Editorial: Restoring Credibility in the Efficiency Marketplace

November 03, 2010
November/December 2010
A version of this article appears in the November/December 2010 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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A chain is only as strong as its weakest link and nowhere is this adage truer than with the assurance of a manufacturer’s compliance with energy efficiency standards and endorsement programs. If any link is broken in this process, then it is impossible to “haul up” those energy savings for the consumer. The Department of Energy (DOE) the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are finally taking actions to repair some of the more fragile links in this chain, beginning with the actual verification of energy claims for the minimum energy efficiency regulations and Energy Star endorsements.

Before taking any action, DOE first wanted to be certain that it was working with accurate data from the manufacturers. So, DOE required all appliance manufacturers to “confirm” the energy use of their products already submitted to DOE. This was a huge undertaking, both for the manufacturers and for the DOE, since tens of thousands of “confirmations” were submitted to DOE in a short time. Then DOE hired independent test labs to verify the accuracy of the manufacturers’ claims for a representative number of appliances. For the first time, DOE actually tested products off the shelves rather than delivered from the manufacturers.

DOE Appliance Testing

The chart shows the early results of the DOE verification tests. These seven categories of Energy Star rated products alone represent over 25% of future residential energy use. Was it worthwhile? You be the judge. Even though not all of the results are in, you can see the trends.

About 17% of the units were noted as “Action Required”, which meant their energy usage was more than 5% outside Energy Star specifications. That means for every six products sold, one will perform worse than stated on their labels. Room air conditioners as a group tested the worst: 29% of those units were far outside of Energy Star specifications, not even meeting the minimum efficiency requirements. Take away the 5% tolerance and the fraction of failed units rises to over 80%. It is no surprise that DOE has taken legal action against certain air conditioner manufacturers for selling products that fail to meet minimum efficiency regulations. Consumers, utilities, and even the Internal Revenue Service, rely on honest reporting of energy consumption values.

But there are other links in the chain that still need mending. What about effective consumer communication and education during purchase? American consumers must study the EnergyGuide labels carefully before they can confidently identify an efficient product. And our EnergyGuide labels are dated and positively dowdy compared to the European rainbow A through G energy labels (which have their own problems). Given consumer trends these days, long term savings is still a tough sell against lowest price.

But do the test procedures realistically predict in-home energy use? That’s another critical step in the chain. Home Energy traditionally covers investigations of in-home energy consumption and savings from appliance replacements and has even done its own testing over the years. Field verification and updating test procedures is essentially the DOE’s responsibility but we haven’t seen much progress there. In fact, there are probably fewer field measurements underway now than there were twenty years ago. This is in spite of lower-cost meters and data-logging systems. “Crowd-source” techniques could help, too. Check out how consumers contribute measurements of auto fuel economy at Large-scale field-testing of appliances is complex, but it’s disappointing to see how little on-site verification is being supported on either the national or the local fronts.

Sadly, the “weakest link” situation is even worse for building codes. Compliance rates are low, even for the minimum standards. And when the buildings do comply, we have seen that the insulation will be poorly installed, thermal shortcuts abound, and ducts don’t get connected. Raising compliance rates–DOE’s goal is 90%–will be a huge undertaking because we need to reach 50,000 code officials in 5000 building departments in the United States.

Like cars that claimed high fuel mileage when in fact the reality of stop and go driving showed differently, appliances and buildings can be designed and operated inefficiently as well. We need strong links connecting manufacturing, testing, labeling, and field verification. Without this chain, we will end up with an efficient home on paper that becomes an energy guzzler in practice.

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