Updated on 01.14.12

Look for the EnergyStar Logo (13/365)

Trent Hamm

When you’re trying to determine which product to buy, one valuable calculation to make is the total cost of ownership of the item.

For example, if you’re buying a washing machine, it’s worthwhile to also include in the calculation the total cost of the energy you’ll use during the lifespan of the washing machine (as well as the water used).

Look for the EnergyStar Logo (13/365)

Why is this important? Let’s say you’re going to buy a washing machine. You’re going to do about 7 loads of laundry a week, taking half an hour a load, and you anticipate using the machine for ten years. This is a pretty reasonable washing machine assumption for a family

You look at washers and see that one uses about 0.1 kWh of electricity (and thus sports an EnergyStar logo), while another uses 0.45 kWh of electricity. This seems like a small difference, but it really adds up.

Let’s say that electricity averages $0.15 per kWh nationwide.

So, how much are you going to use your washing machine? With the numbers quoted above, you’re going to use that machine for 1,820 hours over its lifetime.

The more energy efficient machine uses 182 kWh of electricity over its lifetime, costing you $27.50 in electricity. The less efficient machine uses 819 kWh of electricity, costing you $122.85.

There’s a nearly $100 difference in the total cost of ownership of these two washers. What’s amazing is that this is a relatively undramatic example.

For instance, if you compare a baseline water heater to an energy-efficient one, you’ll see savings easily approaching $300 in efficiency over the lifetime of an electric water heater and a savings of $500 over the lifetime of a gas water heater.

The challenge here, of course, is finding all of the numbers you’ll need to calculate these things. This can often be a significant job, particularly for those who are challenged by calculations.

If that fits your description, a great starting point is to simply look for the familiar Energy Star logo on the energy-using item you’re buying. An Energy Star logo simply means that the product has voluntarily conformed to a set of energy-efficiency guidelines set by the EPA and Department of Energy. These guidelines are usually reasonably stringent but not unattainable, meaning you’ll find some products that carry the logo alongside others that do not. (Yes, there is some criticism of the Energy Star program as there would be with any such program, but it has teeth, too.)

From my own evaluation of the numbers, I’ve found that devices that don’t bother to carry the EnergyStar logo tend to not worry too much about energy efficiency at all and have quite poor energy use numbers. In other words, there seems to be an energy efficiency gap just outside the limits of the standard where no products are made, meaning products either make the Energy Star standards or don’t even come close.

Almost always, the Energy Star logo is worth it, especially when you’re comparing otherwise similar models at the same price (which you can often see on store shelves). It’s also even worth paying a bit more for on heavy energy use items, like air conditioners and water heaters.

It will save you money in the long run – and your future self will appreciate the lowered electricity bills.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Images courtesy of Brittany Lynne Photography, the proprietor of which is my “photography intern” for this project.

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  1. EngineerMom says:

    My sister is a mechanical engineer for GE Appliances.

    Be careful of exactly what setting is used to achieve that “energy star” rating. For example, a washing machine is usually evaluated on a cold cycle with little spin and as little water as possible. While this does (of course) result in low energy usage, almost no one actually washes all their clothes on that cycle.

    With fridges, the energy star evaluation is done in a “room temeperature” room (70F) on the warmest setting that is considered safe for food. So if you keep your milk super-cold and live in a hot area of the country where you let your house sit at 80+F for large chunks of the year…

    Yes, they are more efficient. Whether you will get the savings advertised on the energy star sticker is up for debate.

  2. EngineerMom says:

    Hit submit too soon…

    Usage makes a far bigger difference, and the Energy Star sticker does add an additional upfront cost.

  3. lurker carl says:

    The general public discovered with programmable thermostats that testing standards are not always in sync with the real world. As always, your mileage may vary.

  4. Riki says:

    $100 saved over 10 years doesn’t really blow me away, sorry.

  5. Kate says:

    Energy Star hits me the same way that buying a hybrid car does. I think the most frugal thing is to buy the cheapest good quality appliance without all the frou-frou.

  6. Jules says:

    Obviously how you use your appliances will determine how much energy you use/save. But it surprises me to know that companies can cheat so much on their energy-use tests. Shouldn’t there be some standards? Or is getting cheated while trying to do right part of the new American Dream?

  7. Angie unduplicated says:

    The primary difference in energy use between my laptops is that the EnergyStar CPU runs substantially cooler than the non-rated machine.
    I’ve had a truly bad experience with a new Whirlpool EnergyStar washer which wore out its tub bearings and door switches after barely a year. Back to secondhand washers!

  8. Karen says:

    My one year old washing machine and dishwasher have left me pretty skeptical about energy saving appliances.

    My washer cleans so poorly that my whites are gray and my dark clothes need extra rinses to get the streaks out (and yes, I follow detergent directions). I compensate as best I can by putting fewer clothes in and washing for a longer time period, so where’s the savings?

    My dishwasher holds fewer dishes than my old one, so I need to do more loads. Where’s the savings there?

    Both appliances are electronic and hard to bypass their system to customize a load. I don’t expect either to last long, so there’s an energy savings lost in that resources were wasted to build them. I wasted a lot of money for name brand junk.

  9. valleycat1 says:

    Huh. Trent changed the photo – I was going to check it to see if there’s really that much variation between otherwise almost identical versions of a given product? It’s been over 15 years since we’ve bought a major appliance & haven’t looked at any since we’re not in the market. Our electric & gas bills are already minimal, so we wouldn’t save very much & aren’t interested in replacing until an appliance dies.

  10. Norman says:

    When I purchased a new refrigerator last year, I compared the stated energy usage on two different models. The larger one was energy star rated but the smaller one was not. I did not need a large one, so I purchased the smaller one because it used a lot less electricity. By volume, it would have cost less to run the larger appliance, but it would have been wasted volume that I would not have used. So not only did I save money on the initial cost but also on the energy usage over time.

  11. Riki says:

    This is actually quite interesting to me. I’ve never purchased a major appliance like a washer refrigerator (the house came with them all) but I would have assumed that following Energy Star ratings was a no-brainer. This (albeit brief) discussion has convinced me that it’s not something you want to trust implicitly and other ratings, size, and how the appliance will actually be used are also very important. I think it’s especially important in my household because we don’t have kids and therefore don’t have as many dishes or clothes to wash.

  12. deRuiter says:

    “Low flush” toilets need to be flushed two or three times to get rid of solids, so they are wasteful of your timne (standing around to do the successive flushes) and water. The city of San Franciso forced everyone to install low flush toilets. The resulting low amount of water did not move the waste through pipes and caused severe contamination, but it did save some water. San Francisco had to use, if I remember correctly, one humdred million dollars worth of bleach to clean the pipes to save a million dollars worth of water. Pretty slick all that energy saving / water saving stuff! Like buying a Volt for $40,000, having humongous electric bills from charging, not being able to travel far on a charge, having your car burst into flames two weeks after an accident, and be a dinky, unsafe little shoebox on wheels. On the other hand it makes Liberals “feel good” to buy it, and since they don’t realize that electricity is generated in coal fired plants, they live happily ever after untile the collision with a truck and their death.

  13. jim says:

    deRuiter, I agree that the Volt is over priced. But they are not ‘death traps’ or ‘unsafe little shoebox’ any more than any other typical car out on the road. It costs about $2 to charge a Volt which then gives you 35 miles driving. Yes even liberals know electricity costs money. Its a 2 ton car with a 5 star crash rating. Half our electricity comes from coal. Even liberals know such things. I’d much rather burn American coal than Saudi oil. Still it is overpriced… so buy a Prius.

  14. Joanna says:

    Agree with #10 Norman. We purchased a freezer on a weekend that was tax free for energy star appliances. Our freezer was the smallest upright version that had good reliability ratings. But it wasn’t energy star so didn’t qualify for tax free. All the energy star freezers, ironically, were larger than ours and cost more over the course of a year to run. Surely the starting point for both frugality and eco-friendliness ought to be not buying more of anything than you need, but apparently not.

  15. Robin S says:

    #14 Johanna – That makes me think of people who buy hybrid SUVs and are super proud of the gas mileage on their hybrid, while it still gets about half of what my non-hybrid sedan gets. Too bad I can’t get the hybrid tax credit for purchasing a fuel efficient small car, while those with a much less fuel efficient vehicle can!

  16. Kate says:

    Toilets in Portland are dual flush/ one way for liquid and one way for solids (or as I heard some kids giggling: Up for pee, down for poop. Why am I surprised that deRuiter’s post deteriorated into a rant about Liberals?

  17. deRuiter says:

    Don’t be surprised Kate, and don’t be surprised that Conservatives don’t buy the Volt. Actually, from the numbers, no one except the Federal Government (your tax dollars being squandered) is buying the Volt. But if buying the Volt makes you feel good, I approve (for you), except for the taxpayer $7,000. subsidy, which I DO resent.

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