For most of its 19-year existence, the Energy Star program has basically operated on a good-faith agreement with manufacturers. Products had to meet government-set energy-use specifications to receive the iconic blue-and-white Energy Star label, but manufacturers tested their own products to prove compliance.
The lax oversight led to many discrepancies. During the course of Consumer Reports' ongoing refrigerator tests, for example, we have encountered numerous Energy Star-qualified models that use far more energy than claimed by their manufacturer. In one particularly egregious case from 2008, an LG French-door refrigerator used twice as much energy in our tests than its stated 547-kilowatt-hour annual consumption.
Then there was the chagrining March 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office, in which 15 bogus products were awarded an Energy Star label, including a gas-powered alarm clock and a “room air cleaner” that was actually a space heater with a feather duster and fly strip attached to its housing.
In light of these blemishes, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which jointly administer Energy Star, announced last year a plan to bolster the integrity of its labeling program. The first phase of the initiative started in January 2011, with the launch of a new rule requiring products to be tested for compliance by an EPA-approved third-party certification body.
Phase two involves verification testing, to make sure that products which are certified as Energy Star-compliant stay that way. In a pilot program conducted last year by the DOE, 17 percent of appliances tested were found to be using too much energy to qualify for Energy Star. The open comment period on the final verification testing rule ended this week. If approved, it will likely be several months before the measure takes effect.
“We urge the Department of Energy to adopt the procedures outlined in this proposal,” said Shannon Baker-Branstetter, policy counsel for Consumers Union, which submitted formal comments to the verification program. “This is a good plan that includes reforms recommended by Consumers Union to help ensure the independence and effectiveness of the Energy Star program.”
Baker-Branstetter added, “Under this new plan, products for testing would have to be purchased at retail. That’s a good safeguard against the bias from test samples selected by the manufacturer. It’s a safeguard Consumer Reports uses in our own product testing.”
The combination of third-party certification and verification testing should greatly improve the integrity of the Energy Star program. However, Consumer Reports will continue to urge shoppers to use our Ratings to find out which Energy Star models combine the highest energy efficiency scores with the best performance in our tests.