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Pull the plug to save some money on a little-used refrigerator

A fridge consumes a lot of power, but it's made to be turned on and off

By Gary Foreman

The New Frugal You
New Frugal You columnist Gary Foreman
Gary Foreman is a former financial planner who currently edits The Dollar Stretcher website and newsletters. He writes "New Frugal You," a weekly Q&A column about frugal living, for CreditCards.com

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear New Frugal You,
Please weigh in on this question. At a weekend vacation home, we have an old -- approximately 15 years -- refrigerator. I say we save money leaving it open and unplugged during the week. Other family members say it's really bad for the motor and compressor unit to stay off five days and then play catch-up on Friday night and then run two days until Sunday again. I'd like an opinion. Is it bad to have the unit on and off like this in order to save electricity? Thanks. -- George 

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear George,
George, you're right. Refrigerators use a lot of power. In fact, freezers and refrigerators consume about 15 percent of all electricity used in our homes. Typically they use more than any other appliance. (Your air conditioner/heater consumes more, but isn't considered an appliance.)

And, you're also right that an older fridge is worse than a newer model. Your 15-year-old refrigerator uses about 50 percent more electricity than a new one would.

The government EnergyStar calculator says that it costs about $95 a year to run your refrigerator. So let's see what we can do to help minimize your bill.

First, let's answer your question. Is it a good idea to empty the fridge, open the door and pull out the plug when you're away from your vacation home?

The compressor is a type of motor that powers your fridge -- and sucks up electricity. Fortunately, it is not "on" all the time. Just like the central air conditioner in your home, it cycles on and off to keep the temperature within a preset limit.

So it is designed to start and stop repeatedly -- tens of thousands of times over its life. You win the prize on this one. Turning a refrigerator off for a few days is not a problem and wouldn't shorten the life of the compressor.

Your family members could be right if you unplugged the fridge for months at a time. There is oil in the refrigerant cycling within the system that is used to keep the compressor oiled. So it should be run periodically. But turning it off for five days at a time won't cause a problem.

Now that we've answered that, let's see what other things you can do to make your fridge, old or new, more efficient.

You'll find condenser coils either on the back or bottom of the fridge. They're a natural collection place for dust, but, they work best when air can flow around them. So use a vacuum or brush to clean them every so often.

Check the door seals. Keep the cold air inside the fridge! Testing is simple. Place a dollar bill flat between the closed fridge door and the seal. If you can easily pull it out the seal is leaking. Test a couple of different spots on the door.

If you find it is leaking, put some petroleum jelly on the seals. That often helps. If that's not enough, seals can be replaced. Check an appliance parts store or the manufacturer for availability and pricing. Typically the only tool required is a screwdriver.

If the fridge isn't full, you'll want to fill some empty soda bottles with water. Put them in the fridge and freezer. Once cold, they'll help to maintain the temperature inside. You can leave them in the fridge with the door closed during the week so that it's still cool inside when you return next weekend.

I hope that you thoroughly enjoy your getaway this summer!

See related: Tips for lowering your electric bill

For more than 35 years, Gary Foreman has worked to help people get the most for their money. Prior to founding The Dollar Stretcher.com, he was a financial planner and purchasing manager. Gary began The Dollar Stretcher website and newsletters in April 1996. Today the website features more than 6,000 articles on different ways to live better for less. Gary has been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, The Nightly Business Report, USA Today, Reader's Digest and other newspapers and magazines. Gary answers a question about a budgeting or saving issue from a CreditCards.com reader each week. Send your question to The New Frugal You.

Published: April 14, 2011



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