Dear Jim: Our refrigerator is pretty old and I would like to get a new, more efficient one. We are empty-nesters now, so I am wondering if it makes sense to get a smaller one, but perhaps one with more features?
-- Megan K.
Dear Megan: Any new refrigerator is going to be more energy efficient than your old one. This is particularly true for Energy Star qualified models, which must be at least 20 percent more efficient than the current minimum energy-efficiency standards. You can find a list of models which are Energy Star qualified at www.energystar.gov along with buyer's guidetips.
With all other design factors being similar, a small refrigerator consumes less electricity than a large one. Unless you are constantly opening the refrigerator door and searching for food items, the majority of the electricity consumption of a refrigerator is due to heat transferring in through the insulated exterior surfaces.
A small refrigerator has less exterior surface area than a large one, so less heat gets in. In order to keep the inside of the freezer at 0 degrees and the refrigerator portion at 40 degrees, this heat must be removed by running the compressor.
When deciding upon which features you need, try to avoid ones that penetrate the exterior of the refrigerator. At a penetration, there is no insulation so more heat can transfer in. This is analogous to a house exterior. A house with more windows, doors, skylights, etc. will lose more heat than one with fewer breaks in the wall.
With your children no longer living at home, you can probably get by with a smaller (less cubic feet) refrigerator than your old one. Clean out all the unused items in your existing refrigerator to determine how much free space you have. Keep in mind, with the children gone, you probably can move some of extra cans of soda pop to the closet, which will free up space.
Also, don't determine the size required by the maximum amount of refrigerator space you need just a couple times during the holidays when everyone is back home. Just plan a bit ahead to use up some of the items so there is more temporary space.
The most efficient refrigerator design is a top-freezer. It typically provides the most usable interior capacity for its exterior size. The cold air from the freezer naturally drops (cold air is more dense) down into the refrigerator portion. A good rule of thumb is the actual usable capacity of a refrigerator is about 80 percent of the advertised capacity.
Any features which allow you to customize the interior space are good. Pullout shelves are an advantage because, with easier access to the back of the shelves, you will tend to store things there. Split shelves mounted in adjustable slots or ones which crank up and down also increase the amount of usable interior space.
The following companies are among those offering refrigerator/freezers: Frigidaire, (800)374-4432, www.frigidaire.com; General Electric, (800) 626-2000, www.geappliances.com; Kitchenaid, (800) 422-1230, www.kitchenaid.com; LG, (800) 243-0000, www.lge.com; and Whirlpool, (866) 698-2538, www.whirlpool.com.