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Energy Star Is Still a Bright Idea

Are Energy Star appliances really a better buy? Do they really use less energy and save money in the long run? Absolutely, says the Environmental Protection Agency’s Maria Vargas, a spokeswoman for the Energy Star program. Despite some negative press, Energy Star is reliable and effective, she says. “Energy Star is a government program, and our goal is to make it as easy as possible for consumers and businesses to be as energy-efficient as possible,” Vargas says. “The idea is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through energy efficiency. “Last year, Americans saved $14 billion – that’s billion with a ‘B’ – on their energy bills and reduced greenhouse gases to the equivalent of 25 million cars.” Those numbers, she says, speak volumes on the success of the Energy Star program, established in 1992 by the EPA and joined in 1996 by the U.S. Department of Energy. A huge success with consumers, the program got some bad press last April in a Smart Money magazine article titled “Energy Star Unplugged,” in which the program’s testing of appliances and electrical devices was criticized. The same article was reprinted on several Web sites, and CBS’ “Early Show” followed up on the piece with a segment in which it described Energy Star’s testing as “flawed.” Not true, counters Vargas, who says the Smart Money article “got a lot of things wrong.” First, she says the method for testing products, from appliances to personal computers, is established through congressional regulations. “If they have a problem with the testing,” she says, “they should talk to the Department of Energy. “And, the standards for devices, including appliances, are subject to frequent change.” According to Smart Money, Energy Star’s testing of refrigerators is extremely thorough. That’s good news, because refrigerators are among the largest household users of energy. But the magazine piece criticized the testing of air-conditioning systems, among other appliances. According to the article, the AC test isn’t tough enough because it simply measures energy used when cooling a room from 80 degrees to 75 degrees. Only 20 percent of the units tested met the standard. And the article states that testing in a humid environment, such as Florida, would deliver different results than testing in a desert environment, such as Arizona. (Most of the energy used by an air conditioner goes to dehumidification.) Vargas says that a single humidity level is a testing requirement established by federal guidelines. She says the Department of Energy is aware of the issue and could make adjustments. “Energy Star is a voluntary program that keeps pace with the marketplace,” Vargas says. “New testing protocols are always being implemented and specifications for different products are always going into effect.” For example, 85 percent of dishwashers and 98 percent of desktop computers were awarded Energy Star certification last year, an issue with Smart Money. Originally, only the top 25 percent of products in one classification were supposed to receive the Energy Star label. Vargas says that such criticism is unfair because as technology improves the standards are raised. “The new specifications for dishwashers were effective Jan. 1 of 2007,” she says, and fewer units are likely to get the Energy Star label. Consumers should be aware that as the standards are revised, older Energy Star products are not simply eliminated. Although manufacturers can’t make products that fall below minimum standards, Energy Star products manufactured before the effective date of a new standard still can be sold. EnergyStar.gov lists electronic devices and appliances that meet current and previous standards and also reports deadlines for selling labeled units under expired standards. The article also stated that testing is largely left up to the manufacturers. Vargas says verification by Energy Star is a process that is taken very seriously. While manufacturers do test their own products and submit results to the program, random testing is done “all the time,” she says. Vargas says one procedure, called “mystery shopping,” allows an unidentified representative of Energy Star to purchase an item at random; it’s then tested by the program. Vargas suggests the best policing, however, is done by rival manufacturers. “Believe me, if there is a product in the marketplace that should not be Energy Star-rated, a competing manufacturer lets us know at lightning speed,” she says. “The policing by the competition is amazing.” Smart Money said its investigation found “outdated testing” and “lax enforcement.” The magazine also said an Energy Star label may amount to “little more than a marketing gimmick.” For instance, the story said one retailer, a Best Buy store in Manhattan, was selling clothes dryers with Energy Star labels. Because virtually all clothes dryers use about the same amount of energy, Energy Star does not rate them. Vargas said the store was a new partner and that the situation was quickly corrected. “We don’t tolerate product mislabeling,” she says. “We can’t be in every retail store every minute of the day, but we see very little misuse of labels.” One reason is that more than 30 states and 450 utility companies have adopted Energy Star as a platform. The testing and policing are not perfect, Vargas says, but they are consistent and thorough. Plus, the inclusion of state and federal agencies as partners with retailers should provide consumers a solid measure of confidence.


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