Fridges that keep the planet chilled
In 1990, your fridge was one of the highest users of electricity in your home as the appliance is always on, but advances in technology have improved efficiency levels. If you bought a fridge-freezer today for example, it would use, on average, 50% of the energy of a model available in 1990.6 By 2020 it is expected to be one of the most energy-efficient appliances in your home.
The bad news is the danger that some of these energy (and emissions) savings are being eroded by two trends: from the consumer side, in a recent fashion for larger, American-style fridge-freezers; and from the industry side, in adding on new features such as ice makers, frost-free and water chillers, which consume more energy. These additional features are discounted when the appliance is tested for its Energy Label which can lead to a misleadingly good rating.
Product Sustainability ratings on the score tables
We have given some extra points to brands based on energy efficiency.
We used the sust-it energy efficiency comparison website. We gave an extra point to a brand if it had at least one A+++ model of fridge available in the UK in the top 25, ranked by energy use.
The HFC saga
In the 1980s a major concern was that fridges and freezers used chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which were destroying the ozone layer, but the use of CFCs was phased out by 2000 under the Montreal Protocol. Some of the substitutes for CFCs, notably HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons) and HCFCs (hydrochlorofluorocarbons), are also powerful greenhouse gases and affect the ozone layer.
HCFCs were phased out in the 1990s in favour of HFC, a super-greenhouse gas which can be up to 22,800 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Greenpeace ran a campaign on this issue and promoted Greenfreeze hydrocarbon technology which uses a mixture of propane (R290) and isobutane (R60Oa) for the refrigerant, and cyclopentane for blowing the insulation foam. Hydrocarbons are entirely free of ozone-depleting and global warming chemicals.
According to Greenpeace, hydrocarbon has become the dominant technology in North Western Europe, since 1992. In 2009, between 90 and 100% of all domestic refrigeration in Europe used hydrocarbon technology.3 40% of the global domestic market uses hydrocarbon. All major European, Japanese and Chinese manufacturers now produce hydrocarbon refrigerators. But check when buying a new fridge or freezer and find out what refrigerant is used. HFCs are more likely to be used in large American-style refrigerators.
Scandalously, the domestic market in North America and the USA is lagging behind. The HFC chemical lobby still maintains its influence there.
Lobbying against an HFC ban
The European Commission drew up a plan in 2012 to outlaw HFCs in domestic refrigerators and freezers by 2015, and commercial coolers by 2020. The draft plan was heavily lobbied against by the HFC manufacturers and the ban was reduced to a phase-out in the final proposal.
Up to 353 industry advocates, registered in Brussels and representing 111 companies, all pushed the EU for favourable HFC legislation. The European Partnership for Energy and the Environment (EPEE), a business group representing the heating, cooling and refrigeration industry, was one of those lobbying the Commission. Of the companies in this guide, Panasonic and LG are members of the EPEE.
Environmental groups and natural refrigerant companies also lobbied hard, spending €3.1 million in a push for HFC bans and substitutions with alternative chillers such as ammonia, hydrocarbons and carbon dioxide.1 But these groups claimed to be out-gunned by the industry groups, which had a total declared lobbying budget of €23.9 million.
In December 2013, a meeting between the European Commission, Parliament and Council to decide on HFC-gas legislation was described by Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) as “the disappointing end to a two-year lobby battle. The EU’s discussions over potential bans on HFC-gases are a textbook case of how a concerted lobbying campaign by a polluting industry can weaken legislation desperately needed to fight the climate crisis.”
Despite the European Parliament and environmental groups wanting a 2020 ban, the HFC industry’s hopes for a phase-out rather than an outright ban were partially realised. The deal agreed on a cap at 2015 levels and an eventual reduction of 79% by 2030. The Parliament’s proposed bans were weakened and loopholes introduced – but the deal still agreed to ban the use of HFCs in new equipment in a number of sectors, including commercial refrigeration, by 2022.
According to CEO, “Very harmful substances, for which safe alternatives exist (but which do not bring huge profits to the powerful HFC industry) are allowed to continue being spewed into the atmosphere, at a time when the climate crisis is so acute we cannot afford to do so.”
CEO is a research and campaign group working to expose and challenge the privileged access and influence enjoyed by corporations and their lobby groups in EU policy making.
Make your own evaporative cooler
Take one large, unglazed terracotta pot and a smaller unglazed terracotta pot. Put the smaller pot which holds the food inside the larger one and fill the space between them with coarse sand, then saturate the coarse sand with water. Put a couple of layers of wet hessian over the top to keep the heat out. The water moves by capillary action into both unglazed pots and evaporates from the inside and outside of the clay surface.
Larders and cold cupboards
Traditionally, larders were purpose-built on outside walls and with slate shelves for the cold storage of food. Many have now been ripped out, and central heating systems installed, though it is possible to restore them to their original purpose.
Cold cupboards are another option. Basically they involve piping cold air from outside into an insulated cupboard. Good if there is no outside wall.
- Most fridges are but make sure it’s a hydrocarbon model, often labelled ‘HFC free’.
- Buy an appliance with the best energy rating you can.
- Choose the smallest possible model that suits your needs.
- Avoid models with energy guzzling features such as ice makers and frost free.
- ‘Two control’ fridge-freezers allow adjustment of the two units separately and allow you to turn the fridge off and leave the freezer on when you go on holiday.
- Freezers consume the most energy of all refrigeration products. Chest freezers tend to be more energy efficient because the cold air does not escape when the door is opened.
Which? Energy Saver logo
To highlight their Best Buy models that are the most energy efficient, Which? gave their Energy Saver logo to the 20% that use the least energy. They awarded the logo to specific models from Bosch, Siemens, Samsung, Grundig, Beko, Hotpoint, Smeg, Indesit, Miele and Ikea. It should be noted that Which? did not review all the manufacturers on our score table.
Using less energy
- Avoid installing a fridge or freezer next to a kitchen range, radiator, oven, dishwasher, or in direct sunlight.
- Try to keep your fridge/freezer around three-quarters full so that the food retains the cold, but not so full that the air can’t circulate.
- Only dried and cooled food should be placed in the fridge/freezer. Warm food in the refrigerator causes the temperature to increase in the short term, and long term the resulting ice build-up increases power consumption.
- Optimum temperature in a fridge is approximately 4°C; power consumption increases more than proportionally when a lower temperature is maintained.
- Keep the door shut! Opening it for 10 seconds can mean the fridge takes 40 minutes to cool to its original temperature so try to keep it to a minimum.
- The condenser grills at the back of your fridge or freezer should have plenty of ventilation space around them and be cleaned periodically to keep them dust free and working efficiently.
- Regularly defrost freezers as ice deposits considerably reduce the efficiency of cooling and increase power consumption. Frost-free freezers use more energy than ones that are manually defrosted.
- Poor sealing of refrigerator doors allows energy leaks. The tightness of the seal may be tested by inserting a piece of paper between the door and the refrigerator casing. If the paper is difficult to pull out, the seal is satisfactory. To maintain a good condition of the seal, clean it regularly with a wet cloth.
- If a refrigerator is out of use for a long period of time, e.g. during the holidays, it is recommended to switch it off, or to activate the holiday programme function offered by some modern refrigerators.
Nanotechnology in home appliances
There are washing machines and fridges on the market that use nanotechnology to kill bacteria and fungi. Silver nano antibacterial technology was introduced by Samsung in April 2003. In fridges, it is used to line the inner surfaces. In washing machines, it is released into the washing water.
Samsung, LG and Daewoo make washing machines and fridges with silver nano. We could not find any Samsung or Daewoo ones on sale in the UK but LG UK lists 44 refrigerators that use its ‘Bioshield’ silver nano technology.
Friends of the Earth wants products containing nano silver to be banned until their safety has been proved. It has asked consumers not to buy washing machines that use silver nanoparticles claiming that considerable amounts of silver could enter sewage plants and seriously trouble the biological purification process of waste water. It is also claimed that silver nanoparticles have a toxic effect on different kinds of living cells.10
Concern over its toxicity resulted in the US EPA’s decision to regulate nano silver as a pesticide and the temporary withdrawal of Samsung’s “Nano Silver” washing machine from sale in Sweden.
Samsung countered that only an accumulated amount of 0.05 grams of silver is released per machine, per year, while the released silver-ions quickly bind to non-nano-sized structures in the water. This then raises the question of what structures Samsung thinks these nanoparticles will bind to that they will not later come into contact with marine life.
German multinational Siemens, which has a joint venture with Bosch to make white goods, was widely reported to have announced an exit from the nuclear industry in 2011 in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan and the subsequent swell of anti-nuclear feeling in Germany.
Chief executive Peter Loescher told Spiegel magazine:
“The clear positioning of German society and politics for a pullout from nuclear energy” meant that “the chapter for us is closed”.
However, today Siemens Energy still promotes its services as a supplier of nuclear power stations including one currently being built in Finland.
See detailed company information, ethical ratings and issues for all companies mentioned in this guide, by clicking on a brand name in the Score table.
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1 Draft EU law slaps F-gas ban on domestic fridges, Euractiv.com, 3/10/2012
2 F-gas lobby saga - how the industry lobby got in the way of climate policy, December 17th 2013, Corporate Europe Observatory
3 ‘HFCs: A growing threat to the climate, The worst greenhouse gases you’ve never heard of....’, Greenpeace International, December 2009
4 Cool Technologies: Working Without HFCs – 2010, Greenpeace International
5 The elephant in the living room: how our appliances and gadgets are trampling the green dream, Energy Saving Trust, Sep tember 2011
6 The Guardian, Eco appliances: energy-saving hints for fridges and freezers, 30th April 2014
8 www.energy.siemens.com, viewed May 2014
This product guide is part of a Special Report on Home Appliances. See what's in the rest of the report.