Ask LH: What Appliances Are Worth Upgrading?

Ask LH: What Appliances Are Worth Upgrading?
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Dear Lifehacker,

All my appliances work just fine, but they’re not exactly new, and I’m worried their lack of efficiency might be affecting my power bill. What old appliances are worth looking into an upgrade?


Duct Tape Dryer

Photo remixed with J E Theriot.

Editor’s note: This article mentions Energy Star, which rates many appliances in the US, but only a select number of consumer electronics products in Australia. The equivalent organisation here is

Dear DTD,

Most appliances have made a lot of energy-saving leaps over the years, so you’re in the right to consider replacing some of them. In fact, some smaller appliances, like old vacuum cleaners, put more dust into the air than new ones as well as being less efficient. It’s estimated that on average, appliances account for 13 per cent of your household’s energy cost, so cutting the energy usage will often save you money in the long run.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the common household appliances that might be showing their age, and whether or not you may benefit from an upgrade or simply a little maintenance.

Air Conditioner

Both central and room air conditioners are well known to suck energy in the summer. A room air conditioner’s efficiency is rated by an energy efficiency ratio (EER). Where the higher the number the more efficient it is. Most modern retail air conditioners get a 10 EER rating, where older ones from the 1990s rate closer to an EER of seven. You can usually find your EER rating in your manual if you still have it or on a sticker on the side. If those are long gone, you can search the manufacturer’s site to find it. The average cost of an Energy Star room air conditioner is $US220. An Energy Star central air conditioner averages $US3400 (with installation).

Would maintenance accomplish the same goal? Maintenance can help an older air conditioner, but it won’t keep the energy usage numbers as low as a modern one. However, replacing filters, cleaning coils and managing ducts will all help to decrease your bill.

Potential yearly energy savings: $US25-$85 depending on your current air conditioner. If your air conditioner is more than 20 years old, it’s probably worth the upgrade.

Image: Jeremy Hetzel.


Modern Energy Star dishwashers use an average of 22L of water per cycle, while older ones can use as much as 38L per cycle. The newer dishwashers are also a bit quieter and can clean better. The average cost of a new dishwasher is $US550.

Would maintenance accomplish the same goal? If your dishwasher is only a few years old, it could. Cleaning the screens and filters can help the cleaning process a lot. You can also use a few tricks all the time. For instance, stop using the delay cycle, run full loads only, make sure your water temperature is at 55°C and run hot water in the kitchen sink for a minute before running the dishwasher.

Potential yearly energy savings: Around $US8 a year. Cleaning, maintaining, and practicing good dishwashing technique is a better route to take as long as your dishwasher is still functioning.

Image: Jo Bourne.


Dryer efficiency has been about the same across the board for years and is dependent on the quality of the washing machine cycle that happens before the clothes are put in the dryer. The average cost of a new dryer is $US550.

Would maintenance accomplish the same goal? Regular dryer maintenance will keep your dryer from breaking and heat clothes a little quicker, which can save you a little money. On top of cleaning the lint trap every load, vacuum out the area below the lint trap periodically as well. This can decrease the dry time, which will save you a few cents every month.

Potential yearly energy savings: $US0. Don’t replace a dryer until you absolutely have to.

Image: Jeremiah.


For a typical, forced air furnace system, three different types exist: low-efficiency, mid-efficiency and high-efficiency. Low-efficiency are categorised by a continuous pilot light, where mid and high-efficiency use an electronic ignition. Higher efficiency models have ways to store and exchange heat that older or less efficient models don’t have. The average cost of a Energy Star furnace is $US1400.

Would maintenance accomplish the same goal? This one is tricky because it’s not just about the furnace itself, it’s also about the ducts that distribute the heat across the house. You can seal and insulate the ducts and get up 20 per cent more efficiency out of an older furnace, but it won’t get it anywhere near high-efficiency levels.

Potential yearly energy savings: Between $US50-$100 a year, depending on how bad your old model is. If your ducts are poorly insulated, an upgrade might end up saving you a lot more if you get a new furnace and have your ducts repaired. If your ducts are in good shape and only the furnace needs upgrading, it’s likely worth the upgrade for better efficiency and better heating.

Image: Dwight Sipler.

Hot Water Heater

Your water heater can amount to 14-25 per cent of the appliance energy consumed in your home and new types of water heaters have been introduced that are much more efficient than older models. The average cost of a new hot water heater is between $US300-$1200 depending on the type of replacement.

Would maintenance accomplish the same goal?Unless you completely change the type of water heater you’re using, yes. You can increase efficiency on an older water heater by insulating the outside of the tank. If you have a gas water heater, you should also drain a few litres from the valve on the bottom once a month to remove sediment.

Potential yearly energy savings: This is going to depend on a few things because there have been some significant advances in hot water heater production over the years. However, we’ll assume you’re replacing a gas water heater if it’s old, so you have three options: gas storage, whole-home gas tankless or gas condensing. A new gas water heater similar to what you already could save you around 30 per cent a year, which could also be partially made up for by taking the maintenance tips above. Converting to a tankless or gas condensing water heater would save you about $US100 a year.

Image: JJ.


Refrigerators have seen big efficiency bumps since 2000 and the standard refrigerator now uses 40-60 per cent less energy than models sold before then. That said, refrigerators with the freezer on the top are more efficient than side-by-side models. The average cost of a new refrigerator is $US1100.

Would maintenance accomplish the same goal? No. The best you can do is ensure your current refrigerator is kept between two and four °C. You can also make sure all foods and liquids are covered, because uncovered foods release moisture, which cause the compressor to kick on more often.

Potential yearly energy savings: If your fridge was originally made before or in the 1990s, you could save up to $US100-$200 a year by upgrading, which is definitely worth it. If it was purchased in the last 10 years or so, the savings would be between about $US5-$20 a year, which isn’t worth the price.

Image: Nelson Pavlosky.

Washing Machine

Older washing machines have a top-load feature, where the water fills up from the bottom, but new models have become more efficient by switching to the front load clothes washer, which uses around 50 per cent less water and 37 per cent less energy. The average price of a new Energy Star washing machine is $US750.

Would maintenance accomplish the same goal? No. There’s not much on the maintenance angle you can do to make a washing machine efficient.

Potential yearly energy savings: If your washer is over 10 years old or a top-load washer, you could save up to $US135 a year on both water and electricity. It’s likely worth the upgrade if you have a top-load, but not if you already have a front-load washer.

Image: Fnogues.

In the end, it’s about saving money on your power bill. If your appliances die or the repair cost is more than 50 percent of buying a new one, it’s always worth the upgrade.



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  • I think this article isn’t taking into account all factors of the latest trends in appliances.
    New fridges with R600a gas will use around 20% less energy than their less than 10 year old R134a equivalents. This accounts for around AUD$30-40 saving per year.
    Also, the latest heat-pump dryers will use around 40% of the energy of a traditional electronic element dryer. Under the assumption that this will only be used once per week, this presents an AUD$45 saving.If used more regularly, then the savings will go up proportionally. See for further information and comparisons.

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