Are High Efficiency Appliances worth it?

Efficiency can be expensive and end up costing you more money than you might save.  This is true when we are talking about cars, appliances, or anything else.  When thinking about efficiency, you have to consider two questions these days: is this about saving money, or another important goal. 

It’s all About Trade-Offs

I am an engineer, and the primary thing you learn about engineering in engineering school is that we are always making trade-offs.  This is why the character played by Jeff Goldblum says, “God help us we’re in the hands of engineers.”  He’s right to be afraid.  We can only plan for what we know about, and what we can expect. This is why those planes took the Twin Towers down.  They were designed before the 747 or any of Boeing’s later aircraft (the 757 and 767 are newer than the 747), and only designed to take the impact of a 707. 

There was a great saying in engineering school, “you can make a product cheap, fast, or perfect; pick two of those 3.”  That’s my defense of engineers, and it’s really a guiding principle of my thought processes.  If you look around the world, you can see it.  From the Pyramids of Egypt which took only a generation to build; estimates I could find from reliable sources vary from 20 to 40 years for most of the pyramids.  The cost of that, for those perfect, enormous, and unprecedented structures had to be astronomical.  This principle is still seen even in Tesla’s cars. They are still having quality control issues, and you can find many reputable links talking about this.  They are also only selling the expensive versions now.  The more cost-effective ones will, and have in the case of the Model 3 taken time.  In this case, you are getting fast and “cheap.  I say that since Tesla’s battery packs are cheaper than their competitors which is why their range is so much better than their competitors. Again there are many articles showing this.  More to the point, though, this link shows how much cheaper Tesla’s batteries are compared to the rest of the market. There is a great chart illustrating it. It would seem they spent the money getting this right, and the rest of the car is suffering. 

Heat Pumps vs Oil Furnace

My home, as I have stated before, has Air Source Heat pumps for heating and cooling along with an oil furnace for heating.  The oil furnace was installed when the house was built, and we added the heat pumps in the first few years after we moved in.  Depending on the cost of electricity and oil, it can be cheaper to run the heat pumps or the oil furnace for heating.  Generally, over the last few years, the relative costs of oil and electricity has made it cost effective to run the heat pumps for heating when it’s about 40F or so.  This is something I actively track.  When we do this, we displace oil, and that saves us money.  We’ve saved 200 – 300 gallons of oil per year and that translates to approximately $500 in savings per year.  Break even is about 10 years, but we’d lose epic amounts of money if we tore out the oil furnace.  On the coldest weeks of the year, the heat pumps are not efficient, and they could not pump out enough heat to keep the house warm.  Oil the mighty oil furnace can do that.  In case you are curious, we are about a ¼ a mile from the nearest natural gas line, and the gas company has no plans to bring it closer.  My home is in a hilly, rocky area, and the installation costs are quite high according to the local gas utility.  I actually called to inquire when we were deciding on the house. 

All About Appliances

All the appliances in my home are energy efficient as per the law, and in one case, my fridge, much more efficient than required.  When we purchased our home, all the appliances were old.  Our fridge was using about $25 a month in electricity according to my handy, dandy Kill-a-Watt meter that I have had for 15 years.  Fortunately for us, it was starting to make a funny noise, although working, right around the annual Black Friday sales.  We took advantage of that, and purchased a new one.  Since the sale was half off on the appliances, we got a fridge with the 30% energy efficiency improvement for less than the normal sale price of the standard compressor.  In our case, since we were comparing it to a 15-year-old fridge, the improvement in efficiency was more dramatic; 60% improvement.  We went down to spending $10 a month to power the fridge.  The thing is that the price, at the time, was 70% more for such a refrigerator.  Put plainly, we spent $800 for something that retailed, at the time, for over $1600 versus $1000 for the same model with the standard motor.  We’d be saving $180 a year in electricity compared to our old fridge, but only $36 a year compared to the standard motor version.  To break even, we’d need to have the fridge last more than 15 years assuming electric rates continue to rise as they have.  Since we bought ours on the Black Friday sale, it was a no brainier as you can see, but any other time of the year, and I am not so sure.  The manufacturer only guarantees the motor for 10 years. There’s the rub. 

My Take-Away

What triggered this post is this article where they talk about how some of the efficiency gains have been at the trade off of cost of the device.  They describe how, with a lot of presidential politics, my experience is in line the premise.  For me, I noticed this also with electric cars, but that is another story.  I’ve written about it here and here. Politics aside, and I have no desire to get into those arguments here, one has to consider what I said when I started this post, saving money or another important goal.  If you care about saving money, then today’s crop of appliances and electric cares are only cost effective in specific scenarios, like when I use my heat pumps versus my oil furnace.  If you have another cause, like using less, then it’s a “no brainer” to buy these devices as they will lower your energy usage, or in the case of our close washer and our dish washer, water and energy.  The latter two were purchased when the old units failed, and water efficiency is important to us living with a well and septic. I would just suggest you buy as much as possible on those Black Friday sales like I did with my refrigerator.

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