Energy Efficient Appliances: Refrigerator

In the early 90s, I knew I wanted to live off-grid at some point. I started to conserve electricity by being very conscious about turning off lights and using lower wattage bulbs (this was before CFLs). I read about phantom loads, the small electrical currents that could suck your batteries dry overnight (net metering was not available, either). I put all my small appliances and the tv on power strips to turn off when not in use.

As I was studying the small stuff, the big stuff naturally came up – appliances for off-grid homes. In preparation for this hypothetical home of mine, I purchased a Sun Frost refrigerator/freezer. These were designed with DC for off-grid living, but it was such a popular refrigerator, the company decided to make it AC, too, which is what I bought. A conversion kit would turn it back to DC when I was ready for it.

Energy efficiency means lower energy bills

The Sun Frost was delivered, and I hooked it up in the house I was renting. It replaced a noisy old inefficient fridge you’d typically find in a rental. When the first electric bill came, I was shocked! It was half of what it normally was!

Think about it. This refrigerator is efficient enough to be carried on solar, wind or hydropower, so naturally it would have to use little electricity. I just wasn’t expecting it to make that big a difference!

A Sun Frost is a super-insulated refrigerator with the compressors on the top. This way, they don’t heat up the part you are trying to keep cool. That made so much sense to me, I doubted I could ever go back to a traditional fridge.


Today’s refrigerators are almost as efficient. They are better insulated and have more efficient compressors. The most efficient have Energy Star labels on them.

Photo: Indi Samarajiva

An Energy Star Refrigerator must be at least 20% more efficient than the federal standard. Some are 30% more efficient, and if your fridge is more than 10 years old, it will be 40% more efficient, and at 20 years old, you can save 60% on your energy bill! An old refrigerator is one thing to replace, since technology is making them more and more efficient every few years.

Tips for choosing energy efficiency refrigerator and saving Money

1. Do not buy a side-by-side refrigerator. By law, they are allowed to use more energy. A refrigerator with the freezer on the bottom uses 16% less electricity than one with the doors side-by-side. If the freezer is on the top, it will use 13% less energy. You are comparing apples to oranges with the two different styles.

2. Buy the right size refrigerator for your family’s needs. The average size is 16-20 cubic feet. This suits the needs of most families. A bigger unit uses more energy, obviously, but it also needs to stay full for maximum efficiency, and that means a lot of shopping. Take that into consideration when shopping.

3. Bypass the icemaker. This not only adds to the cost of your fridge, but it uses more energy. Stick to old-fashioned ice cube trays.

4. Consider the monthly cost of operation as well as the purchase price. Read the Energy Guide label to estimate monthly energy costs. You will own this appliance for about 15 years, and the cost of operating it is part of its price. Some refrigerators will cost more up front, especially if they are efficient, but that cost will be recovered in energy savings. Figure out the lifetime cost of your new fridge.

5. Choose manual defrost. It will use half the energy of automatic defrost. I know that sounds archaic, but my Sun Frost is manual. A couple times a year, before grocery shopping, I defrost the fridge and freezer. It’s not a big deal and does not take long.

6.  Find out if your electric company offers rebates for energy saving appliances. This can cut the cost quite a bit.

Taking care of your energy efficient fridge

Once your new fridge is home, keep it out of a sunny spot and away from a heat source, such as the oven or heating duct. Keep the condenser coils clean, and make sure the seals are tight. Make sure both compartments are always full. They operate more efficiently this way. The temperature of the refrigerator should be 35-38, and the freezer should be 0.

Even if your fridge is 10 years young, there is a more efficient model. I am not a proponent of replacing things to be more eco-friendly. Refrigerators are being improved constantly, though, so I do recommend replacing an old one.

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