the Hanukkah Standard (1/8th the typical American consumption of energy). We're pretty frugal with our electricity: no desktop computer, no televisions or game systems, no air conditioner, no always-plugged-in coffee maker, no hair dryer, etc. But we were still a long way from our goal. We realized the only way we could get anywhere close to 1/8th of the American standard was by finally unplugging the inefficient little hog sitting in our kitchen. Our refrigerator alone accounted for more than 40% of our household energy usage.

We almost bought a new one at the local big-box store. But before we signed on the dotted line, we decided to look a little further at an option we had dreamed about years before: ordering a Sun Frost refrigerator.

Sun Frosts are unbelievably more efficient than standard refrigerators. When choosing between a Energy Star store model and a Sun Frost of roughly the same size, there is often an 80% reduction in energy use!

While Sun Frosts are more efficient, they are also quite a bit more expensive. If you live off the grid with a solar photovoltaic system, purchasing a Sun Frost might actually save you money by allowing you to get by with a smaller solar system. But if your house is "on the grid" as ours is, Sun Frosts are really not a decision to make if all you're after is savings on your electric bill. It will take you forever to make up the cost.

But were we really doing this just to lower our bills?

When we realized that we weren't hesitating about the idea of spending the extra money on a hybrid car when we have to replace our family car (a great 12yo red Honda Civic hatchback), we began to see that investing in a super-efficient refrigerator is not that different. And reducing our fridge's use of electricity might give us the ability to plug in our car some day and still only use our fair share. (We purchase wind energy from our electric company, but there is not enough renewable energy produced in this country for all of us to rely on it if we don't make substantial conservation efforts as well.)

And there was only one way we could figure out for us to keep the same size refrigerator without having to redo the kitchen:

Get a Sun Frost refrigerator without a freezer. Sunfrost sells a small unit fridge-only model which is usually installed over a base with a couple of drawers or over an existing cabinet. This model is even more efficient than their regular refrigerator-freezer units.

I should fess up and tell you we do have a relatively small chest freezer in our basement. Our old fridge was so small that we only had enough space to make ice and freeze a few leftovers--not put away anything from our garden, our wonderful CSA (which we share in common with follow GPB guest Truffula, the farmer's market, or our local Amish meat-and-dairy supplier.  But a decision to get a freezer-less fridge would mean we would have to run down to the basement for ice any time we wanted a cube. Could we do this?

We bit the bullet.

The refrigerator arrived--shipped in a box with no plastic tape or wrapping, no styrofoam, and and remarkably little packaging--from a small company in northern California where they assemble each refrigerator to order. It made a very long trip across the country to us. The nice man from the delivery company wheeled the little box into our living room. David and I, neither of us especially strong, easily positioned the refrigerator ourselves.

It took us a few days to adjust to the boxier style of the Sun Frost--and especially to the fact that the front is not magnetic! (Oh, even now I miss the clutter of our old fridge, covered with everything from our son's artwork to grocery lists to magnetic poetry.) But I immediately loved the quality of the glass shelves (rather than the cheap plastic of the store models from the mainstream companies). And we love that even totally unwrapped vegetables seem to last for weeks because the humidity in the refrigerator is higher. And it is so quiet! Our old fridge kept up a might hum, a background noise which exacerbated my hearing difficulties. And when the old unit cycled on and off, the lights flickered in our 1930s house. Now, everything is quiet and stable.

What we love even more is that this model uses only about 62 kilowatts per year. That is a 97% electricity savings over our old Kenmore. (Nothing against Kenmore. Its numbers were almost identical to other refrigerators of its vintage.)

Some of us have trouble thinking about spending a lot of money, even when we're know we're not scraping the bottom of the barrel. Being frugal often leads to being green, as the brilliant Conscious Shopper shows. Simply NOT buying is usually the greenest thing to do. There are times when we have to make purchases, though, and being conscious about that shopping is important.

When we started making the commitment to be "conscious" and green (now many years ago), I had been living on a graduate student wage for a long time. I found it hard to shell out the extra dollars for organic and fair trade. I still struggle with big-ticket items, even though we're out of grad school and lucky enough to be doing fine financially.

I think often of Diane at the Big Green Purse, a fellow resident of my little activist community right outside of Washington, DC. She has called upon us all to try to shift $1000 or more of our spending to purchases of things that are the greenest available. People do it in all sorts of ways, with small steps and large. For those of us with very little expendable cash, looking for a way to purchase organic dried beans and rice may be all we can do right now. For those of us with more, we need to make the steps we can.

Thanks to all of you who keep me company on this journey!


Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

Just to add to your final thoughts - I've found that being frugal in some areas allows me to spend more in other areas. My grocery bill is pretty high compared to a lot of my friends, but I can afford it because I don't spend a lot on clothes or other extras. It's definitely about figuring out whay your values are and where you want your money to go.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Diane said...

Thanks for the shout-out about our One in a Million challenge. In fact, I'm sure your refrigerator purchase more than qualifies you as a One in a Million member! Is there anything else you want to add to your balance sheet? Send me your picture and I'll profile you on Big Green Purse.

Shona~ LALA dex press said...

We have a small refrigerator (2 people + a dog) that I'll replace in when it dies. Ouch, looked up the cost of a Sun Frost, which is about the same as the fence + our new front door we are buying with our tax refunds. I think we'll just go with a a small energy star model when the time comes. Right now we are on the hunt for an 18" dishwasher on Craigslist.
Found your blog through One Green Generation + then found The Conscious Shopper through your post.

Condo Blues said...

I think I could handle using a chest freezer for ice. The only time I generally use ice is as a treat for the dog on hot summer days. That's why all of my ice cube trays are half full with water = small dog.

I have a newer but one notch under Energy Star rated refrigerator. It came new with house so it stays. To keep it running efficiently I check the door seals, keep it full, and vacuum the coils during my spring cleaning.

You can easily make a magnetic board for your new fridge by hanging a piece of flashing or decorating & hanging a metal cookie sheet on the door. Kid art needs to be displayed on the fridge! :)

Elizabeth | The Natural Capital said...

Wow, what a dramatic change! As a 2adult household we went with the small Energy-Star refrigerator route and it more than serves our needs outside of major feast-related holidays. But we were tempted by the Sun Frost. Very cool!

Julia said...

Wow, that is a huge difference! Thanks for all the great info, I'm filling this away for when we need a new one!


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