Does The 'Energy Star' Label Need An Update? A review in Consumer Reports says it's good news so many products have become energy efficient but calls for strengthening Energy Star standards to guide consumers to truly efficient products. Ira Flatow and guests discuss that report and overlooked ways people can save energy at home.

Does The 'Energy Star' Label Need An Update?

Does The 'Energy Star' Label Need An Update?

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A review in Consumer Reports says it's good news so many products have become energy efficient but calls for strengthening Energy Star standards to guide consumers to truly efficient products. Ira Flatow and guests discuss that report and overlooked ways people can save energy at home.


Celia Kuperszmid-Lehrman, deputy home editor, Consumer Reports, Yonkers, N.Y.

Jerry Simmons, director, Solid State Lighting Science, Energy Frontier Research Center, Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque, N.M.


Next up, how energy-efficient is your home? Perhaps you have started switching, like most of us have, taking out those old, incandescent light bulbs and putting in the compact fluorescents. Maybe you've even moved up to LEDs, those light-emitting diodes.

And maybe you're sort of a person who pays attention to things like Energy Star. You know, when you go looking for an appliance, you look for that Energy Star label on it, always trying to buy the most energy-efficient appliance.

Well, the problem is, according to a new study in Consumer Reports, that Energy Star label is losing its meaning as more and more products meet the qualifications.

I'll give an example. One Energy Star-rated refrigerator may save you three times the amount of money as another, but there's no way to know. You don't know that in the present Energy Star rating system. Is it time to step up those requirements and save the label for only the top energy-saving appliances?

You know, you buy an Energy Star thing, it's way at the top of the list. You know, I'm sort of thinking now like the, you know, there are these labels for cars and how the new EPA rating labels will tell you which are the better cars. Maybe that's the kind of thing they're thinking about here.

So, aside from replacing your fridge or your washer or TV, you might find other steps that you can take right now to make your home more energy-efficient.

Did you know that five to 10 percent of what you're paying for in electricity is being sucked up by things that are off? You know what I'm talking about. They're in the standby mode. You've got that little green or blue or red light that's on. It stays lit even when you walk out of the room, looks like an insect, sort of, in the movies, they're looking at you.

Well, what about people who don't pay for electricity in their buildings? Will they go on about this, about energy efficiency? There are people who don't pay for the electricity in their buildings, and so they leave the A/C running. They leave the air conditioning on all day as they leave, thinking I'm not paying for it. It's not costing me anything.

Could we design smarter appliances that automatically turn off when you leave the room, when you leave the building? That's what we're going to be talking about this hour. Got some ideas for us? Our number is 1-800-989-8255. We'd like to hear your energy saving tips. You can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I, and we'd like to know what your energy saving tips are.

Let me bring on my guests. Celia Kuperszmid-Lehrman is the deputy home editor at Consumer Reports in Yonkers, New York, and she joins us from a studio there. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Ms. CELIA KUPERSZMID-LEHRMAN (Deputy Home Editor, Consumer Reports): Thank you.

FLATOW: Were you surprised at the Energy Star ratings on these appliances as you rated them?

Dr. KUPERSZMID-LEHRMAN: Well, not really. We have been investigating Energy Star for a couple of years, and we've been finding this consistently for the last couple of years and have been cataloguing it with different products as we test them.

We're always looking to see, you know, whether they're energy efficient. We look at the Energy Star guidelines. We're looking to see how many products in a category qualify for the Energy Star. So this is something that we've been tracking for a few years now.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. How do you get an Energy Star rating? Who rates them?

Dr. KUPERSZMID-LEHRMAN: Well, it's actually not quite a rating. It's a qualification. Because as the system was set up now, it is for appliances that are about 10 to 20 percent more efficient than what is the federal energy regulations.

So what had happened until very, very recently - as in the last couple of months - manufacturers would do their own testing, and they would tell the government that this is what - how much energy my product uses, and I qualify, according to your standards, for an Energy Star, and then boom. They got it. So that is actually changing.

The Department of Energy and the EPA, which administer the Energy Star program, are now starting to require that manufacturers submit data from independent testing labs to confirm that they actually do meet the testing criteria.

FLATOW: In fact, was it the General Accounting Office or one of these agencies slipped in some phony energy appliances and got them rated?

Dr. KUPERSZMID-LEHRMAN: Well, they not only got them, they got the Energy Star, they got access to all of the Energy Star logos. So they could slap them on their products immediately.

And there were only a couple of instances where that didn't happen, and those were a few products that did require independent, third-party verification, which is why that's been something that we've been calling for for a number of years.

FLATOW: You had a gasoline-powered what that got rated in there?

Dr. KUPERSZMID-LEHRMAN: I'm sorry. I didn't...

FLATOW: You had a gasoline-powered device that got an Energy Star rating?

Dr. KUPERSZMID-LEHRMAN: Yes. That was a gasoline-powered alarm clock. It was enormous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And you had an air cleaner with a feather duster in it?


FLATOW: And that got a label on it, also.

Dr. KUPERSZMID-LEHRMAN: That's right. And this also came on the heels - there was another internal audit that was done by the inspector general of the Department of Energy that had - you know, they didn't find products that, you know, they didn't send out false products, but they also had a lot of the same conclusions: that it was, you know, not a good idea for manufacturers to be rating their own products, that it was not a good idea for so many products to qualify for the Energy Star.

FLATOW: All right. We have to take a break. We'll come back with Dr. Kuperszmid-Lehrman after this break. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. Tweet us @scifri. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about Energy Star and energy efficiency with Celia Kuperszmid-Lehrman, the deputy home editor at Consumer Reports in Yonkers, New York. And with all this talk of Energy Star and energy-saving appliances, maybe we're missing a big question: Do more efficient appliances actually save you energy in the long run, or do energy-saving appliances just give us an excuse to keep the lights on longer, run the A/C longer, keep the fridge colder, you know, turn the little dial up to eight instead of six?

Joining me now is an LED researcher who has a new study on the Journal of Physics D, looking at that question. Jerry Simmons, director of Solid State Lighting Science at the Energy Frontier Research Center at Sandia National Labs in Albuquerque, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. JERRY SIMMONS (Director, Solid State Lighting Science Energy Frontier Research Center, Sandia National Laboratories): Thank you.

FLATOW: What did you find about all these things? Are we wasting a lot of energy with all these little appliances?

Mr. SIMMONS: Well, so what we did was, you know, we've been doing research on LED lighting for about 10 years out here, and during all that time, we had wondered about the so-called rebound effect that you just mentioned, which is if something's efficiency increases, and the cost of the energy to use it ends up being less, do you just use more?

And so we wondered about that, and we decided to actually take a serious look, and we gathered data sets about lighting that spanned the past 300 years and looked at countries from, in both the past and the present on six different continents.

And what we found is that, remarkably, each one of those data sets in each one of those countries, people tend to use about .7 percent of the gross domestic product per person on lighting, irrespective of the lighting technology and irrespective of whether they are rich or poor.

FLATOW: It didn't change over all those decades?

Mr. SIMMONS: Over all those decades. So back in the old days, when people used whale lamps in Britain in 1700 - whale lamps and candles - they used about .7 percent of FDP. And up to the present in the United States, where we have fluorescent and incandescent lighting, it's the same story, .7 percent.

And in the present, in the developing world, farmer and rural India, who makes $2 a day, will spend about two cents a day on kerosene lanterns.

FLATOW: So what is the take-home message of this?

Mr. SIMMONS: Well, so the take-home message is that, you know, people I think in the past have assumed that if you increase the efficiency of lighting technology so that you're using less energy, you'll save that much energy.

And we wanted to make you know, in fact this rebound effect means you're going to use more, and the total energy use will be the same, whether you have highly efficient lighting or inefficient lighting. That's assuming a free-market scenario and also assuming the electricity prices are the same.

If in the future we find that electricity prices increase, then people will use less energy. But we wanted to make sure that there weren't any unrealistic expectations on the part of the public, and they really understood that, just as with automobiles, if gas prices drop, you drive more, the same thing will happen with lighting.

FLATOW: Celia, what's your reaction to this?

Dr. KUPERSZMID-LEHRMAN: Well, I think it's an interesting conundrum, because that is a behavior, and it's actually a choice that you make. And as that view, or report taught, there's some differences between developing countries and fully developed countries in terms of whether or not their light is, you know, the demand for light is saturated and whether or not we're actually going to use more lights.

I mean, the average home has around 40-or-so lights. So the idea would be if you switched from an incandescent to an LED, you would still see a significant enough savings, because it's a huge amount of the difference in the lighting consumption.

And we're also somewhat here restricted by the grids. I mean, people, utilities aren't running out to buy, you know, build more power plants. So I think that in for the average listener here, the take-away is you still can save a lot of money, assuming you're not just going to leave your lights on all the time.

Mr. SIMMONS: And I agree with that, Celia. I think, you know, we're looking at a possible scenario. The truth of the matter is most of the increases in lighting use are going to come from the developed world, and there's an area where even if you're using the same amount of energy for the lighting, the fact that you're getting three times as much light because you're using more efficient technology, means that the farmer in rural India now can light several different rooms.

His children can study at night and increase their literacy rates. They can produce goods and services in the evening and raise up the whole economic level of the region and the country.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones, 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Joshua(ph) in Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. Hi. Welcome, Joshua.

JOSHUA (Caller): Yeah, how's it going, sir? This is Joshua. I wanted to have make a quick comment. I've got to run to the work. But I wanted to say that when I was stationed in South Korea, they had an interesting system with the hotels there.

Your key was the only way you could activate any of the appliances in the room. So when you left, and you took your key with you, the appliances would turn off. And then when you came in, you'd put your key in a little slot just inside the door, and you could use your TV and your air conditioning like that.

FLATOW: That's a great you know, I've noticed that in some American hotels now with the lighting also. You need to activate your room key. That's a very good point.

I'll let you go, Josh, have a good day at the Air Force base.

JOSHUA: All right, thanks a lot.

FLATOW: You're welcome. What do you think of that? That seems like a very interesting solution. If the key - if you're in a hotel room, and the key's in the lock, you can use the light. When you leave, all the electricity goes off.

Mr. SIMMONS: So I think that's a fantastic solution, and I think that's where the future, a large part of future energy savings and future energy technologies are going to benefit from, it's the use of smart controls, things that actually change human behavior in an automatic way. I think that's going to lead to tremendous energy savings.

Dr. KUPERSZMID-LEHRMAN: And I think it will be also in the residential market. I mean, in our offices here, many of the lights are motion-activated. So if you have that same sort of technology in the residence, you dont even have to worry about bugging your kids to turn off the lights when they leave a room because they would just shut off.

FLATOW: But one of the greatest users of consumers of electricity in the home is air conditioning. And people leave that on all day, especially in apartments where they're not metered for it, and they don't pay for it. How do you get that habit to be changed, or can you build a smart air conditioner that knows when you're in the room and shuts itself off when you're not?

Mr. SIMMONS: You know, I think one of the approaches that a large number of groups are working on is actually having system-wide smart controls that incorporate sensors for every room, and they're able to sort of shift the cooling and heating delivery to the areas that are used the most often and able to anticipate when people are going to come home, when they're going to occupy different rooms.

You can actually have a fairly smart central control that learns the behavior patterns of the occupants and then tries to adjust to them dynamically so it maximizes human comfort.

FLATOW: I remember being at Yale a few years ago, where they were actually studying the devices or sensors that watch you walk around your apartment or your house, knowing what room you're in, and it was good for people when they fall down and can't get up and need some help. But it could also be good for knowing which room to turn the air conditioning, you know, to a different setting, as you say, a smart apartment.

Celia, are we going to get new Energy Star ratings? Are they going to lift the bar a little higher, do you think, so that we know there are better ones than we have now?

Dr. KUPERSZMID-LEHRMAN: We certainly hope so. We certainly hope so because when you have so many products that qualify, it's really, it does two things: It masks the fact that there are really big differences in energy efficiency among the Energy Star products.

In our tests, we found a difference between two 22-cubic-foot refrigerators. One used nearly $100 more energy per year. So I think that if they do that, that's a real problem because a consumer sitting there in the store, it's very hard for them to tell which Energy Star product is actually going to be, is the most efficient.

And it's also a disincentive for manufacturers because, you know, if the bar is so low, there's no real incentive for them to keep innovating and making their products more energy efficient.

FLATOW: Let's go to Jennifer(ph) in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Hi, Jennifer.

JENNIFER (Caller): Hi. Along those lines, I was wondering, you know, I was just looking for some more clarity about what exactly qualifies for an Energy Star rating because one of my big pet peeves over the past few years is I've worked with a couple of dishwashers that had an Energy Star rating, but the default setting on the dishwasher was for the heated dry cycle, which is a huge energy sucker, to be on all the time.

So whereas, you know, every time you turn that dishwasher on, it automatically chooses heated dry, and you have to manually turn it off.

FLATOW: And it stays on for like 20 minutes or something like that.

JENNIFER: Yeah, and so, you know, from the standpoint of somebody who's even just trying to save a little bit of money of their electricity, you know, it's annoying to have to take off the energy sucking options rather than having to, you know, we should have to opt in maybe rather than opt out.

FLATOW: Good suggestion. Celia? Jerry?

Ms. KUPERSZMID-LEHRMAN: (Unintelligible) It's a real problem in terms of - it's one of the things that we talk about as a thing that Energy Star really needs to focus on, is the fact that many of their test procedures are outdated. And, you know, the woman just brings up an excellent one: dishwashers. If you look at - if you go the Environmental Protection Agency website or the DOE website, they say don't pre-rinse your dishes. It wastes energy. It wastes water. But the test that they use to test dishwashers for their energy consumption uses practically no dirty dishes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KUPERSZMID-LEHRMAN: So you know, so you're right. You're right. A lot of these tests are, you know, not necessarily based on the kinds of conditions you have in your home. So you bought a dishwasher and you think it's going to save you a lot of energy. But then, when you get it home and you use it the way you should use it, it doesn't. You don't get those savings.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Joe(ph) in Charlotte, North Carolina. Hi, Joe.

JOE (Caller): Yeah, hi, Ira. I'm really enjoying your program about Energy Star. I have a couple of comments. One, I recently installed a shingle roof on my home. And I researched the shingle roofs for probably about a month. And there's a company that makes Energy Star roofs, shingles. One has a 32 percent reflectivity, and the one I purchased has a 25 percent reflectivity. They sent me all the data, but I couldn't decide from much out of the data. So I decided to make my own test.

Two weeks prior to the roof being installed, I took outside temperatures and attic temperatures eight times a day. In following the roof installation, I also did the same thing. I found that the peak temperature prior to the roof being installed was 123 to 124 degrees.


JOE: Following the installation of the roof, I peaked at a 98-degree day, which I never had prior to the roof being installed, the hottest it was probably 95. I peaked at 113.

FLATOW: So you got some real savings.

JOE: Yeah. It was amazing to see that and to do that test myself, to see - is this really what they say - does it really do what it says it does? And in fact, it definitely, definitely did.

The other comment was, at the school where I work they have - outside the gym they have soda machines. And when you walk by them, they kick on. They have a sensor that senses when you walk by, just like the alarm sensor in your home.


JOE: And they stay off the remaining of the time when kids - and no one walks by the machine, so I think that's a great energy saving right there.

FLATOW: All right. Joe, thanks for those comments.

JOE: Thank you. Great program.

FLATOW: Thank you. 1-800-989 - let me give a little ID here so we can pay some bills. 1-800-989-8255 is our number.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

With Celia Kuperszmid-Lehrman and Jerry Simmons. I'm sorry, Celia. You wanted to...

Ms. KUPERSZMID-LEHRMAN: I just wanted to make sure that Joe applies for his federal energy tax credit...


Ms. KUPERSZMID-LEHRMAN: ...fixing in that roofing, because he...

FLATOW: And there's a lot of them out there now, aren't there? Lots of them.

Ms. KUPERSZMID-LEHRMAN: Yes. There are lots of tax credits and some of them are set to expire December 31st. But I wanted to make sure that Joe got his tax credit for his roof.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. What other kinds of - could we actually, Celia, make products with intelligence built in? The products like he said - the soda machine that knows when you're walking by it, or things that turn themselves off? We hear about intelligence, but how intelligent are these intelligent products?

Ms. KUPERSZMID-LEHRMAN: Well, (unintelligible) manufacturers, the appliance manufacturers are actually starting to make smart appliances that will use -that will turn themselves on regulate themselves, depending on how - what the price of energy is. But all of these smart appliances have to be attached to a smart grid. So if you have a smart appliance and a, you know, sort of plain-vanilla dumb grid like we do here in New York, then it does the appliance no good. So it's really almost a two-part system. You're not only...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. KUPERSZMID-LEHRMAN: know, for certain things need to have the appliance enabled, but the actual electricity, the power-generating source has to be enabled as well.

FLATOW: Jerry, before I let you go, you're in the LED business on the cutting edge. What can we expect to see new coming out? What kind of exciting things are happening?

Mr. SIMMONS: So I think there's, there's - I think basically consumer products that are now more efficient - the compact fluorescent lights are now coming out on the market just now. And they're in home improvement centers. They're made by the big lighting manufacturers that have supplied the incandescent and fluorescent bulbs in the past. And over the lifetime of these bulbs, which have a fairly high initial cost, but over the lifetime of the bulbs they are less costly than fluorescents.

And so I think they're - what we're going to see is that the performance of Solid State Lighting Sources is going to continue to rise much like we've seen with computer chips in the past, in a kind of Moore's Law fashion. They are semi-conductors, after all. And then the costs will continue to drop. And what I think's going to happen is that in the next few years there's going to be a crossover in technology similar to what happened with flat screen televisions and displays, where all of a sudden it becomes a no-brainer to adopt this new lighting technology.

FLATOW: Well, I have two questions for you. One, is the quality getting better of the light? And two, there was great disappointment in the lifespan of these compact fluorescents. They don't seem to really last a whole lot longer than these incandescents. And are we going to see that with the LEDs also? Will they get any longer life out of them or are they going to be cheaply made like the compacts are?

Mr. SIMMONS: I think you have to pay attention to the, you know - I think some of the products are better than others. Basically, getting them from big reputable companies is the way to go. And they warrant, warrant their products for 50,000 hours, which is 50 times as long as incandescent. So I think because the technology has no glass in it, it's very robust and that we'll see those kind of lifetimes.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And the color will get better.

Mr. SIMMONS: And the color will get better. It gets better every year and I think it's quite good right now, better than fluorescents. But it will continue to improve, I believe.

FLATOW: All right, Jerry, we're gonna say goodbye to you. Thank you for taking time to be with us.

Mr. SIMMONS: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Jerry Simmons, director of solid-state lighting science at the Energy Frontier Research Center - that's at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Also thank you, Celia.


FLATOW: Celia Kuperszmid-Lehrman is deputy home editor at Consumer Reports in Yonkers, New York.

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