How can I influence the EnergyStar program?
April 3, 2013 1:54 PM   Subscribe

I think the EnergyStar program could do more good, and may actually be doing harm in its current form. In what ways could I try to impact it?

As far as I know the only thing that affects an appliance's EnergyStar eligibility is its efficiency while running. But anecdotally, I've seen what seems to be change in manufacturing in recent years that adds another layer to the energy cost of an appliance: early replacement.

- My parents bought a refridgerator, well-informed by consumer reports, etc, and it started to "sweat" a little in the first year. My mom, thankfully, called someone in before the warranty was up. He took one look at it, sighed, "another one", and immediately called the retailer to send a truck to have the thing taken away and replaced with a new one.

- Friends had a very high end refridgerator that developed a problem, about 5 years in, and it, too had to be taken out and replaced completely (on their dime in this case.)

Now I have a fridge from the 70's that EnergyStar tells me costs $200 per year more to operate than a comparable new one. Taking aside for a moment my concern that the data may be biased, since they come from studies done by a network of manufacurers (am I right about that?) there's also a hard-to-measure expected cost, both to the environment and to me, if the new one fails irreplacably in several years.

So you see where I'm heading: I want the EnergyStar program to also weigh into its calculations the expected lifetime of the new product. I want to both be able to get information I can't get today about the real difference between old and new (even if my own "ancient" is a no-brainer to replace) and I want to see pressure put on manufacturs to go back to prioritizing quality. I'd even assert that putting this kind of pressure on manufacturers - to create better-engineered and more repairable products - could potentially push more manufacturing back into the United States, with the economic benefits that would come with that.

Ok, so what are some good ways I could start that ball rolling, and what do you think are the chances?

Also, do you have any data to help support my case if I should, say, write to my Senator?
posted by spbmp to Law & Government (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Have you started with writing to Energy Star to ask them about their policy and if they would consider implementing these considerations?
posted by Eicats at 2:11 PM on April 3, 2013

Best answer: EnergyStar is run by the US EPA with support from the DoE National Labs, particularly Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. The operational energy data come from a mixture of manufacture reports and laboratory testing and is a respected data source among energy behavioral scientists and energy economists. The program is widely believed to have been very successful in reducing energy demand in US residences and businesses. It's a big program that employs many highly qualified scientists. I guess I'm trying to suggest here that while your concern is a reasonable one, the big picture is not as bad as you've painted it here. (You're not right about the data being biased.)

The mandate for the program is here. The program's purpose is to focus on operational energy, but it does specify that this should not come at the expense of quality or performance. In other words, if a fridge is low-energy but fails sooner than a regular fridge, it should not receive the qualifying certification. You could make a reasonable case that Energy Star should be paying more attention to product lifetimes.

This website has email contacts for specific programs; you can write to the person in charge of appliances and start a conversation there if you like.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:16 PM on April 3, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: If you were a large organization with an interest in this, you'd file a petition for rulemaking with the EPA. In fact, I'd suggest you find an organization with the resources to do this and discuss with them.
posted by General Malaise at 2:33 PM on April 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

spbmp, I agree with you. It's not just the monetary cost -- although that's significant -- but also the environmental cost in manufacturing a new item that should be taken into account.

I've often wished there were a database of some kind, with a calculation app written on top of it, to estimate these kinds of costs in context with the lifetime savings of a more efficient item.

One would be able to see not just total dollar cost, but total water cost, energy cost, pollution produced, etc. -- and, ideally, the cost in time and attention of the buyer (with some kind of probability curve factored in) when he/she has to choose, replace, install, and learn to use replacements.

(At the same time, I wonder if one reason such a thing doesn't exist is that environmentally-minded engineers hope that lower prices => more people buying "green" appliances => increased industrial scale => ability to develop better technologies => eventual greener appliances that will last longer and still not cost too much...

Put another way: if environmentally-responsible dishwashers that last a long time cost 2x regular dishwashers, maybe nobody would buy them, and the whole effort would die; whereas, producing cheap moribund dishwashers that use less energy will lead to gradual improvements over time, as the companies that produce them are able to make incremental improvements in design and production...)

By the way: To find the actual energy usage of your current refrigerator, you can use the Kil-A-Watt device. Our local library has one we can check out for free. You could take it to your friends' houses and check their refrigerators, too! If an appliance has a special plug, though (like most clothes dryers), I'm not sure how to connect it to the Kil-A-Watt.
posted by amtho at 5:37 PM on April 3, 2013

Best answer: I would write a letter to their public affairs division briefly outlining your concerns, and asking for guidance on who to talk to and how best to contact them.

But it's important to note that they just set the standards. The manufacturers choose to, or not to, follow them, and further how well they build their products. Things are, in general, not built as well as they used to be. I don't think Energy Star has much to do with this. But that might be a question to ask: do they have any data on build quality versus energy consumption?
posted by gjc at 6:28 PM on April 3, 2013

In fact, I'd suggest you find an organization with the resources to do this and discuss with them.

Consumers Union (publishers of Consumer Reports) has spent years critiquing government standards in just about everything, including Energy Star.

One would be able to see not just total dollar cost, but total water cost, energy cost, pollution produced, etc.

One rough approximation of these costs would be handled by a carbon tax -- a political non-starter in the US at this point.

In any case, I'd caution against anecdata here -- you have some confirmation bias of short appliance life, but not a comprehensive study of appliance life vs. usage and other factors. As a broad assumption, it's likely that manufacturers do take build quality into account as it relates to warrantied lifetime, but it would be unlikely to be successful to plan warranty + 1 day lifetimes, for instance. The average consumer would get their warranty, but most people expect more, and quite a few would get less, increasing costs to the manufacturer.

could potentially push more manufacturing back into the United States

I wouldn't count on that very much. Manufacturing is highly optimized around labor and shipping costs today. Retailers who focus on quality tend to do it as a way to decrease emphasis on price, and recessionary times put heavy pressure on those standards.
posted by dhartung at 3:46 AM on April 4, 2013

Response by poster: Turns out the mother of a friend actually worked on the refrigerator campaign for EnergyStar! He told me that he'd discussed this very question with her a long time ago, and that she was unambiguous that, on average, the energy saved over the lifetime of a new refrigerator would substantially beat the energy embodied in the replacement process.

Another friend suggested:

The real way to fix this problem is with EPR legislation, which is much more common in Europe than here. From that link:
"Thus, Extended Producer Responsibility is often cited as one way to fight planned obsolescence, because it financially encourages manufacturers to design for recycling and make products last longer."

...but he thought it would work poorly to conflate that with EnergyStar.
posted by spbmp at 7:58 AM on April 4, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks for all the ideas. I think I have some better information and avenues now to follow up on this bee in my bonnet.
posted by spbmp at 7:59 AM on April 4, 2013

Best answer: As someone who actually works in support of the ENERGY STAR program, I want to back up PercussivePaul's reply about the source of ENERGY STAR's data. I also want to point out that writing to your senator/congressperson, or petitioning for rulemaking with EPA, wouldn't necessarily apply here, as ENERGY STAR is a voluntary program and has no regulatory mandate backing it up.
posted by sparringnarwhal at 8:56 AM on April 4, 2013

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