Q. Dear Umbra,

My refrigerator died suddenly at the tender age of 25. I bought an energy-saving one and found out that these new fridges last only seven to eight years. First of all, I was disappointed that I had to add to the waste management with my old one (although I hope some of it will be recycled in some way). Second of all, I am disappointed that my current one, in seven to eight years, will require the resources and energy-intensive production of a replacement. I cannot believe that the energy I am saving now for the next seven to eight years will be sufficient to offset a new one. 

Joanne H.
East Aurora, N.Y.

A. Dearest Joanne,

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Strictly speaking, you haven’t asked me a question. Perhaps you don’t want me to try to fix anything — you simply need to express yourself. Perhaps you don’t want me to bring you the proverbial glass of water. I understand this, and I hear you. But I’m also a fixer by trade, so I cannot help but pull a question out from your letter to answer. So: Will your new, shorter-lived refrigerator actually result in a bigger environmental impact than your old one?

In a word: Nope.

First of all, your lifespan estimate does fall on the low end; expert home inspectors and builders put the average refrigerator’s expected life somewhere between six and 15 years. But let’s say the low end prevails. I know seven to eight years doesn’t sound all that impressive for an appliance lifespan, especially compared to your old workhorse, Joanne, and especially when new fridges can cost well into thethousands. (And who knows what expensive bibs and bobs will be in fashion in eight years, further driving up the price — gold-plated doors? Retina-scanning door openers? A robot that senses what you want and plates it for you as you approach? OK, that last one would be kind of cool.) So let me reassure you: losing your old dinosaur of an appliance was a net gain, environmentally speaking.

According to our friends at MIT, 88 to 95 percent of a fridge’s total energy consumption comes during the use phase — when it’s plugged in at home, sucking up power to cool your chard. And your new, energy-efficient fridge is a big improvement over a model born during the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air era: Energy Star’s calculator estimates you’re already saving 1,539 kWh of power, or almost $200, per year with your new purchase. Check out the numbers in this life cycle analysis from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy: It takes about 7,000 kWh of energy to make a refrigerator and 71,000 kWh to run it over 14 years. Those numbers are based on refrigerators from a few years ago, but they’re still useful benchmarks: Even if you get only half that lifespan and have to buy two, you’re still coming out ahead. Of course, it would be ideal for our newly energy-efficient appliances to also last decades — can we get someone on that, engineers of the world? — but at least you don’t have to feel guilty about your kitchen upgrade.

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Nor should you beat yourself up about the disposal of the old girl, provided you took steps to recycle it: The steel, other metals, glass, plastic, and foam insulation from a fridge can indeed find new life elsewhere. The EPA’s Responsible Appliance Disposal program can help you find a refrigerator recycler if the store where you bought your new one doesn’t take your old one. Some towns even pick up and recycle the old ones for free.

Of course, even if a fridge’s manufacturing energy is negligible compared to its energy use over the years, it’s not nothing. So while you haven’t asked for a few simple tips to extend the life of your new appliance, Joanne, I will continue to impose my advice on you by supplying some. I just can’t help myself:

  • Clean the condenser coils with a vacuum or brush every six months to a year. Dusty coils reduce the efficiency of your food box, increasing wear and tear. Here’s how. And while you’re at it, give the gasket that seals the doors a good wipedown to help prevent cracking.
  • If possible, keep your refrigerator separated from your stove and other heat sources — including direct sunlight. Heat nearby means the fridge has to work harder to maintain its coolness, again adding wear and tear.
  • Keep it cool in there. That means no standing in front of the open door, leisurely contemplating your lunch (Mom was right!). It also means letting your leftovers cool completely before tossing them in (hot food, harder-working compressor) and even keeping the top clear of potentially heat-blocking clutter.

OK, I’m done with the fixing. And I’m always here to just listen, I swear. I might just have to sit on my hands first.


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