When most appliances break down, you need to replace them immediately since you likely have just one washer, dryer, stove, or dishwasher. Refrigerators are different. Nearly a quarter of American homes have two or more fridges. Sometimes the extra fridge is new, but since most refrigerators are designed to last 10-15 years, it’s not uncommon for an older model to be retired to a basement or garage while a new fridge takes its place in the kitchen.
And unlike other major appliances, refrigerators run continuously. Their overall energy efficiency can make a difference in your monthly utility bill.
As far as whether or not it's wise to get rid of your old fridge, it depends. Having an old, power-hungry refrigerator in your garage does not make sense from an energy perspective, ever. It’s worse if you only use it to keep a few six-packs cold during the summer or for your yearly Super Bowl blowout party.
Calculating the Cost of New Versus Old Refrigerators
Fortunately, you can make accurate calculations that can help you decide about the economics of buying a new fridge, or not. The Environmental Protection Agency has a Flip Your Fridge calculator that requires only the style, size, approximate age of your old fridge, and electricity costs in your area. The calculator will tell you the approximate annual cost of electricity for your current model and how much you’d save by buying a new EnergyStar model.
You can find out, for instance, that getting rid of a fridge that you bought after 2011 can save you $290 in electricity bills over five years, while getting rid of a 20-year-old fridge could save you $410. You will also see the carbon emissions saved from operating a new fridge and recycling your old one.
The Total Carbon Footprint of Your Refrigerator
The "Flip Your Fridge" calculator does not consider a new refrigerator’s embodied energy and associated carbon emissions. The embodied energy of an appliance includes the energy used to extract the raw materials (e.g. iron ore), manufacturing costs, transportation of raw materials to factories and finished products to customers, and disposal costs.
When you compare the embodied energy and associated carbon emissions of a new refrigerator with the operating costs of an old refrigerator, it makes little sense to keep a fridge older than about a dozen years. This is because the operational costs of an old refrigerator dwarf the cost of the embodied energy of a new one, and a new refrigerator may be five times more efficient than an older model.
Dovetail Partners analyzed a refrigerator’s energy use, including embodied energy, for a refrigerator bought in 2008 and used for ten years. The cost of operating the refrigerator over ten years is about 70,000 MJ (megajoules) compared to the combined raw materials processing, manufacturing, and disposal costs of less than 10,000 MJ of a new unit. An earlier Natural Resources Defense Council study arrived at a similar conclusion.
These analyses don’t consider the cost of buying a new refrigerator, which can vary widely, especially considering all the available sizes, models, and features. A comparison of ENERGY STAR-rated models is an excellent place to start. In the fall, retailers are heading into their big sales season leading up to the holidays, so look for sales over long holiday weekends like Thanksgiving, Black Friday, or Cyber Monday.
When a Freezer Is a Right Choice
We’ve compared old and new refrigerators, learning that it’s a good idea to retire old refrigerators after about 12 years. Now let’s consider an ENERGY STAR freezer in your garage or laundry room that operates more efficiently than the freezer in the fridge in the kitchen. How does it impact your costs and carbon emissions?
Chest freezers are surprisingly energy efficient, and they’re opened less frequently than the kitchen fridge, keeping the cold air inside. So if you have lots of frozen food, a freezer is better than keeping an old fridge alive.
Some Simple Rules for Fridge Replacement
When buying a new fridge:
- Buy an ENERGY STAR-rated model.
- Choose a new fridge with the capacity to address all your refrigeration needs.
- Select a model with the freezer on the bottom; since warmer air rises, the heat transfer between a bottom freezer and the refrigerator above it will be minimal.
- Keep it simple - extra features like cold water and ice dispensers drive energy costs.
Deciding about an old fridge:
- Go to Flip Your Fridge to find out if replacing your old fridge (or fridges) makes economic sense.
- Get rid of your beer fridge and cool your beers a few at a time in your primary fridge, or purchase an efficient mini fridge.
- To freeze food for seasonal or long-term use, get a new, efficient chest freezer instead of an old fridge.
- Don’t keep a second fridge in a location that heats up in the summer, as it will need to work harder to stay cool.
- If you hold onto your old fridge, check for worn or loose gaskets that reduce energy efficiency over time, and replace them as needed.
- Keep your second fridge as full as possible, including bottles of liquid that help it stay colder with less frequent cycles.
*A version of this article was first published at Sence.com.