The Good Old Days Are Right Now
In 1980, the energy factor (EF, a standard measure of an appliance's overall energy efficiency) of a standard home refrigerator was 5.59, and by 2008 the EF increased almost three-fold to 15.50, for a 177.3% improvement in energy efficiency in only 28 years. The other standard home appliances in the chart also had significant improvements in energy efficiency, from a 41.5% increase for the room air-conditioner, to a 91.4% increase for the dishwasher (thanks to Dennis Gartman for alerting me to these data in a recent "The Gartman Letter").
If the energy efficiency of a refrigerator has almost tripled since 1980, what's happened to its price, measured by the cost of the time it takes an average American to earn enough income to purchase a standard refrigerator?
In 1979, the 17-cubic foot Kenmore refrigerator pictured below from a Sears catalog cost $469.95 (on sale at the "lowest price in 1979"), and the average hourly wage then was $6.34 (Total: Private Industries), meaning that it would take 74.1 hours of work at the average hourly wage to earn enough income to purchase the refrigerator.
Bottom Line: A standard refrigerator today is not only almost 3 times more energy efficient than a comparable 1979-1980 model, its cost today is only about 1/3 the price of the 1979 model, measured in what is ultimately most important: our time. Put those two factors together, and the average American's refrigerator is almost nine times better than the refrigerator of 1980. Stated differently, if refrigerators hadn't fallen in price by almost a factor of 3 since 1980, and if they hadn't improved in energy efficiency by almost a factor of 3, Americans might be paying $1,500 today for a 17 cubic-foot refrigerator instead of $525, and it would be almost three times as costly to operate.
Despite our current economic problems and high unemployment, in many areas American consumers have never had it so good. Ever. The "good old days" are now.