The energy efficiency of refrigerators and freezers has improved by leaps and bounds in the past few years. So, if your refrigerator is more than ten years old and is laboring to keep its cool, it’s time to upgrade. Yes, it’s usually best to avoid new purchases if you’re trying to be eco-friendly, but in the case of refrigerators, recycling the old (see below) and bringing in the new may well be better for the environment as a whole, not to mention your pocketbook and the health of your home and family.
Fridges and freezers account for around 17 percent of all home energy use, and if you have an older model, that percentage is likely even higher. Larger models typically use more energy than smaller models, but many small models are less energy efficient than they seem. This can get confusing, especially if you just look at the kilowatt hours per year (kWhr/yr) figure on energy labels or rely on an Energy Star certification. We’ll do some math below, to help guide you through this morass of numbers.
That said, energy efficiency isn’t the only factor to consider when buying a new refrigerator. You’ll also want to think about:
- Materials used in construction
- The type of coolant used – CFCs, HFCs, or other coolant
- The model – chest freezers and bottom drawer fridge/freezer models tend to be best (avoid side by side models)
- Where the refrigerator is produced and to what standards
- Means of shipping
- Recycling your old appliance (and ease of recycling the new one at a later date).
It’s also important to think about whether you need a refrigerator in the first place. Could you get by with an evaporative cooler, a cool pantry, root cellar, or other cool space? For most people, a refrigerator feels like a necessity, especially if you tend to do one big grocery run each week to the store and the farmers market for fresh foods. For others, especially single people, couples, or small families who have the opportunity to pick up groceries more regularly throughout the week, you might be better off with a ‘European-sized’ model. These tend to be around 10 cu. ft, rather than the 20-25 cu. ft behemoths in most American kitchens.
Other considerations include the company making the appliance. If they do not have a good company policy around environmental sustainability, their manufacturing practices may well negate the energy efficiency of your new refrigerator. In addition, the durability of a refrigerator is now a serious consideration. While efficiency has improved dramatically in recent years, innovation has somewhat plateaued, meaning that an appliance you buy now will likely be just as efficient as most models made in the next decade or so. As such, the most eco-friendly choice is a product that is robust, durable, and reliable, and that you’ll get good use out of for many years to come.
In general, an A+++ energy label rating means you’ll save around 5 percent on your annual electricity bill compared to an A+ rating. The difference between an A+++ and a C rating is about 20 percent.
You might think that adding in the consideration of eco-friendliness would make things even harder, but the fact is that this is a great way to refine your options and pick an energy efficient, long-lasting, attractive and economical new refrigerator. And, given that kitchen appliances account for around 10 percent of energy use in the home and of all the major home appliances, buying an energy efficient eco-friendly refrigerator is a one-time action with huge long-term benefits.
Refrigerators and freezers are now available that include recycled and recyclable components, greater energy efficiency, and fewer toxic chemicals.
Before you check out the curated refrigerators and freezers in our ecoHome Directory, here’s a quick overview of the most common factors to consider regarding these household appliances.
Our top picks for eco-friendly Refrigerators and Freezers
|Product||Highlights||Leaf Score||Product Link|
Blomberg 24-inch Counter Depth Bottom-Freezer Refrigerator BRFB1322SSRead the Review
|View on Amazon|
Bosch B11CB50SSS 24-inch refrigeratorRead the Review
Smeg 24-Inch 50’s Style RefrigeratorRead the Review
|View on Amazon|
Liebherr Monolith MRB3000 30-Inch Built-In Panel Ready Refrigerator ColumnRead the Review
Blomberg BRFB1822SSN 30-Inch Free Standing Bottom Freezer RefrigeratorRead the Review
|View on Amazon|
Samsung RT18M6213WW 29-Inch Freestanding Top Mount RefrigeratorRead the Review
Dacor DRF36C100SR Heritage Series 36-Inch Counter Depth French Door RefrigeratorRead the Review
Samsung RF23M8590SG 36 Inch Counter Depth 4-Door French Door Refrigerator with Family Hub™Read the Review
Danby Designer DCR044A2BDD 4.4 cu. ft. Compact RefrigeratorRead the Review
|View on Amazon|
Midea WHS-160RB1 Compact Single Reversible Door Refrigerator and Freezer, 4.4 Cubic FeetRead the Review
|View on Amazon|
EdgeStar CRF321SS 3.1 Cu. Ft. Dorm Sized Energy Star Compact Fridge/FreezerRead the Review
|View on Amazon|
Things to consider in Refrigerators and Freezers
Refrigerators – What to Watch out for
For customers in the US, coolant type is a major consideration when buying a new refrigerator. Most of us have heard of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), a type of coolant used for many years in refrigerators and freezers. In the 1970s, concerns arose over the effects of the chlorine in Freon and other CFCs. This chlorine gas breaks down in the upper atmosphere and causes a reaction that destroys ozone molecules, creating a hole in the ozone layer that allows damaging ultraviolet light to get through to the Earth.
By the 1980s, concerns about CFCs and the ozone layer were no longer confined to scientific circles and, in 1992, 86 nations agreed to end the production of CFCs in the industrialized world by 1995. By 2000, the use of CFCs was phased out under the Montreal Protocol, although some countries in the developing world still use CFCs.
Unfortunately, some of the replacements for CFCs, most notably hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), are also powerful greenhouse gases and affect the ozone layer. These are now banned in all domestic refrigerators and freezers in the EU (although they can still be used in commercial refrigeration) but, despite these concerns, HFCs and HCFCs are still widely used in the US.
As companies are aware of the damaging potential of HFCs, they tend not to list these as such on their labels. So, watch out for the following chemicals that are less damaging than CFCs for the ozone, but still have an effect as greenhouse gases:
Some US companies are now resorting to HFC-32 and HFC-152a. These two refrigerants do not deplete the ozone layer and have extremely low global warming potential. They’re still not ideal though, whichis why, in 2016, more than 170 nations signed a global pact to begin phasing out HFCs in 2019 from cooling appliances including refrigerators and air-conditioners.
Another major alternative to CFCs and HFCs is something called Greenfreeze technology which uses a mixture of propane (R290) and isobutane (R60Oa), or isobutane as a pure gas, for the refrigerant, and cyclopentane for blowing the insulation foam. Since 1992, Greenfreeze technology has largely taken over the European market, with the remaining HFC-based refrigerators almost always originating in the US. When buying a new refrigerator or freezer, check what refrigerant is used.
One of the worst features, in terms of energy efficiency, in modern refrigerators is the in-door ice and water dispenser. These are almost standard now for most US models, but they severely compromise the insulation of the appliance and, therefore, the energy efficiency. Keeping a pitcher of filtered water in the refrigerator and occasionally opening the door to refill a glass saves you money both on the initial purchase and the running costs for your refrigerator.
One other big energy suck is the coveted French door design. These side-by-side fridge-freezer models are typically much less efficient in energy usage than a unit with the freezer at the top or bottom. This is because the circulation of cool air is more complicated in side-by-side units. Cool air falls, so top freezer units have the advantage of cooling the freezer air first and then circulating air to the refrigerator. Bottom freezer units with drawers have the advantage of cool air staying put when you open the drawer, which is also why chest freezers are a good choice for energy efficiency. Bottom freezer units are also handy in that they offer easier, eye-level access to the main refrigerator space.
Automatic defrost is another energy-wasting feature in most fridge-freezers. Yes, keeping the inside of the freezer frost-free makes it run more efficiently (and gives you more space to fill with food), but the automatic defrost uses a significant amount of energy than one you manual defrost every month or so.
Some innovations in refrigerator technology are good, of course, including the use of precise temperature control systems. These allow you to set different areas of the refrigerator to different temperatures, which lets you minimize power consumption by avoiding cooling empty shelves or drawers. You can even use these settings to help you rapidly chill foods and help with thawing frozen items.
Some models also feature a powered-down, energy-saving mode that activates if the door is not opened for 24 hours. If you go on vacation for a few days or longer, this can help prevent you running up a big energy bill, even while your food stays cold while you’re gone.
Here are four things to think about if you’re considering purchasing a new refrigerator:
- Position your appliance away from heat sources such as the stove or dishwasher (so they don’t have to work as hard to keep their cool)
- Opt for the smallest, most energy-efficient model that will work for your family for years to come
- Consider buying more non-perishable goods that can be stored in cupboards or a pantry
- Check your thermostats and set temperatures appropriately: 37-40 degrees for the fridge; 0-5 degrees for long-term freezer storage; 10-15 for short term freezer storage. Any higher or lower means you’re making your appliance work harder than necessary.
- Climatic class.
Wait, what’s that last one? If, like most people, you’ve never heard of Climatic Class before, here’s a quick primer.
The climatic class of a refrigerator indicates the minimum and maximum temperature limits within which the refrigerator is able to operate properly. There are four main climatic or climate classes for fridges and freezers:
SN (Subnormal) suitable for use under ambient temperature range of 10 °C ~ 32 °C (50 °F ~ 90 °F)
N (Normal) suitable for use under ambient temperature range of 16 °C ~ 32 °C (61 °F ~ 90 °F)
ST (Subtropical) suitable for use under ambient temperature range of 18 °C ~ 38 °C (64 °F ~ 100 °F)
T (Tropical) suitable for use under ambient temperature range of 18 °C ~ 43 °C (64 °F ~ 109 °F)
These abbreviations are regulated by international standards (IEC Clauses), so they apply regardless of country of production or brand.
Why does climate class matter? Well, if you buy a refrigerator unsuited to the climate where you live, that appliance will struggle to operate properly, which means greater energy usage and a higher risk of it breaking down prematurely. Excessive condensation can occur inside the refrigerator, and the viscosity of the oil inside the compressor may change, making compressor damage more likely.
Some fridges and freezers are deliberately designed to operate at a wider temperature range, so if you plan on using the appliance outdoors or in a volatile region, climatically, consider:
N ~ ST suitable to operate under temperatures ranging from 16 °C ~ 38 °C (61 °F ~ 100 °F)
SN ~ T suitable to operate under temperatures ranging from 10 °C ~ 43 °C (50 °F ~ 109 °F).
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
The most eco-friendly thing you can do for most appliances is to keep using the one you have, if it isn’t broken.
If your current refrigerator or freezer doesn’t seem to be working efficiently, check the gaskets. These are the rubber seals around the doors, which are designed to prevent cold air leaking out. Over time, these gaskets can degrade, causing a decline in the appliance’s performance. To check the gasket, place a piece of paper between the door and the fridge or freezer. If you can pull it out easily, it’s time to replace the gaskets. Check your manual to see if you can do this yourself or if you’ll need technical help from the manufacturer.
That said, if your refrigerator is old, it may well be an energy hog and could contain CFCs or HFCs. If that’s the case, you’ll want to check your local area for recycling facilities.
An estimated eleven million refrigerators are disposed of annually in the U.S., with only a fraction of the chemical-ridden insulating foam recycled. Yes, most of the metal in these refrigerators ends up being recycled, but the other materials are typically crushed, which releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Interested in what happens to your old refrigerator when you send it for recycling? In Manitoba, Canada, you can get paid to have your old refrigerator or freezer picked up and recycled. Here’s how they do it:
To figure out your local recycling options, you can call your city or do a quick online search. Some companies offer a pick-up option for your old appliance. Be sure to find out what happens to that item, though, once it’s removed. Does it go to landfill? Is the company working with a partner for efficient recycling?
Then, when choosing your new refrigerator, go for an energy-efficient appliance you’re likely to stick with long-term. This means picking an appliance that has a good chance of working in your kitchen regardless of any upgrades to kitchen cabinetry and so forth.
And, if you do have reason to part with a working appliance, consider donating it to a charity such as Green Demolitions. This company sells items salvaged from luxury kitchens and bathrooms, and proceeds from their sales go to a charitable enterprise that supports outreach programs for All Addicts Anonymous (AAA). So, if you’re in the market for a new appliance, check out Green Demolitions. You may find a luxury item at 50-70 percent of new retail prices and you’ll be helping support a charity and keep perfectly usable appliances out of landfill.
The EPA has a Responsible Appliance Disposal Program, known as RAD. Companies including GE Appliances are signed on to RAD to help reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and the amount of waste entering landfill. Purchasing a new energy efficient refrigerator from a dealer participating in the RAD Program means a dramatic cut in how much is sent to landfill. Instead of the average 55 pounds of scrap that ends up in a landfill when industry deals with an old refrigerator, less than 8 pounds goes to landfill to the RAD way.
RAD is a process whereby a used refrigerator is picked up and transported to a dedicated recycling center, where refrigerants, and regulated and recyclable materials and substances are removed. This reduces around 85 percent of the weight of typical waste. Greenhouse gases are also removed from the foam insulation in the refrigerator, and the ferrous and non-ferrous metals, and plastics, in the remaining components of the refrigerator are separated for recycling. This process helps reduce the amount of hazardous materials, including mercury and used oil, that could otherwise leach into the environment if a refrigerator is simply dumped in a landfill, crushed whole, or is otherwise disposed of improperly.
Green Certifications for Refrigerators
In the US, residential refrigerators can be certified by Energy Star®, which rates their energy efficiency. Prior to 2011, Energy Star® products were self-certified by partners. Unsurprisingly, this led to some less than accurate energy labels. As such, the EPA increased their investment in the program and implemented a requirement for third-party certification. The EPA now oversees this third-party certification and manages certified product lists.
This doesn’t mean that the Energy Star program is problem-free, however. That’s because instead of awarding top marks to the refrigerators with the lowest energy use, it divides refrigerators into several categories and awards the best performer in each. As such, it’s perfectly possible to buy an appliance with a top Energy Star rating that is still a huge energy hog, while a much better model remains ineligible for the certification.
How can this happen? Well, the current regulations state that a refrigerator that is 7.75 cubic feet or larger (up to 30 cu ft) that uses 10 percent less energy than the minimum federal efficiency standards can be awarded an Energy Star rating.
For any refrigerator with manual defrost to be awarded an Energy Star rating, it must use 10 percent less than the 193.6W standard plus 6.79 x adjusted volume (AV) in cubic feet. However, the following standards apply for other types of refrigerators:
- Refrigerator-freezer with automatic defrost with top-mounted freezer without an automatic icemaker, – maximum energy use is 233.7 plus 8.07AV
- Refrigerator-freezer with automatic defrost with side-mounted freezer without an automatic icemaker – max. energy use is 297.8 plus 8.51AV
- Refrigerator-freezer with automatic defrost with bottom-mounted freezer with through-the-door ice service – 475.4 plus 9.25AV
Confused? It’s not surprising. Let’s see what this looks like in practice:
Refrigerator 1 – a 15 cu ft manual defrost using 270W per year.
The energy maximum for this model would be: 193.6W plus 101.85W (the AV allowance) = 295.45W.
To qualify for Energy Star certification the refrigerator would need to use 10 percent less than this figure, i.e. 265.9W.
Refrigerator 2 – a 15 cu ft with automatic defrost with bottom-mounted freezer with through-the-door ice service using 550W per year.
The energy maximum for this model would be: 475.4W plus 139 (the AV allowance) = 614.4W.
To qualify for Energy Star certification the refrigerator would need to use 10 percent less than this figure, i.e. 553W.
As you can see, different types of Energy Star certified refrigerators can vary significantly, with the energy allowance in some categories almost double that of others. Rather depressingly, the manual defrost refrigerator above, which uses 270W would not be eligible for the Energy Star seal of approval, while a comparably sized automatic defrost, bottom-mounted freezer with ice dispenser that uses more than twice as much energy (550W) would be eligible.
If you don’t want to go to all the trouble of figuring out the fairness of the Energy Star awarded to any given model, there is some simpler math that might help. One of the best ways to figure out how good a refrigerator really is, is to divide the kilowatt hours per year (kWhr/yr) figure by the cubic foot capacity of the model. After all, if you end up needing more space, which means you buy a ‘back-up’ freezer or refrigerator or keep an older model running in a hot garage, there’s a net loss for the environment and your annual electricity bill.
Let’s look at an example where, at first glance, the smaller model might look like the most energy-efficient option:
Capacity (Total Volume) (cu ft) 10
Annual Energy Use (kWh/yr) 360
kWhr/cu. Ft: 36
Capacity (Total Volume) (ft3) 20
Annual Energy Use (kWh/yr) 500
kWhr/cu. Ft: 25
As you can see, Model 2 is actually more energy-efficient per cubic foot of space. So, if you suspect you’ll need more space than Model 1 would provide, it’s better to opt for a larger single unit than a smaller unit you’ll end up supplementing at a later date. And, if you’re comparing a side-by-side model with an ice dispenser to a top-freezer model without, chances are that the latter will be significantly better per cubic foot of capacity.
All this to say, when looking for an eco-friendly refrigerator, by all means use the Energy Star ratings as a guide but pay attention to the actual numbers and to the product’s eco-friendliness overall.
Energy Star (voluntary)
The Energy Star program certifies that an appliance’s energy consumption is below an agreed level. Over the years, this level has been lowered for refrigerators and freezers, to help propel advances in technology.
In Europe, a variety of certifications exist for refrigerators and freezers. So, when looking for a new kitchen appliance, it can help to check out the eco-credentials of a product in Europe and then see if the same model is available in the States. A few of the labels to look out for include:
- The European Energy Label
- European Eco Label
- Energy Saving Trust Recommended.
The European Energy label
The European Energy Label will be familiar to many people as it is required by European law to be displayed alongside products at the point of sale. The label rates products from A to G, based on energy efficiency and covers a variety of household appliances such as washing machines, refrigerators, televisions, light bulbs, and electric ovens.
The EU Energy Label is awarded based on energy consumption in kilowatts per hour (kWh), with the more efficient appliances using fewer kWh.
European Eco Label (voluntary)
The European Eco Label is a voluntary but official and independent certification used across Europe to demarcate non-food products with minimal environmental impact. This certification factors in more than just energy consumption, assessing the impact of a product over its lifecycle, including production, transportation, usage and disposal.
Energy Saving Trust Recommended (Voluntary)
The Energy Saving Trust Recommended certification mark is a UK-based program that certifies the most energy efficient products. Manufacturers have to apply and pay to get their products certified, and the program is run by a non-profit organization established to help reduce carbon emissions. The non-profit, the Energy Saving Trust, is funded by the UK government and the private sector and the criteria for the certification are set by an independent panel with annual reviews.
Some other things to consider
Energy efficient appliances sometimes come with a rebate or other incentives in addition to keeping your utility costs low and helping the planet’s health.
The more information a manufacturer offers about an appliance, and the longer the warranty available, the more likely it is to be a higher quality product. Beware cheap ranges, stovetops, and ovens with no warranty and no clear product details.
Check out the ecoHome directory for conscientious options for eco-friendly stovetops, ranges, and ovens.
Companies to Consider for Conscientious Kitchen Appliances
Refrigerators are one of the more energy-hungry items in a household, so it’s no surprise that many manufacturers have made considerable effort to reduce energy consumption and improve performance. Even the more economical models tend to be pretty decent in terms of basic energy-efficiency, while higher-end models often have specific measures to conserve extra power as needed.
Unfortunately, most companies are not up front about the type of coolant they use, which, in the US, likely means they’re still using HFCs. Some of the best options at first glance may, therefore, turn out to be bad for the environment.
Companies who do not use CFCs, HCFCs, or HFCs tend to clearly advertise this fact. These companies include Bosch and GE. Indeed, GE were the first company to apply to the EPA for approval to use isobutane as a coolant instead of HCFCs or HFCs back in 2011. After approval, GE launched the first HFC-free refrigerator in the US, the built-in Monogram 30-inch ZIK30GNHII refrigerator with an optional glass door, with cyclopentane as the insulating foam.
These substances are easily processed when the time comes to recycle your appliance and are far more environmentally friendly than CFCs and HFCs. Also, all of their appliances and components are labelled for recycling.
Despite GE’s achievement in getting EPA approval for isobutane, other manufacturers have mostly failed to follow suit. Isobutane has been widely used in household refrigerators in Europe and parts of Asia for several years, but HFCs and HCFCs remain redolent in US refrigerators. Of course, this should all start to change in 2019 as HCFCs and HFCs begin to be phased out, even in the US, especially as California has now banned HFCs entirely. So, while we cannot currently recommend most household names in large appliances, this will likely change in the next couple of years as companies make the switch to planet-friendly coolants.
For now, the companies we recommend most highly for eco-friendly refrigerators include:
Along with GE, who also participate in the EPA’s RAD recycling program, Bosch are another excellent choice for an eco-friendly refrigerator as they use R600a (isobutane) and pentane in most of their fridges and freezers in addition to having an impressive environmental record and sustainability policies.
Miele’s refrigerators are also free from CFCs and HFCs, with the company instead using the same as Bosch and GE (isobutane and pentane).
Liebherr, the German company, also make HFC-free refrigerators that perform well. In 1993, they became the first manufacturer to convert their entire appliance range to HCFC/CFC-free refrigerants and Liebherr Appliances in North America was one of the first refrigeration manufacturers worldwide to be fully RoHS compliant by restricting the use of hazardous substances. Liebherr also use environmentally-friendly powder coatings without using any solvents when finishing their sheet metals, and heat generated during manufacturing processes is recycled as heating energy for their offices and production sites. They also label the plastic components in products to ensure easy and optimum recycling, and all their production sites are certified to the international quality standard ISO 9001 and to the international environmental management standard ISO 14001.
Blomberg is another brand to look for. They were the 2018 ENERGY STAR® Partner of the Year in the Product Brand Owner category and manufacture their refrigerators, which are at least 85 percent recyclable, in factories that are ISO 14001 certified (i.e. which are mindful of the safe and responsible use of materials, energy, and natural resources). They also claim that their refrigerators are built with 99.9 percent lead-free materials and are 100 percent free from ozone-depleting greenhouse gases.
Smeg are another excellent option for HFC-free refrigerators, with the Italian company demonstrating an impressive commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship, in addition to offering energy-efficient appliances that are RoHS and REACH compliant.
EcoCool are a newer company offering refrigerator and freezer models that are impressively energy efficient. So much so that they can be run on a single solar panel, making them an excellent option as a refrigerator for a tiny home, boat, cabin, or other smaller household.
Frigidaire make some of the most economical energy-efficient refrigerators and include features such as a powered-down mode for when you’re away for a few days or longer. Their models seem to still use HFCs, however, which is why they haven’t made the cut for the ecoHome directory.
And, finally, companies such as Samsung and LG, relative newcomers to the market, are pushing the envelope for innovation, offering energy-efficient appliances with higher-end features at a mid-level price.