WASHINGTON, D.C. — Christi Bernhart and her husband are checking out new refrigerators at Best Buy in Northwest DC. With their newborn son in tow, they're looking for the Energy Star label.

"We thought that this was an easy way for us to make our purchases," says Bernhart.

Turns out, on certain appliances, it may not be so useful in helping them choose.
Consumer Reports discovered that, when it conducted its own product reviews last fall.

"The test procedures are not keeping up with technology. In some instances the procedures are decades old," says Celia Kuperszmid Lehrman, home franchise deputy editor for Consumer Reports magazine.

CR says Department of Energy procedures allow a refrigerator to be tested without its ice maker on, though no consumer would actually use it that way. There is also no independent testing of washing machines, refrigerators, dishwashers, water heaters or room air conditioners.

Lax standards, says Consumer Reports, mean too many products qualify for the Energy Star designation. "The Energy Star was supposed to be for the top 25% of products." says Lehrman.

About 50 percent of dishwashers meet the standard, 60 percent of dehumidifiers, and 90 percent of compact fluorescent lightbulbs. That, says Lehrman, waters down the value of the label.

The Department of Energy agreed with those criticisms in an internal audit of the Energy Star program. "Such loss of credibility could reduce energy savings, increase consumer risk, and diminish the value of the recent infusion of $300 million for Energy Star rebates under the Recovery Act," the report states.

Lane Burt, manager of building and energy policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council says the government is working to strengthen Energy Star standards and rules. "Including testing in laboratories that are certified for such to get the Energy Star label, and doing some off the shelf testing where the agency is going to go in and buy one, just like a consumer would and test it to make sure it qualifies."

With so much confusion over the ratings, consumers have to go beyond the label to make an informed decision.

Shoppers need to look at kilowatt hours used per year, then see how that number compares across products of the same size, with the same features. They should also consider the performance of an appliance, says Consumer Reports. "If a product is not performing well, but it's very energy efficient, you might end up doing things more than once." says Lehrman.

Changes are coming to those big yellow appliance labels, that should give better guidance, similar to a rating system for restaurants and hotels.

"Everyone knows 4 is good, 5 is better, a little easier to understand than 727 kilowatt hours per year." explains Christine Egan, of the Collaborative Labeling and Appliance Standards Program.

Until then, consumers will have a bit more homework to do... "It's important to understand what you're consuming today, i think that we will try and make that extra step." says Bernhart.

Energy Star is still a good place to start. Tougher rules will keep the label from losing its meaning in the marketplace.

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