Is the Future of the Fridge a Connected One?

Reader Contribution by Jennifer Tuohy

This 25 cu. ft. Samsung fridge meets the new Energy Star criteria that went into effect in Sep. 2014, and has enough room to fit 25 bags of groceries.

As of September 2014, all refrigerators and freezers were required to meet new federal minimum energy-efficiency standards. Additionally, to gain the coveted Energy Star label, an appliance has to be at least 10 percent more efficient than the new standards. This change, first announced in April 2013, saw manufacturers scurrying to remake their machines to comply. What this means for us as eco-conscious consumers is that the Energy Star rated fridges and freezers you see in the stores today are the most energy efficient models ever made.

“Ten percent may not seem like a big number,” Ann Bailey of Energy Star says, “but when you look at what that means across all of the sales, when all refrigerators have met those requirements, the difference amounts to the equivalent of taking one million cars off the road-and $890 million in energy savings.”

The updated requirements not only raise the bar for energy efficiency in refrigeration, but they also introduce, for the first time, the idea that putting Wi-Fi into a fridge could help with energy savings. The new Energy Star rating has optional guidelines for manufacturers to include “connected” features.

We already have “smart” thermostats that monitor the energy use of our HVAC system-the largest consumer of household energy-so it’s a logical step to find a way to similarly empower the second largest household energy consumer: the fridge. However, the idea of fridges being connected to the Internet has heretofore primarily been the subject of ridicule, following the unfortunate fridge that sent out spam emails.

The question, “Why do we need our fridges to talk to the outside world?” is a valid one, but the answer is not just about being able to tweet while taking out the turkey-it’s about being able to monitor and consequently adapt the appliance’s energy use.

Connecting a refrigerator is not a requirement of the Energy Star program, however. Should a fridge be connected, the EPA recommends that the “appliance be required to enable communication in response to consumer-authorized energy related commands.” These include:

• Being capable of receiving and responding to remote commands
• Provide energy consumption reporting
• Provide Demand Response status (normal operation, delay appliance load, temporary appliance load reduction) to energy management systems
• Send messages relevant to consumption of energy (such as door left open, product lost power, reminder to clean coils, or a report when consumption is outside the normal range)
• The capability to delay the defrost cycle to align with summer and winter peak demand periods

“These features would offer consumers more ways to reduce the energy consumption of their refrigerators and freezers, help lower their utility bills, and better protect the environment and the climate,” says the EPA.

This EPA diagram shows how a connected refrigerator/freezer system could communicate with energy management programs, including your utility company.

There are no connected fridges on the market right now, but GE launches their new connected fridge in the spring of 2015 and others are sure to follow suit shortly thereafter. Currently, GE is touting the ability of its fridge to send you alerts and reminders, such as when it’s time for a replacement filter or if the door has been left opened, but features such as those described above won’t be far behind.

In the meantime, if you are shopping for a new, non-smart Energy Star fridge today, make sure you look for the new Energy Guide labels that reflect the updated ratings. You’ll know the difference by the writing; if it’s yellow writing, it’s new; black writing, it’s old. The new guidelines use different calculations, so you can’t compare an old Energy Guide label with a new one.

On the left is the old Energy Star label with black writing. On the right is the new Energy Star label, which you will find on all models that qualify for the newer, better 2014 Energy Star rating. It is distinguishable by its yellow writing.

Jennifer Tuohy writes about green appliance topics for Home Depot. Jennifer’s energy-saving refrigerator tips are focused on providing homeowners with the latest up-to-date news in this fast-changing field. You can view many energy-saving models of refrigerators, including types referenced by Jennifer, online at Home Depot’s website.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.