Every major federal holiday (especially Labor Day!!), households across America are flooded with flyers about appliance sales.  More and more, they are loaded with enticing advertising copy promising us that buying that gorgeous, huge, new stainless steel fridge now really saves us money in the long run because of its amazing Energy Star efficiency.

Sure, your refrigerator works just fine now, but you're being promised a moneymaker that's good for the environment.  Who could resist?

If the hype is true, who could resist, indeed?  But Sears' marketing department is not sitting down, calculators in hand, to see if their advertising claims are true.  Lucky for you, I am!

So, is it worth it to replace a functioning appliance or fixture with a more efficient model?  The answer—it depends!

  • Washing Machines. Cost for Energy Star model:  Average of $750.  Verdict:  Maybe worth it.  Go for it if you are switching from a regular top loader to an average-priced high efficiency model and your current washing machine is at least 5 years old.  There are many gorgeous upscale models that can do everything short of massage your feet while you're waiting for a load to finish, but don't trick yourself into believing that the price difference between a lower-end high efficiency washer and the top-of-the-line model will ever be made up in energy savings, especially if you are replacing a working appliance.
  • Dryers. Cost for matching model:  Approx. $550.  Verdict:  Not worth it.  For those of you who were hoping for the matched set—sorry!  All dryers just heat air to evaporate the water in the clothes.  How much energy that will take depends on how much water the washer left in the clothes and has nothing to do with the dryer.  If you purchase a matching dryer, chances are you just spent more money than you will save with the high efficiency washer over the course of its lifetime.  When your current dryer can't be repaired, pick any appropriately sized model with a moisture sensor, and keep in mind that if you can use it, gas costs less to operate than electric.
  • Refrigerator. Cost for Energy Star model:  Average of $1,150.  Verdict:  Maybe worth it.  If you have more than one refrigerator and upgrade to a larger mid-priced model that replaces both, you will almost certainly save money.  If your fridge is more than 20 years old, you will save money when buying a low-priced replacement, with an average savings of $100-200 a year.  However, if your fridge was purchased within the past 15 years, it may take more than the average fridge's lifetime to make back the price of even the most inexpensive Energy Star replacement.
  • Chest Freezer. Cost of Energy star model:  Verdict:  Not worth it.  Even non-Energy Star chest freezers require so little energy to operate that it would take longer than the average freezer's lifetime to make up the price of a new appliance.  You'd be better off investing in some bonds and getting an Energy Star model only if your current chest freezer breaks.
  • Dishwasher. Cost of Energy star model:  Average of $362.  Verdict:  Not worth it.  It will take longer than the average lifetime of your new dishwasher to make back its purchase price.  Go Energy Star when your current appliance can no longer be repaired.
  • Toilet, Faucet, or Shower Head. Cost of low-flow models:  $100+ for a toilet, $40+ for a faucet, and $10+ for a showerhead.  Verdict:  Rarely worth it.  Replacing all the 5-gallon toilets in an average household will save a mere $10 in water and sewer costs per year, but if your water rates are extremely high and you only have a few toilets, then the investment may be worth it.  Rather than replacing a faucet with a newer model that will never pay you back, install a low-flow aerator for a fraction of the cost to get the same savings.  An inexpensive shower head replacement is the only change that will save you money here.

Now you know what will save you money, but what about the environment?  Rest assured that here, at least, the frugal choice is the green choice.  The energy used for manufacturing and transporting a new appliance will virtually always create a net negative when replacing a functioning old appliance with a new one that can't even pay itself off through the reduction of energy usage while in service.

So tomorrow, when the newest glittering Labor Day ads arrive, you'll know where the savings really are—and where they aren't.

This has been a guest post by Genevieve from Bowie, MD
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