Efficiency and energy labels
A good fridge/freezer should do more than keep your food safe — it should also be energy-efficient. As it’s working non-stop, the energy it consumes adds up — think of the long-term running costs as part of the purchase price of the fridge.
For some years now Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS) have been in place, which every new fridge sold in Australia must meet. These are mandatory standards and the tougher MEPS that came into force in January 2005 have brought significant improvements in energy efficiency.
The latest MEPS became manadatory as of April 2010 (MEPS 2010), which makes 2007 testing standard mandatory. The actual MEPs 2010 requirements haven't changed significantly, but one noticible change is the energy label star rating system.
The new energy star rating label uses a different star rating algorithm to allow further improvement in energy efficiency. This means a fridge previously rated four stars will now only have two stars. It doesn’t mean it’s less efficient – the star ratings have just been calculated differently, so be sure to also compare the kWh/year too.
All fridges manufactured or imported from 1 April 2010 must carry the new label and be registered to the latest testing standard. Stock made or imported before this date can continue to be sold. Over the transitional period, both labels will be displayed in stores. The new labels will not have a green bar on the bottom, and they can accommodate super energy efficient machines up to 10 stars by adding a four-star crown above the label.
Think about your typical fridge and freezer usage and whether the type of fridge you're considering matches it.
- The fresh-food compartment is used more often than the freezer, so having it on top or at the side improves accessibility.
- Bottom-mounted freezers tend to have slide-out baskets instead of shelves, making contents easy to get at. But there can be a disadvantage: the crispers in fridges with the freezer at the bottom are sometimes too cold.
- Each compartment of a side-by-side model tends to be narrow and deep. This can make them difficult to reach into — slide-out shelves can help — and can also restrict storage options (we couldn’t fit a frozen pizza flat in some). But the narrow doors can be less intrusive into passage space in the kitchen when open.
- Generally, the tall compartments of side-by-sides can make the even distribution of cold air difficult, so you'll get variations in temperatures throughout the fridge and freezer, particularly at the top. When installing a side-by-side, be warned that the cabinets tend to twist unless you're very careful about height adjustment.
- Check that the fridge can fit through your home's doorways before you buy — particularly if you're considering a side-by-side fridge.
- Pigeon pairs are separate-but-matching fridge and freezer. These give you more options for storage than a side-by-side combined fridge/freezer, but will take up more space and have a much wider footprint.
- With pigeon pairs, you have the option of not putting the two components next to each other — you can put the freezer in another room — unlike side-by-sides.
Also, bear in mind that all fridges need at least a few centimetres of air space around them. Measure your available space, and brochures in the shop or the fridge’s manual will tell you how much space to allow — as does our Compare fridges feature.
Why are top mounted fridges generally more energy efficient?
The answer lies in the nature of convection, the working of the heat exchanger and the position of the compressor which produces a lot of heat. Convection is the way air circulates due to differences in temperature. Basically, the warmer air rises and the cooler air falls. In the early fridges, this was the only way the air inside the compartments circulated, so the freezer was always at the top and there were cooling coils for both fridge and freezer. The cooling is done using the compression and expansion of the refrigerant which flows through the cooling coils.
Modern fridges don’t rely quite so much on convection as they use fans to circulate the air inside the compartments. These fans usually turn off when you open the door so that cold air isn’t blown out while you’re getting your food out of the fridge. They also usually have only one set of cooling coils which and the cold air is circulated into the appropriate compartments. The freezer is still the compartment that needs the most cooling and in a bottom mount fridge it is right next to the heat producing compressor, so that more energy is required to keep it cold. In addition, the cold air needs to be forced up to the fresh food compartment against the natural flow of convection and this also uses energy. A top mounted freezer is a long way from the compressor, so is easier to keep cold and the natural flow of the cold air produced takes it to the fresh food compartment as well requiring less work by the circulation system.
- A single control may seem easier to use, but as it sets both the freezer and the fresh-food compartment, you can't adjust one without affecting the other. In most fridges with two controls, one is the thermostat and the second is usually a baffle — a flap that directs the cold air more to either one or the other compartment.
- Having two controls doesn't always make adjusting the temperature any easier, but may increase your chances of getting the right temperature balance between the fridge and freezer.
- Some electronic fridges have relatively independent temperature management of the two compartments, which better addresses the problem.
- Some have a 24-hour memory that monitors door openings and precools the fridge before a period of heavy use — such as when the kids get home from school or you're preparing dinner.
- And some automatically manage the defrosting to suit the conditions.
For ease of use
- Reversible door: Make sure the door opens in the right direction for your kitchen. On some models the doors are reversible but you may have to call in a service person to do it.
- Do the handles allow easy door opening and closing? Note that the level of difficulty, in most cases, will increase when the fridge is working (as opposed to a display model that's not operating). Make sure the handles aren't too high or too low.
- Check that the shelves (and door shelves) are easy to remove and replace, and that the range of shelf positions suit your needs. For example, can you stand soft-drink or wine bottles in the door shelves? Split shelves can be handy for this.
- Some shelves are made from moulded plastic or safety glass, which helps confine spills. But some plastic shelves may not be as durable as those made from other materials.
- If the fridge has to be positioned with the door hinge next to a wall, shelves should be removable with the door open at only 90 degrees.
- Rollers are useful for easy moving — when cleaning behind the fridge, for example. It should also have adjustable feet (or rollers) for levelling the fridge. Four rollers are better than two, provided they have brakes or adjustable feet to secure the fridge in place.
- Look for smooth, easy to clean surfaces with no awkward corners or dirt-trapping crevices.
- Some fridges have a warning beep if you leave the door open too long.
- A chiller is important if you often store meat, fish and poultry (fresh or cooked), to keep it at a safe temperature and for longer. If you're choosing a fridge with a chiller feature, the chiller’s temperature should be close to zero and ideally it has a separate temperature control.
- A quick-chill zone close to the cold-air outlets is handy for cooling drinks quickly, but food left there too long can freeze. Some CHOICE readers have told us that far from being useful, they find this zone reduces the amount of usable space.
- A dairy compartment is convenient for keeping butter and hard cheeses slightly soft.
- Look for a well-sealed crisper drawer to keep vegetables fresh; check that the fridge's air outlets don't blow onto it, as this will dry food out faster. A good crisper means you don't have to put your fruit and vegies in plastic bags.
- Ice trays with a dispenser or other special containers are available on some models.
- A water and ice dispenser on the outside of the door means it isn’t constantly opened for cold drinks.
- Some water dispensers and ice makers/dispensers need to be connected to a water tap — important to consider before installing or moving your fridge. Also, they can take up almost 30% of your freezer space. With others, water can be dispensed from a container inside the door.
- You may also want to consider a water filter for your water dispenser and icemaker which will also need to be plumbed in. If possible try to connect your fridge to an existing water filter — it'll save you additional costs for filter cartridges.