Manufacturers will turn to more-affordable refrigerants for mini fridges in the coming months as the federal government pushes for appliances that are even more energy-efficient. That’s good news.
Unfortunately, according to manufacturers with which we spoke, prices aren’t likely to drop as a result. According to market researcher The NPD Group, the average MSRP of a mini fridge increased by $6.89 since December 2010. From what we’ve seen, MSRPs for mini fridges likely will remain the same after Department of Energy’s changes take effect Sept. 15, 2014.
Meanwhile, manufacturers are providing consumers with a wider array of mini fridges and wine chillers, and now, more than ever before, manufacturers are combining the two appliances.
MORE EFFICIENT. Full-size refrigerators and freezers are the primary focus of DOE’s new energy-efficiency standards, but the changes affect the mini fridge market, too. The standard varies by the size and type of appliance, but, in general, DOE expects mini fridges to become about 20 percent more efficient as a result of the new standard.
The manufacturers with which we spoke say they’ll bring their products into compliance with the new standard by changing the refrigerant that’s inside the mini fridge to isobutane, which is also known as R-600a, from the previously used R-134a. As of press time, the manufacturers that made the change in their mini fridges showed no change in the products’ MSRP from the version that had the old refrigerant.
The change was triggered by an Environmental Protection Agency decision in February 2012. EPA allowed the use of isobutane in mini fridges if the amount that’s used doesn’t exceed 2.0 ounces, which no mini fridge exceeds. Although isobutane is used widely in full-size refrigerators in Asia and Europe, the refrigerant’s use in the United States is limited because of concerns about its flammability.
John Drengenberg, who is the director of consumer safety at Underwriters Laboratories, says refrigerant flammability in mini fridges is “not that much of a concern,” because 2.0 ounces is such a small amount. However, the independent laboratory requires a greater extent of testing of mini fridges that use isobutane than it does of models that don’t use it. UL tests isobutane mini fridges for ignition, leakage and protection of the cooling system in addition to the typical tests of assembly, electrical protection and mechanical protection that all mini fridges undergo. To get UL approval, mini fridges that have isobutane also must display a sticker that warns consumers that the appliance uses a flammable refrigerant.
Isobutane’s Limited Revival
Drengenberg points out that a discrepancy exists between UL’s and EPA’s thresholds for the amount of isobutane that’s allowed for use in a mini fridge. UL certification allows up to 1.8 ounces of the refrigerant, while EPA allows up to 2.0 ounces. That means that a manufacturer could use 1.9 ounces of isobutane in a mini fridge and get EPA approval on the appliance but not UL certification. Drengenberg says UL and EPA “often” align their thresholds, so it’s likely that EPA and UL will sync their requirements on this matter, but he provided no timeline for that. EPA also requires mini fridges that use isobutane that aren’t UL-certified to carry a similar warning sticker that alerts consumers of a flammable refrigerant.
Richard Ladd, who is the president of Avanti Products, says the use of isobutane instead of R-134a results in up to 15 percent more efficiency in his company’s new mini fridges compared with the discontinued models that don’t use isobutane. However, he concedes that the improved efficiency likely won’t translate to big savings for consumers on their electric bill, because a mini fridge doesn’t require a lot of energy in the first place. At most, he says, you likely will save about $5 per year on energy costs through a mini fridge that uses isobutane instead of R-134a.