Vol. 9, No. 7
Feb. 15-21, 2001
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Washing Greener:
A Primer on Laundry in 2004
By James Plummer

In a couple of years, clothes-washing as we know it will change. Here's a primer of what's coming.

Q What's up?

A The Department of Energy has ruled that washing machines in 2004 must use 22 percent less energy than today's standard machine. And the class of 2007 must be 35 percent more efficient.

Q Will this make washing machines more expensive?

A Yes! Official government estimates peg the average price hike at $241.

Q Do I at least get a tax credit or something if I buy one of these things?

A Nope. But the clothes-washer manufacturers get a tax break for making them. They like the new rules.

Q How are manufacturers going to make washing machines that use 35 percent less energy?

A Regulators say this can be achieved with "higher spin speeds more sensitive clothes load technologies, more efficient motors, and increased use of spray rinse cycles." All this comes about as a result of the virtual elimination of now standard "vertical-axis" washers in favor of "horizontal-axis" machines.

Q Horizontal-axis means the loading door is in the front, right? I've seen those machines at the laundromat.

A That's right. Industry is working on perfecting some horizontal-axis washers with a slight tilt that can load on top, but those are even more expensive than front-loading H-axis machines.

Q I have to keep bending over to load those machines with a door in front. It hurts my back.

A Too bad. The government didn't consider your problem.

Q Do these horizontal-axis machines have any other problems?

A They may. A 1996 study by the Soap and Detergent Association found numerous "challenges" with H-axis machines, including: excessive suds overflowing machine and interfering with operation; difficulty keeping soils from redepositing on fabrics, greater tendency for fabric dyes to bleed and transfer; and trouble with detergents and additives dissolving in the cooler, lesser amount of water.

Q Fun. Anything else?

A Since these more "efficient" machines rely on continually "spinning" water through clothing instead of soaking it, they may not work as well on deep stains. And if you've already started a cycle and found that last sock you wanted to add, forget it: Water, water everywhere and not a sock to clean. It also might be a good idea to keep crawling babies away from machines with low doors. Invest in a baby-gate for the laundry room.

Q Given all these problems, did the bureaucrats give any reasons this was a good deal for consumers?

AThey tried. The Department of Energy claims consumers will, on average, recoup the higher costs - remember, it's $241 on average more - in energy savings over seven or eight years. If you're not what the Department considers average, you're out of luck. DOE claims the average consumer does 392 loads of laundry a year. Do you do fewer loads than that? Will you be moving or otherwise discarding your new washing machine before it gets seven, eight, nine or 10 years of use? Are you a senior citizen? Is your income level and future earning potential such that $241 today is worth more to you today than spread out over a number of years? If you answered "yes" to any of those, the new washers may not be your ideal.

Q I still think more efficient washing machines are a good idea.

A Hey, more power to you. (Not electric power. Stop taking me literally.) You must be among the demographic Department of Energy describes as "consumers who choose energy and water savings over other features such as ergonomics or far lower purchase price." Not everyone fits into this group. According to manufacturer estimates, absent the Department's rule, market saturation of H-axis machines would be no more than 15 percent. As the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy pointed out, this is the approximate market penetration in the Northwest, which is a good market for so-called "energy-efficient" appliances and where front-loading machines have been heavily promoted.

Q Is there any way to stop or change the Energy Department's rule?

A It has been finalized. The only conceivable way it could be reversed would be if Congress used its powers under the Congressional Review Act to reverse the rule and President Bush then signed off on it.

James Plummer is a policy analyst for Consumer Alert, a non-profit consumer organization in Washington, DC.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly