There is perhaps no greater reminder of one's aging appliances than waking up to the pungent smell of natural gas in a 500-sq-ft. apartment at 3 a.m. At least, that's what ran through my groggy mind as I dialed my gas provider's emergency hotline early last Wednesday morning. Though the leak was eventually traced to the ancient hose that connects my stove to the gas line, the range itself is no spring chicken (nor is it fit to cook one).
Appliances account for 20 percent of household energy consumption, more if they happen to be relics of the original Sears Roebuck catalog. Americans threw out some 3.6 million tons of major appliances in 2005, and another 0.9 million tons of small ones. Keeping them going by swapping out parts may save valuable landfill space -- and give you bragging rights in North -- but eventually, inevitably, they begin to do more harm than good to the environment.
So when do you say "when" to the refrigerator that's been with you through more leftover birthday cakes than you can count? When its contribution to global warming becomes reflected in your electricity bill. Today's Energy Star-qualified refrigerators require about half as much energy as models manufactured before 1993. ( to see how much your fridge is costing you.) If your clothes washer hails back to 1994, you're spending $110 more per year than necessary; a 13-year-old dishwasher will cost you an extra $30 per year.
To replace your aging dinosaur with today's most efficient model, look for the Energy Star label. It distinguishes appliances that use 10-50% less energy and water than federal standards require. Though the label doesn't apply to clothes washers and stoves, you can follow these tips: Look for a dryer with a moisture sensor that automatically shuts off the machine when your clothes are dry. (It saves energy, plus prevents wear and tear.) Self-cleaning gas or electric ovens are more energy-efficient because they have more insulation, and dual-element burners on an electric range will save energy by allowing you to match the size of the burner to your pan. You can buy an Energy Star-qualified range hood--which uses 70% less energy on average than standard models and is 50% quieter.
The demonstration houses at the Solar Decathalon last week on the National Mall showcased how smart consumer choices coupled with clever alternative energy production could actually zero out a homeowner's utility bill. Seven of the 20 collegiate teams scored a perfect 100 points in the energy balance contest, which means they used only the energy generated by the PV systems on their houses to provide all of their electricity during the competition. Here are some of the appliances that helped get them achieve this feat:
* A combination washer and dryer from LG washes and dries clothes in one machine. Moisture is carried away by hot air, condensed by cold mist in a separate chamber and then exits the system.
* Kenmore's induction cooktop uses electromagnetic energy to heat food faster and more evenly, saving energy by up to 90%.
* A Bosch built-in bottom fridge/freezer has an alarm that indicates when the door is ajar, as well as vacation and economy modes.
* The MasterChef convection speed oven by Miele lets you choose between the convection function--efficient because heated air continuously circulates around the food--and the microwave function, or combine the two.
* KitchenAid's drawer dishwasher offers powerful performance in less space, allowing small loads to run more often. It's 97% more efficient than the typical stand-up version.
Other companies well represented by products in the Solar Decathalon homes include Maytag, Thermadore, Diva de Provence, Whirlpool, Liebherr, DCS and Siemens. For the specific models, check out the .