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Thanks to ongoing advances in energy-saving technologies, the chart above shows the significant increases in the energy efficiency of five common home appliances based on historical data that were just released by the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM) for the years 1981 to 2012. The dramatic improvements in energy efficiency that have taken place over the last three decades translate into significant energy cost savings for American households.
For example, the average refrigerator manufactured in 1981 consumed 1,278 kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy per year and those manufactured last year consumed only 454 kWh of energy per year – a decrease of 64.5%! Similarly, the average energy consumption for clothes washers has declined by 73% since 1981, for dishwashers by 54.7%, for freezers by 49.4%, and for room air conditioners by 45.7%.
The energy efficiency of appliances can also be measured by their “energy factors,” which are standard industry and government metrics that measure an appliance’s overall energy efficiency. In 1981, the energy factor (EF) of a typical home refrigerator was 5.59, and by 2012 the EF increased more than three-fold to 17.75, for a 217.5% improvement in energy efficiency in the last 31 years (see chart above). The other four home appliances tracked by the AHAM also had significant improvements in energy efficiency since 1981 based on the increases in their EF ratings. Compared to 1981, the energy efficiency of the average room air-conditioner has increased by 46.4%, today’s freezer is 63% more efficient, and modern washing machines and dishwashers are more than twice as energy-efficient. As one example of how technology has improved the energy efficiency of appliances, today’s dishwashers consume less than half the energy of the 1981 model because of advances in soil sensors that minimize water usage, and the increased use of stainless interiors that accelerate drying time.
If the energy efficiency of the average dishwasher more than doubled since 1981, what has happened to its price, measured in “time-cost” by the number of hours a typical American factory worker would have to toil at the average hourly wage to earn enough income to purchase a standard model? The time-cost today is only one-half of the time-cost 30 years ago, as the comparison below shows.
In 1981, the 24-inch built-in dishwasher pictured above from a 1981 Wards Christmas catalog sold for $359.88. The average hourly manufacturing wage then was $7.42, meaning that it would have taken 48.5 hours of work at the average hourly wage for a typical factory worker to earn enough income 32 years ago to purchase the dishwasher above. The new Kenmore 24-inch built-in dishwasher pictured above is currently listed on the Sears website for sale at $539.99. At the current average hourly wage of $20.26 for production workers, the average factory worker today would only have to work 26.7 hours to earn enough pre-tax income to buy today’s energy-efficient dishwasher, which is only a little more than one-half of the 48.5 hour time-cost for the 1981 model.
Bottom Line: Today’s modern household appliances are not only cheaper than ever before, they are the most energy-efficient appliances in history, resulting in additional savings for consumers through lower operating costs. The average dishwasher today is not only more than twice as energy-efficient as a comparable 1981 model, but its real cost today is only about 50% of the price of the 1981 dishwasher, measured in hours worked at the average hourly wage. Put those two factors together, and the average American’s dishwasher today is about six times superior to the dishwasher of thirty years ago.
Stated differently, if the time-cost of dishwashers hadn’t fallen by a factor of two times since 1981, and if dishwashers hadn’t improved in energy efficiency by a factor of more than two times, Americans today would be paying almost $1,000 for a basic dishwasher instead of $540, and it would take more than twice as much energy to operate. Likewise, we would expect comparable large decreases in the time-cost of the other four appliances, along with significant reductions in their operating costs due to the dramatic increases in energy efficiency.
Put it all together and American consumers have never been better off when it comes to the standard home appliances that we all own and take for granted. Modern home appliances are cheaper, better, and more energy-efficient than ever before. Today’s affordable and energy-efficient household appliances are part of the ongoing, but under-appreciated “miracle of manufacturing.” Thanks to advances in technology and worker productivity, American consumers get cheaper and better manufactured goods (appliances, cars, clothing, food, and household furnishings) year after year, which translates into a higher standard of living for all Americans, especially for lower and middle-income households. If we wanted to identify a “golden era” of prosperity for middle-class America based on the affordability of owning and operating common household appliances, today’s consumers are many times better off than the consumers of any past decade, including the 1950s that Paul Krugman and others wax so nostalgic about. The “good old days” for American consumers are happening right now.
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