In case you didn’t know, fridges are a lot more efficient than they used to be. And earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Energy enacted new standards that will make forthcoming refrigerators even easier on the grid.
It’s part of a larger regulatory trend that began in the 1970s with the birth of the EPA and continues today. It has resulted in billions of dollars in energy savings, as well as huge reductions in overall electricity consumption—not to mention reduced strain on our environment.
The problem is, even as old refrigerators are supplanted by newer, more efficient ones, the outmoded models aren’t necessarily being retired. In fact, many are relegated to backup duty in America's basements and garages.
According to data from the DOE, 23 percent of U.S. homes in 2009 had a second fridge. That's up from a mere 15 percent in 1997, and 14 percent in 1978. It makes sense when you look at the increasing size of American homes over the same period. Why would you throw away an old fridge that you spent good money on when there’s still need for food storage?
Last month, the Washington Post provided one very good reason: “Second fridge syndrome,” it argued, is not only canceling out personal energy savings from more efficient machines, but also contributing to a net uptick in residential energy consumption in the U.S.
Though today’s refrigerators are up to 75 percent more energy efficient than models produced in the 1970s and 80s, there are more homes today than there were 20 years ago—17 million more. That residential growth has contributed to a 2 percent net increase in residential energy consumption, according to EIA data, despite massive efficiency gains.
Second fridges obviously don't do this equation any good—especially since most of them are placed in adverse cooling environments like garages, where they have to work harder to maintain a consistent low temperature.
Unfortunately, there's very little direct incentive for homeowners to ditch their second icebox—or even upgrade their primary refrigerator. A 10 percent increase in fridge efficiency (as is required by new Energy Star guidelines) equates to just $6 in savings on the average utility bill… per year. This situation is compounded by the fact that homes with multiple fridges and large power draws tend to be owned by families who can easily afford the privilege. For these consumers, $6 per year is beyond insignificant.
But as we've pointed out, federal efficiency standards are meant to tackle energy usage on a national scale. To make them worthwhile, consumers need to act altruistically, or the industry needs to make new machines attractive for reasons other than efficiency.
These are problems that cannot be solved with regulations alone, so the onus is on individuals to take responsibility for their energy use. That includes rectifying the scourge of second fridge syndrome. Seriously, if you can't bear to part with your second fridge, at least consider unplugging it when it’s not in use.
For folks who are interested in getting rid of their backup, first check and see if your utility company has a recycling program. If it does, it will probably give you some cash for the old hunk of junk. If not, you can contact your local waste disposal or public works department to arrange for it to be removed.
Hero image: Wikimedia Commons, "Infrogmation" (CC BY-SA 2.5)