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Illinois Country Living


What to fix, what to nix, and how to save money

By Michelle McNeal

Kill A Watt meter

This simple Kill A Watt meter can give members the wattage an appliance is using. It’s a great way to see how much your major and small appliances are costing you each month.

At one time or another, it’s likely that we’ve all walked through a store and gazed wistfully at the rows of new appliances, gleaming in the fluorescent lights and promising to improve our lives. “Is it time I upgraded?” “Would stainless steel look great in my kitchen?” “Would that large capacity washer save me time?” “Will my clothes last longer?” “Is it cheaper to buy a new stove than fix my old one?” “Will it make me a better cook?”

And one question we should all ask, “Will that Energy Star® appliance really save me money each month?”

While we can’t help you answer every question that goes through your head as you marvel at the new gadgets available, we can help you decide when it’s time to consider getting rid of the old and bringing in the new to save you money.

To Fix or Not to Fix

The cost of repairing appliances has remained about the same since 2000, but the costs of new appliances have fallen, causing more and more homeowners to buy new rather than fix the old. Plus, with 37 percent less repair shops around, it’s getting harder to find someone willing to fix things.

Consumer Reports, in a 2005 survey, found that its readers were repairing 16 percent fewer appliances than they were in 1997. Their expert advice—toss anything that costs under $150. And don’t bother repairing a large appliance if the repair costs are more than 50 percent of the price of a new one.

So if you’re looking at the finances of fixing that old toaster or blender, you’re most likely better off to just buy new. Of course, Consumer Reports reminds you to check for warranties and call the manufacturer for all appliances, small and large, before deciding to nix something. Sometimes the manufacturer will repair or replace something free of charge.

And then, there is the green angle to consider. The Green Guide recommends that you weigh the manufacturing and waste costs to the environment against the possible lower energy and water usage of a new appliance, which benefits the environment.

The guide recommends the same cost comparison as Consumer Reports: if it’s more than 50 percent of the new cost to fix it, buy new.

If you do choose to buy new, keep in mind that there are two prices on every appliance you purchase—the price you pay to take it home and the price you pay to run it in your home.

Dana Smith, Director of Member and Public Relations at Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative in Auburn, tells his members they can purchase a small amp/watt meter for under $25 to check any 120-volt appliance’s energy usage. That way, you’ll know how much energy your old appliance is using each month. Then you can check that cost against the EnergyGuide located on new appliances and see how much buying a more efficient model could save you.

The EnergyGuide is the bright yellow label prominently displayed on new appliances. It contains a comparison scale that shows the least and most energy used by comparable models, plus an arrow pointing to where this particular model falls on the scale. The yearly operational cost of the model is also displayed. It is based on the national average energy cost. You’ll need to take your current energy rate per kWh and multiply it by the number of kWhs the appliance will use in a year to get a more precise amount.

Energy Guide Label

When shopping for new appliances, always look for the EnergyGuide label. It displays a comparison scale that shows the least and most energy used by comparable models, as well as the yearly operational cost based on the national average energy cost.

To ensure you’re getting an energy efficient model, also look for the Energy Star logo. Energy Star is a joint program of the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The program identifies high-efficiency appliances such as clothes washers, dishwashers, refrigerators, televisions, VCRs, home audio equipment, DVDs, computer monitors and printers. Smith says, “The Energy Star label gives you a simple assurance that a product is reputable and that it’s one of the more energy-efficient models available.” If one in 10 homes used all Energy Star appliances, it would be equivalent in environmental benefit to planting 1.7 million acres of trees.

Let’s take a specific look at the three biggest appliances in your home: your clothes washer, dishwasher and refrigerator.

Clothes Washers

Washers continue to improve each year. The Green Guide says that replacing even a 2005 model washer could save you energy costs and water. And if your washer was made before 1994, it could be costing you $110 a year more on your utility bills, not to mention using more water.

New washers are also larger capacity, saving time by allowing you to have fewer loads if the dryer is the same capacity. And many new washers do not have agitators so they’re easier on fabrics, allowing your clothes to better survive years of washing.

If you’re fortunate enough to be part of a municipal or co-op water system, or you have a well that never runs dry, you may not be overly concerned about water usage. However, if you’ve had to postpone showers, flushing toilets, that first pot of coffee in the morning, or had to take your clothes to the Laundromat, you’ve surely learned to appreciate every drop of this precious resource.

If you are one of the unfortunates who haul water yourself or pay to have your well filled, a new washer could help save you big on water usage depending on your current model. Front loading washers use about one third of the water of a conventional top loading washer. Energy Star models use 10-50 percent less water and energy. They could also save you $550 in operating costs over the life of the washer.

But what about dryers? The average lifespan of a good dryer is 13 years and as long as it has a moisture sensor, a new one won’t save you much on energy costs. Energy Star doesn’t label dryers because of the small differences in energy usage. Of course, many people want a matched set and always buy a washer and dryer together.

Save Money Now: Run your washer only when it’s full. Always use the cold water rinse cycle and use cold water wash whenever possible. Heating the hot water used each cycle is 90 percent of your washer’s operating cost.


Did you know that using a dishwasher on average saves more water than washing dishes by hand? Newer models use even less hot water. They have sensors that determine the length of the wash cycle needed and many have a light wash or energy saving cycle that can save even more. You can expect a new one to last about nine years. An Energy Star model, in addition to saving water, could save $90 in operating costs over another model.

Save Money Now: Run only full loads and don’t use the dry feature – let them air dry. Don’t use pre-rinse or high-temperature settings unless absolutely necessary.


Now let’s talk about the biggest energy-using appliance in your home, your refrigerator. The newest federal standards were put in place in 2001. Models older than that cost about $100 more a year to run. If you bought your fridge in 1990 and replaced it with an Energy Star model, you could save enough on energy costs to light your home for four months. Why? Because newer models have high-efficiency compressors, improved insulation and more precise temperature and defrost mechanisms. Consider also that top-freezer models use 10 to 24 percent less energy than side by side models, and automatic defrost chest freezers can cost 40 percent more to operate than manual defrost models.

The Energy Star Web site has a refrigerator retirement savings calculator to help you figure out what you’re paying now.

Bob Dickey, Manager of Marketing and Economic Development at Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative, investigates high bill complaints and performs energy audits for members. He says, “One of the biggest issues we see is that the old appliance is moved to the basement, or worse, to an unconditioned garage or back porch.

“We have seen appliances in breezeways or placed in front of windows where the sun is beating through onto the back of a freezer or refrigerator.” A refrigerator kept in such an area will use more energy to keep its contents cool.

Also, Dickey warns that the seals around the door of a refrigerator or freezer can become very hard when placed in an unconditioned space. This will hurt the sealing capabilities and allow for air leakage. “All of these situations will increase energy usage enough to be noticeable on a member’s electric bill,” he says.

Many times, when consumers purchase a new refrigerator, they put the old one in the garage or shed for overflow or sodas and the like. Is this bad? It depends. How much is it worth to you? If having that convenience outweighs the energy usage then it’s worth it to you. Just be aware that depending on its age, that fridge could be costing you $10-$40 a month, or more, to run.

If you’re really curious as to how much that old fridge in the garage is costing you, we recommend buying the small meter mentioned earlier. You might be surprised at how much you pay each year to keep those sodas cool. Keep in mind too that many new refrigerator models are designed to be used indoors, not in garages or sheds, and can have condensation issues if used in those spaces.

Save Money Now: Keep your refrigerator and freezer full. The freezer should be kept defrosted and the temperature set at 0 degrees F. Keep the fridge temperature between 35 and 38 degrees F. Make sure the door seals are tight and always give the door an extra nudge when you close it. Clean the condenser coils carefully every six to 12 months and make sure air can circulate between the appliance and the wall and cabinets. Don’t place your fridge beside your oven, dishwasher or in direct sunlight.

New Retro Appliances

After restoring an old home or vintage kitchen, some homeowners feel that placing a new stainless steel stove in it would just be wrong. With a quick Internet search we found several companies selling reproduction vintage-look appliances. They meet today’s safety standards but have the retro look. These appliances are not, however, Energy Star certified. Check out for a listing of several companies selling these appliances. It’s just one more thing to think about when shopping. You have a lot of choices!

For More Information


When an Appliance is More Than it Seems

Bill Hunt

Bill Hunt’s Milkshake Machine is more than just that, it’s a symbol of memories he and his family will share for a lifetime.

Sometimes a blender is more than just a blender, and a refrigerator is a symbol of a dream. That’s what we discovered when Rural Electric Convenience Cooperative in Auburn ran an oldest appliance contest to coincide with it’s 70th anniversary celebration last year. They received information about toasters, vacuums, fans, washers and more ranging from the early 1920s on.

Bill Hunt of Taylorville submitted the story of his 1948 Hamilton Beach Milkshake Machine, a tradition that continues to bring his family together. Hunt’s mother bought the machine the year he was sick with rheumatic fever. “My mother and I had a milkshake everyday,” he remembers.

In early 1950, the machine passed to his grandmother to make shakes for her customers at their filling station in Langleyville. In the 1960s, the milkshake maker made its way back to Hunt. “My wife made milkshakes for our family. Our girls loved the thick shakes and the stories of my youth,” he says.

Since the early ‘80s, Hunt and his wife have been entertaining their grandchildren the same way. “Today my wife and I can’t wait for our great grandson to know that when the big green Hamilton Beach milkshake maker with the big silver cup is pulled off the shelf it’s time for the family to gather to tell stories of the past and enjoy those wonderful, wonderful shakes,” he says.

The co-op received photos and information about six working refrigerators and a freezer from its members. Kevin Smith of Divernon submitted a story with his 1925 G.E. refrigerator that marked his move from city to country life and the realization of a goal.

Every summer throughout high school and college, Smith worked for a neighbor, Jim, in his painting business. “While toiling under the hot summer sun we talked away the time discussing the past, mostly his since I didn’t have much behind me yet, the present and of course some of our hopes for the future,” says Smith.

Kevin Smith

Every ice cold soda in this 1925 G.E. refrigerator reminds Kevin Smith of his late friend, Jim.

“One of my hopes was to be able to move out to the country and buy an old farmhouse that had a barn or small workshop. Jim knew I always liked his old refrigerator and one day when we were talking about the future he told me, ‘When you get that place in the country you can have that old thing.’”

When Smith graduated college he and his wife got married at their new home, an old farmhouse in rural Divernon. Jim attended the wedding and with a hug and a clap on the back said to Smith, “You did it…hot dang you did it. You got that place in the country we always talked about. I’m so proud of you.” Smith had forgotten all about their “agreement” until Jim asked when he was stopping by to pick up his new fridge.

Smith says, “Jim passed away in June 2005, but the refrigerator is still in that shop out in the country we dreamed of, keeping beverages frosty on those long summer days of working out in the sun.”



© 2008 Illinois Country Living Magazine.
Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives

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