Since January 1995, an EC Directive has required all refrigerators and freezers to be labelled to show their energy efficiency on a seven-point A to G scale (ENDS Report 239, p 32-33 ). Separate EC legislation, adopted last year, sets minimum energy efficiency standards for refrigerators which come into force in 1999 (ENDS Report 250, pp 40-41 ).
Last year, domestic refrigerators and freezers accounted for 24% of the electricity used by UK household lights and appliances and 6% of the country's total electricity consumption. Despite considerable improvements in refrigerator efficiency since 1970, total energy consumption has more than trebled due to the growing number of households and a rise in ownership.
The ECU found continuing improvements in appliance efficiency since the labelling scheme began. Cold appliances sold at the end of 1996 were consuming 4.4% less electricity than those sold in early 1995. But the net gain was reduced to just under 1% by higher sales of frost-free appliances.
Models that do not need defrosting are increasing their market share across the EC, and reached 13.2% of UK sales last year. Contrary to claims by some retailers that they are more efficient than standard models, they actually consume 45% more energy on average, the report says.
By 2020, the ECU predicts that the new minimum efficiency standards will have brought further energy savings in the refrigeration sector of between 2% - the worst case scenario - and 18%, compared with current trends. But additional pressure to improve efficiency, such as revisions to the labelling rules in 2000 and a tightening of the efficiency standards, will be "essential" to ensure that the best-case scenario wins out.
Even under best-case conditions, the minimum standards will only achieve 23% of the total energy savings possible if all machines sold up to 2020 were the most efficient available. To help close the gap, the report says that vacuum panels, which provide super-insulation and can cut electricity consumption by up to 80%, are "vital".
The ECU found no correlation between appliance prices and energy efficiency. Factors such as size, features and brand are "far more likely" to influence price than energy consumption - a conclusion which contradicts claims by the manufacturers' association, AMDEA, that energy efficiency is a low priority for consumers because of their "obsession" with price (ENDS Report 251, p 23 ).
Recent discussions between the Energy Saving Trust (EST) and AMDEA on the introduction of cash rebates for more efficient models came to nothing. Manufacturers were concerned that prices would have to be raised again when the rebates ended and consumers would stop buying them.
The industry saw the introduction of the energy label as an opportunity to sell efficient models at higher prices. "AMDEA didn't want consumers to get the message that more efficient appliances aren't worth paying a bit more for," the EST's Appliance Manager, Alex Goodwin, told ENDS.
Some consumers are already using the energy label in purchase decisions. In a recent project, 100 people who had recently bought a cold appliance were questioned, and 35 said they had made use of the label. These consumers bought appliances which were on average 20% more efficient than those chosen by the rest of the sample. The ECU believes that some, if not all, of the buying pattern is attributable to the label. If repeated across the country, the pattern would cut electricity consumption by refrigerators by 7%.
However, the report says that most retailers believe that consumers are not interested in energy efficiency, and have given staff little training on energy labels. An exception is Scottish Hydro, whose sales of appliances in the A to C classes rose from 14% to 23% over a year. And the Danish electrical chainstore Snehvide, which used the label as a selling tool, increased sales from 57% to 74%.
The Consumers' Association examined the labelling scheme last year and found evidence of misleading claims. It urged a change in the rules to prevent manufacturers conducting their own efficiency tests (ENDS Report 257, p 27 ). The ECU says that there is anecdotal evidence that fewer appliances are being labelled correctly than a year ago.
If retail education doubled the number of consumers who took energy efficiency into account, a 10-14% improvement in the efficiency of the average cold appliance sold each year could be achieved, the ECU believes - four times the improvement it expects as a result of the introduction of the EC's efficiency standards in 1999.
Readily available information on running costs, and how they compare with purchase prices, could provide a valuable sales tool for efficient models, says the ECU. For conventional fridge-freezers, the running costs account for over 50% of total life-cycle costs.