The Trump administration’s Department of Energy (DOE) today undercut the energy-saving requirements for new clothes washers and dryers by carving out a “short-cycle” class of these household appliances that is exempt from any standards at all. The action puts at risk large efficiency gains in water and energy that save consumers money and comes just a month after the DOE did the same thing for new dishwashers. (Separately, DOE today also issued a rule that would change the way a showerhead is defined, allowing the sale of new models that use virtually unlimited amounts of water, setting up consumers for higher utility bills and even unwanted cold showers.)
Once again, the DOE is offering a solution when no problem exists and even manufacturers oppose it. With millions of washers and dryers sold in the United States every year, the rule announced today could lead to higher utility bills and additional carbon emissions from powering them. It also comes at a time when areas of the country are increasingly subject to extended droughts and can’t afford to waste water through unnecessary regulatory loopholes like the one just created by DOE.
So what would DOE's rule achieve?
Under the new policy, there will be no limits on energy or water use for new washers and dryers with short cycle times in their “normal” setting. It applies to top-loading washers with normal cycle times of less than 30 minutes, front-loading washers with less than 45 minutes, and clothes dryers with normal cycle times of less than 30 minutes.
What is especially perplexing about DOE’s action is that most of today’s new washers and dryers—all of which comply with DOE energy and water efficiency standards for normal cycles—already offer a short cycle option for times when a consumer may be in a hurry. In fact, DOE's own test data found three top-loading washers with average cycle times on the “normal” cycle of 29 minutes or less. Other models of dryers and front-loading washers have cycle times just barely above the thresholds DOE set for the new product classes.
Quite clearly, the cycle time distinction is simply a pretext for eliminating energy- and water-saving requirements for consumer products. It opens the door to higher energy consumption, potentially sticking consumers with washer and dryer models that significantly boost their utility bills and climate pollution without providing a shorter cycle time than the efficient washers and dryers available today. This will especially hurt low-income and communities of color that spend a disproportionate amount of their household income on energy bills and are more likely to live closest to polluting power plants.
The policy change could also usher in subpar products produced by foreign manufacturers, hurting domestic manufacturers and U.S. manufacturing jobs.
Efficiency and washers and dryers
Clothes washers today use about 70 percent less energy than they did in 1990, and thanks to the water efficiency standard that first took effect in 2011, they use about half the water to wash an average load compared to models two decades ago. Dryers, too, use significantly less energy than older models, especially if they meet the voluntary ENERGY STAR® specification signifying more efficient products.
But rather than further this progress, DOE adopted yet another rule to carve out more categories of household appliances that would be exempt from money-saving efficiency standards.
No evidence the rule is needed
When proposing this rule, DOE offered no evidence that existing standards are inhibiting the introduction of washers and dryers with shorter cycle times. Even in 1995, when washers could use twice the energy and an unlimited amount of water, typical cycle times ranged from 38-50 minutes, according to data from Consumer Reports. For dryers, providing shorter cycle times than those available today would require higher heat levels that could damage clothing. This lack of justification for the new product class may be why the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers is on record as opposing this change.
Finally, DOE’s action eliminating standards for made-up classes of washers and dryers is illegal. Even if a separate product class were warranted, re-designating a certain group of products now covered by efficiency standards as exempt from such standards violates the anti-backsliding provision in federal law.
This would certainly not be the first time DOE has violated the law in neglecting or attempting to weaken efficiency standards. NRDC, joined by consumer and low-income consumer advocates as well as a number of states, recently sued the agency over its inaction on 25 standards that would save households and businesses at least $22 billion annually on their utility bills. Lawsuits also have been filed over DOE’s rollbacks of light bulb standards, changes to its efficiency standards process that will slow down—and create hurdles to—future standards, and its failure to finalize four standards issued under the Obama administration.
The latest attack on energy efficiency is more about unraveling regulations than helping consumers, and more about the Trump administration’s climate denialism than about protecting America’s households.