All You Need to Know about Energy Star Ratings

The definition of ENERGY STAR might strike one as confusing, at first: is this a trademark, or is it a government program? In fact, it’s both, at the same time—and it’s also an international standard, which originated in the United States, but has since been adopted throughout the world.

The Energy Star ‘voluntary program’, as the U.S. Department of Energy describes it, seeks to improve energy efficiency, while also helping businesses save money. All in all, it’s an effort to improve environmental protection standards, by rendering appliances, buildings, and some electronics, more energy efficient.

The program was initiated in 1992, by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy. In time, it has spread out to the European Union, New Zealand, Taiwan, Australia, Japan, and Canada. Nowadays, it’s estimated that Energy Star-compliant products use 20 to 30 percent less energy than federal standards require.

energy efficiency

Image source: PUC

Today’s post tells you all you need to know about Energy Star: the program’s history, its goals and efficiency in attaining them, the technical specs qualifying products for this standard, building codes,

The Complete Guide to Buying Energy Star Rated Appliances

The point of the ENERGY STAR label is rather straight-forward and self-explanatory. It aims to cut back on greenhouse emissions and other sources of pollution by helping consumers easily identify more energy-efficient products.

At the same time, Energy Star-label products are supposed to be easily accessible to the consumer and abide by high production standards. When such products are more expensive than the category average, consumers basically get a guarantee that what they expend on purchasing them will eventually be saved through lesser costs on their bills.

Another important criterion for the Energy Star program is that energy-saving technologies are available on a wide scale, from more than one manufacturer. This aims to deter the use of proprietary technologies and thus also discourage monopolies.

The program sometimes revises its energy specifications for a type of appliance. This can occur if and when

  • Consumers are having trouble saving as much as they expected on energy consumption;
  • The Fed alters its minimum efficiency standards;
  • The product is no longer as widely available as it was at first;
  • The technology powering the product’s energy savings evolves to the point where additional savings are possible;
  • The patented Energy Star efficiency tests cannot be properly performed, according to the standard procedures.

energy star plus fridge equals dollar sign

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How to get the Energy Star Appliances tax credit

The first step in accessing the best deals on Energy Star certified products is browsing the Rebate Finder on All you need to do is enter your zip code, then sift through the list of offers available in your area, and narrow it down to product categories you’re interested in.

Beyond rebates, though, there are a lot of other financing options offered by the United States Department of Energy, via Energy Star, its numerous partners, and several other programs. Here are some quick facts about the most popular options for funding aid toward an energy-efficient lifestyle:

  • Tax credits. These are amounts deducted from the total sum of money you owe in taxes at the end of the year. You can claim your credits when you file for taxes for the previous year, so for purchases made in 2015, you’d be getting a tax credit in 2016. Since the provisions on energy efficiency tax credits change from one year to the next, it’s important to check out the current list on the official Energy Star website.

You can also get a tax credit in 2016 for installing one of the devices on the following list, at any point in 2014 and 2015:

  • Heat pumps powered by geothermal energy;
  • Wind turbines for homes;
  • Solar power systems;
  • Residential fuel cells;
  • As of this writing, no federal rebates programs for energy efficient programs were available to the public. However, you should check out the offering from your local government, state government, and utility company. Also, bear in mind that some Energy Star program partners (manufacturing companies) offer purchase incentives to make their products more economically friendly.

It’s also important to note that you can usually combine an incentive or rebate with a tax credit or some other form of financial aid. Make sure too do your research before you buy!

  • The PowerSaver loan program offered financing aid to homeowners who wanted to make their homes more energy efficient. They targeted both small residential projects, but also larger ones, which required a second mortgage, a mortgage refinancing, and even first mortgages. The PowerSaver loan was discontinued until further notice in June 2015.

energy star home

Image source: Jim Allen

  • As explained above, state and local governments sometimes offer financial incentives to environmentally-conscious homeowners. Moreover, you might also be eligible for a free/discounted energy audit from a local utility supplier.

Energy Star appliance and electronic device specifications

Looking for exact specifications of each category of appliances and devices? We’ve got an entire post just about that. For the time being, check out some product and spec highlights set up by the EPA and the U.S. DoE.


This category comprises refrigerators, dehumidifiers, and dishwashers, among others. Aside from being labeled with the blue Energy Star logo, most such appliances also come with a yellow EnergyGuide label, which shows how much you can expect to spend on using such an appliance each year, compared with other products in the same category. The contents of this label are created together with the Federal Trade Commission.

The Energy Star focus for appliances, as with any other type of product, is on energy savings: as of 2008, Energy Star-labeled fridges are supposed to consume 20% less power than the minimal standard, while dishwashers should consume 41% less.

However, you should be aware of the fact that buying an Energy Star-certified appliance will sometimes only get you a product that can save you more than the minimum standards. This does not always mean you’re getting the most energy-efficient product. Case in point:

  • Energy Star approved dehumidifiers below 25 pints receive the Energy Star certification if their energy factor is 1.2 (or higher—the higher, the better);
  • Dehumidifiers between 25 and 35 pints need to have a 1.4 energy factor to get the Energy Star label.

As the above example shows, a non-Energy Star-labeled dehumidifier (over 25 pints, with an energy factor of 1.3, for instance) can be more energy-efficient than one with the label.

The Energy Star rating system has also been criticized for sometimes rendering products less consumer-friendly and even for reducing their expected service life.

Here’s an example: consider a fridge which is made more energy-efficient by using a smaller compressor, with a built-in computer for operation and temperature. It’s also been improved with insulating spacing.

The first aspect makes the fridge more vulnerable to shocks and failures while the second makes the fridge smaller on the inside or bigger on the outside. And, as experts have noted, an appliance that doesn’t provide satisfaction to the consumer needs to be replaced twice as often, ultimately contributing to landfill pollution and natural resource waste.

Consumer electronics

This category famously includes TVs, but also comprises cordless phones, chargers for batteries, power adapters, VCRs, and other devices. The devices in the latter enumeration typically consume 90% less energy than other models.

As for TVs, the standards were updated in late 2007 to also target their use of energy while turned on—previous standards only targeted the standby mode. This has made a wider range of TVs eligible for the Energy Star qualification.

Energy star label pc

Image source: Inspector Pages

New homes

Though not directly aimed to improve this, at first, the Energy Star program has also significantly contributed to the building of more energy-efficient homes in the United States. It has done this in conjunction with the host of Green Building programs in effect in the country.

For this post, though, let’s outline how a new home can qualify for the otherwise strict standards of the Energy Star certification:

  • An Energy Star rated home needs to consume 15% less energy than a standard home.
  • The definition of a standard home is outlined in the 2003 International Residential Code.
  • How can a new home attain the 15% more energy efficient goal?
    • Proper insulation
    • High-performance windows
    • Tightly sealed ducts and vents
    • Tight construction
    • Energy Star-approved HVAC system
    • Energy Star-labeled appliances
    • Energy Star lighting, etc.


As highlighted in our post on LED bulbs, incandescent bulbs are all but obsolete in the U.S., mainly because of their high energy consumption levels. Fluorescent and LED bulbs are replacing them and the Energy Star program is heavily supporting this trend. Here’s how a specific bulb can qualify for the Energy Star label:

  • Fluorescent bulbs need to be 75% more energy efficient than normal incandescent bulbs. They also need to last 10 times longer than them.
  • LED (Light Emitting Diode) bulbs generally use 75% less energy than incandescents, last 35-50 times longer than them (and 2-5 times longer than fluorescents), and emit little to no heat at all. To get Energy Star-certified, they need to pass tests which prove:
    • They can produce at least as much light as other technologies;
    • They can distribute light uniformly over a specific area;
    • Their light output is constant and only decreases after a lifespan of at least 35,000 hours/12 years (of being used 8 hours/day);
    • They produce a clear, constant white light;
    • They are as efficient as fluorescent bulbs;
    • Light comes on instantly when you turn them on;
    • They don’t flicker when you use them with a dimmer;
    • They don’t use power when they’re switched off.

Heaters, boilers, HVAC, and other heating & cooling systems

The Energy Star program can award qualifications for boilers, A/C Systems, furnaces, heat pumps, and more. Air conditioning systems that pass Energy Star tests consume a minimum of 10% less energy than the lowest threshold of the U.S. Federal Government.

The EPA and DOE also recommend air and duct sealing for homeowners who want to lower their heating and cooling costs even further.

energy efficient home savings

Image source: Lera Blog

Computers, servers, and computer peripherals

The past few years have brought a hardening of Energy Star standards for computers. As of July 1, 2009, all computers need to abide by Energy Star 5.0 specifications. The previous standards (Energy Star 4.0, adopted on July 20, 2007) required computers to be requalified in order to still fly by the Energy Star flag. Energy Star 4.0 stated that a computer’s power supply needs to be 80 Plus Bronze or better.

In May 2009, the EPA released Energy Star 1.0 standards for stand-alone servers with 1-4 sockets for the processor. In 2013, a second tier was added to the specs, in order to include blade and multi-node servers in their idle state, as well as active mode requirements for all servers.

A further category of requirements within the Energy Star program targets imaging equipment. This includes inkjet printers, electro-photographic printers, copiers, multifunctionals, and more. There are several indexes taken into account for the energy efficiency of imaging devices:

  • Typical electrical consumption: there is an allowance set throughout the maximum output of the device, against which consumption levels are measured and reported;
  • Operation modes: these are measured against an allowance set up during the testing phase of producing the equipment;

Other added elements, such as native memory and wireless/Ethernet functions are mathematically factored in to up the operation mode allowance. As of February 1, 2011, Energy Star-compliant devices are tested in Accredited/Certification Body labs.

Energy Star performance ratings for buildings

The EPA also awards a score of 1 to 100 for several types of commercial and institutional buildings, plants, and homes. At present, the list of ratable building types includes bans, schools, hospitals, hotels, places of worship, offices, dorms, stores, supermarkets, and more. It also includes industrial facilities, such as municipal wastewater treatment plants, car plants, frozen fried potato plants, juice plants, and more.

The afore-mentioned 100 point rating system measures the energy efficiency of a certain type of building and compares it to similar ones. In order to find out how your home and/or facility ranks up, you can use the free Portfolio Manager online tool on the EPA website. With the aid of the tool, you can securely calculate the total energy and water consumption levels of your buildings and, based on the score, decide what your real estate investment priorities are.

To qualify for the Energy Star certificate, a building must score 75 or higher in the Portfolio Manager tool, based on data uploaded for the past 12 months.

The algorithm used by the Portfolio Manager takes numerous factors into account, including:

  • The square footage of the building;
  • Weekly operating hours;
  • Monthly energy consumption levels.

Energy Star versus CEE ratings

When it comes to actually getting down to business and buying appliances, many consumers report the range of available choices somewhat overwhelming. To further confound the situation, there’s also the matter of the CEE vs. Energy Star ratings. Which one should you choose, in order to make sure you’re buying the most energy efficient appliance?

A few words on the CEE (Consortium for Energy Efficiency) program first: this public benefits corporation is a non-profit organization, which runs the Super-Efficient Home Appliance Initiative. This initiative rates clothes washers, dishwashers, A/C system, and fridges according to their energy efficiency.

The appliances are classed in a four-tier system, which runs from I to IV (the higher, the better). Some appliance categories ratable by the CEE-only have one, two, or three rating tiers.

Here’s how the CEE and Energy Star ratings can be matched up:

CEE Energy Star equivalent
CEE Tier I The basic Energy Star rating. These appliances are 20% more energy-efficient than the minimal requirements enforced by the U.S. Department of Energy.
CEE Tier II No equivalent. These appliances are, however, 25% more energy-efficient than the minimum standards of the DOE.
CEE Tier III Energy Star Most Efficient 2013. These appliances are 30% more energy efficient than the DOE minimum requirements.

How the Energy Star Program appeared

In 1992, a man who had already invented the EPA’s Green Programs, and who had already forged strong ties within the IT industry, decided to take things one step further. John S. Hoffman, together with Cathy Zoi and Brian Johnson, kick-started the Energy Star program—a voluntary program especially designed for computers and printers.

Initially, Energy Star was conceived as just another installment in a string of voluntary programs like the Methane Program and Green Lights. Its aim was to show manufacturers in the computer and tech industries that they stood a lot to gain in terms of profits if they cut back the energy consumption and greenhouse emission levels of their plants.

The program was first set up under Section 103(g) of the Clean Air Act, whose goal was to research and deploy non-regulatory strategies for cutting down pollution. The program first expanded in a major way in 1995, when it also took on HVAC systems and new homes.

The voluntary program was then significantly amended in 2005, when Congress set up “a voluntary program to identify and promote energy-efficient products and buildings in order to reduce energy consumption, improve energy security, and reduce pollution through voluntary labeling (…) or other forms of communication”. This was enacted under Section 131 of the Energy Policy Act—essentially an amendment to Section 324 (42 USC 6294) of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act.

By 2006, over 40,000 products with the Energy Star label were available on the market and 12 per cent of housing in the U.S. was labeled energy-efficient by program standards.

Energy cost savings amounted to $14 billion that year, says the EPA. Collateral positive effects include the wider-spread use of LED lights for traffic lights, fluorescent lighting use, power management systems for office appliances, and low energy consumption modes for devices in stand-by.

In 2008, the EPA launched the Green Power Partnership program. Through awarding companies with RECs (renewable energy credits), the program was designed to help programs access renewable energy sources.

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