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New fridges: More Features, Less Juice

New fridges: More Features, Less Juice

With strict government requirements in place, appliance manufacturers are going all-out to make their wares more energy efficient. The results speak for themselves.

Which of your household appliances guzzles the most energy? According to the DOE, it is probably your refrigerator. Fact is, a typical refrigerator can cost as much as $1,140 to operate over its lifetime, says the DOE, and the older it is, the more electricity it uses. Recognizing the need for change, the Federal government, in 1993, stepped in with mandated energy standards targeting all products, but hitting refrigeration the hardest. Measures called for a 30% reduction in energy usage.

This year, however, designers and manufacturers faced even stiffer terms: Beginning July 1, new refrigerators must use 30% less energy than before, 40% less if they want DOE Energy-Star ratings. At least one manufacturer is aggressively pursuing the Energy Star seal of approval. Sears, recently named the Energy Star Partner of the Year 2001 by the DOE and EPA, already sells more than 250 Energy Star appliances with more on the way.

In an interesting relationship, a team of Whirlpool engineers work with Sears' Kenmore appliance group to design products sold exclusively under the Ken-more name. Other appliance manufacturers have similar relationships with Sears.

Times are a-changin'
"In the past, refrigerators were not very efficient," explains Stefan Grunwald, Kenmore product-development manager. "In fact, efficiency was almost an afterthought. We designed them to be at a certain temperature and we didn't worry much about fluctuations. Now energy performance is first and foremost along with temperature performance."

Consider this: The 2001 energy standards dictate that a typical 25-ft 3 side-by-side refrigerator — the number-one best seller — will use only about as much energy as a 60 to 75-W lightbulb. Kenmore not only expects to hit this but also to do even better in the future.

"As we design products for each new energy standard we try to anticipate what the next energy standard will be, then design those capabilities into the base product," says Grunwald.

This type of thinking has engineers looking at the product more closely to understand how it performs. Kenmore designers are using engineering wonders like IR imaging technology and CFD to better control temperature and manage airflow, keeping it away from areas prone to heat loss.

All-around improvement
Kenmore takes refrigeration seriously, even calling itself "America's best refrigeration system." This claim arises from energy, temperature, and sound performance. The trick is maintaining the claim without giving anything up.

Explains Tom Arent, director of refrigeration, Whirlpool, Sears Sales and Marketing, "There are easy ways to hit energy standards by degrading temperature performance, lengthening defrost cycles, and causing wide temperature fluctuations in the refrigerator. But we've maintained and even improved our temperature control, as well as made the machine quieter while hitting the new energy levels."

Designing for quietness is a challenge. According to Grunwald, Kenmore looks specifically at two areas: The airflow itself and the fan motors and compressor components. To optimize airflow within the product, engineers eliminate any sharp turns that can cause turbulence. They also work closely with compressor manufacturers and fan-motor suppliers to boost tolerances, and cut vibration and air-induced noise. "We manage the transmission paths within the product from a vibration and sound-generating standpoint, putting sound absorbing materials in the right places," he explains.

One of those "right places" is in the door. The Kenmore refrigeration group began using foam-in-place doors in 1993 in anticipation of future energy standards. Their foresight paid off. The foam-in-place is actually a gel poured in after the door is assembled, filling every crack and crevice. Says Arent, "Standard refrigerators use an insulation blanket, but the foam-in-place sets up and hardens making for a firm, rigid door." It also gets rid of pesky door-alignment problems. This better insulates the door shelves and the foamed door dikes, or the ridge on the inside of the door around the edges, thwarting heat loss through the gaskets around the door's edge.

Most people would agree that one of the biggest changes in refrigeration was frost-free mode, introduced some 20 years ago. Though manual defrost is technically more efficient, few consumers want to return to the days of scraping 6 in. of ice from freezer sidewalls. So Whirlpool engineers designed smart defrost systems that only energize when needed. A special defrost algorithm senses frost building between cycles, then figures out how to cycle most efficiently. The frost-free phenomenon has really caught on, says Kathy Goodwin, Sears refrigeration buyer, pointing out that more than 95% of products sold today in the U.S are frost-free.

More Bells and Whistles
Electronics and electronic controls are more recent novelties. Kenmore refrigerators now incorporate electronics targeting energy use. For starters, engineers switched from thermostats to more accurate and precise thermisters. A digital readout of temperature setpoints with 1° increments helps to further manage temperature and improve energy efficiency. GrocerySavor is a new feature said to work great for leftovers or food fresh from the grocery store because it cools or freezes fresh and frozen foods up to 20% faster than with previous models. Yet another highlight, AccelerIce, makes ice up to 50% faster by managing temperature and airflow to the icemaker. These and other electronic controls are creating building blocks for future high-tech offerings.

Reigning in costs
With all these bells and whistles, it's not surprising that new energy-efficient appliances carry a hefty price tag. New energy-efficiency standards have driven nearly all manufacturers to redesign from the ground up, says Arent, investing hundreds of millions of dollars.

But retailers and utility companies are working together to counter the sticker shock by offering rebates in certain markets. It's a win-win situation for consumers. As Arent puts it, "Getting money back for buying energy-efficient refrigerators gives consumers one heck of a value for an excellent refrigerator."

Other makers minding regulations
Meeting the new 2001 energy standards isn't optional. Manufacturers must redesign or re-treat. Fortunately, most are choosing to re-design, adding a whole host of state-of-the-art techno-gadgets to catch the consumer's eye.

General Electric, for instance, launched its GE Profile Arctica side-by-side refrigerator billed as the most comprehensive refrigeration system the company has ever offered. Using a special temperature-control system, the Arctica distributes cool air evenly within the fresh-food compartment through a multiflow air tower. Sensors monitor interior temperatures, keeping food cold regardless of where it sits. Electronic controls hold temperatures precisely. In the freezer, sensors tell when to defrost, and a new process called Frost-Guard helps cut freezer burn.

Other highlights include CustomCool bins which cool food and beverages in minutes, ExpressThaw which warms food in hours, and Quick Ice which speeds ice production. Contoured doors and textured handles add to the Arctica's style, as well as a large water dispenser set back in the freezer door front for filling colossal containers such as sport bottles and pitchers. Arctica refrigerators meet 2001 energy standards and 2003 clean-air requirements.

Due in stores this month are six new energy-efficient Easy Reach refrigerators from Amana Appliances. Amana says the new refrigerators meet 2001 standards and use less energy than earlier models, lowering the average annual usage cost from about $50 to $44. That's less than $4 a month to operate.

The Easy Reach fridge lives up to its name by putting fresh food on top and the freezer on the bottom. Amana found that 84% of consumers prefer bottom-freezer fridges because they use the fresh-food section much more often and appreciate less bending. New this year is a pullout freezer drawer with a sliding, full-width upper section which actually provides two tiers of storage.

All Amana's Easy Reach refrigerators come with a Temp-Assure system where separate temperature sensors in the fresh-food section and freezer automatically adjust to temperature fluctuations as small as 1.5°F.

Maytag Appliances also has a more energy-efficient refrigerator on the market called the Wide-By-Side. This newfangled design is essentially a reconfigured side-by-side. Though side-by-sides are the biggest sellers in the refrigerator business, consumers are often challenged by the design when trying to store odd-shaped or oversized items that fit more easily in a top-mount model. The Wide-By-Side spans both worlds. Its offset configuration offers more refrigeration space on top and more freezer space on the bottom. Other innovations include a filtration system for cleaner, better-tasting ice and water, an Elevator Shelf in the refrigerator compartment that moves up or down easily without having to remove food first, and a sound-silencing system to quiet noisy humming.

The Wide-By-Side also uses Maytag's ClimateZone technology which automatically adjusts the temperature and humidity in separate compartments of the refrigerator to keep foods fresher, longer.

A little off the beaten path is a super energy-efficient 120-Vac refrigerator/freezer called the ConServ 375 and 375 SS (stainless steel) from Kyocera Solar Inc., Scottsdale, Ariz. This stylish unit uses CFC-free refrigerant and is built with recyclable parts. Like Amana's Easy Reach, the fresh-food section sits at the top and the freezer is on the bottom — each has a separate compressor. Condenser and cooling tubes are built into the walls and the back is sealed to keep dust out of working parts. This sealed design helps make the system quiet and ultraefficient, says the company.

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