Tales of the Red Tape #9: Regulators Going Off on Microwave Ovens

Diane Katz /

At the behest of Congress, the Department of Energy (DOE) has “invested” several years and considerable tax dollars in devising restrictions on the amount of electricity it takes to run virtually every household appliance. Alas, a regulator’s work is never done. Having assumed control over the energy we use to cook, clean, light, heat, and cool every room in our homes, the Washington Powermeisters have taken to crafting energy conservation standards for appliances not in use. (That’s not a typo.)

Just last month, for example, the DOE issued an “interim final rule”—i.e., a rule that’s absolutely final until another one comes along—that mandates the test procedures that manufacturers must adopt to measure the minute amount of electricity used by microwave ovens when in “standby mode” and “off mode.”

Dozens of pages of the Federal Register are devoted to delineating just what constitutes each mode, although neither one involves actual cooking. Instead, this particular regulatory initiative, now spanning three years, is focused on such supposedly energy-hogging components as the clock, timer, and indicator light that remain lit when the microwave oven is not in use.

Setting energy standards for appliances that are turned off is no simple task. Consider the complexity of defining what “off” means in this context. According to DOE documents:

The department noted that if the microwave oven is equipped with a manual power on/off switch, which completely cuts off power to the appliance (i.e., removes or interrupts all connections to the main power source, in the same manner as unplugging the appliance), the microwave oven would not be in the “off mode” when the switch is in the “off” position. … But DOE revises its determination … and tentatively concludes that zero energy consumption due to activation of an on/off switch would be indicative of off mode rather than a disconnected mode.

Got that?

The DOE contends that energy consumption by microwave ovens in “standby mode” represents a “significant” portion of microwave oven energy use. But a typical U.S. household consumes about 11,000 KWh of electricity per year. Based on testing done by the department, a microwave oven in “standby mode” consumes an average of just 2.65 watts of power. On an annualized basis, that constitutes a mere 23.2 KWh of electricity.*

Initially, DOE regulators wanted manufacturers to test each microwave oven model over a 12-hour period to capture the amount of power used to display the full range of lighted units. However, representatives of Whirlpool pointed out that every number of lit segments could be measured in just 10 minutes from, say, 3:33 to 3:42, thereby saving manufacturers considerable time and cost for testing.

For all the work that’s gone into devising the energy conservation standard for microwave ovens not in use, DOE officials offer another remedy for our supposed energy profligacy: The department’s Web site advises us to unplug every appliance when not in use.

Want to read more Tales of the Red Tape? Check out these stories below:

#1: We See Dead People

#2: The EPA Is Fueling Nonsense

#3: Don’t Touch That Dial!

#4: The Unwitting Peddlers of Toxic Tomes

#5: Calorie Counts Forced Down Our Throats

#6: Equine Equality Under the ADA

#7: Energy Department Plumbing for More Regulatory Powers

#8: How Many Hazmat Suits Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb?

*Updated figure, correcting an earlier error in calculation