Refrigerator tips for saving energy -- and money

Refrigerators are among the biggest energy guzzlers in the average household, after heating and cooling systems and hot water heaters. You can't unplug your fridge to save electricity unless you want to spoil everything inside, so you need to seek out other methods to keep your bills down.

The first step is to purchase the most energy-efficient appliance you can. Thanks to better technology and escalating federal standards, refrigerators continue to increase in efficiency and modern versions can save you hundreds of dollars per year. Refrigerators that are a decade old can cost $100 per year in electricity, and older models even more than that. By comparison, the most efficient new models use as little as $40 per year in energy.

When shopping for your new fridge:

  • Look for the Energy Star label, which certifies models that exceed federal efficiency requirements. New Energy Star fridges are 40 percent more efficient than machines sold as recently as 2001, let alone older models that were on the market decades ago.
  • Buy the smallest model that still meets your food storage requirements. However, it's better to have one large fridge than two smaller ones unless you only need the extra space during part of the year and can unplug the second machine the rest of the time.

How do I maximize the efficiency of the fridge I have?

  • Watch the temperature. U.S. Department of Energy recommendations call for temperatures of 35 to 38 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Make sure the seals on the doors are airtight.
  • Don't overfill the fridge, which can hinder air circulation and result in uneven temperatures.
  • Pay attention to your food. Let things cool down before putting them in the fridge so they don't raise the temperature inside. Cover or seal all items as well, not just to preserve the food but so moisture doesn't stress your compressor.
  • Don't leave the door open for any length of time, allowing cold air to come billowing out and forcing the appliance to start its cooling cycle.
  • Don't put your refrigerator next to a heater, stove, dishwasher or other heat-radiating appliance if you can help it. Even a sunny window can make your fridge work harder to keep your food cool.
  • Use a brush or vacuum to keep the coils behind the fridge clean and in peak working condition. 

What about the freezer?

  • Keep the freezer between 0 and 5 degrees.
  • If your freezer isn't self-defrosting, make sure to defrost it periodically before too much ice can build up.
  • Pack your freezer full for maximum efficiency. If you don't have enough food to fill it, throw in some water bottles to take up space.
  • If you need a stand-alone freezer, consider a chest-style model that opens from the top, not the front. Chest freezers take advantage of simple physics to capture big energy savings: because cold air sinks, top-opening models retain most of their coolness even while you rummage around inside.
  • Stay away from ice makers, especially models that dispense ice through the door (which requires extra energy).

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