By some estimates, refrigerators consume 20 percent of our household energy. The good news is that newer models are more efficient than others and those with an Energy Star rating even better.
Regardless of the vintage of your fridge, there are steps you can take to keep these costs as low as possible. And in today's energy market, that's good news indeed!
Take your refrigerator's temperature.
The refrigerator compartment should be set between 38 and 41 degrees F. The freezer should be between 0 and 5 degrees. Unless your refrigerator is nearly new, use a thermometer to check the temperature. Cooling to a lower temperature will waste energy and may even damage the food you're storing.
Inexpensive refrigerator and freezer thermometers are sold at supermarkets, household goods stores, and hardware stores.
Pack your food well
How you pack your food for storage can make a big difference in your refrigerator's electricity use.
Because you want air to circulate around the food being stored, you don't want food to be too tightly packed. On the other hand, don't leave too much space between the food; otherwise, you will be cooling empty space.
Make sure that liquids are covered, since part of the process for keeping food cold is to remove humidity. An open container of liquid (even an opened can of soda) is a constant source of humidity for the compressor to remove and so you end up paying for your refrigerator to "drink" your soda!
In the freezer, pack items more tightly than in the refrigerator. Once frozen, each item helps to keep its neighbor cold. If you have a significant empty space, fill it with freezer bags filled with water. It will freeze and keep the freezer cold.
If you still own a refrigerator model that requires manual defrosting, never let the ice coating exceed 1/4 inch. The thicker the frost, the harder the compressor must work to maintain a constant temperature.
Make finding food easy
If you know where to find an item you won't stand in front of the refrigerator with the door open playing "find the ketchup." Mark food containers for easy identification. Organization costs nothing and saves time and money.
Defrost frozen foods in the refrigerator compartment. Move them from the freezer 24 hours before you plan to cook them. As the food thaws, it releases cold into the refrigerator and saves work for the compressor. (Plus, there is very little chance the food will spoil, as it might if left on the countertop.)
Check for air leaks
Take a piece of paper or a dollar bill. Place it between the door gasket and the refrigerator. Try a number of different places on the door. If you can pull the paper out without tugging on it, air is escaping from your refrigerator. The solution may be as simple as cleaning the gasket with a mild cleaning solution.
Also check for tears and places where the gasket has been pinched out of shape. Minor tears can often be repaired with a gasket cement. You may need to replace the gasket. This is a fairly simple, do-it-yourself project that usually requires a screw driver and some common sense.
Clean the condensing coils
These are the coils that dissipate the hot air. If they're dirty the compressor has to work harder to get rid of the hot air. On some models the coils are on the back of the unit. Others have them on the bottom. In either case you should use a broom or vacuum to remove the majority of the dirt. Follow with a cleaning using a non-abrasive, liquid cleaner. It's a 20-minute job that pays big dividends. Put it on your household maintenance calendar once a quarter.
Check the fan
If your refrigerator has a fan, make sure that it's clean and not blocked. Also check to see if your model has a "humidity" or "power-saver" switch. This switch activates heaters designed to keep your refrigerator from sweating on humid days.
Unless you are experiencing unusually high humidity, leave the heater off. Why try to heat the outside of your refrigerator while you're paying to keep the inside cool?
Consider the positioning of your refrigerator
Where you place your refrigerator makes a difference. If possible, keep your unit away from direct sunlight, the oven and the dishwasher. All of these things generate heat making it harder for the fridge to do its job.
One last tip
One common mistake is using the top of the refrigerator as a shelf. Stored boxes and bags block the air flow necessary to make your compressor efficient.
None of these tips by themselves will make a big difference in your electric bill, but taken together they're a low-cost way to get the most for your utility dollar.
Gary Foreman is the editor of The Dollar Stretcher web site.