This week, a final rule setting new efficiency standards for residential clothes washers was approved, finally. It’s been a long time coming, but these new water and energy efficiency requirements adopted by the Department of Energy will save US consumers billions of dollars and reduce the environmental footprint of mountains of America's dirty laundry.
The standards account for differences in performance between top-loading washers and increasingly popular front-loaders, and they take effect in two stages, in March 2015 and January 2018. But manufacturers are not waiting around to bring more efficient washers to market. According to the EPA, over 60% of washers sold in 2011 already meet the 2018 standards.
Manufacturers joined NRDC, the Consumer Federation of America, and other efficiency advocates in proposing these standards in 2010. It took DOE two years and two months to approve this agreement, even using an expedited rulemaking process that was specifically authorized to fast-track consensus-based proposals like this. But anti-climaxes aside, this week's final action is a big win for consumers, manufacturers, and the environment, and it’s officially done. The final approval was signed and posted on the DOE website (see link below), and the appropriate notice should appear in the Federal Register within the next few days.
High efficiency clothes washers have been around for years, with many styles and features to choose from, especially at higher price points. Consumers have responded eagerly, as noted above. I think the most visible effect of strengthening the standards at this time will be to bring the benefits of greater efficiency to the “plain vanilla” washers that are marketed at the low end of the price range. According to DOE, the median pay-back for consumers for any price increase due to the new standards will be about 11 months for a new top loader and about 16 months for a new front loader. After that, the owner is money-ahead for the life of the product, which is typically about 14 years. Ensuring access to this technology to consumers of modest means is a real plus.
While the energy efficiency of new washers produces the lion’s share of the financial rewards for consumers, the savings in household water consumption are proportionately even more significant. In single-family homes, nearly 20% of all the water used indoors is for washing clothes. A new washer meeting the efficiency standards adopted this week will use about half as much water as the typical top loader it will replace. As a consequence, the replacement cycle for clothes washers will draw residential water consumption downward by small, steady increments for the next 20 years. This is good news for the nation’s water utilities, which are responsible for maintaining safe and reliable supplies of drinking water in the face of population growth, economic recovery, and a changing climate. It’s also good news for the rivers, lakes, and estuaries upon which we all depend.
PS -- Done with laundry, and contemplating your dirty dishes? Residential dishwasher standards also got a tune up this week. Check here for information on the new energy and water efficiency standards that take effect at the end of May, 2013: