Energy efficiency aside, for a fridge to be environmentally friendly it should contain gases that won't contribute to ozone depletion or global warming. Gases inside a fridge are used as refrigerant (part of the cooling mechanism), and for blowing (making air bubbles in and distributing) the insulation, which keeps the compartments cool.
In the past, fridges and freezers used chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) as refrigerants and blowing gases, both of which are ozone depleting gases. CFCs aren't allowed in modern fridges, and while HCFCs aren't scheduled to be phased out till 2020, it's now uncommon to find them in fridges on the Australian market.
Manufacturers predominantly use the hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerant R134a. HFCs don't deplete the ozone layer but are still active greenhouse gases. A more environmentally sound refrigerant used by some manufacturers is R600a, a hydrocarbon (HC). More manufacturers are gradually turning over their fridge ranges to incorporate the refrigerant R600a (a hydrocarbon called isobutane), a more environmentally friendly refrigerant than R134a. R600a also claims better energy efficiency. One of the downsides of R600a is that it's flammable, unlike R134a; however the small quantities used in refrigeration make this a very low risk. Our conversations with manufacturers regarding this changeover come with assurances that both the design of the cabinets and the training levels have improved to cope with this change.
Opening your fridge door
When it comes to fridges, CHOICE tests energy use to the Australian standard, which means testing at 32°C ambient temperature. While most kitchens don't get this hot, this harsh test offsets the number of times some users open a fridge door.
But what happens to the fridge temperature whenever you do just that? The answer is: much of the cold air that's been building up inside the fridge gradually falls out. Think of the fridge as being full of water, and each time you open the door, the water falls out onto the ground. Then, when you close the door, the fridge needs to build up that cold air again.
If you have someone – and every home does – who loves to just open the fridge and stare into it for ages, wishing a particular food would magically appear or slowly making up their mind about what to plunder, they're making it that much harder for the fridge to fill up the cold again, costing you money.
As part of our latest round of fridge reviews, we opened and closed three fridges of various sizes to see what kind of fluctuations would occur and get an idea of just how much more energy you use when you open the fridge door. Using conservative experiments, we found an increase of 5–14% in running costs. Some manufacturers have also carried out similar experiments claiming a 40% increase in running costs.
We're not saying you need to put a chain and lock on the fridge, but when you're planning your meal or thinking about getting something out, do it quickly and efficiently, especially with energy costs now on the rise.
Fridge energy efficiency has improved dramatically over the past decade. Unfortunately, in some cases, these gains have led to poor food storage. Some fridges save on energy by having longer "compressor-off cycles", which cause the temperature inside to fluctuate. Ice-cream is a good indicator of temperature fluctuation, as it can partially melt during the off cycle and then form gritty crystals when it refreezes.
You do have some control over temperature setting, but you have no control over large temperature swings – as the compressor stops and starts – or poor temperature uniformity.
Poor uniformity may mean an average of 3°C in the fresh food compartment (the ideal
temperature) but more than 5°C in other parts, such as the door shelf. This can result in milk going off much faster than you would expect.
To put the spotlight on a fridge's fundamental function – keeping food fresh – our testing method and rating scale's main focus is on temperature performance.
We put all fridge brands tested through their paces in our specialised laboratories. Our applicance reliability survey also gives a good indication of how our members rate the reliability of major fridge brands over time. Also consult our fridge and freezer buying guide before hitting the shops.
To keep greenhouse emissions to a minimum, the most important aspect is the fridge's energy efficiency rather than the type of refrigerant/blowing gas used. But if you want to check which refrigerant your fridge uses, all models have this information on the fridge specification plate in the cabinet.
You may have come across some brands that promote their fridge as having plastic surfaces or door seals that are "anti-bacterial", which is claimed to inhibit the growth of bacteria on treated surfaces for the life of the fridge. These surfaces contain Microban, an antibacterial pesticide with the active ingredient triclosan, registered by the US EPA to inhibit bacterial growth in plastic. But it doesn't protect you from food-borne illness (just the plastic), and neither is it a substitute for good hygiene practices – you still have to clean your fridge.
Recycle your old fridge
If you're upgrading to a sleek new model, what do you do with your old fridge? It might be tempting to keep it in the garage to store cold drinks, but it could be costing you an extra $130 a year to run – and producing an extra tonne of greenhouse gas emissions per year. If your old fridge is over 15 years old, it may also contain ozone-depleting refrigerant (CFCs), which can leak out.
If your fridge is still in relatively good condition, contact your local Salvation Army or similar charity, which can send it to a good home. Otherwise, contact your local council or the Australian Refrigeration Council (1300 884 483) to find out about any local recovery schemes. The refrigerant will need to be recovered and recycled by an appropriately licensed person.
You can also go to the Planet Ark/Sensis recycling website and search under 'white goods'.
In NSW you can get a rebate by recycling your fridge (or second fridge) – collection is free and you'll get a $35 'rebate' for your efforts. Visit Fridge Buyback for details.
When disposing of your fridge, make sure you remove the doors so it poses no potential hazards to children.
Fridge working hard, or hardly working?
Blaming your grocer for your food going off too soon? What if it's not the grocer's fault but your fridge that's not keeping things fresh? Supermarkets have high turnover and strictly regulated health requirements for food handling and quality, but who checks your fridge regularly – or whether it was damaged during transport?
Our recommended fridges have better cooling capacity and steady temperatures, but can't be guaranteed to work perfectly if they have a manufacturing fault or get dropped somewhere between the production line and your house. It's quite difficult to tell if this has happened unless you see something obvious such as a broken ice tray or large dent on the side.
Over a testing period of 30 new fridges, four turned out to have a fault of some kind – a 13% strike rate. But you can't tell if you have such a fridge unless you get it checked by an expert – a costly exercise. If you keep your fridge closed as much as possible (difficult for those with teenagers) and you start noticing food going off sooner than it should, this is another sign that temperatures aren't as they should be. You can try adjusting the controls to refine the temperature – you can measure this with a fridge thermometer over time. But really, you shouldn't have to bear any of these costs.
We'd like to see a more accurate way for consumers to quickly check their fridge is keeping the correct temperatures. Accurate thermostats on a digital reading and/or simple error messages are two ways for this to happen. Other digital display suggestions such as "Close door for better temperatures" would help keep both better food quality and your energy costs down.
Few fridges on the market do this well, aside from simple alarms to close the door. We look forward to seeing manufacturers improve the quality of their fridge from production to end of life, helping prevent food waste along the way. In the meantime, check your fridge carefully on delivery, just to make sure there is no obvious damage that should raise alarm bells.
Is your new fridge really new?
When shopping for a new fridge, many people assume it is exactly that – new. However, it's not unheard of for a fridge to sit in a warehouse or on the shop floor for months or even years at a time before it's sold. Who knows how many times it's been moved around, knocked about and possibly even damaged in that time? It's not impossible to check the manufacture date of a fridge before buying it, but it can involve a bit of sleuthing as it's often encoded for manufacturer use.
For instance, out of six newly tested fridges, three have the dates inside their door in the format of a serial number. The first digit represents the year and the next two the week in that year the fridge was manufactured. Most people are unlikely to look for the label of the fridge to check it. Even if the coding can be clearly seen, that's only going to help if you're purchasing the floor sample. So what guarantee do you have when buying a new fridge that it's not a few years old?
One solution would be to put the date of manufacture in an obvious and easily accessible area, or at the very least to simplify the coding so consumers can easily read it. This would mean that with a quick glance at the label, you could be assured the fridge delivered has the same date as the one you ordered, or newer if possible. If a floor sample has an older date, you could bargain for a lower price.
If you are unhappy with the date on the model delivered, you may want to query the retailer and ask for a model with a more recent date. Many products purchased require a date of manufacture. It can be argued that the older a fridge is, the more likely the deterioration of elements such as seals. For the benefit of consumers, CHOICE would like to see all appliances clearly labelled with the year of manufacture to ensure that new really means new.
When we measure fridge noise, we first take a background noise reading and it must be below 20dB. Then we measure the noise when the compressor is running and with a hard wall behind it. We measure with the measuring device mounted, at a point 1m high and 1m away from the front of the fridge; this gives you a reasonable idea of the relative noise of the compressor, but a fridge will make some really odd and sometimes very loud sounds when it undergoes a defrost – pops, gurgles etc. We do not measure those.
If the compressor is not running, then the main noise would be from the fans which assist the circulation and the various noises that happen during a defrost (some of which can be quite alarming). Noise measurements are impacted by a lot of different external factors including background dB and vibrations.
It's worth asking a couple of questions if you have a loud fridge.
- Does your fridge have enough room around it to dissipate heat from the compressor? Look at our installation recommendations in the table. If your fridge installation manual doesn't come with its own recommendations, consider leaving at least 5–10cm at the sides, rear and top of the fridge.
- Is the fridge leveled on the floor? An unleveled fridge can give out some odd sounds.
- Is it on a hard floor or carpet? Vibrations from the fridge can compound depending on your floor type.
- Is it situated in an open space or enclosed in cabinetry? An open-plan environment means any noises will travel, whereas an enclosed kitchen or fridge alcove will most likely dampen noises from the fridge.
Does it have things placed on top or stuck to the front? These can vibrate when the fridge goes through a compressor cycle.
- Where, how, and at what distance is the noise at one meter in front and in height from the fridge. While your everyday smartphone app won't be as accurate as our calibrated noise meter, it can give you an indication of background noise and fridge noise.