Wednesday, April 4

How to get Energy Star to tell you what the best appliances are

If you've done any appliance shopping in the US in the last 20 years, you've seen the Energy Star logo. It would be nice if the logo meant "buy this product and all will be well with the world," but it doesn't mean that. I have noticed that lots of appliances have cards that suggest they are Energy Star compliant, but in fact they say "we've been tested for Energy Star compliance" or "We're somewhere on the Energy Star scale." And actually, the SUV exemption exists for Energy Star too... "as long as you're looking for a fridge just like this -- size, freezer placement, etc. -- then we're above average."

The US government does keep a database with more information,, but even that is presented in a very passive way. It looks like it's just there to present results in a neutral way. Look up your manufacturer and the model number and it will tell you -- yes or no -- whether what you're looking at is better than average.

Well, what if you really want to know what the best option is? It turns out that's in there too. Here's how to use Excel to get at it.

  1. Go to the web page for finding consumer products. (
  2. Click on the class of product you want information for.
  3. When the new page comes up, it should have general information in the main column, and then over in the right-hand column, it should have a "Product List" subheading with links under it.
  4. Click on the Excel worksheet link. Now, if you right click and try to save this file, you'll get page data instead. So click on the link and when the computer asks what you want to do, open the link with Excel.
  5. Once the file is open, save a copy on your computer. We're going to edit the data.
  6. I start by making a copy of the sheet I'm on. That way I still have the original data if I mess something up.
  7. On the copy, I do two things:

    1. Remove the headers in the merged cells at the top of the sheet. Our goal is to sort the data and these headers don't sort well.
      Then I look to see if there is a column for what I really want to know. For example, I decided that I wanted to know the fridges that used the least watts per cubic foot. So I added a column that divided the watts by the cubic foot. You can add this column by typing a formula in the top cell in the column (=i2/h2), hovering over the lower right-hand corner of the cell until the skinny plus sign shows up, clicking there, and then dragging the formula down to fill the rest of the rows.
  8. Highlight the column that contains the information you want to use for your decision-making. (This is my new column.) Now go to the Data item in the menu bar, click on that, and then click on Sort. It will ask whether you want to include the rest of the data on your page. You do, so expand the selection and click the sort button.
  9. A new pop-up appears. Your highlighted column is the first option to sort by. Tell Excel whether you want an ascending or a decending sort. If you want to know which appliances exceed their appliance class the most, you want a decending list. If you want to know which appliances use the least energy in a year, you want an ascending list.

  10. There are some other options in the box. You can use additional criteria to sort by, like the manufacturer's name. And then it asks if you have a header row. If you kept the rows in the spreadsheet that tell you what each column is, then you have header rows.

Press OK to sort the data. You should notice that the manufacturer names are no longer in alphabetical order.

I did this with the refrigerator data, adding the watts/year/adjusted volume column mentioned above and sorting by that. I look down the configuration column for refrigerator/freezers, and the most efficient model is the Sun Frost RF-12. Now, the "Percent Better" column confirms that... this model is 51% better than the standard for fridges in this class. But would you have looked through 1800 models to find the best? Or would you have looked for a familiar name, found a part number, and gone to look for that one?

Confession time... I did that when I bought the washer and dryer for the new house. I'm going to do better with the fridge. ;-)

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NotSoBigLiving is the story of a woman inspired by Sarah Susanka, Bill McKibben, Airstreams, Tumbleweed houses, Mennonites, Jimmy Carter, hippies, survivalists, Anasazi, Pema Chodron and Joko Beck, Scott Peck, Buckminster Fuller, and Al Gore to see what she can do to reduce her carbon footprint in her mid-80's suburban townhome. Strategies include roommates, alternative travel, organic eating, planting a victory garden, mindfulness, and a belly full of laughter.