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Missed Cash for Clunkers? Try "Rebates for Refrigerators" — eventually

Cash for Clunkers is history. Are you ready to play "Rebates for Refrigerators"?

Starved major appliance dealers are. But so far the government isn't. The best guesses from Tallahassee suggest consumers will wait until early next year to score a roughly 20 percent discount on energy efficient refrigerators, dishwashers, top-loading clothes washers and window air conditioners.

While the states and feds write the rules this fall, anxious appliance makers are wrestling with how to ramp up production in anticipation of demand. And retailers are fielding questions from consumers who have holstered their credit cards waiting for a better rebate.

"The rebates will definitely be a great business opportunity, but it's gotten to the point people are putting off buying," said Jason Horst, business development manager for Famous Tate, a Tampa chain that sells one in five major appliances in Hillsborough County.

"People ask about appliance rebates, and we can't tell them anything because we don't know what will qualify," said Gary Dickey, customer service manager at St. Petersburg Best Buy.

This all started last spring when the Obama administration's economic stimulus package earmarked $300 million to pep up the stagnant appliance industry and sales of energy-saving Energy Star appliances. The cash brought to life incentives left unfunded by the 2005 Energy Star program. By May the Florida Legislature had jumped on board with a plan. It's now awaiting federal approval. But that's not the only delay. The state will have to decide how to implement anything the feds approve.

Still up in the air is what products will qualify. Since Florida is not among the 25 states already offering its own rebates for a wide variety of Energy Star appliances, state officials figured the Sunshine State's $17.5 million share would be limited to energy gobblers and water conservation.

So Florida's plan, if the feds agree, would apply to refrigerators, clothes and dishwashers, dehumidifiers and window air conditioners. None qualify for federal Energy Star tax credits.

Only front-loading clothes washers made it because they use a fraction of the water of top loaders. Dryers are out because none qualifies for Energy Star.

The state steered clear of Energy Star central air conditioning, heat pumps, solar panels and water heaters that already qualify for federal tax credits.

The Cash for Clunkers program gave a $3 billion lift to all auto dealers plus automakers foreign and domestic. In contrast, more than two-thirds of all major appliances sold in the United States are made by American GE Inc. or Whirlpool, with Swedish-owned AB Electrolux (maker of Frigidaire, Kelvinator, Westinghouse and Gibson) the only big player among a handful of foreign brands.

You wouldn't have to trade in an energy hog to qualify, either. Just buy a new appliance.

But will retailers be able to give you a discount at checkout or will this be another round of the old rebate dance: buy, apply, wait weeks for a check?

Even that's up for grabs, as is any hope of relief for folks who have already upgraded.

"If it turns out we can do it all at the store, we will, but we may have to hire a third-party rebate processor," said Jeremy Susac, director of Gov. Charlie Crist's Energy Office. "If you already bought an Energy Star appliance expecting to reimbursed, save your receipts. But right now, I don't see this being made retroactive."

That leaves anyone in the market for an appliance weighing the savings from a possible rebate that could take months to arrive vs. upgrading that old fridge now and immediately trimming the electric bill.

"I hate it when they give people a reason not to buy," said German Alvarado, a DeSears store manager.

That's some stimulus.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

. FAST FACTS

Why appliances?

Since the collapse of the housing industry, the U.S. major appliance industry has been shrinking and laying off thousands. That's because home builders stopped creating new kitchens to equip, and tapped-out homeowners lost their passion for big remodeling jobs. Now mostly a replacement business, the major appliance industry is in its third year of decline. Unit sales dropped 10 percent in 2008 and are down 15 percent more this year, the industry reports.

Missed Cash for Clunkers? Try "Rebates for Refrigerators" — eventually 08/31/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 31, 2009 9:40pm]
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