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Flexible Refrigeration

Flexible Refrigeration

Appliance companies are thinking outside the box, giving designers and customers more flexibility than ever. But while these options may be convenient, not to mention sexy, do they pass the efficiency test?

By Juliet Grable

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HE REFRIGERATOR USED TO BE a design problem, the goal of which was to make the bulky appliance as unobtrusive as possible. Contractors could build cabinets around them, or modify the walls behind them so they didn’t stick our as far. “Flexibility” meant shelves that could be rearranged.

Not anymore. Companies have found clever ways to transform the once clumsy box into a design statement. Counter-depth refrigerators integrate seamlessly into surrounding cabinetry, and can be completely hidden with custom wood-panel doors, or highlighted with sleek stainless steel. Some manufacturers have stretched the humble box into a tall, regal column, or squeezed its proportions so it fits under the counter, like a dishwasher. In other cases, they’ve separated the refrigerator from the freezer, breaking the box into slimmer, smaller components. Drawers that pull out from under the counter bring the contents to the user, and can be installed anywhere. Modular collections, which offer refrigerator and freezer units in a range of widths, allow designers to mix and match for the ultimate customized kitchen.

There’s more flexibility inside, too—from drawers that change configuration at the touch of a button to advanced temperature controls. Some units can even switch from freezer to refrigerator. “Connected” technology allows users access real-time energy use and control settings remotely, resulting in more efficient operation.

Energy-efficient options are available in all of these categories. We’ve highlighted some of them in this Product Spotlight. Just keep in mind: it’s the cumulative energy use of all units that counts.

  • Sub-Zero UC-24R

    Sub-Zero UC-24R

    This refrigerator-only unit fits under cabinets for convenient access. It includes two adjustable glass shelves, two door shelves and a utility bin, and can be fitted with a stainless steel or customized cabinet door.

    Capacity: 5.7 cu. ft.
    Annual Energy Usage*: 279 kWh
    Energy Star rated*: Yes

  • Sub-Zero BI30U

    Sub-Zero BI-30U

    The flush inset design allows this over-and-under refrigerator/freezer to blend in with surrounding cabinetry. It comes with a roll-out freezer door and many customized door options, including framed, overlay, flush inset, stainless steel and stainless steel with glass. Separate cooling systems for refrigerator and freezer compartments maximize efficiency.

    Capacity: 17.4 cu. ft. (refrigerator: 13.2 cu. ft.; freezer: 4.2 cu. ft.)
    Annual Energy Usage*: 440 kWh
    Energy Star Rated*: Yes

  • Sun-Frost RF-16

    Sun Frost RF-16

    For nearly 30 years, Sun Frost has been quietly making some of the most energy-efficient refrigerators in the industry. Based in Northern California, this company caters to the needs of off-grid solar-powered homes and businesses. The RF-16 is flexible in more ways than one. It can run on AC or DC power, and the two compartments run off separate compressors, so one side can be completely turned off when not in use. The unit mounts on a 13-inch base cabinet and is available in many colored laminate and wood finishes.

    Capacity: 14.3 (refrigerator: 10.4 cu. ft.; freezer: 3.91 cu. ft.)
    Annual Energy Usage*: 253.7 kWh
    Energy Star Rated*: Yes

  • Thermador Freedom Collection 24" Refrigerator Column

    Thermador Freedom Collection 24” Refrigerator Column

    This modular collection features bottom-freezer refrigerators, along with refrigerator, freezer and wine columns available in 18”, 24”, 30” and 36” widths. New additions to the collection include French door and side-by-side models. Units can accommodate stainless steel doors or own custom panels, and feature a heavy-duty hinge that opens to 115 degrees, allowing for full-flush mounting. The entire line is Energy Star certified.

    Capacity: 13.1 cu. ft.
    Annual Energy Usage*: 278 kWh
    Energy Star Rated*: Yes

  • Fisher & Paykel CoolDrawer Multi-Temperature Refrigerator

    Fisher & Paykel CoolDrawer Multi-Temperature Refrigerator

    The CoolDrawer can change from refrigerator to freezer at the touch of a button. The drawer-based design and five temperature settings (freezer, chill, fridge, pantry and wine modes) make it a flexible choice for the kitchen—and beyond.

    Capacity: 3.1 cu. ft.
    Annual Energy Usage*: 145 kWh
    Energy Star Rated*: Yes

  • Liebherr Fully Integrated Refrigerators

    Liebherr Fully Integrated Refrigerators

    This German company’s entire line of refrigeration products meets or exceeds Energy Star standards. The Fully Integrated modular collection offers separate units in widths from 24” to 72”; they can be installed in different locations or combined to create larger units. These units feature dual compressors (one for the freezer; one for the refrigerator) and LED lighting.

    Capacity: varies
    Annual Energy Usage*: varies
    Energy Star Rated*: Yes

  • Bosch 800 Series Counter-Depth French Door Bottom Freezer Refrigerator

    Bosch will be launching a new kitchen line this month. This counter-depth, French
    door-style refrigerator (B22CT80SNS) is part of it. The unit is 36” wide and 72” tall and installs flush with cabinetry. This model comes with a stainless steel or custom wood panel door; hidden hinges contribute to the seamless look. It features full-length cantilever doors and LED lighting.

    Capacity: 21.8 cu. ft. (refrigerator: 16.21 cu. ft; freezer: 5.52 cu. ft.)
    Annual Energy Usage: 459 kWh
    Energy Star Rated: No

  • Summit Appliance FF41ESADA Series

    Summit Appliance FF41ESADA Series

    Small doesn’t necessarily mean more energy efficient; in fact, energy efficiency generally increases with size. However, Summit Appliance offers a number of compact refrigerator-freezer units that meet or exceed Energy Star standards. Those in the FF41ESADA Series are 19” wide and counter height, making them ADA-compliant. The slim width makes them perfect for apartments and other small spaces.

    Capacity: 3.6 cu. ft.
    Annual Energy Usage*: 310 kWh
    Energy Star Rated*: Yes

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The Smart Guide to Chilling Out

When searching for an energy-efficient model, the Energy Star rating is a good place to start. Just make sure you’re comparing apples to apples.

In the U.S. alone, 126 million refrigerators and 38 million freezers operate 24 hours a day, consuming a combined total of nearly 200 billion kWh of electricity each year. Overall, refrigeration accounts for 8 percent of residential energy use.

After an all-time low in the late 1980s, refrigerator efficiency has been steadily improving. A suite of strategies—a larger casing for insulation, higher-performing insulation, more-efficient (optional) compressors and heat exchangers, “smart” controls that allow a user to individually control compartments and LED lighting—have transformed these energy pigs into lean machines.

In September of this year, upgraded energy efficiency standards (set by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2011) will kick in. The DOE estimates these new standards will result in a 30-year savings of 4.84 quads of energy (and 344 million metric tons of carbon), and an economic savings of $36 billion. Energy Star refrigerators will have to be 10 percent more efficient than their uncertified counterparts. In addition, the program is awarding a “connected allowance” to units that are “smart-grid ready” or that give users access to energy usage data and allow them to change settings remotely.

While this is good news, other factors come in to play. The number of households has increased, and along with it, the total number of units up and running. In addition, more households than ever (20 percent according to DOE estimates) have more than one refrigerator. Conventional refrigerator/freezers aren’t getting any smaller, either. The average American fridge measures about 17.5 cubic feet.

Here are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind when scouting for the most efficient models:

  • Units with top freezers are more efficient than side-by-side or the popular “French door” models.
  • Through-the-door ice makers and other bells and whistles reduce energy efficiency.
  • Refrigerators tend to get more efficient as they get larger, so several small units are likely less energy efficient than one large one.
  • Different standards are set for different fridge/freezer configurations. Consequently, an Energy Star side-by-side model might use more energy than a non-Energy Star top-freezer model of similar size. A better indicator is the estimated annual usage in kilowatt-hours.
  • Models manufactured before January 2014 can still sport Energy Star labels, even if they no longer qualify under the new, more stringent standards.

 

Decoding the New Energy Guide Label

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Upgraded standards for refrigerators’ energy efficiency, set by the Department of Energy in 2011, will kick in later this year. The DOE changed the way annual usage is determined, which means the same model scrutinized under the new guidelines might yield different, and in some cases, higher values. This is because the new standards use a higher electricity rate ($0.12/kWh versus $0.11/kWh) and a figure called the Adjusted Volume (AV), which takes into account the higher energy usage required by a unit’s freezer compartment. This is calculated by multiplying the freezer volume by 1.63 and adding it to the refrigerator volume (for freezer-only units, the total volume is multiplied by 1.73). Until every manufacturer has updated its labels, comparing models could get a little confusing; however, the new Energy Guide stickers should more accurately reflect an appliance’s energy usage and cost of operation.