Our refrigerators have been lying to us. They’ve been doing it for years. And we’ve all been helping them to do it.
The lie in question is told in advertisements of how much food a fridge can hold—anywhere between 15 to 20 to even 30 cubic feet.
However, a Reviewed.com data analysis of hundreds of refrigerators shows that some of those numbers overestimate capacity by as much as 30 percent. Though it might sound like a concerted effort to deceive consumers, the real reason for those inflated numbers is a measurement system that no manufacturer can escape.
How Do They Get Those Numbers?
Our standards for appliance testing are coordinated by the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, or AHAM. This organizations standard for measurement closely aligns with the international IEC standard released in 2015, so these days we're all more or less on the same page. But that wasn’t always the case.
“There were essentially three main standards: The U.S., European, and Japanese tests,” explain David Yashar, Deputy Chief of the Energy and Environment Division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. “A couple of other countries had derivations of those tests, some directly pulling the same methodology and some with minor changes.”
“There was a tendency in the European standard to try to base everything on storage volume. In working with them, it was clear they recognized that the repeatability wasn’t great product to product.”
Manufacturers around the world calculate fridge capacity using total volume. Now, the key word here is “total,” as opposed to “usable.” When a fridge interior is measured, everything that can be taken out is removed. Large ice makers and other hardwired fixtures are left in place, but everything else goes. That includes lightbulbs, removable shelves, and even ice buckets.
The easiest way to think about advertised storage is if you emptied out your fridge of everything, filled it with water, and measured the volume. From there, manufacturers measure what is a technically-accurate-but-misleading—total volume.
While most of the measurement includes areas that will actually be used for storage, it can also incorporate nooks and crannies where food was never meant to go. The empty space behind the crisper drawer? It's considered part of the total capacity. Want shelves? That number decreases. Screw in a light bulb? You lose a little more.
But Everyone's Doing It
Thanks to modern communication efforts between standards organizations, every major manufacturer worldwide follows this kind of measurement standard, whether they’re based in the U.S., Korea, or Germany. The test used by AHAM in America, known as ANSI/AHAM HRF-1, has been around since before 1960. It received its heaviest update back in 2008, but has long been a living document.
"Being that [HRF-1] is an American National Standard, it undergoes revision at least every 5 years and is subject to comments from other outside industry experts," said Jill Notini, the AHAM Vice President of Communication and Marketing. "It is also referenced by DOE [the U.S. Department of Energy] in its energy test procedures. The procedure is revised to keep up with innovation and changes seen in the marketplaces, such as number of doors and drawers, etc.”
While it may lead to overestimated storage claims on the part of manufacturers, it's good to have a standard. That's because we all use our fridges in subtly different ways.
As Dr. Yashar puts it, “The goal is to ensure a fair regulation for each product, noting the inherent differences in sizes and functions. The regulations limit the energy use of a product based on its measured volume, therefore that measurement has to be repeatable, reproducible and free of subjectivity. Subjectivity in the volume measurement would make the energy regulation ineffective.”
Now, if the goal is to test energy consumption, this method actually makes a lot of sense. That empty space behind your crisper may not be useful for storage, but it is involved with the overall air flow in the fridge and so becomes relevant to the calculated volume.
There's also a huge disincentive to buck the standard: If one manufacturer changed its ways and started advertising usable space, there’s a good chance no one would buy it.
A Semi-Even Playing Field
That said, the ratio of total-to-usable capacity is not consistent between product types. As part of our testing process, we measure out the usable space in a fridge with a tape measure and our own standards, which are based not on a committee made up of manufacturers, but on common sense.
Our measurements show that most refrigerators lose up to 40 percent of total space to shelves, ice buckets, and drawers. We can also say that—in general—the fancier the fridge, the less usable space it has in relation to what’s advertised on the front.
That's because high-end fridges have ice makers, retractable shelves, dispenser nooks, and other perks that eat into viable storage space. In other words, a basic 20-cu.-ft. top freezer may actually have just as much usable space as a 24-cu.-ft. side-by-side, even if it’s smaller on the outside.
Not Quite the End of the World
And there lies the reason why most Americans don't care about the difference between usable and claimed capacity: Most people choose a fridge based on where they can fit food, not necessarily how much they can fit.
Still, we think it's important for consumers to get what they pay for. That's why one aspect of our scoring system involves measuring out usable space by hand and comparing it to the advertised capacity.
And now you know.