The Green Household: Repair? or Replace and Recycle?

When an appliance breaks down, one of the toughest decisions is whether to call the repairman or buy a new one. Sure, newer appliances are more energy efficient than old ones, but at what point does that boost in energy efficiency get outweighed by the tremendous amount of energy and resources required to recycle your old appliance and manufacture its replacement (which will also be recycled someday)?

It depends on which appliance we're talking about, and its age (see table).

Overview

If your appliance was manufactured in 2001 or after--when substantially stricter federal energy restrictions went into effect--and if it has the Energy Star Label, don't think twice: Repair it, if at all possible. While the energy efficiency of some appliances has continued to improve since 2001, the changes have not been dramatic enough to outweigh the replacement burden, and your appliance should have enough good years of energy-efficient life to make all but the most drastic repairs worth the cost.

Also, chances are that you'll be able to buy an even-more efficient appliance in just a few years. In part this comes from government regulation and investment: There a number of enhancements for energy efficiency in the 2009 Economic Stimulus package and the likelihood that the current administration will interpret energy-efficiency regulations in a more stringent manner. But there's also pressure from consumers: In a 2008 Harris poll, 43% of people reported buying energy-efficient appliances in order to reduce their carbon footprint. Appliance manufacturers have heard the message. While no one can predict the future, chances are good that if you can get a few more years of life out of your relatively efficient appliance now, when it finally does break down for good, you'll be able to get something much more efficient than you can get today. And you keep your current appliance out of the recyclers' hands for that much longer..

Refrigerator and Freezers

If your refrigerator was made between 1993 and 2001, it still may be worth repairing. Check out this calculator from the government's EnergyStar site to determine the savings in energy costs of a new refrigerator versus your current one: http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?fuseaction=refrig.calculator

But if your broken refrigerator was made before 1993, it's time to replace it with a new EnergyStar-rated model. A refrigerator made before 1993 is nearing the end of its life--around 16-18 years for a home refrigerator (see the sidebar on appliance lifetimes)--and appliances get less efficient in their final years. Also, because a refrigerator runs all the time, it accounts for about 8% of energy usage in most households, so it's one appliance where the EnergyStar label really matters when you do buy a new unit.

Finally, whether you get a few more years of life out of it or replace it now, be sure to recycle your old refrigerator properly. The refrigerant gases used in refrigerators and even the insulating foams used in manufacturing are harmful to the ozone layer--particularly so in refrigerators made before 2000. And many other parts of your refrigerator can be completely recycled. You can find information on recycling in your area at http://earth911.com/

Dishwasher

Washing dishes in a properly filled dishwasher is actually more efficient than washing dishes by hand. In most cases, the electric energy the dishwasher uses is actually more than compensated for by the energy savings that comes from using less hot water.

Dishwashers made after 1994 are more efficient than those made before that date. And EnergyStar models not only use 25% less power than the federal standard, but also use up to 40% less hot water. So if your dishwasher was made before 1994, or it was made soon after and doesn't have the EnergyStar label, it's probably time to replace and recycle. If your dishwasher was made between 1994 and 2001 and has the EnergyStar label, it might also be a good candidate for repair, from an energy-efficiency point of view.

As with all appliances, for dishwashers made after 2001 repair should be the first option.

Ranges, Ovens and Cook Tops

Unlike the refrigerator and the dishwasher, ranges, ovens and cooktops have not seen significant improvements in energy efficiency in recent decades. Repair ranges as long as you can keep them working. They are a clear case where the energy required to build and recycle them far outweighs any potential savings in buying a new unit, because there are no energy savings to speak of, they are used only intermittently (unlike your refrigerator, which runs continuously), and they are reasonably efficient at what they do.

Clothes Washers

If your washing machine is more than 10 years old, replace it with a new one with the EnergyStar label. Washing machines released since 2001 not only take less power to run than older models, they also use a lot less water per load. Less hot or warm water per load means less gas to heat that water, and it reduces the load at the water retreatment facilities. This is the one appliance where replacing early is your best option.

Clothes Dryers

On the other hand, your clothes dryer is worth repairing for much longer than most other appliances. Like ranges and cooktops in the kitchen, clothes dryers are the laundry room appliance that has not gotten significantly more efficient during their most recent life cycle. They aren't even rated by the government's EnergyStar program.

The fact that clothes dryers they haven't improved doesn't mean they're "good" from an energy usage point of view. In fact, second only to the refrigerator, clothes dryers are one of the biggest users of energy in the average home over the course of a year. The best way to improve the efficiency of your clothes dryer is to use it less. Dry your clothes on a line, if you can. You'll both use less energy to dry your clothes and extend the life of your dryer.

Repair it and use it less.

Room Air Conditioners

Room air conditioners--the kind you put in your window--are a surprisingly good bet for repair. Yes, regulations that went into effect in 2001 mean that units sold since then are more efficient, and if you need to buy a new model, EnergyStar-rated air conditioners are required to be at least 10% more efficient than the standard. Since cooling accounts for 11% of total energy use in the average home, a more efficient air conditioner can make a big difference on the energy used--and on your summer electricity bill--all things being equal.

However, all things are not equal: How you install, maintain and use air conditioning can make an even bigger difference on its energy footprint than the energy profile of the air conditioner itself:

  • Seal the area around window air conditioners. Additional insulation in front of and behind the accordion sliders, and sealing it all around, can make a big difference.
  • If you're not at home during the day, turn your air conditioner off or dial it down, and close drapes to keep your house from heating excessively.
  • Clean the filter at least once a month when the unit is in use. Most filters are easy to access and can simply be rinsed in the sink and then replaced.
  • If you want to spread the cool around the house rather than install a second unit, use a fan to blow the warm air into the room with the air conditioner rather than blowing the cool air out. It works better and is more efficient.
  • Take your air conditioner in for a tune-up and cleaning. Though window air conditioning units are among the appliances people are least likely to submit for routine professional maintenance and cleaning, they can benefit from it more than most appliances in terms of energy efficiency.

As with refrigerators, if you do decide to replace a window air conditioning unit, go for an EnergyStar-rated unit and make sure you recycle your old unit properly. The coolants are especially damaging to the ozone layer, and air conditioners are dense with recyclable parts. You can find information on recycling in your area at earth911.com.

Average Useful Life of Appliances

Refrigerator14-19 years
Freezer15-18 years
Dishwasher11-13 years
Range17-18 years
Oven-Built In16 years
Cook Top13-21 years
Microwave Oven9 years
Clothes Washer11-14 years
Clothes Dryer13 years
Room AirConditioner 12 years
Dehumidifier11 years

from: Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers

Appliance Made after 2001 Made between 1993 and 2001 Made before 1993
Refrigerator Repair Probably Repair Replace
Dishwasher probably repair Repair Replace
Ranges & Ovens Repair Probably Repair Repair if parts avail.
Clothes Washer Repair Replace Replace
Clothes Dryer Repair Probably Repair Repair if parts avail.
Room Air Conditioner Repair Probably Repair Probably Replace