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photo credit: Energy Trust of Oregon

The good news: Appliance manufacturers are making appliances more energy efficient than ever, and we as consumers are getting more savvy, for instance buying Energy Star-rated refrigerators that use a fraction of the electricity the old ones did just twenty years ago.

The bad news: When we buy the spiffy new fridge, we haul the old one down to the basement or out to the garage. The second fridge might get used mostly for Thanksgiving leftovers and other special occasions. But it runs 24/7 and instead of reducing our energy cost, we end up wasting even more.

“According to the U.S. Department of Energy, there are second refrigerators in 26 percent of homes in the U.S., and that number is increasing by one percent a year,” says Lizzie Rubado, Residential Program Specialist at the Energy Trust of Oregon. The nonprofit offers energy-saving programs to about 70 percent of electric and 90 percent of gas customers in the state. “People keep it plugged in all the time as a convenient backup, but don’t think about how much it costs to keep it running. Older models built before 1993 consume up to $200 a year, as opposed to about $40 year, which is what it costs now to operate Energy Star models.”

The Energy Trust is one of a host of state programs across the country that provide cash rebates to those buying energy-efficient models of certain appliances including refrigerators, washing machines, and dishwashers. Oregon offers residents a tax credit for a portion of the cost on their state income taxes. The Energy Trust also picks up the old refrigerators and freezers for free, recycles them, and offers $50 back.

They upped the ante this fall with Oregon’s Oldest Fridge Contest to entice more people to wave goodbye to their energy guzzlers. All customers who signed up in September to have their refrigerators and freezers picked up got the $50 rebate, and the one with the oldest (and ugliest) model received a new, energy-efficient appliance worth up to $1,000.

The trucks hauled away 2,500 old fridges, including a ginormous 1966 Kelvinator “Foodarama.” But it was a baby compared to the winner, a 1937 General Electric refrigerator belonging to 78-year-old Phyllis Greer. Her parents first bought it, and handed it down to her when she got married in 1952. Now a great-grandmother, she’s bought other refrigerators over the years, but kept this one in the basement for occasional use.

Rubado estimates that the Energy Trust has saved residents nearly $3 million in energy bills since they began offering their cash rebates in August 2008. They’ve recycled more than 53,000 old refrigerators and freezers. A number of other states offer similar rebates. Go to Energy Star’s Rebate locator to find out what’s available in your area.

“Whatever state you live in, you want to make sure the new model of appliance you’re looking at qualifies for the tax credit or rebate,” says Rubado. She recommends carrying the phone number of your local energy efficiency group or utility company when you go shopping. If you see a model you like, call up to see if it’s on the list.

One caveat: Manufacturers are coming up with new models so rapidly, some might not yet be listed. This happened on one of Rubado’s own shopping trips. “We were buying a new washer on Black Friday [the day after Thanksgiving]. I called the Energy Trust and sure enough the one we picked was a brand new model. They could look at the energy specifications and add it as an approved model. So if you don’t see it on the list, don’t despair.” Just give your utility or state energy efficiency program a call.

You can get cash rebates, tax credits and other discounts on a number of energy efficient appliances, like dishwashers, washing machines, and dehumidifiers.

Finding Rebates for Your New Appliance Purchases

  1. Not sure whether it makes sense to replace your old appliance? Check out the “Salvage or Scrap” series on NRDC Smarter Living for refrigeratorsdishwashers, air conditionersclothes washers, and clothes dryers.
  2. Find appliances that have earned an Energy-Star rating for their low energy use at Energy Star’s product listings. They cost less to operate, and use less energy and often less water. Note that Energy Star doesn’t give ratings to certain appliances, like clothes dryers, stoves, microwave ovens, and space heaters.
  3. Check Energy Star’s rebate finder and the Department of Energy’s appliance rebates page to find special offers or rebates on Energy Star qualified appliances in your area. Each state designs its own refund program. Offers change periodically, so you can also check with your local energy efficiency group or utility company for the latest updates.
  4. If you find the Energy Star item you want, call your local energy efficiency group or utility company to make sure it’s eligible for their rebates. If it’s a new model, it may not yet be listed, but they can add it to their list.