As attendees gather in Chicago for the annual Kitchen/Bath Industry Show this week, questions are likely to hang over the three-day event as manufacturers and the federal government try to answer critics’ contentions that the Energy Star program has grown weak and unreliable.

Hoping to silence detractors, EPA and the Energy Department last month outlined a series of steps to strengthen Energy Star, which includes third-party testing of products seeking qualification and stepped-up enforcement of the program.

The recent announcement comes on the heels of a damaging March 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which asserts that the program may not be all that it purports.

“Energy Star is for the most part a self-certification program vulnerable to fraud and abuse,” the report says. “GAO obtained Energy Star certifications for 15 bogus products, including a gas-powered alarm clock. Two bogus products were rejected by the program, and three did not receive a response. In addition, two of the bogus Energy Star firms developed by GAO received requests from real companies to purchase products because the bogus firms were listed as Energy Star partners. This clearly shows how heavily American consumers rely on the Energy Star brand.”

Energy Star long has been held up as an essential standard of energy efficient labels. Its blue sticker has landed on up to 60 categories of residential and commercial products, including major appliances and water heaters, and has been very successful with consumers. In recent years, however, criticism of the program has grown louder and louder.

In addition to the GAO report, Consumer Reports, the well-respected nonprofit product testing and research magazine, has asserted that the program’s qualifying standards are too lax, allowing way too many products to qualify. Consumer Reports also has said that the program's testing is out of date and has not kept pace with manufacturers’ technological advancements; and because of self-certification, results cannot be trusted.

A Feb. 22, 2010, Washington Post story also poked fun at the program, likening it to Garrison Keillor's fictional Lake Wobegon, Minn., where every child is above average. “Under the Energy Star program, the same can be said of appliances,” the paper said.

But EPA and DOE have been systematically trying to improve the program. Last year the two agencies announced a memorandum-of-understanding that outlines new policies and procedures. Part of the agreement gives EPA the leadership of Energy Star as well as the new Super Star, a new "best in class" program to promote the top 5% of energy-efficient products in a given category. It also includes enhanced program coverage, more frequent updates, and enhanced product testing.

DOE also dropped certain LG French-door refrigerator-freezers from the approved Energy Star list, saying the “models do not deliver the energy and cost savings promised under the Energy Star program, so we are taking the necessary steps to protect the American public.” The move affected some LG products as well as comparable Kenmore-brand TRIO models (with ice and water in the door) designed and manufactured by LG. 

These recent government moves are simultaneously pointless and inadequate, says one former appliance industry insider who wishes to remain anonymous. “The program never had any teeth to begin with,” the source says. “All the [appliance companies] are now Energy Star certified.” Manufacturers have made technological improvement and as a result their products are indeed better, the source says. But “Energy Star should be moving the goalpost regularly, and that has not happened.”

Indeed, a 2008 government audit found, for instance, that 67% of all dishwashers were Energy Star certified. “This is no surprise,” the former industry official says.

The source says that the standards are too easy for companies to meet. Take refrigerator-freezers. To qualify for Energy Star labeling, the units must use at least 20% less energy than the federal energy consumption standard. “Manufacturers could increase this performance easily,” the source says. “A vacuum insulated panel [in the construction of the unit] could increase the R-value a whole lot, but it’s very expensive.” As a result, manufacturers do the minimum because “there is no advantage [in exceeding the requirements],” the source continues. “They can’t market it to consumers.”

This raises another issue with the program for critics. At the moment, any product that meets Energy Star requirements gets the same label whether it exceeds the rules by 1% or 100%.

“A single certification label fails to create incentives to manufacturers to design or a signal to consumers to buy more efficient appliances,” according to a white paper of suggested improvements submitted by to Steven Chu, secretary of DOE. The document recommends adding ”an efficiency rating (A, B, C, D, E) system so consumers can differentiate energy usage across all sizes and configurations as done in Europe.”

Many products already exceed the federal standards by quite a bit—that is, if the numbers on the Web site are to be believed—but the labels do not necessarily contain all the relevant data about a product.

Take dishwashers. According to the Energy Star Web site, the Aga APRODW model of dishwashers is 267% more efficient than federal requirements, making this Aga model the best on the list, and has an energy factor of 1.69. But the model also uses 315 kilowatts of electricity per year and 4.15 gallons of water per cycle. By contrast, the Gaggenau DF260760 is 156% more efficient than federal requirements and has an energy factor of 1.19. However, the Gaggenau unit uses less electricity and less water than the Aga, requiring just 180 kilowatt hours of electricity per year and only 1.56 gallons of water per cycle.

The energy values for refrigerators are also troubling to critics. Energy Star requires that all refrigerators greater than 7.75 cubic feet must be at least 20% more efficient than the federal standard. But the former appliance industry source says manufacturers perform energy tests with the ice maker disconnected, which means that the results will be different in real-world use if the homeowner uses the ice maker.

Consumer Reports echoes this concern. “Such a loophole lets manufacturers label products more energy-efficient than we've found them to be, and they get the Energy Star and its cachet when you won’t see those savings,” the magazine said in its 2008 report.

“Aren't we forgetting the whole point here,” one reader wrote on the Web site. “Yes, Energy Star is behind the times. Yes, manufacturers are not so honest with testing results. The point is that consumers want bigger and better. Isn't that the reason that we're all in this mess??? Bigger and better can't be as energy-efficient as smaller and smarter. That's why companies like Miele, Gaggenau, AEG, Liebherr (oh hell why not just say everything European and Asian) make smaller appliances that exceed Energy Star requirements and are actually energy-efficient.”

Energy Star records appear to prove the commenter's point. Many dishwasher manufacturers exceed the standards, but the agency’s Web site shows that the higher performing products are dominated by European brands such as ASKO, Bosch, Aga, and Gaggenau. These companies exceed federal standards anywhere from 152% up to 267%, often with low water consumption and low energy factors to boot.

Bosch Home Appliances, 2010 Energy Star Partner of the Year, scored impressive numbers in other categories. This year the company became the only manufacturer to launch 100% of its major appliance products that meet or exceed Energy Star qualification criteria with 40 models, according to the EPA's Web site. Moreover, John Farley, Bosch’s senior brand and environmental marketing manager, says the company has the most energy- and water-efficient brand of full-size front-load washers in the United States and the most energy-efficient side-by-side refrigerator.

Farley says the company "applauds the announcement by the DOE and EPA that they will be third-party testing the most popular lines of home appliances and strengthening the standards for manufacturer certification and compliance” and believes “improved Energy Star testing will increase efficiency across the entire industry.”

Whirlpool Corporation also praised the new announcement, saying the government’s recent enforcement actions “help ensure consumers’ confidence as they purchase Energy Star qualified major appliances. These actions will help ensure manufacturers of appliances are held accountable to deliver the energy savings they promise.”

Nigel Maynard is senior editor, products, at BUILDER magazine.