This article was originally published in the November/December 1996 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.


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Home Energy Magazine Online November/December 1996


Revolution, Not Agitation: A New Spin on Clothes Washing


Horizontal axis washers, such as this model from Frigidaire, can use less than half the energy and two-thirds the water of traditional washers for the same volume of laundry. 

For years, Europeans have used small, water-conserving, energy-efficient washing machines. But most washer manufacturers serving the United States haven't bothered trying to sell them here. The machines have always been expensive, small, and slow, making them inappropriate for Americans accustomed to big, fast muscle machines. At the same time, the American preference for powering out stains has led many people to use more hot water than they need for clothes washing. The result? A lot of wasted energy. However, things are starting to change.

America's 35 billion annual loads of laundry eat up 2.6% of total residential energy. This waste is now being cut by improved detergents and washer designs. Americans are slowly accepting that energy-efficient washing can actually get clothes clean. People are using colder water today than they did 20 years ago, and efficient horizontal-axis washers are starting to boom.

Horizontal-axis clothes washers can save as much as 60% of the electricity and one-third of the water used by traditional washers cleaning the same volume of clothes (see Figure 1). They can also conserve drying energy by spinning clothes faster than vertical-axis washers. According to Consumer Reports, by eliminating the agitator, horizontal-axis washers also reduce wear and tear on clothes.

Efficient machines have long been the norm in Europe, but for years, only one U.S. manufacturer-Frigidaire-made a horizontal axis residential machine. This model, like those imported from Europe, had only one-third the capacity of most vertical-axis machines and took a long time to finish a load. These restrictions limited such designs to 1%-3% of the market.

In an attempt to enhance home energy and water efficiency, the Consortium for Energy Efficiency (CEE) has initiated widespread utility rebates to encourage the purchase of washers that are as efficient as the best horizontal-axis machines. They have persuaded 24 utilities, representing 9% of U.S. households, to offer rebates of $100 to $250 to utility customers who buy qualifying washers. The program's intent is to speed the development, sale, and use of efficient washing machines. The rebates cover most of the price difference between conventional washers (which cost about $600) and the more efficient washers (which cost between $700 and $1,300).


Figure 1. Water use in different types of clothes washers.

The program seems to be working. While two years ago there was only one qualifying washer on the U.S. market, three qualified last November, and there were 11 as of fall 1996. As of September 1996, Frigidaire is selling an efficient, high-capacity machine; Whirlpool and Maytag intend to release such models by the end of the year. So far, all qualifying washers have been horizontal-axis models, but efficient vertical-axis machines may be on the way. While sales are still slow, CEE program manager Andrew deLaski expects that in the near term, rebates could help efficient washers to capture as much as 10% of the washing machine market. DeLaski guesses that in the long term, regardless of rebates, these more efficient, effective, and expensive washers can expect a 30%-40% market share. That's a large slice of a big pie-5 million washers are sold each year in the United States.

Past increases in washer efficiency resulted from federal standards. For example, starting in 1988, federal rules required that washers offer a cold water rinse. The U.S. Department of Energy has been working on new standards that may require increased efficiency, but no such rule has been issued. New standards may require all washers to be as efficient as horizontal-axis machines, and mandate maximum retained moisture levels in order to reduce drying energy. If such a rule is issued, vertical-axis machines will have to become far more efficient in order to be sold in the United States. Because of built-in delays in the standards, it will be at least the turn of the century before federal rules require the more efficient machines.

Meanwhile, detergent makers have been developing more advanced products that clean at lower temperatures and rinse out faster. In new washers, faster rinsing means less water use because the machines stop using water once they sense that the clothes are rinsed. On average, a concentrated detergent in such a washer will require 7 fewer gallons of rinse water. Concentrates also generally cost less per use.

A load of laundry uses as much as 90% of its wash energy in heating up water. By encouraging cold- and warm-water washing, new detergents are succeeding at reducing energy use. According to Proctor and Gamble, in 1975 15% of washes were in cold and 30% were in hot water, compared to 30% in cold and 19% in hot in 1989.

-Steven Bodzin

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