U.S. agencies try to restore faith in Energy Star appliance testing

By Sonja Ryst
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 10, 2010

When you buy something with an Energy Star label on it, are you getting ripped off for trying to be green?

The Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy have been fighting to end such worries in recent months. They are taking steps to reassure consumers that the blue and white stamp really means what it says, namely that the product is highly energy-efficient, and they are revamping the way they certify products that bear the label.

This comes after the Government Accountability Office flayed the Energy Star certification process because manufacturers could exploit it. GAO investigators said in March that they set up Web sites, mailboxes and cellphones for four bogus manufacturing companies and then used that contact information on Energy Star commitment forms. The bogus companies received Energy Star partnership status within two weeks. When the GAO investigators filled out forms describing 20 bogus products, 15 qualified for Energy Star labels, including a gas-powered clock radio and a feather duster attached to a space heater.

"If you're going to tell the public that the government is behind these products, then you need something to back it up," Greg Kutz, GAO managing director of forensic audits and special investigations, said in an interview.

Now the EPA and the Energy Department are developing a system that would require that all products be tested in approved, independent labs before they get the Energy Star designation. The new standards are scheduled to be announced in September, and implementation is likely to start in January.

Recently, EPA officials developed the conditions that the labs will be required to meet, which include maintaining records of observations and ensuring that the people doing the testing are free of "influences that may adversely affect the quality of their work."

Manufacturers will be required to pay the labs to have their products tested.

"This administration is committing to having Energy Star be a credible tool for consumers," said Kathleen Hogan, the Energy Department's deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency. She said the labs will be accredited to test particular product categories and that they will have to use standardized procedures. "You are seeing an important refinement to the Energy Star program that will keep making it better," she added.

Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator in EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, said some participating companies complained about costs when her team notified them -- after release of the GAO report -- that the program would be moving to a system of third-party certification.

"It will add cost to a voluntary program, but, frankly, we know the Energy Star label has significant value in and of itself. If there are costs associated with maintaining that value, then so be it," McCarthy said. She said the changes won't require any new federal funding for the Energy Star program, which currently costs about $50 million a year.

EPA officials said they don't know whether their plans have prompted companies to make any immediate changes.

"Certainly, as we mandate changes, we'll be monitoring to make sure that the changes occur," said Ann Bailey, branch chief for Energy Star product labeling.

In March, Energy began testing products at random, an agency spokesman said. So far, out of 70 products tested, only an Asko dishwasher (model D5122XXLB) failed to meet the qualifications. And after receiving complaints from other manufacturers, the department had tests done on a Samsung refrigerator (model RF26VAB) and found that it consumed more energy than permitted under the program.

Officials at Asko Appliances didn't respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for Samsung Electronics said it discontinued that refrigerator model in August.

J.B. Hoyt, director of government relations at Whirlpool, said his company has started providing more documentation for the EPA this spring. For example, Whirlpool now includes details such as the humidity and the water temperatures used in its lab during product testing. The company is also examining the program's new testing criteria.

"We're still analyzing it, but clearly there's a tighter layer of review than there had been," Hoyt said.

Companies have to persuade customers to pay for energy efficiency. The NPD Group, a market research firm, found that 51 percent of refrigerators sold during the year ended May 2010 were Energy Star-qualified, up from 43 percent the previous year. But the average prices on Energy Star rated refrigerators fell from $1,191 to $1,107.

"When people are struggling to make mortgages, it's a tough sell," said Mark Delaney, director of NPD's home division. He said that companies have gotten into price wars over customers shopping for Energy Star products and that many other consumers don't understand why they should pay more upfront for products that will offer savings over several years.

Jeremy Frost, manager at Ace Hardware on Fifth Street NW in the District, said his customers don't usually ask for products that have Energy Star labels. Instead, they ask him broad questions like, "What can I do to reduce my electricity bill?" He added that, because most new appliances have Energy Star labels, the credential has become more of a standard than a feature that customers seek. "It's not necessarily as big a selling point as it was 10 years ago," Frost said.

"I think [the label] needs to be reviewed more often," said Kate Robertson, who works in the energy program at the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund. "But I have confidence in the brand." Robertson said that she bought a Samsung television a couple of years ago because of its Energy Star rating and that she has no regrets.

She uses a volt meter to test her home appliances to make sure they are as energy-efficient as labeled.

Mark Connelly, deputy technical director at the nonprofit Consumers Union, continues to test Energy Star products for the organization's Consumer Reports publication. He said he has found that most manufacturers tell the truth. But as technology evolves, tests and energy-efficiency standards go quickly out of date.

"Our biggest pet peeve with the whole thing is that the test procedures need to be updated frequently," Connelly said. "The program is a victim of its own success."

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