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I’m talking metaphorically, of course. The answer is: It depends on how old it is.

I’ve written a number of articles on energy efficiency. Hands down, it’s simply the easiest, most cost-effective way to reduce our consumption of electricity. Period.

New power plants can be avoided, and no greenhouse gases or global warming to worry about, either. With 33 percent of the oldest coal plants set to retire over the next decade, it’s even more important that, as a nation, we become as energy efficient as we can.

What’s for Dinner?

Today, I’m going to focus on the one home appliance that just about every household in America has. Some have more than one. And that’s a refrigerator and/or freezer. We don’t often think of it in terms of energy use, but it’s running nearly all the time.

According to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM), units produced in 2009 consumed about 450 kilowatt-hours per year, on average. That works out to about 5 percent of the average household’s annual energy usage.

While that’s like leaving 11 40-watt incandescents on all the time, it pales in comparison to what older units draw.

Even though they’re an average of 1.5 cubic feet larger, today’s units consume about 50 percent of the power those made in the 1990s consume, and they use just 35 percent of the energy.

My parents, who are in their late 80s, have an old Crosley in their basement that was made just after World War II. It’s still chugging along, but they refuse to part with it.

But the problem gets even worse. As units age, they use even more energy that they did when they were new. As you can see from the graph below, courtesy of the Energy Information Administration (EIA), there are still a lot of older units out there.

age of refrigerators

Residential energy surveys (RECs) conducted in 2005 and 2009 indicate that households are holding onto their refrigerators longer, and not replacing them with newer, more-efficient units. Fully 30 percent of all units still in use are from 1990 or older.

Sales of new refrigerators support that conclusion. The EIA’s graph of AHAM data shows that sales of new units peaked around 2005, and then plummeted along with the housing market, before rebounding slightly in 2010.

refrigerator shipments

The decline is indicative of lower new home construction numbers, and consumers delaying expensive kitchen remodeling in existing homes.

According to data from Appliance Magazine, over 90 percent of new refrigerators are purchased to replace existing units. In a poor economy, however, that’s an expense that strapped homeowners aren’t willing to undertake. (If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.)

What does all this mean in terms of energy efficiency? If all 117.5 million U.S. households’ refrigerators were replaced with current models, the country could turn off most of those old coal-fired power plants and not miss a beat.

Buying At the Bottom or Value Trap?

So is there a way to position your portfolio to take advantage of the expected surge in refrigerator buying when the economy recovers?

The logical choice would be Whirlpool Corporation (NYSE: WHR). It’s one of the only pure appliance plays out there. Its stock has been hammered down over 40 percent since the beginning of the year.

The company’s results have held up remarkably well, in spite of the sagging U.S. economy. However, the real reason the company’s bottom line has a polish on it has nothing to do with the United States. It has everything to do with its second-largest customer, Brazil.

Since 2005, the company has used $800 million of value-added tax credits to dress up its bottom line. It has about $474 million of them left, and they could be used up as early as next year.

In my opinion, the stock could fall even further from here. But eventually, even without the tax credit, consumers will need a new refrigerator. (Even my parents.) At that point, Whirlpool will be a great play on the economic recovery. We’ll avoid having to burn a little coal in the process, too.

Disclosure: None

Source: Is Your Refrigerator Burning Too Much Coal?