Laundering to Save the Planet

Ever biked to fight leukemia or walked for a cure for breast cancer?  I hope so.  But if not, even the most sedentary among us have an opportunity to make the world a better place, and to save money each month in the process.

NRDC and several organizations that share our interest in using energy and water more efficiently have just concluded an agreement with the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers and many AHAM member companies, including Whirlpool and General Electric.  Under the agreement announced today, minimum energy efficiency standards will be strengthened for refrigerators, freezers, room air conditioners, and clothes dryers.  Efficiency standards for both water and energy use will be strengthened for clothes washers and dishwashers.  The standards would take effect between 2013 and 2018 and apply to all new products manufactured or imported into the US.  Another part of the agreement will provide tax incentives for manufacturers that deliver extra-high efficiency products – those performing well beyond the new standards – to the marketplace during the years 2011 through 2013.

My colleague Lane Burt is commenting on the huge energy savings that will result from more efficient appliances under this agreement at, but I want to highlight the water savings that will be coming to every American city and town over the next few decades.

The new standards and tax credits for clothes washers, when fully in effect as old appliances are replaced by the new, will save about 530 million gallons of water each day, about equal to the current needs of every water customer in the City of Los Angeles.  Savings from more efficient dishwashers, will add about 15% more to the total savings.  Put another way, the amount of water saved in 2030 under this agreement will reduce consumer water and sewer bills by $1.5 billion each year, using today’s typical costs of about $7.00 per thousand gallons.   Consider that water and sewer rates are sure to increase, and add in even larger consumer savings from electricity and natural gas, and you begin to sense the magnitude of the benefits that can be expected.

In a typical single-family home, washing clothes accounts for about 20% of indoor water use.  As clothes washers get replaced by homeowners in the years ahead, the new washers will use water much more efficiently than the old appliances they replace, even if the consumer sticks with the top-loading format, which still holds about 65% of the market for new washers.  Under the agreement, new top-loading washers will achieve the level of efficiency that is available with a front-loader today, and even the front-loaders will be getting more efficient as well. 

Many top-load washers sold today have a “water factor” of 12, meaning that a typical 3.5 cubic foot capacity washer will use over 40 gallons of water for an average load.  By 2018, new washers will be at least twice as efficient, with a maximum water factor of 6 and total consumption of about 21 gallons per cycle. 

The transformation in top-loader performance will take place in three steps.  Under current law, a maximum water factor of 9.5 will apply to all new washers as of January 1, 2011.  Under today’s agreement, the maximum water factor for new machines will drop again to 8.0 in January 2015 and will drop further to 6.0 in January 2018.

In reality, the transformation of the top-loading market will take place well in advance of these deadlines.  In response to federal tax incentives first available in 2006, manufacturers have been slowly building up production of a new generation of high efficiency top-loaders.  These machines do even better than required to earn the Energy Star label, and sales have been further assisted by incentives and rebates offered by some energy and water utilities.  The economics are so compelling, however, that mass production of these high efficiency machines to meet the 2018 standard will save consumers over $200 dollars over the life of the new washer, even accounting for a higher initial purchase price.

Although the negotiations with AHAM – which ran off and on over four months – were difficult at times, a solid result was reached which will be good for manufacturers, consumers, and the environment.  A wide range of appliance models will be available, water and energy consumption will be reduced, greenhouse gas emissions will be avoided, and consumers will save money.  Sound policy can make a difference. 

Want to help save the planet?  Go do your laundry.