Your Washing Machine and the Environment

by Gary Foreman

Dear Dollar Stretcher,
We've been shopping for a new washing machine and came across those new front-loaders. They seem quite hardy and are sold as being very efficient in both their use of energy and water (using thirty gallons of water instead of fifty per load). However they cost a lost more up front. Are they worth it?

Vi's question is one that people have been trying to answer in various forms for decades. What's the most efficient washing machine? The current controversy began with the modern era washing machines in 1851. That's when James King patented the first machine to use a drum. Electricity was added in 1908.

Which washer is more efficient is an important question. According the U.S. Dept. of Energy a typical clothes washer will cost almost $1,100 operate over it's lifetime. That's based on 8 loads a week for 14 years. The total energy consumed is 13,000 kilowatt-hours at 8.6 cents per kWh.

That's where the newer front-loading designs come in. About 90% of the energy used by a washing machine is used to heat water. So reducing water consumption is important to energy savings. Some energy experts claim that the front-loaders can save up to $100 each year in utility bills.

And the energy savings isn't limited to the washer, either. A front-loader gets far more of the leftover water out of the clothes. That saves drier time and energy.

The front-loaders are also more gentle on clothing. That's because they tumble the clothes like a dryer instead of pulling them through the water. And published tests show that the front-loaders do as good a job as top-loaders on getting clothes clean.

Our European friends are much more familiar with front-loading washers. The ASKO front-loader from Sweden only uses 11 gallons of water per load compared to up to 60 gallons for a top-loader. U.S. manufacturers have started to make them available, too. Maytag claims that it's Neptune model reduces water use by 40% and saves 2/3 of the energy used.

So how does Vi answer her question - will the energy savings of a front-loader cover the additional costs of buying one.

Believe it or not, there is an official measurement of energy efficiency for washing machines. It's called the "energy factor" and measures how many cubic feet of washing can be accomplished per kilowatt-hour of electricity consumed. But you probably won't see it mentioned anywhere.

What Vi will use is the EnergyGuide labels that compare the cost of running different washers. Those are the yellow and black stickers you'll find on most new appliances. For washers they'll tell you how much you'll spend to operate the appliance for an average family in one year. You should see one figure for use with an electric water heater and another lower figure for a gas heater. Use the one that's appropriate for your home.

Note that the figures are for an average sized family and assume national averages for the cost of water, electricity and gas. Will these figures match your usage directly? No. But unless you're really bored or mathematics is your hobby (heaven forbid!), doing all the calculations to try to figure your exact cost is crazy. Besides, the final answer will depend on how long you use the washer. And that's just a guess at best.

You'll want to estimate how long it will take for the annual savings to equal the higher purchase cost. To do that first figure out how much more the front-loader will cost to buy. Then calculate how much you'll save each year with the front loader by subtracting the annual front-loader costs from the costs of a top-loader.

Finally divide the additional purchase cost by the annual savings. That's how long it will take before you actually save money. Depending on which models you're comparing, you'll probably find that it will take between 3 and 7 years for the operating savings to recover the extra purchase expense.

In fairness to top-loaders we should point out the most of the newer units are more efficient than older models were. There are also some drawbacks to front-loaders. Soils are more likely to redeposit on other clothing in the load. Dyes can bleed and detergents have a harder time dissolving because there's less water. Some of the "HE" detergents available can aid in these problems.

There's also more than saving money to consider with front-loaders. We mentioned the fact that your clothes should look better and last longer. But there's also the environmental concerns. In many parts of the world fresh water is scarce and it's a shame to use more than is necessary no matter where you live.

Don't forget to consider some other ways to reduce the costs of doing laundry. Choosing a washer that allows you to adjust the water level can save you money. Some top-loaders come with a 'mini-basket' so you can do small loads efficiently. You might also want to check spin speeds. Higher speeds will remove more water from the clothes which reduces drying time and costs.

Other ways to save on laundry is to avoid partial loads and pre-soak very dirty clothes. Wherever possible use warm water instead of hot. Rinse in cold water.

So should Vi spring for the front-loader? If she plans on using the machine for more than a couple of years and does an average amount of laundry it could be a good decision for her pocketbook and the environment.

Gary Foreman

Gary Foreman is a former financial planner and purchasing manager who founded The Dollar website and newsletters in 1996. He's the author of How to Conquer Debt No Matter How Much You Have and he's been featured in MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, The Nightly Business Report, US News Money, and Gary shares his philosophy of money here. Gary is available for audio, video or print interviews. For more info see his media page.

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