Can refrigerators be more efficient?

An explanation of appliance standards and how they prevent refrigerators from needlessly wasting energy.

The refrigerator in your kitchen keeps your milk from spoiling, your veggies fresh and maybe the freezer even makes ice cubes for lemonade. Doing all this work takes energy. Unfortunately, today many refrigerators rely on outdated technologies that waste energy – needlessly increasing both utility bills and harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

Thankfully, that may change soon. The Department of Energy has proposed to strengthen efficiency standards for residential refrigerators and freezers in over a decade.

What are the environmental benefits of stronger standards?

Americans purchase about 15 million refrigerators and freezers every year, which generally last ten to twenty years. If the refrigerator efficiency standards proposed by the Department of Energy are finalized, manufacturers would no longer be allowed to sell outdated appliances as of 2027. It’s expected that the energy savings from the more efficient appliances would avert 179 million metric tons of global warming pollution over 30 years of sales. That’s the equivalent of taking nearly 48 coal-fired power plants offline for a year

What are the consumer benefits of stronger refrigerator efficiency standards?

If implemented, updated refrigerators and freezer efficiency standards will save U.S. consumers up to $20 billion over 30 years of refrigerator sales. 

If the standards are finalized, refrigerators with the freezer on top would be required to use 15 percent less energy than is required under existing standards. Side-by-side refrigerator-freezers would use 19 percent less energy than is currently mandated.

FAQ about refrigerator standards

What are efficiency standards?

Efficiency standards specify the minimum energy and/or water efficiency of specific products.

Who created efficiency standards?

The first minimum efficiency standards for many residential and commercial products were created by Congress with the passage of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975. As a result of this law, national energy efficiency standards for appliances, lighting products and equipment have been saving energy and money, often with little notice. 

Since 1987, Congress has established or directed the U.S. Department of Energy to set efficiency standards for more than 55 products. Congress also charged the Department of Energy with periodically reviewing and updating all standards to keep pace with technological change. 

Residential refrigerators and freezers are among the many products for which efficiency standards are required. 

How have efficiency standards made refrigerators more efficient?

The first national efficiency standards for refrigerators and freezers were adopted by Congress and signed into law by President Reagan in 1987. Since that time, DOE has updated the national refrigerator standards three times, with the most recent update in 2011.

That update made a huge impact. Refrigerators sold in 2014 on average used just one-quarter of the energy of refrigerators in 1972, even as more modern refrigerators offer up to 30 percent more storage volume. 

The improved efficiency came from the use of more efficient compressors and fan motors, improved heat exchangers, and better insulation such as vacuum insulation panels.

How has refrigerator technology improved since the last efficiency standards went into place?

Today’s technology allows refrigerators to use less energy and keep food fresh, longer compared to technology from a decade ago. 

For example, compressor technology has improved. The compressor is the “heart” of the refrigerator. Just like your heart pumps blood, the compressor controls the flow of refrigerant. Today’s variable-speed compressors are much more efficient than the old single-speed compressors because they can run at a lower average speed and do not have to toggle off and on the way single-speed compressors do. It’s a lot more efficient to quietly hum along at a steady pace than to go from 0 to sixty and then back to 0 again. Variable speed compressors have the side-benefit of keeping foods at more consistent temperatures, which leads to longer-lasting milk and crispier lettuce. 

Other proven efficiency improvements, such as more-efficient fan motors, heat exchangers, and insulation also have the potential to become much more widespread as a result of the proposed efficiency standards.

Who opposes efficiency standards?

Unfortunately, not everyone supports energy efficiency standards. Anti-regulatory groups oppose standards on principle and some appliance manufacturers who want to be able to keep selling less efficient equipment are opposed as well. 

It’s important for people who support more efficient refrigerator standards to make their voice heard while the Department of Energy is accepting comments.  


Johanna Neumann

Senior Director, Campaign for 100% Renewable Energy, Environment America Research & Policy Center

Johanna directs strategy and staff for Environment America's energy campaigns at the local, state and national level. In her prior positions, she led the campaign to ban smoking in all Maryland workplaces, helped stop the construction of a new nuclear reactor on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and helped build the support necessary to pass the EmPOWER Maryland Act, which set a goal of reducing the state’s per capita electricity use by 15 percent. She also currently serves on the board of Community Action Works. Johanna lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her family, where she enjoys growing dahlias, biking and the occasional game of goaltimate. 

Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG

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