Q. Dear Umbra,

This summer I’ll be away from home for two months, and it kills me to think that my refrigerator will be humming along in an empty house for that whole time. Is it worth it to try to clear out a refrigerator and freezer so that we can turn it off for those two months and save the energy? If so, I have a lot of overripe bananas to thaw and bake with and end pieces of bread to toast.

Aaron K.
Montezuma, N.M.

A. Dearest Aaron,

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Extended summer travel is such a treat, isn’t it? The freedom, the exposure to new places and ideas, that thrill when a bat’s wing brushes your cheek — I’m thinking of the two months I spent bicycling around Australia doing population surveys on fruit bats, of course, but I’m sure your journey will be just as exciting. So it’s commendable indeed that you’re thinking about energy savings now, before you get swept away in the travel rush. I think you can surely save electricity and carbon emissions via your fridge while you’re gone. In fact, flipping it off is just the beginning of your summer-vaca energy plan. Let’s get those bananas thawing while we map it all out.

Without knowing what kind of refrigerator you have or how old it is, Aaron, it’s impossible to tell you exactly how much energy it will use while you’re away. A truly geriatric model (from the mid-’90s) can suck up to 150 kWh of juice per month, while an Energy Star-rated appliance will be more in the 40 to 55 kwh-per-month range. Assuming you have one on the newer side, your always-on fridge is burning through about 999 pounds of carbon per year keeping your cabbage cool — that’s about the equivalent of driving almost 1,080 miles (and an older model will be much worse).

Turning it off for two months, then, will save you about $13.14 on a personal level and 166.5 pounds of carbon emissions on a global one. That won’t make a huge dent in your 16.84-metric-ton annual carbon footprint, true, but why waste any electricity keeping the fridge humming when you don’t need it? Any perishables will go bad well before your homecoming anyway. Take it from someone who once accidentally left a carton of yogurt behind during an extended absence.

So yes, I’d say it’s worth it to put your refrigerator in hibernation before you go. First step: Eat, bake, toast, and give away the contents of your fridge and freezer. Do everything you can to avoid tossing the contents — as I’m sure you know, food waste is a big problem, and we don’t want to wantonly contribute to it. Next, prep the appliance. You should check your owner’s manual for specifics, but generally, you’ll want to turn off the fridge’s water supply and icemaker, then unplug it. Give it a nice wipedown, leave the doors open to thwart mold and mildew, and you’re ready to roam.

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Well, not quite ready — why stop with the fridge, Aaron? I have a few more pre-travel steps to suggest before I bid you bon voyage. Let’s also check your:

  • Water heater. These busy little appliances can account for up to 25 percent of a home’s energy use, much of it spent keeping a tank of water piping-hot to use at a moment’s notice. You can crank it down to about 100 degrees and/or use its “vacation mode” setting, but given the length of your trip I’d do one better and just turn it off. You’ll add another 67 pounds or so of carbon to your savings total by keeping it silent for two months.
  • Air conditioner. Your couch doesn’t care if it’s hot or not, so just turn off the dang thing. (Though if you’re worried about humidity, setting your thermostat to 85 means the AC will occasionally fire up to help dry things out.) Keep the curtains drawn to keep the interior cooler.
  • Lights. Make sure they’re all flipped off. If you’re worried about burglary, a few LED bulbs with timers will help deter thieves without using too much power.
  • Other appliances. Yank the plugs from vampire electronics such as your TV, computer, cable box, coffeemaker, stereo, stove, toaster, and other such gadgets. Basically, anything with extra lights that bleep and boop when an appliance is “off” should be unplugged. Hey, every bit helps.

Okay, now you’re ready to hit the road. Be safe, have fun, and if your travels happen to take you down under, say hello to Pteropus poliocephalus for me.


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