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The Game advertising insert that arrived in my Star newspaper this week shows nine refrigerators that seem to have earned green ribbons for energy efficiency, seven As and two B. Sounds great? If it were your child’s school report, you would be delighted. But here’s the frightening truth:

Every one of those refrigerators is so inefficient that it would be illegal to sell anywhere in Europe.

Energy labels can be useful, but you have to know how to read them. In the two decades since the EU began requiring labels, appliance makers have made such strides in efficiency that the regulators had to add A+, A++ and even A+++. Then in 2012 they banned the sale of fridges rated A or below. Today, As and Bs are old, inefficient technology, the kind of outdated goods manufacturers like to dump in Africa.

If you look around, however, all of the major brands do sell A+ and better fridges in South Africa. Only the EU label shows grades above A. The less common South African energy label stops at A. (The EU label has the blue EU flag in the top left corner; the local label has a star in the colours of the SA flag in the bottom right corner.) If a fridge carries no label, ask the salesperson to find one.

Efficient fridges might cost more, but bear in mind that over the lifetime of the appliance, you will likely pay Eskom more to keep that fridge cold than you paid the store to buy it. Typically fridges use about R1,000 to R4,000 in electricity per year, depending on your tariff, fridge size and efficiency.

Even more important than the letter grade is the kWh/year number on the EU label. Use that to compare fridges, since a smaller A+ fridge could use less power than a larger A++ one. Here’s a handy rule of thumb: Multiply the annual consumption by R40. This is approximately how much you will spend on electricity to run the fridge for the next 12 years. So a fridge that uses 300 kWh per year will cost you R12,000 in electricity. (My rule of thumb is based on an average of Johannesburg and Cape Town tariffs, rising 10 percent each year.)

For more detail on reading appliance labels, including Energy Star, South African and EU labels, see the My Green Home guide to appliance labels