by George Rollins
Is there such a thing as environmentally-friendly climate control? Yes, if you live in a cave. That is what I always thought – and then I walked into a home improvement store looking for a new furnace. I was stunned to find green certification stickers everywhere. Can all these appliances really be green? A saleswoman assured me that they were. Most major appliance manufacturers such as Frigidaire, Whirlpool, and Maytag have realized the growing demand for environmentally friendly appliances and has thus started meeting these demands. ”This furnace does run on oil, right?” I asked her, pointing to the nearest Energy Star rated member of the species. She looked puzzled, “Right.” I decided to turn to the air conditioners. “These do use refrigerants, don’t they?” I asked her. She agreed that indeed they did. “Are they making ecofriendly refrigerants these days?” I then inquired.
Of course I’m not advocating that anyone live without heat or cooling, I was there to buy a furnace. But let’s at least be honest about what we’re doing. There’s no such thing as a green furnace, a green air conditioner, or a green refrigerator. At best, we can say that one furnace is greener than another one, that one air conditioner is more energy efficient, that one refrigerator emits fewer greenhouse gases than another. There is no ideal option in most cases. There is only bad, and less bad.
Since I don’t believe that most appliance salespeople are any more informed about green labeling than the one I spoke to, I think it falls to eco-minded consumers to do our own research. Here are five facts I think we all need to keep in mind:
- Any appliance that you buy still has to be manufactured somewhere and shipped to your local home improvement store or contractor. Is replacing an older furnace with a newer one a good deed for the environment, if it means that you are shipping a brand new furnace from across the country, and tossing an old one into a landfill? You have to evaluate the options. Perhaps your old furnace could be made more energy efficient if you sealed your ducts more
efficiently, or your old hot water heater could be made more efficient if you wrapped it in an insulating blanket. Perhaps some rooms of your house don’t need to be heated or cooled. If there are other options, it’s worth taking the time to evaluate them. Likewise, look at how old your current appliance is, and whether the “green” standards have changed much since you first bought it. For example, a furnace that is less than 15 years old may not be worth replacing - likewise with an air conditioner that is less than a decade old.
- Most green labels on home appliances refer to energy efficiency. An energy efficient home appliance is assumed to be more green than an energy hog mainly because more than half of the electricity used in the United States is still generated at coal-burning power plants. But what if your local power plant uses a renewable energy source? Or what if you generate your own electricity using solar panels on your roof? The Energy Star certification on your appliance may
mean more, or less, depending on where you get your electricity.
- Every type of home appliance has its own special certification process. This is what will really make you crazy if you start shopping. Furnaces like the one I was shopping for have an AFUE (Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency) rating, while air conditioners have a SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) rating. Home building materials may have a LEED certification or a certification from the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) or both. Many states also have their own certification programs. You’ll want to find out what kinds of standards apply to the appliance you are interested in, and what it takes for an appliance to be rated as meeting the standards.
- Read the EnergyGuide label on any appliance that you are thinking of buying, but be aware that the EnergyGuide labels are not updated as often as appliances are. You will need to do your own research to find out which model of an appliance you are considering is truly the mostenergy efficient, as of today. Be aware as well that the average cost of running an appliance for a year, as noted on the EnergyGuide sticker, may not match your own experience with the appliance. The average cost is based on many factors, not all of which may apply to you. Moreover, the standards for Energy Star certification of an appliance vary You’ll want to read reviews from other consumers in your area or from consumers who use the appliance in roughly the same way that you do in order to make your own estimate.
- Bear in mind that how you maintain your appliance will affect its overall energy efficiency. For example, furnaces and air conditioners need to have their air filters checked and cleaned or replaced regularly – if the air filter starts to obstruct the flow of air, the furnace or air conditioner will have to work harder and use more energy. It takes time to educate yourself about what the labels on your appliances mean. But if the goal is to be an eco-conscious consumer, I don’t see what other alternatives we have. Despite the fact that an appliance may be certified as “green,” I think we all know that most appliances – by their very nature - are anything but.
George Rollins is a home enthusiast at FurnaceCompare.com, a site that not only has extensive information on furnaces, boilers and air conditioners, but also includes consumer reviews and tips on choosing HVAC contractors. George has a passion for educating consumers on home renovation and improvements, as he feels that the right information helps consumer choose more wisely.
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