Energy Star Has Its Flaws

by Renee Rutledge
(Oakland, CA)

For years now, Energy Star has been a trusted source for homeowners and contractors looking to incorporate green appliances into their remodel plans. It's as easy as green awareness gets: see the label, buy the product. Yet, recent studies have found that Energy Star isn't all it's cracked up to be. Problems with inefficiency within the Department of Energy (DOE) and advantageous manufacturers have led to discrepancies and a misleading label.

It turns out, according to The Blueprint for Financial Prosperity, that the Energy Star label just cannot be trusted for some appliances. In fact, some appliances will carry the label but are not even regulated by the DOE. Among these: dryers, water heaters, and ovens. Other products, such as televisions, have faulty testing procedures (TVs are rated based on energy usage when the unit is turned off). Refrigerators, dishwashers, clothes washers, and freezers are trustworthy, according to this article. They claim that inconsistency is the big problem; a fairly easy observation.

However, Consumer Reports takes it a step further, pointing out inefficiencies at every level. This detailed report directs criticism at the DOE itself. It asserts that testing does not reflect how the appliances will be used in the home. Even refrigerators, says CR, are tested with the ice-makers turned off. This drastically reduces the energy usage for the unit. With the ice-maker turned on, as it would be in just about every home, the energy usage nearly doubles, erasing any conception of energy efficiency.

How can this be? You might ask. Well, as CR points out, there are a few reasons for the misleading information:

1. Outdated testing is a big problem. The DOE's testing requirements do not keep up with technology. Also, the department is extremely sluggish about getting rules changed to reflect the higher standards.

2. Weak standards follows as the next criticism. Energy Star itself states that about 25 percent of appliances should logically qualify for their label. Yet, prior to recent upgrades, 92 percent of dishwashers qualified and, even after a rule change was implemented, over half still did.

3. Unsupervised testing is perhaps the biggest obstacle to a trustworthy label. The DOE allows manufacturers to do their own testing on products and then trusts that they will be honest. Their reasoning is that competing manufacturers would turn abusers in to the department. Yet, if everyone is cheating, who will turn who in?

To be fair, it is not that Energy Star officials are unaware of the problems with their rating system. In fact, they are well aware but unable to efficiently do anything about it. Again, all signs seem to point to an unwilling DOE. There is an apparent refusal to streamline the rule-changing process within the department. In the meantime, Energy Star regulators are mired in red tape.

Renee Rutledge writes for CalFinder's Residential Solar Power, a service that has helped over 2500 homes facilitate solar energy system installations.

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