August 2, 2007

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Do 'Green' Appliances
Live Up to Their Billing?

Energy-Efficient Devices Flood Market, but Some Owners Find Results Fall Short of Promises
August 2, 2007; Page D1

Jeanine Van Voorhees wanted to do her part for the environment when she bought a $1,000 energy-saving washing machine. But her clothes came out covered in cat hair and her whites were dingy. She resorted to washing some loads twice.


"I curse that machine every time," says Ms. Van Voorhees, a retired nurse practitioner from North Tonawanda, N.Y.

Amid concerns about energy consumption, Americans are increasingly encouraged to buy energy-efficient appliances. But while some of the latest products can offer significant energy and water savings, they can be double the price -- or have kinks that can result in clothes and dishes needing to be washed twice.

Still, water and energy bills are on the rise in many areas, and appliance-makers are increasing their offerings of low energy-use products. A few months ago, Sears Holdings Corp. unveiled a new line of high-efficient appliances, including the Kenmore Elite Ultra Wash dishwasher that promises to use about half the water of a standard one. General Electric Co. this year rolled out several new energy-efficient refrigerators, such as the Profile French Door Bottom Freezer Refrigerator that uses at least 15% less energy. Companies such as Bosch and Siemens Home Appliances Group and LG Group have stepped up their offerings of front-load washing machines, which have doors in the front and can accommodate bigger loads but save on water.

An efficient refrigerator won't command much of a premium, but energy-saving dishwashers and clothes washers can go for double the price of standard models. According to the NPD Group, a market-research firm in Port Washington, N.Y., the demand for Energy Star products has fallen slightly in the past year. Approximately 52% of all dishwashers, refrigerators and washing machines sold in the 12 months ended in May were Energy Star qualified, compared with 54% in the year-earlier period. Energy Star is the government labeling program for products that meet energy-efficient criteria. Sales of major appliances were $22.4 billion in 2006, flat compared with 2005, according to NPD.

But, environmental advocates point out that the biggest energy sucks aren't washing machines and dishwashers. Many consumers don't realize that an energy-guzzling plasma TV can off-set the energy-savings of kitchen appliances. A conventional TV consumes about 130 watts of power per hour, while a 42-inch plasma consumes more than twice as much, or around 350 watts per hour, according to Tom Reddoch, manager of energy use for the Electric Power Research Institute, a Palo Alto, Calif., nonprofit organization that promotes the adoption of energy-efficient practices. And one of the largest energy-savings measures is replacing light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs, which use about 75% less energy than standard bulbs.

Still, government and local utilities are stepping up incentives to get consumers to shell out more for energy-efficient appliances in an effort to ease the burden on regional grids and water supplies. Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which serves 15 million people in California, this year raised its rebates to $75 for clothes washers and $50 for dishwashers that meet certain efficiency standards. The federal government offers up a $300 tax credit for those who install energy-efficient air conditioning and heating systems.

But before buyers hit the showroom floor, consumer advocates point out there a few things they should consider. While most energy-saving appliances perform well, some can pose problems. For example, many consumers don't know they need to use high-efficiency soap or half the amount of regular detergent with front-loading clothes-washers. These can use as much as 70% less water than top-loaders, but regular detergent creates extra suds in this type of washer, and is tougher to rinse. Also, the machine senses the suds and uses extra water, offsetting savings.

Also, some people who bought front-loaders have complained of drainage problems that cause mold build-up around the edge of the opening and a foul smell. Several years ago, owners of a Maytag front-loader, the Neptune, filed a lawsuit due to issues with the machines, including mold growth and door latch problems. The company settled the suit in 2005 and agreed to cover repair and replacement costs, according Jonathan Shub, a lead counsel on the case.

Whirlpool Corp., which now owns Maytag, and Sears said mold build-up in front-loaders is minor, and urge consumers to take preventive steps, such as cleaning the drum and door seal periodically or leaving the door open when the washer isn't in use.

Front-load machines use less water because they cycle the clothes through water at the bottom, whereas top-load machines fill the entire drum with water. Front-loaders also save energy because they dry clothes better in the spin cycle, so clothes need less time in the dryer.

It isn't just some water-saving front-loaders that have problems. Researchers at Consumer Reports recently found that some traditional, top-loader washers, including the Sears Kenmore 2783[1], the Whirlpool WTW5840S[W], and the Frigidaire Gallery GLWS1339E[C], fail to get clothes clean in the wake of new, government-mandated energy-saving standards for all washers that went into affect in January.

"Consumers can't take it for granted any more that any old washing machine will clean their clothes," says Mark Connelly, senior director of appliance testing for Consumer Reports.

The GE Profile refrigerator (left), Bosch Ecooption dishwasher (below) and LG steamwasher (right) tout their energy-efficiency

Whirlpool and Sears said the washers were tested on a regular wash cycle, when they should have been run on a heavy-duty cycle. Officials for AB Electrolux's Frigidaire said no one at the company was available to comment.

The Department of Energy says complaints about front-load and low-water washers are limited and said the issues seem to be model-specific rather than a problem with the energy-saving technology.

Water-saving dishwashers, too, can have drawbacks. Energy-efficient dishwashers often don't use hot air to dry the dishes, though they may have a "heat-dry" option. No heat can make the cycle longer or leave glasses spotty, say consumer advocates and retailers. Appliance experts suggest adding a rinse agent, such as Jet Dry, which prevents water from beading and causing marks. This, however, adds another step and additional chemicals to the process.

Owners also shouldn't rinse their dishes before putting them in a water-efficient dishwasher. That is because most of the new products are equipped to handle bits of food and rinsing dishes beforehand can negate the water-savings. But some stubborn foods, like eggs or oatmeal, can still get stuck on dishes. Some of latest dishwasher models, like Sears's Ultra Wash, aim to address that problem by using better water coverage and putting in more finely-tuned sensors to determine dishes' dirtiness and adjust water flow accordingly.

Energy-efficient builders and energy-saving advocates advise that if people want to upgrade to energy efficient appliances, they should focus first on refrigerators, because unlike a dishwasher or clothes washer, they run all the time. Air conditioning units, too, tend to be big energy hogs. Cooling accounts for 11% of total energy use in the average home, and refrigerators and freezers account for 8%, according to government data compiled by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C. The energy used doing laundry and dishes combined accounts for just 5%, according to the council. However, in areas where water is a big cost, a water-saving washer or dishwasher may be a preferable investment.

Write to Sara Schaefer Muñoz at sara.schaefer@wsj.com3

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