Woman reaching into a refrigerator.

Refrigerator technology has come a long way since Dr. John Gorrie (1803 – 1855), a forward-looking inventor, was granted U. S. Patent #8080 for mechanical refrigeration in 1851. In those days, ice was expensive, if it was even available: Blocks of natural ice were carved from frozen lakes and rivers and stored in special warehouses under layers of sawdust for insulation. By the 1890s, pollution and sewage dumping caused by population growth compromised sources of pure, natural ice, threatening the brewing, meat-packing, and dairy industries. As these and other industries sought better solutions, modern refrigeration technology started to evolve.

Today, domestic refrigerators offer safety and convenience, keeping food, medicine, and other sensitive items at appropriate temperatures. And, the appliance has recently seen significant improvements in energy efficiency.

For over 30 years, the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Building Technologies Office (BTO) has partnered with manufacturers and other industry players to lead technological innovations in energy efficiency. Our work has vastly improved the energy efficiency of refrigerators and freezers (as well as thousands of other household and commercial appliances), translating into substantial savings for consumers and businesses.

A Cool Idea: Today's Energy-Efficient Refrigerators

Not that long ago, the common household refrigerator consumed a significant amount of energy. The demand for dramatic improvements in efficiency began in response to the oil and energy crises of the 1970s when refrigerators typically cost about $1,300 (adjusted for inflation), a hefty price to pay for an energy waster.

In conjunction with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, DOE developed the ENERGY STAR® program to help consumers save money and protect the environment through energy-efficient products and practices. Refrigerators that perform above and beyond the minimum energy standards qualify for the ENERGY STAR label; this in turn primes the market for continued efficiency improvements and helps motivate consumers to care about energy usage. Manufacturers consistently respond with new innovations that enable their products to meet or exceed the new requirements.

Today's refrigerators use only about 25% of the energy required to power models built in 1975.

DOE and BTO continue to engage manufacturers, consumer groups, environmentalists, and other organizations to conduct research, develop useful tools, and drive market initiatives that inform new standards for continuous improvement in energy efficiency of appliances.

BTO released a third round of updated and improved standards for household refrigerators and freezers August 26, 2011. The proposed increase in efficiency—scheduled to take effect in 2014—will save the nation more than four and a half quadrillion Btu of energy over 30 years. That's three times more than the total energy currently used by all refrigeration products in U.S. homes annually, equivalent to the amount of energy savings that could be used to power a third of Africa for an entire year. It's also equivalent to saving consumers a collective $21 billion on energy bills through 2043.

It IS Easy—and Affordable—Being Green

Today, many major appliance makers and distributors offer affordable, efficient ENERGY STAR qualified refrigerators for home and office use. The ENERGY STAR website provides comprehensive resources to help make it easy for you to understand the standards and choose the make and model of energy-efficient refrigerator that is best for your needs.

Because industry continues to step up to meet or exceed energy-efficiency standards for appliances, it's a lot easier on the pocket and on the environment to keep food safe and ice cream creamy.

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Get Involved with Appliance and Equipment Standards

BTO develops test procedures and minimum efficiency standards to ensure that appliance manufacturers reduce the energy and water use of their products—and the costs to operate them.

Today's refrigerators have been designed to save energy and money without detriment to capacity, functionality, or extra features.

Credit: Building Technologies Office