How Energy Star Works

History of Energy Star

The Energy Star program was initially designed to certify computer products.
The Energy Star program was initially designed to certify computer products.
Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images

The Environmental Protection Agency designed Energy Star to encourage manufacturers to produce energy-efficient products, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Congress did pass the Energy Policy and Conservation Act in 1975, which set minimum standards of energy efficiency for many major appliances, but the EPA took it a step further in 1992. Energy Star provides credible, objective information to businesses and consumers so they don't have to invest time and money researching energy efficiency.

The voluntary program was initially designed for computers and monitors -- home computers were relatively new to the market, so many consumers weren't aware that this technology could be raising their energy bills significantly. Other office equipment and residential heating and cooling equipment were added to the list over the next three years, and in 1996, the EPA partnered with the Department of Energy for additional product categories.

The Energy Star program operates by lowering the cost of production so consumers can more easily afford energy-efficient products. The label makes a product more attractive to consumers, so it's an incentive for manufacturers to become more energy-efficient. Energy Star is basically an economics lesson for environmentalists.

Consider Joe Homeowner trying to buy a new TV. He's an average consumer who doesn't understand a lot about electronics or energy consumption, and he doesn't have an endless amount of money to spend. However, he wants a reliable TV that isn't going to suck up a lot of energy and increase his bills. Energy Star is the middleman, encouraging the manufacturer to make a TV that won't use as much energy, even when it's turned off (yes, appliances still use energy even when they're turned off). The Energy Star program tests the sets for energy use and makes sure that the energy-reducing innovations haven't reduced the functional quality of the TV set.

The Energy Star label allows Joe to consider a field of potential products -- he can see immediately how much electricity his new TV would be using.

Energy Star requirements

So what does a product need to do to get the Energy Star label? It begins with the Department of Energy "Energy Guide" label, the familiar yellow tag that stores require on all major home appliances. This label indicates the results of testing according to the Department of Energy's standard procedures. The label lists how much energy the appliance uses, compared with similar products, and the approximate annual operating costs. (Estimated yearly operating costs are based on the national average cost of electricity.)

If the product has met the specific criteria for its particular category -- typically a percent reduction in energy consumption versus other products in the same category -- the yellow tag will have an Energy Star label on it.

Specific categories include:

  • Appliances: clothes washers, dishwashers, refrigerators and room air conditioners
  • Heating and cooling: central air conditioners, furnaces and programmable thermostats
  • Home envelope: windows, roofing materials and insulation
  • Home electronics: televisions, VCRs, DVD players and home audio systems
  • Office equipment: computers, monitors, photocopiers, notebook computers and printers
  • Lighting: fixtures and bulbs
  • ¬≠Commercial products: exit signs, vending machines and water coolers (see sidebar)

­To find out the specifics on an individual product's Energy Star rating, click on the link. Next, we'll learn about the Energy Star label for homes.