Cleaning the Refrigerator Coils Won't Save Energy

California's energy crisis is hitting home. Electricity bills are rising, and people are looking for ways to cut consumption and costs. This is the 16th in a series of energy-saving tips. Previous stories can be found at http://www.latimes.com.

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Everyone from your mom to the federal government recommends it, but cleaning your refrigerator's condenser coils might not be worth it, energy-wise.

Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory call it an "energy myth."

"It should save some energy, in theory, but it's surprising how little documentation there is of that savings," said Alan Meier, staff scientist at the lab. Meier was involved in a 1990 study where 15-year-old refrigerators in New York homes were measured for energy consumption before and after professional coil cleaning. It made no difference, he said.

If you have an hour to save energy, skip the cleaning and buy an appliance thermometer instead, he recommends. If it turns out your refrigerator is too cold, you can save 10% on energy costs by raising the temperature. Ranges of 36-38 degrees Fahrenheit are suggested for the fresh food section, and zero to 5 degrees for the freezer compartment.

Here's his scientific take on other common refrigerator tips:

* Testing door seals by closing the door on a dollar bill and replacing the seals if the bill isn't tightly gripped to show that the door is airtight. The lab found that changing door gaskets on older refrigerators made no difference in energy consumption. You'd be better off buying a new, energy-efficient refrigerator.

* Plugging aging models into "power plugs," $40 devices sold at home improvement stores that are supposed to limit or adjust power so a motor gets only the amount it needs to operate. "Iffy," Meier said. The technology does work in certain circumstances, but it's impossible to predict whether your situation is one of them. You could spend $40 and not save any energy.

* Using the "power saver" switch that is common on 5- to 10-year-old models. "A clear winner," unless you live in a humid climate, he says. The switches turn off electric heaters designed to handle condensation on the doors. Newer models don't need them because they use waste heat to do the job.

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