Illustration: Intangible Arts The Energy Star program has been great for builders. There's no need to investigate which appliances are energy efficient—the government has done it for you. Just buy appliances with the logo and voila, you're able to advertise your house as energy efficient and use the Energy Star label on marketing materials.

And don't underestimate the value of that label. Public awareness of the Energy Star label climbed higher than 70 percent in 2008, increasing roughly 20 percentage points over the last five years, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which runs the program.

But a story in the October 2008 issue of Consumer Reports suggests the 16-year-old program could use some improvement. The magazine, published by Consumers Union, the world's largest independent consumer product testing organization, specifically used test results for refrigerators with French doors as an example of cases where the Energy Star label is used on an appliance that probably doesn't meet the guidelines.

The refrigerator's manufacturer claims it uses 540 kilowatts hours annual consumption, while the Consumer Reports tests, which are tougher and more closely resemble how a refrigerator is used, showed an 890 kilowatt hour usage. As it turns out that the Department of Energy (DOE) procedures call for the icemaker to be turned off during the testing, a condition that is unlikely to be met in actual day-today use.

The magazine made four suggestions for improvement:

  • The DOE and the EPA should bring test procedures and standards in line with the technology available in consumer products.
  • The DOE should require independent verification of test results. Currently, the program relies on manufacturers to test their competitors' appliances and report suspicious energy-use claims.
  • Consider using an alphabetical grading system so consumers could choose whether they wanted the best, which usually costs more, or something that comes close, but has a lower price.
  • Better police companies and enforce standards, including increased spot checks of Energy Star qualified products. The magazine said that companies sometimes put the label on products before getting formal approval, and retailers alter or improperly display the EnergyGuide label.
  • Needless to say, the EPA was displeased with the story or the advice. It wrote a letter to Consumer Reports saying it was “disappointed” in the article.

    “EPA stands by the integrity of the Energy Star program,” the letter said. “The Energy Star program includes a comprehensive set of activities to maintain the integrity of the label. Activities include testing of the performance of products where warranted, spot checking products pulled from the marketplace, and coordination with a number of product testing certification programs. When issues are identified, they are addressed.”

    EPA said its testing procedures have been consistently updated to “appropriately measure the energy efficiency of individual products, except in just a few cases.”

    EPA also posted a fact sheet on its Web site regarding the story. Consumer Reports responded by sending a letter to the EPA saying it supports and respects the Energy Star program but reiterated its suggestions for improvement.

    Consumer Reports received some backup from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), which urged EPA to remove the Energy Star label from those refrigerators that wouldn't qualify with the ice maker turned on, adding that it generally supports the implementation of all four of Consumer Reports suggestions. However, it didn't agree with Consumer Reports' headline: “Energy Star has lost some luster.”

    “ACEEE has found that, while there are few problems with the Energy Star program, overall the program is achieving large energy savings as it motivates manufacturers to produce and consumers to purchase products that are more efficient than would be produced and purchased without Energy Star. As problems with Energy Star are identified, they are generally addressed.”

    Amen, ACEEE. But just because Energy Star is widely known and respected today doesn't mean that it can't lose that shine over time, if the products it endorses begin to disappoint because they aren't what consumers think they should be. Plus, there's the potential for overexposure and dilution of the label's meaning if it is worn by too many products—a good reason why the standards should be constantly reviewed as new technology continues to increase energy efficiency.

    —Teresa Burney