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Time to replace home appliances?
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"And there's the rub," says Van de Grift. "People really don't have a fixed standard or rule of thumb to go by. Appliances don't come with a 'best by' date or a recommended replacement interval. ... and, so, people hang on to them longer than they ought to." Yet by not replacing older equipment, energy and money are wasted. "The money spent on electricity keeping it long past its prime could've easily offset the purchase cost of an energy efficient replacement."

Truly savvy consumers have to do their own research, make their own efficiency comparisons, and then decide for themselves when or if it makes financial sense to replace an appliance. It helps to be aware of appliance life expectancies and to know how much energy is required to run older products compared to newer models.

If a major appliance is very close to or past its maximum service life, it makes little sense to hang on to, let alone repair, it. A new, warranted unit can give you peace of mind and offer features that the long-in-the-tooth model never possessed.

Don't know where to begin? Focus first on replacing your home's oldest and greatest energy users -- refrigerators, clothes dryers, washing machines, air conditioners and furnaces -- to get the biggest payback. The kitchen refrigerator, for example, uses more energy than any other household appliance even though it cycles on and off throughout the day. The older the unit, the more inefficient it tends to be.

The fridge
According to Jill Notini, director of communications and marketing for the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, the typical refrigerator manufactured in 1993, back when the federal government first introduced refrigerator efficiency standards, was 99 percent more energy efficient than a similar model produced in 1980. A basic unit made in 2001 (when those standards were raised) was an impressive 146 percent more efficient than its Reagan-era counterpart.

While the best-made conventional model from 12 years ago is considerably more advanced and efficient than its predecessors, even it can still consume around 1,200 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. Today's most-efficient Energy Star-qualified units, in contrast, use at least 15 percent less energy than required by current federal standards and 40 percent less energy than conventional models sold in 2001. Replacing an early 1990s-era refrigerator with a new Energy Star model could save the typical American family $85 in annual energy costs -- considerably more should that old refrigerator be a vintage avocado green, burnt orange or harvest gold beauty that yearly devours a whopping 2,190 kilowatts in power.

Modern refrigerators use about 25 percent of the energy used by those manufactured in the early 1970s, says Notini. In dollar terms, this means that today's Energy Star units can get by on as little as $33 to $51 of electricity per year, depending on their size and design. A typical 30-year-old clunker, in comparison, can today consume $180 to $230 in electricity every year. Depending on the age and condition of the replaced model, a new refrigerator's cost can be recovered in three to six years.

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