There are currently 413 models among 34 name brands of clothes washers that qualify for the federal Energy Star label, including the ones featured in this article. All of those qualified products use at least half the amount of water and heating energy of new, non-qualified products offered since 2004, the latest set of standards before even higher thresholds were enacted last year. And they are certainly more efficient than the tens of millions of machines sold before that date, still chugging away across the country.
In fact, most Energy Star clothes washers are efficient enough today to meet the tighter water- and energy-use qualification standards that took effect in January; it’s likely that all of those brands and products on the current list (and maybe more) will gear up to meet or exceed the new standards before they are enforced, even if (or when) the federal program mandates that manufacturers submit to third-party testing to verify their efficiencies.
But that’s only half the story. “It’s like a lot of green building products,” says builder Lee Zieben of ZK Homes in Houston, who offers high-efficiency laundry sets as an option, not a standard spec. “If you can’t articulate the value and help change [homeowner] behavior to take advantage of it, it’s wasted money.”
The inability of home buyers to see or become motivated by the energy- and water-saving values of the latest laundry equipment may help explain why only about 30% of new homes are sold with a new washer and dryer included, according to the NAHB Research Center’s annual “Market Demand Data” report.
“Most people bring their old ones when they move in,” says Ed Hudson, director of the center’s Market Research Division. That, in turn, may dissuade or discourage builders from offering them as standard or putting in the work to convince homeowners to upgrade their existing set.
However, that market share has steadily improved since 2004 (from a mere 23% that year), a trend attributed to aesthetics, improved water and energy savings, and promotional efforts. But that percentage represents only the tip of the tremendous resource efficiencies, including impressive reductions in CO2 emissions, that high-performance clothes washers and dryers can achieve if they were installed in all homes. Even at their peak of production, new homes account for less than 2% of the overall housing stock (far less so right now, of course), making turnover of old machines a slow-go in that segment.
Manufacturers are savvy to that fact. “We expect 2010 to be a replacement year [among existing homes], especially with more state energy-efficiency appliance rebate programs coming on line,” says Marni Hale, a spokesperson for Bosch Home Appliances. “As products come to the end of their life cycle [about 12 years, according to research by NAHB Economics], consumers will look to upgrade to take advantage of those rebates and long-term cost savings.”
Energy and water-use efficiencies achieved by the latest generation of clothes washers are the result of a fundamental shift in product design, namely from top-loading units with conventional central agitators to front-loading machines with no agitators and advanced top-loaders that employ an impeller design.
As a result, front-loaders and advanced top-loaders use a relatively small amount of water at the bottom of the tub—about 15 to 17 gallons per load on average, which represents only a fraction of their overall tub capacity. That’s about half or less of the water needed by a legacy top-loader, which requires a nearly full tub of water. With less water in the tub to heat, energy use with a new-age washer can be reduced by up to 90%, according to Energy Star, translating to an overall annual household energy savings of perhaps 30% or more.
Without an agitator or by using an impeller, today’s front-loading and advanced top-loading equipment, respectively, rely instead on a tumbling action to clean clothes, a design detail that frees up more room in the tub and ideally results in fewer loads (and thus lower resource consumption) overall. Some units detect the size of a load and can be set for the type of load being washed to automatically adjust the water and energy needed to clean it.
They also feature energy-efficient motors to enable high-speed and extended spin cycles that extract more water out of a clean load so that a companion dryer does not have to work as hard or draw as much energy to finish the job.
Other, non-rated features that can further reduce resource use and distinguish brands and models include washers with delay-start functions that allow the unit to operate during non-peak energy-use times and “express” cycles that use even less water and energy than the machine’s ratings, as well as dryers with steam functions that might reduce wrinkles and remove odors from clothes without requiring a wash cycle.