People everywhere are cutting down energy use, improving a home’s insulation, turning lights off, or exchanging traditional lightbulbs for more efficient lighting options. So when consumers shop for new appliances it’s common to focus on finding a product with an ENERGY STAR® rating.

But how do appliances get this rating? And why don’t all appliances have them? The answer may surprise you.

Computers and monitors were the first products to receive an efficiency rating from ENERGY STAR®, a program launched in 1992 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Energy. Since then, more than 60 product categories have been added, from dishwashers to windows and DVD players. According to the program, ENERGY STAR®-rated products deliver the same or better performance as comparable models while using less energy and saving money.

Manufacturers test products using a procedure agreed upon by experts with the product, submit the data, and ENERGY STAR® decides which are the top performers. This is how much energy you can use to be considered a leader by ENERGY STAR®. Generally, that means that product is in the top 25%. For example, qualified refrigerators must be at least 15% more efficient than the minimum federal efficiency standard. ENERGY STAR®-rated TVs consume 3 watts or less when switched off, compared to a standard TV, which consumes almost 6 watts on average. By pushing for the manufacturing of more efficient products, ENERGY STAR® estimates the rating system saved businesses, organizations, and consumers $19 billion in 2008 alone.

Consumers are taking advantage of the program. A survey by the Consortium for Energy Efficiency—a group including members like the quasi-governmental Tennessee Valley Authority and Bonneville Power Administration, a federal power marketing administration in the Northwest—discovered 76% of American households recognize the ENERGY STAR® brand. Of these consumers, 73% purchased an ENERGY STAR®-labeled product within the last year.

But not all products are rated by ENERGY STAR®. The program gauges the average energy efficiency of different appliance technologies and evaluates whether there’s potential for increased efficiency—generally at least 25% higher than minimum standards. According to ENERGY STAR®, the most efficient electric resistance water heaters on the market have an Energy Factor of 0.95, about 5% more efficient than the minimum federal standard. Since there’s little room for improvement, ENERGY STAR® does not have a category for the product. When purchasing an electric water heater, consumers should consider durability and energy factor [EF], a mandatory evaluation done on all water heaters regardless of fuel source. EF takes into account fuel use, standby energy loss, and insulation under simulated actual conditions.

Last October the New York Times revealed some manufacturers of household appliances were testing products for ENERGY STAR®-certification internally instead of using independent laboratories. In response, ENERGY STAR® ramped up oversight of product ratings and by the end of the year had revoked the ENERGY STAR® label for some refrigerators while raising the bar for the efficiency expected from TVs.

Federal energy efficiency tax credits for appliances and home heating and air systems typically require qualifying products to be ENERY STAR®-rated. To learn more about the ENERGY STAR® program, visit www.energystar.gov.

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