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issue: October 2007 APPLIANCE Magazine

Far More than an Efficient Refrigerator

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by David Simpson, Contributing Editor

Improving energy efficiency is a common theme of all refrigerator makers, while French doors, enhanced ice and water, and more electronics are some of the innovations being pursued by domestic manufacturers.

Consumers have the option of displaying their wines and beverages or hiding them behind opaque glass with the Monogram Wine Reserve and Beverage Center from GE Consumer and Industrial (Louisville, KY, U.S.). A privacy-glass door incorporates a liquid-crystal laminate between two sheets of UV-resistant glass. Liquid crystal within the laminate manages light flow through the glass door. In an uncharged state, liquid crystals are randomly set, blocking rays of light from passing through the window. When the privacy display is deactivated with an electrical charge, the crystals, or pixels, align in a parallel fashion, allowing rays of light to pass through both layers of glass.

As the most energy-using domestic major appliance, refrigerators have received attention worldwide from those looking to cut household electricity use. Many parts of the world have instituted mandatory or voluntary standards that have significantly affected the available refrigerator mix. These standards are sure to tighten in coming years, while consumer interest in energy savings will likely increase along with electric rates.

But there is far more to refrigerator design than improving gaskets, insulation, compressors, and other components to maximize efficiency. As with other major appliances, refrigerators are undergoing something of a renaissance: Manufacturers are opting for more-frequent design changes, more-striking styling options, and more convenience features that often involve the greater use of electronics. Ice and water dispensers have been improved with filtering and systems for automatically measuring water. Lighting is getting more energy efficient. Many models have indi­vidual temperature- and humidity-controlled compartments to achieve longer food storage. Worldwide, convenient no-frost operation is gaining share. In the style area, interest is growing in modular and built-in designs, while in North America, French- door, bottom-freezer models are becoming more popular.

The Green Milieu

While refrigerator makers juggle efforts to create a winning product line, they must also take a long view on which refrigerants and insulation-foam-blowing agents are most environmentally acceptable and practical. In addition, manufacturers are affected by the mandatory restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances (RoHS) standards in the European Union. This standard restricts the use of certain hazardous substances, including lead and mercury, in electrical products. Appliance producers’ decisions in the environmental area can affect consumer perceptions of a company’s or product’s “greenness.”

Germany-based Liebherr has turned its green credentials into a positive marketing tool, publicizing its efforts to consumers. In the North American market, all Liebherr refrigerators are Energy Star qualified, while all its refrigerators worldwide were RoHS compliant as of June 2007.

Although the company believes RoHS compliance will eventually become mandatory in North America, it wanted to take a leadership role. “We want to let people know that we are being proactive in the green area,” states Marc Perez, vice president of Liebherr North America (Burlington, ON, Canada). “Being environmentally responsible goes beyond producing an energy-efficient product. By changing some of the components and adopting RoHS, which removes hazardous materials such as lead, mercury, and cadmium from the manufacturing process, we also make it easier to recycle.”

The company even promotes its manufacturing credentials. It notes that since 2000, its investments in environmental com­patibility have reduced chemical use by 30%, solvent use by 5%, and energy consumption by 5%. Energy released during production is recovered and utilized again in heating manufacturing areas. Furthermore, the company says that all its packaging materials are 100% recyclable, while the water it uses in the production process is purified and pollution free.

Building on its Weather & Info TV refrigerator, LG Electronics USA (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, U.S.) has introduced a digital high-definition television (HDTV) refrigerator.

Modern Modularity

European-style modular built-in refrigerators are finding a place in high-end applications in North America. “We see a need for flexible fridges in North America,” observes Perez. “These 24- and 30-in. products give the consumer something to play with. For instance, consumers can combine units to get a 48-in. refrigerator/freezer, or separately install them in two different locations. It’s easier to tailor the look of your kitchen.

“This modular approach fits into a trend toward urban living. A lot of baby boomers are moving back to the cities. Among these people, there is less interest in having an oversized kitchen and refrigerator; they rather work on more of a human scale. Another consideration is that if you want to get a 48-in. refrigerator into a penthouse, you may need a crane if the refrigerator is not modular.”

“A bulky refrigerator can sometimes be an eyesore,” says Marni Hale, spokesperson for BSH Home Appliances (Huntington Beach, CA, U.S.). “Built-in refrigerator and freezer columns from Thermador, Bosch, Siemens, or Gaggenau are fully flush and can even be custom paneled with your own cabinetry. The look is seamless, creating a clean and modern atmosphere as well as a great discussion topic.”

Thermador’s Freedom Collection, Hale remarks, features fully integrated, truly flush-mounted modular refrigeration columns that can be placed anywhere in the kitchen. The collection offers flexibility to consumers so they no longer have to design their kitchen around a cumbersome refrigerator-freezer combination. Each unit has its own compressor and evaporator, thus eliminating air exchange and odor transfer between units.

“Designers can offer their customers full flexibility and unique style by placing an 18-in. freezer column next to the oven for easy access to meats and a 24-in. fresh-food column next to the sink for easy preparation of vegetables,” she says. “Hidden hinges on freestanding units, colored sides that offer a built-in look without the cost, and quieter operation show how advanced technology in the refrigeration segment has become.”

French Selection

Bottom-freezer refrigerators, many with French doors, are all the rage in North America. GE Consumer and Industrial says that the unit sales growth rate has averaged 25% per year for the last six years. Manufacturers report that customers are especially interested in units with ice and water in the door.

“Ten years ago, lots of people thought bottom-freezer refrigerators were weird, not found in traditional kitchens,” observes Warren Mann, vice president, sales, for major appliances at Haier America (New York, NY, U.S.). “Since then, bottom-mount has gone mainstream. We are now producing 18-cu-ft bottom-mount units in our South Carolina factory.

“The French-door configuration has become quite popular, while I would describe interest in side-by-side units as indifferent,” he adds. “I attribute this in part to 16-in. pizzas and deli or fruit platters, which a consumer can have a hard time fitting in a side-by-side.”

The firm introduced a convertible bottom-drawer refrigerator at this year’s K/BIS. With a 4.6-cu-ft drawer that converts from a refrigerator to a freezer and back again, the consumer can choose and change depending on current storage needs.

Globally, Mann says, China-based Haier has more cooling-appliance production capacity than any other manufacturer. Volume, he reports, stands at 12 million units that range in size from 1.7 to 25 cu ft. and are marketed in 100 countries. Mann points to LG Electronics and Samsung as companies that have demonstrated the viability of worldwide marketing of refrigerators and other appliances.

French-door bottom-freezer models recently introduced in North America include a 42-in. KitchenAid built-in model. The 22.5-cu-ft appliance reportedly offers the widest continuous space of any refrigerator. Shelves span the entire interior with no center divider, so items such as large platters, baking pans, and cookie sheets can be accommodated easily.

What’s New, Arçelik?

What are the key refrigerator design trends? From the standpoint of Arçelik Co. (Istanbul, Turkey), no-frost cooling systems have become widespread and in greater demand in such products as double-door fridge-freezers, combination fridge-freezers, and upright freezers. Another outstanding trend is products that consume less energy. In Europe, A+ and A++ energy efficiencies are becoming more important; they are being promoted directly by some governments.

Water and ice dispenser options and hygiene features such as ionizers, silver ion coatings, antibacterial carbon filters, and blue lights are being used extensively. Compartments with precise temperature and humidity adjustments for increasing food storage times are another value-added feature offered by many manufacturers. Another development is double-evaporator cooling systems. Various compartments and accessories such as folding wine racks, sliding shelves, and storage bins under door racks allow better interior volume utilization. Modular products enable greater customer customization.

Consumers have begun to choose more-functional models, which they can buy with the same amount of money. These models consume less electricity and are more efficient and environmentally friendly, says Arçelik. Regulations pertaining to energy efficiency, environmentally friendly refrigerant gases, and recyclable materials are becoming widespread throughout the world. All these factors affect new product designs and manufacturing systems.

The company believes that the refrigeration appliance market will move toward built-ins, with a growing Western Europe built-in segment spreading to Eastern Europe and eventually to other markets. Moreover, the customization concept, modularity, and high energy efficiency will be of great importance.

Another perspective comes from James Politeski, vice president, sales and marketing, home appliance division of Samsung Electronics America Inc. (Ridgefield Park, NJ, U.S.). He views French doors, especially with ice and water, as an important trend. “Capacity and style are huge right now,” he adds. “Energy Star regulations may change for 2009, and technologies such as Samsung’s Twin Cooling, which separates the freezer and refrigerator air, are more prevalent in the market. Improvements in overall efficiency—for example, insulation and lighting—are also important. The future will be very innovative, both technically and aesthetically.”

Fisher & Paykel Appliances (Huntington Beach, CA, U.S.) offers two new stainless-steel Active Smart Refrigerators with filtered ice and water. The company says that its external door dispenser occupies only 0.12 cu ft of the 17.3-cu-ft refrigerator’s total usable volume. The model features a measured-fill facility with preset quantities of a cup (8 oz), a glass (10 oz), or a pitcher (32 oz).

On the Water Front

Although refrigerators are generally viewed as rather static products, many models today dispense ice and water. Manufacturers have worked to reduce the space occupied by dispensers and have added capabilities such as measured dispensing and rapid filling. Water dispensers often include water filtration capabilities, an important feature for some consumers.

Whirlpool Corp. (Benton Harbor, MI, U.S.) reports that it began offering filtered water in 1998 and that all its water-dispensing refrigerators now include filters. “With some bottled-water companies charging more than $2.50 per gallon, water is becoming more expensive than  gasoline,” calculates Roger Ellsworth, senior manager of water filtration at Whirlpool’s consumer service business unit. “Despite the high prices, the demand for bottled water continues to rise. Filtered water from your refrigerator, on the other hand, is priced at around 20 cents per gallon.

“Filtered water from the refrigerator is not only inexpensive, it’s also more convenient than bottled water. No more lugging bottles and jugs of water to and from your home. An additional benefit is the fact that a large percentage of refrigerator water filters also retain fluoride, which is usually not found in bottled water.

“The water filtration system has proven to be a valuable addition to the refrigerator. Market research indicates that the refrigerator is the most frequently used source of drinking water within homes that have a water-enabled refrigerator.

Efficiency: Not the Home Alone

Energy efficiency looms large for commercial as well as domestic refrigerator makers. “Anything energy-related is very important these days,” observes Angelo Grillas, product manager of Electrolux Professional North America (Ft. Lauderdale, FL, U.S.). “The more money an operator can save, the better in the long term. Energy-saving dollars offset the cost of the equipment in the minds of the customers.”

The Consortium for Energy Efficiency (CEE) offers a voluntary initiative that is aimed at commercial solid-door, reach-in refrigerators and freezers. CEE has two tiers of refrigerator and freezer specifications. While Tier 1 solid-door reach-in refrigerators and freezers are at Energy Star levels, Tier 2 refrigerators are 40% more efficient and Tier 2 freezers are 30% more efficient than Energy Star units. CEE also has commercial glass-door reach-in refrigerator specifications.

Reach-in solid-door refrigerators and freezers are used in the foodservice industry by restaurants and institutions, accounting for some 17% of all commercial refrigeration energy use, states CEE. Glass-door refrigerators, which account for 8% of packaged commercial refrigeration energy use, are often used as beverage merchandisers, although they also have commercial kitchen applications. Barriers to more-efficient commercial reach-ins include a market with multiple market players, a high emphasis on first cost, and a large used-equipment market.

Analyze This

“The most important feature these days is for the refrigerators to be equipped with software to monitor HACCP levels,” Grillas tells APPLIANCE. “HACCP, or the hazard analysis critical control point system, is a process control system that identifies where hazards might occur in the food production process. It puts into place stringent actions to take to prevent the hazards from occurring. By strictly monitoring and controlling each step of the process, there is less chance for hazards to occur. So we offer software packages for most of our heavy equipment to monitor their operation and errors, because the function and breakdown of the machines can greatly influence safe-food-zone temperatures.”

Commercial makers are affected by the need to save manufacturing costs, particularly with the rise in stainless-steel prices. “We think redesigning and reengineering a product to make it do more in a smaller footprint is the way to go,” says Grillas.

“Green is a strong emerging trend,” says Bill Keske, vice president, business development, at The Delfield Co. (Mt. Pleasant, MI, U.S.). “Our customers and their customers are becoming increasingly concerned about the environment, and they are looking to manufacturers to provide equipment that promotes a green philosophy. Energy efficiency is part of that, but they are also looking at minimizing the use of harmful materials or chemicals. They are looking at what degree of recycled-materials content is used in the equipment. They also are interested in provisions for responsible disposal of the product after its useful life.

“A major regulatory factor impacting the business right now is the elimination of potentially harmful blowing agents for the foam insulation we use in producing our refrigeration products. Movement away from agents that impact global warming is being legislated worldwide, and consequently, foam formulation and foaming processes will have to change.”

Keske also thinks that there will be a movement toward a new generation of environmentally friendly refrigerants. “Today’s HFCs [hydrofluorocarbons], while much more environmentally responsible than the CFCs [chlorofluorocarbons] and HCFCs [hydrochlorofluorocarbons] they replaced, are still thought to have an impact on global warming, and alternatives are needed.

“We are also seeing legislation concerning the use of hazardous materials in product components and general construction. Europe is leading the way through its RoHS regulations in eliminating the use of materials deemed hazardous, not only today but also in the future as they are disposed of in landfills.” Waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) regulations have also established procedures for handling equipment at the end of its life to minimize its environmental impact.

The Verdict

Energy efficiency, improved performance, environmental responsibility, better food safety—these and other goals are likely to drive interest in new generations of commercial products. Keske sees a bright future. “Our base market is growing. Eating meals away from home has become more a way of life for most Americans. Export opportunities and opportunities to build our products overseas are exploding as world economies develop. Technological advancements will bring further opportunities to develop new and exciting products.”


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