Watt Does It Use? The Evolution of Refrigeration’s Power Consumption

Refrigeration's power consumption has decreased significantly thanks to technology advances in recent decades.

30 years ago, home refrigeration’s power consumption comprised a whopping 16 percent of each household’s electricity bill, on average. Today, it accounts for only six! What happened between then and now? In this post, we walk you through the evolution of refrigeration technology and provide insight on the future of energy-efficient refrigerators.  

As you look around your home, you find televisions, computers, alarm clocks, and other household electronics littered from room to room. In the kitchen, one refrigerator stands tall among your appliances. It is a staple in the landscape of daily life, offering up food and drink with which your family will gather around the dinner table every night. 

But did you know the convenience of that refrigeration we now take for granted only came to fruition in the 20th century? And electric refrigerators transitioned from a luxury item to a standard appliance in every home within a few short decades.

The link between household appliances—especially refrigerators—and electricity consumption has not gone unrealized. And there have been continued efforts to reduce refrigeration’s power consumption while still providing safe, affordable appliances for every home.

In this post, we provide a brief history of modern refrigeration. Find out how manufacturers have sought to bridge two goals seemingly at odds: enjoying the ease of at-the-ready cold consumables; and seeking to keep home utility bills in check.

Refrigeration 1.0

The earliest refrigerators—ice boxes—posed many temperature control challenges. Source: Wikimedia

Before the invention of modern refrigerators, individuals kept their items cold through various means. If the weather was cold, cooling food or stashing perishables out in the snow or frost was the easiest option. Burying items work to some extent, as did keeping food cool in caves or some sort of shadowy confines. 

Ice harvesting allowed for ice houses to keep items cold year-round. And, by the 19th century, iceboxes came on the scene. They were game changers, particularly for folks in warmer climates. However, iceboxes were fraught with challenges, especially since it was nearly impossible to control their temperature. The combined challenges of ice harvesting and temperature control resulted in widespread experimentation to find a solution. One such experimenter was a certain gentleman named Benjamin Franklin. But it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that this experimentation with compression, coolants, and mechanization gained traction. 

The Advent of Refrigeration As We Know It

Innovation in refrigeration and electricity took shape simultaneously during the 19th century. In terms of consumer appliances, these two pursuits found unity at the General Electric (GE) Company. Established in 1892, GE produced small-scale heating and cooking appliances during the first decade of the 20th century, venturing into electric refrigeration units in 1911. The first refrigerators made by GE were based on the patent held by Marcel Audiffren, a French monk and physicist. The design used sulfur dioxide to cool salt brine and was at the heart of GE’s refrigerator production until 1928.

While refrigeration has improved significantly, the fundamental principles employed in the Audiffren system remain the same. As a gas refrigerant is pressurized into liquid form, it releases heat. That same refrigerant absorbs heat as it transitions from liquid to gas form. By establishing a cycle of compression and expansion for refrigerants, it becomes possible to absorb heat from inside a sealed chamber, releasing it on the outside – over and over again.

Electric Refrigerators Enter the Ranks of Consumer Appliances

The Monitor Top refrigerator was one of the first versions of the modern appliance now found in every kitchen.
The Monitor Top Refrigerator Source: Wikimedia

Electric refrigerators entered the market. And electric companies reaped the benefits of refrigeration’s power consumption. By the mid-1920s, the presence of consumer appliances like the electric refrigerator doubled in-home electricity use. By 1933, consumer appliances accounted for 65 percent of home energy use. Even through the Great Depression, Americans continued to view electric refrigerators as essentials in the home. 

GE revamped its design for the electric refrigerator in 1927, introducing the “Monitor Top” model onto the market. The Monitor Top featured a compressor, gave off a significant amount of heat, and included a cabinet made out of steel. In 1931, GE rolled out a new lighter insulation, called Thermocraft. The insulation material weighed under three pounds per cubic foot. This was a stark decrease from the 12 pounds per cubic foot in previous refrigerators. With this innovation, GE was able to dominate the refrigerator market. On top of that, it could sell its game-changing insulation to its competitors.  

Refrigeration 2.0: the technology evolves

Introducing Accessibility and Affordability

Innovations continued to change refrigeration’s power consumption and features. GE introduced shelves, improved moving parts, and produced quieter products throughout the 1930s. Fellow appliance makers like Sears followed suit, making more efficient, lighter, and cheaper appliances as well. By 1939, consumers could purchase a refrigerator for under $150. All the while, they continued benefiting from better designs, temperature controls, and efficiency. The same year GE began offering customers a refrigerator compartment for cooled and frozen items.

While manufacturers were finding new ways to sell refrigerators, scientists and researchers continued to experiment with the chemicals and processes of refrigeration itself. In Germany, Albert Einstein set out to create a safer refrigeration unit upon reading about deaths caused by gas leaks from existing appliances. 

Improving Refrigerator Safety

In 1930, Einstein and one of his former students, Leo Szilard, built a refrigerator that required no electricity and contained no moving parts. This model didn’t use compressed gases that were toxic and combustible (i.e., ammonia, methyl chloride, and sulfur dioxide. Instead, Einstein and Szilard mixed absorbent and refrigerant gasses. They boiled the gases to exchange hot and cold as they traversed the tubes within a cooling unit. Subsequent designs incorporated pumps, water pressure, and a variety of other features, but none of Einstein and Szilard’s products reached consumers. 

Despite much experimentation, the basic functionality of the modern refrigerator has remained the same, while reducing refrigeration's power consumption thanks to technology advancements.
The basic functionality of the modern refrigerator has remained the same, while technology advancements have continued to improve refrigeration’s power consumption. Source: Wikimedia

The proliferation of electric refrigerators only grew as the United States, Europe, and other areas around the world gained increased access to electricity. By 1944, 85 percent of Americans had electric refrigerators. This correlated directly with the extension of electric services to rural areas as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs.

The Push to Reduce Refrigeration’s Power Consumption

During the second half of the 20th century, refrigerators nearly doubled in physical size. But government regulations on appliance efficiency ultimately lowered refrigeration’s power consumption. In 1956, the United States introduced the first refrigerator safety act. This established standards for doors as a result of numerous accidental deaths caused by children climbing inside refrigerator units. 

This 1948 Ladies' Home Journal advertisement shows the increase in appliance size even while refrigeration's power consumption decrease. Source: Wikimedia
This 1948 Ladies’ Home Journal advertisement shows the increase in appliance size even while refrigeration’s power consumption decrease. Source: Wikimedia

It was not until 1974 that California attempted to mandate energy efficiency. And a federal Energy Policy Conservation Act (EPCA) went into effect the following year. The EPCA simply tested, labeled, and established energy targets. Meanwhile efforts to improve refrigerator energy efficiency were voluntary until the U.S. Department of Energy put standards into place in 1980. 

Refrigerators were directly targeted as high consumers of energy in the United States after the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act (NAECA) of 1987. These efforts came much later than those advanced by France (1966) and Russia (1976). Concerns about the ozone layer and carbon emissions prompted a backlash against freon during the 1970s and 1980s. And the introduction of ENERGY STAR by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spearheaded the movement to label energy-efficient appliances. 

Saving Energy and Money with Energy-Efficient Refrigerators

With the exception of heating and cooling, refrigeration remains the highest consumer of energy among household activities. However, refrigeration’s power consumption has continued to improve. In fact, modern models consume hundreds (if not thousands) fewer kilowatts annually than those made during the 1980s

Refrigeration's power consumption accounts for ~6% of home electricity use, down from 16% three short decades ago.

Check out our recent post comparing four of the best energy-efficient refrigerators currently on the market. ENERGY STAR also offers a handy Flip Your Fridge Calculator. Check out this tool to understand the energy and money you can save by swapping your refrigerator for a new ENERGY STAR certified model. Additionally, you can compare the energy requirements of your short list models, use the WattDoesItUse Refrigerator energy use calculator.

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