White choice

Published in Green Magazine, Issue 17

Despite bigger houses and more electrical goods, Australia’s domestic energy use is expected to fall in relative terms. This is mostly due to more energy-efficient appliances and homes – primarily led by government ‘carrot-and-stick’ programs.

The Star Rating system helps shoppers choose the most energy efficient refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers, clothes washers and dryers, while Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS) ban the sale of inefficient goods in Australia.

But there are still loopholes and even the ‘easy-to-read’ star ratings system needs to be approached with caution.

Also, underlying all the statistics is a common truth that the way a product is used, and how often it is replaced, often makes the biggest difference to your energy bill and footprint.

Star Ratings

Energy Rating Labels for all whitegoods became mandatory across Australia in 1992.

More stars means greater efficiency (to a maximum of six or 10) – but this only works when comparing models of the same size.

A larger machine may have more stars than a smaller model, but it will almost certainly use more electricity. So decide what size you need then choose the model with most stars.

Gas-powered appliances are not star rated.


Introduced to domestic fridges and freezers in 1999, Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS) were rolled out to light bulbs, televisions and set-top boxes in the past two years and will apply to computers from June 2011.

However a 2010 Federal Government report found the standards were being undermined by different interpretations of ‘supply and sell’ across state and territory laws.

Another loophole allows users to import directly from overseas; so long as the product is not on-sold in Australia, the regulations do not apply.

Total Life Cycle Assessment

Life Cycle Assessment looks at all the cradle-to-grave impacts a product has, from raw materials through processing, manufacture, distribution, use, repair and maintenance, to disposal or recycling.

For whitegoods, the in-use phase dominates, says Tim Grant, director of Life Cycle Strategies Pty Ltd.

While white goods have a high level of embodied energy from their manufacture, he said: “there are reasonable recycling options so those materials can be reused”.

With few longevity statistics available, Choice magazine bases its recommendations on customer feedback on reliability.

Longevity statistics are hard to find, agrees Aleks Efeian, marketing and communication executive for Bosch and Seimens Home Appliances (BSH) – partly because “how a product is used will impact on its longevity so manufacturers are hesitant to release those details”.

Instead, he says “BSH aims to reduce our total energy use per tonne of product by 15% by 2013” and other manufacturers are setting similar targets.

Hot water and solar power

Most new washing machines are only plumbed to the cold tap because heating water internally, while using more energy, is more efficient than using water heated by electric systems.

But with more households now using solar power or having solar hot water systems, there is a push for manufacturers to include dual taps to access this ‘green’ resource.

Size matters

Size, sensors and smart electronics have all helped whitegoods become more efficient in their use of energy, water and, where relevant, detergent.

Generally machines with larger capacities are more efficient relative to smaller ones, but of course a single person using a family-sized freezer or washing machine is not be an efficient use of power.

Choice magazine also found some washing machines did not perform well when filled to their claimed capacity, indicating some manufacturers might exaggerate this to gain a higher efficiency rating.

Lower water use has had an unfortunate knock-on problem – detergent residue on clothes, although this happens less with liquid detergents.

No matter how efficient a machine is, if it’s only being run at half full, it will be half as efficient. However, many machines – especially washing machines and dryers – now have sensors and will reduce the cycle or water use depending on the size of a load. Dishwashers with dual drawers are a good option for small loads.

Some of the biggest energy savings have been in the field of fridges and freezers; the E3 Committee, which monitors MEPS and the Star Rating system, found that in 2003, 88% of refrigerators sold did not pass 2005 MEPS levels, while in 2009, only 0.3% models sold failed, and many of these were old stock.

But when buying a new fridge, the biggest favour you can do for the environment is to recycle your old one instead of using it for beer in the garage; the refrigerator is the single biggest power consumer in many households and about 30% of households own two. Nearly 60% of households own a separate freezer.

The star rating system has not served chest freezers well because they are rated on a different scale to upright freezers. As a result, many appear less efficient, while nearly all are inherently more efficient and cost less to run.

The next generation of dishwashers will reserve the rinse water and, if it’s clean enough, hold it for up to two days to reuse on the first rinse of the next wash.

“Our most efficient machine uses just 12.3 litres of water to do full load, compared to up to 75 litres used in hand washing,” BSH spokesman Aleks Efeian said.

However humans use less electricity.

And, while the best clothes dryers are rated at six stars (out of six), the greenest clothes dryer is still sunshine and a rack.

Further reading

Gadgets and Gigawatts: Policies for Energy Efficient Electronics, published by OECD/IEA, 2009




  • If you’re not keeping a fridge at least two thirds full or a freezer at least three quarters full, it’s probably too big for your needs.
  • Automatic ice-makers and through-the-door dispensers increase a fridge’s energy use and price.
  • Manual defrost models tend to use less energy than frost free models, but must be defrosted regularly to remain energy efficient.
  • If you have cheap off-peak power, run dishwashers or clothes dryers overnight.
  • Externally venting dryers may save energy, to avoid moist air being recirculated.
  • A ‘suds save’ option can save water and detergent if washing more than one load at a time.
  • Avoid placing a fridge or freezer where it will be in direct sun and allow plenty of air to flow around it.
  • Cool food before putting in the fridge.
  • Use a thermometer to check fridge and freezer temperature. Freezers should run at -15°C to -18°C while fridges 3°C to 4°C.
  • Keep fridge seals clean and don’t leave doors open.
  • To calculate the rough cost of running an appliance, multiply the energy consumption figure in Kilowatts by the rate you pay per kWh – approximately 18 cents.
  • For an estimate of an appliance’s emissions, each kWh equates to about 1kg of greenhouse gas.
  • Hot water entering the machine must be no hotter than 60°C, so Choice magazine recommends installing a tempering valve on solar hot water heaters if there isn’t a controller already fitted.

Rating the System

New homes reach out across the western suburbs of Melbourne - without an eave insight

New homes reach out across the western suburbs of Melbourne - without an eave insight

Published in Green Magazine, Issue 16

An eight-star energy-efficient house touted to be “Australia’s first zero-emissions home” was opened to great fanfare this April.

It’s a huge leap forward from 1990 when houses averaged about 1 star on the Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme (NatHERS) scale. Before the introduction of national energy efficiency regulations in 2003, less than one per cent of Australian houses achieved the current standard of 5 stars (which rises to 6 stars on May 1, 2011) however a 2006 study by RMIT’s Centre for Design suggested Australia was aiming too low after finding American and British homes designed for comparable climates would be rated at an average of 7 stars.

So should we be worried, ashamed, pleased or dismayed with our star rating system? Is it a relevant measure and is the Master Builders Association right to say greater efficiencies could be achieved by improving older homes first?

The CSIRO designed and built the zero-emissions (AusZEH) house with partners that include Henley Property Group and Delfin Land Lease, and its experts estimate 13% of Australia’s greenhouse emissions come from home energy use.

If all the new housing in Australia was built to the same standard for the next nine years, the country would save 63 million tonnes of greenhouse gas – equivalent to taking all of Australia’s private cars off the road for more than two and half years.

But drive around any new housing estate in Melbourne’s outer west – the third fastest growing area in Australia – and you will see row upon row of homes with heat-absorbing, dark-tiled roofs and no eaves. They may meet the 5-star standard, but they will need a lot of air conditioning to make them liveable.

“Without basing the star rating system on performance, it is meaningless,” believes Jan Brandjes, a Dutch-born, Canadian-trained expert in sustainable home design.

He is keen to promote performance-testing of houses because he believes the software used to assess star ratings assumes standards that are rarely achieved.

“The software assumes a building is (air) tight but there is no way of checking this. It addresses the design issue well but doesn’t address way a home is constructed.

“If the insulation is not put in right or it has gaps all over the place, it will be leaking air like a sieve; as long as they leak, no amount of double glazing will keep the energy out of those holes.”

Henley Homes’ energy and sustainability specialist Adam Selvay agrees.

“I have tested about 20 homes and you see a wide range of leakage rates,” Selvay said.

“I would like to see the Air Change per Hour rating given a certain star rating so there is some benefit for putting in the effort to get it right; at the moment there is no incentive to builders to do this.

“[The software] also doesn’t take into account the carbon emissions or the type of heating you use.”

Henley Homes can build the same zero-emissions four-bedroom dwelling on any suitable block for about $315,000 – that includes double glazing, a 6kW solar power, solar heating, extra insulation, retractable shading and a wafflepod concrete slab.

The wafflepod slab incorporates polystyrene under the concrete for extra insulation and adds half a star to the home’s rating. However, the home’s air-tightness adds nothing to its rating.

Brandjes feels so strongly about this he now works in the business of blowdoor testing – checking the air-tightness of homes by blowing air through the sealed up front door and checking how much is leaking out.

“I’m not saying blowdoor testing is the be-all and end-all but it’s one of the tools that can be used.”

He tested the zero emissions house, which is now spot on (if the Air Change per Hour rate drops too low, the quality of air in a home is compromised and can risk the inhabitants’ health).

However, two award-winning homes he has checked that were built to seven-star designs failed to meet even a 5-star standard – one ranked as low as 2.5-3 stars.

“We need to address two areas – the software needs to include performance-based testing, and we need to educate builders in the importance of sealing gaps.”

The Master Builders Association believes it is already addressing the issue of training builders, with the Green Living training scheme launched in Victoria in 2005 and since rolled out into NSW, Tasmania and WA.

However, the group’s vocal stance in the Federal election was due to way the star rating system is being implemented.

“With the move to Six Star it is imperative that the industry is properly consulted and allowed to prepare for any new regulations,” Master Builders Association of Victoria deputy executive director Radley de Silva said.

“The cost involved also needs to be managed (and) there also needs to be greater consumer education and incentive to reduce energy consumption – as there has been with water use.

“There seems to be this focus on increasing star ratings on new housing stock but we believe there is greater opportunity to improve the star rating on existing stock. This would be a more sensible way of improving the average star rating across the board.”

This is the area that Mandatory Disclosure aims to cover – by making it compulsory for all homes to be star rated at point of sale or lease. The scheme has been running in the ACT since 1999 and is due to be introduced nationally on May 1, 2011.

However Brandjes see the current gaps in the system as becoming potentially disastrous when mandatory disclosure starts.

“It’s bad enough that someone spends money on a 5-6-7- star home then finds their energy bills are still high, but if every home that is sold has to be star rated, on what are they going to base the assessment – on the design? How will they assess insulation? And who’s going to do this – if people sell their home every seven years then that’s about 1.2 million homes a year – we don’t have the manpower to do that.”

The not-for-profit Association of Building Sustainability Assessors – which trained the home assessors for the now-defunct Green Loans scheme – believes its 6500 members across Australia can do the job – but agrees the federal government needs to hurry up and decide precisely what the job is.

“It’s a federal scheme but the states will be implementing it … at the moment there are a lot of different schemes and checklists – it all gets a bit messy,” ABSA chairman Wayne Floyd said.

ABSA has already released its concept model for mandatory disclosure, which states: “It is imperative to improve the existing housing stock … as new homes only contribute 2-4% of the total market. Existing homes can be rated using the NatHERS tools if a plan is readily available, and if not, there is already innovation that will allow this to be done without a plan.”

In the ACT, assessments take into account features such as building fabric, window design, orientation, air leakage and cross ventilation.

Another useful tool, Floyd suggests, are infrared cameras.

“It shows straightaway which windows are leaking air or where there’s no insulation in the walls without being invasive,” he said.

However, when this is sorted out, an even greater challenge looms – how to assess energy used by household appliances.

“When you look at appliances it gets really messy,” Floyd said. “Because it comes down to not just what you have in the house, but how you use those appliances.”

Further reading:






Burleigh Griffin’s modern view of housing

01 Jul, 2008 05:08 PM
MANSIONS that take up too much room on a block, pollution and affordable housing may sound like modern issues.
But a new book compiling the writings of architect Walter Burley Griffin reveals his interest in those topics many decades ago.

Much has been written about the American-born architect who had a major influence on adolescent Australia as it struggled to find its own identity in the early 20th century.

The solid tome, edited by Griffin’s grand-nephew Dustin Griffin, comprises 71 passages of the architect’s writings on a range of subjects.

Apart from designing the nation’s capital city, Canberra, Griffin and his equally creative wife Marion Mahoney designed towns, public buildings, individual homes and a number of residential estates.

In the north-west suburbs, Griffin’s work can be seen in the design of Essendon’s Incinerator in Holmes Road, created as a municipal rubbish disposal unit and now converted to a vibrant arts and cultural centre.

The layout of part of Avondale Heights was also done by Griffin, originally using similar ideas to those he followed in designing Eaglemont in Melbourne’s north-east.

However, the concept of shared neighbourhood gardens was never followed through and most of the open space has since been rezoned as residential, although only two have so far been developed (both for aged-care homes).

Griffin would have been horrified. In 1923, he gave a lecture in Melbourne in which he said: “Each year more and more forests are ring-barked, fields eroded and pest-infected, rivers befouled and dredged, factory-invaded, and slashed by railways.”

In Melbourne, his work can be seen at Newman College at Melbourne University, the Capitol Theatre – and a missed opportunity to develop a vision he had for the Jolimont rail lines, a plan that is back on the drawing board.

An early student of Frank Lloyd Wright and reader of Rudolph Steiner’s philosophy, Griffin believed strongly that buildings should harmonise with their environment and was keen to use materials and colours that blended with nature.

He was keen on affordable housing and on the idea of building homes with flat roofs that could be used for gardens. In 1921 he wrote: “It will be generally admitted that the attractiveness of metropolitan Melbourne lies not so much in its famous wide pavements or more or less smoky city architecture, as in its beautiful gardens, upon which visitors from other cities always remark, and in which they find a source of pleasure.”

The Writings of Walter Burley Griffin, 512 pages, published by Cambridge University Press Australia; rrp $199.
SEE: www.cambridge.edu.au/griffin