Green Appliances

Consumers want products that are water- and energy-efficient, but few are aware that new products can save on resources and still get the job done

April 30, 2000

The right appliances are often the key to a kitchen remodel: Refrigerators, dishwashers, ovens and ranges all play a big part in how a design comes together. Yet consumers are often the driving force behind the appliance choices made, and with so many different manufacturers, products and options available, it becomes the remodeler’s job to help consumers narrow down their search.


Remodeler's Perspective

Dave Brady, president of Oak Design & Construction in Oak Park, Ill., has a system for juggling consumer’s appliance choices and the constraints of remodel designs. "One of the things we do first is do a kitchen interview," he says. "We try to figure out what they’re thinking in terms of appliances: sizes of refrigerators, gas cooktops, separate double ovens, freestanding ranges, or whatever. We do a short survey to hone them in.

"Many times, I find that consumers have done some, if not a fair amount, of research on appliances. There’s lots of information out there. So, we establish the sizes for them and we start our designs based on the results of that initial survey and then we send the homeowners out to look. They do a lot of tire kicking in appliance showrooms, but before they make any final selection, 100 percent of our customers call us and ask us what we think.

"Customers are fairly accepting of what a design can work with. We generally try to relay any information, especially negative things that we hear about certain appliances. Then we tweak things. Sometimes, appliances might even drive the design work."

Most appliances cater to and meet the same basic desires of homeowners: quiet, efficient, reliable and convenient. Once past the basics, however, there are still numerous options, and manufacturers are finding ways to differentiate their new products. With increased awareness in environmental and economic conservation, appliances that save on energy - water and electricity - have become a major focus for manufacturers.

"It’s just starting to catch on," says Mitchell Isert, marketing manager for the Whirlpool Corp. "[Energy-efficient appliances] have been out there for about five years in refrigerators, and about two years in dishwashers, but they’re still on the upswing. Power companies are just now reassessing and looking at what they’re going to do with the Energy Star rating."

The Energy Star label was created by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy to help consumers identify products that are energy-efficient and environmentally friendly. Currently, dishwashers, refrigerators, clothes washers and room air conditioners are all eligible to receive an Energy Star rating. Clothes dryers, ovens, ranges and water heaters have not yet had standards set.


How Much Have Appliances Changed, Really?
Percentage of improvement in energy efficiency
  1972 1979 1985 1990 1995
Dishwashers: 0 29.2 54.2 54.2 100.0
Refrigerators: 0 29.2 75.0 112.2 192.2
Clothes Washers: 0 42.2 51.6 54.7 92.2
Source: Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers

Although many Energy Star-rated appliances are more expensive to purchase initially, both manufacturers and government agencies agree that the savings on utility bills will make up the difference in cost over time. These appliances incorporate shorter wash cycles and customized features that enable appliances to use the right amount of energy for the right tasks. For example, an Energy Star-rated refrigerator might incorporate several "zones" of variable temperature, keeping different types of food fresh, without wasting energy that isn’t needed to cool food elsewhere.


State of the Market
Industry Shipments of Major Appliances (thousands)
  1988 1990 1992 1994 1996 1998
Gas Ranges 2402 2354 2492 2840 2710 2781
Automatic Washers 5718 5591 5632 6161 6225 6760
Dryers 4473 4160 4466 5077 5140 5639
Dishwashers 3840 3485 3597 4353 4606 5071
Refrigerators 6705 6456 6721 7589 7975 8544
Source: Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers

"When we design a product and make it very energy efficient, it’ll save energy and water. But it also performs its jobs, and does a good job," says Doug Ringger, director of research and development for Maytag. "The designs of products like these are more expensive and more costly to manufacture, so the cost is higher. But there’s certainly a payback. If an appliance retails for $1,000, but the consumer can save $100 a year, they can see that payback."


Finish Cycle

Broken, old or outdated appliances can still play an environmentally conscious role. Old appliances are the second largest source of recyclable steel in the United States, and aluminum, copper, plastic and refrigerant components can also be reused. According to the Steel Recycling Institute, 81 percent of all appliances were recycled in 1997.

Remodelers can arrange with various organizations for the removal and recycling of appliances when doing a kitchen or bath remodel. End-of-life major appliances can be picked up by waste collection services or special haulers, who often charge a small fee. However, some salvage companies or appliance retailers will remove products from jobsites for free.

"Sometimes, owners will dog-ear appliances for a neighbor, friend or needy family, but the rest of the appliances we place behind our shop and they’re picked up by small-scale salvage people," says Dave Brady, president of Oak Design & Construction in Oak Park, Ill. "We know the appliances aren’t being thrown into landfills, and that’s important to us."

Saving the energy consumers spend using appliances can also result in utility savings. Energy conservation is one way that manufacturers are meeting the "unspoken" needs of homeowners. Many Energy Star-rated appliances also feature ergonomic and convenience options that make appliances easier to use as well as more environmentally sound. Dishwashers that pre-rinse automatically, ovens with two cooking zones, zoned refrigerators, and stacking washers and dryers all use customized features to meet both demands.

"As consumers realize these performance advantages and the cost advantages, the appliances seem to pay for themselves," says Ringger. "Some aren’t willing to invest the money, so it is not an overnight change, but we will be looking for other ways to reduce energy use in all of our appliances. The trend is toward higher efficiency in all product categories."

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