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Musings of an Energy Nerd

All About Washing Machines

The best clothes washers save water and energy compared to older models — but most of the energy used for laundry is gobbled up by your clothes dryer

Front-loading washing machines tend to be much more water-efficient (and a little bit more energy-efficient) than top-loading washers. This Samsung clothes washer (model WF455A) has a modified energy factor (MEF) of 3.42, making it one of the most efficient models available.
Image Credit: Samsung

About 82% of U.S. homes have a clothes washer. Each of these appliances is used, on average, to wash about 300 loads of laundry per year. On an annual basis, residential clothes washers use more energy than dishwashers but less than refrigerators.

In recent years, appliance manufacturers have developed washing machines that use less water than older models. The average full-sized front-loading Energy Star clothes washer uses about 15 gallons of water per load — and some models use less than 12 gallons — compared to about 23 gallons per load for a top-loading clothes washer without an Energy Star label.

Although there are a few exceptions, most clothes washers fall into one of two categories: they are either traditional top-loading (vertical-axis) models or newer, European style front-loading (horizontal-axis) models.

Front-loading machines cost more than top-loading machines, but (on average) they perform much better:

[Credit for bar graph: ACEEE]

Because of these many advantages, front-loading washers have acquired a dramatically increased share of the market for residential clothes washers in recent years.

In 2007, after testing new energy-efficient clothes washers, Consumer Reports magazine reported that some washing machines performed poorly — in other words, they didn’t get clothes very clean.

Fortunately, the magazine’s latest article on clothes washers (August 2012) reported good news: the performance problems with the first generation of energy saving washers have been solved. The authors noted that “good cleaning, high efficiency, and large capacities are common features of the newest washers.”

If you have a clothes washer, you probably realize that doing a load of laundry involves the use of one, two, or three energy-using appliances:

According to many writers, the most important step you can take to reduce the energy used to do a load of laundry is to switch from hot-water washing to cold-water washing. While following that advice will still…

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35 Comments

  1. David Fay | | #1

    what about the well pump?
    One thing everyone seems to overlook when looking at washing machines is the electricity needed to pump water from the well. At 40 gallons per cycle for older washing machines and 300 loads per year, that's 12,000 gallons of water that must be pumped in a year just to do the wash. Yes, it only applies to those of us that have wells, and yes, it's probably not a lot of electricity, but it would be nice to see some accounting for this in the analyses.

  2. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Response to David Fay
    David,
    You're right, of course; rural homeowners often use electricity to bring water into their homes. The energy required for this purpose varies widely, from no energy at all if you have a gravity-fed spring, to significant amounts of energy if you have a very deep well (say, more than 600 feet deep).

    Estimates of typical energy use for residential deep-well submersible pumps vary; according to one source, a typical range is 15 to 30 kWh/month; according to another source, 60 kWh/month is more typical. That gives us range of 180 kWh to 720 kWh per year, or about $25 to $100 per year.

  3. Matt Dirksen | | #3

    "carbon footprint" of city water
    Hi Martin,

    It's great to hear that washers (and heat pump driers) are getting more efficient, more reliable, and more accessible. But your article got me thinking. In the spirit of understanding "total energy use", I was wondering if you had any recent data on on the amount of energy used by public utilities to bring us fresh water (and to treat it through the sewage system?)

    I kind of recall reading once that the carbon footprint of fresh tap water was rather high, and tends to be overlooked when thinking about total energy consumption.

    thanks!

  4. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #4

    Response to Matt Dirksen
    Matt,
    The amount of energy required to deliver a gallon of municipal water is all over the map -- from very little in New York City (which has a water system that is pressurized by gravity) to very significant in California.

    There are lots of documents discussing the issue -- especially for California, which may be the worst-case scenario. Here are some links:

    ENERGY DOWN THE DRAIN: The Hidden Costs of California’s Water Supply: "The amount of energy used to deliver that water to residential customers in Southern California is equivalent to approximately one-third of the total average household electric use in the region."

    California's Water-Energy Relationship

    Water-Energy Connection

  5. User avater
    Armando Cobo | | #5

    The things that make me go ummmhhh!...
    So, for those folks that dry their clothes outside, has anyone calculated the energy used in ironing clothing and linen? How about lost revenue to a client that thought your shirt looked like was cleaned in the back of your pickup truck? How about lost quality time with your children because you have to spend hours and hours ironing? Also, that time can be used to help your kids with their homework; or maybe those folks abuse their kids making them do the ironing, eh?... I guess I better stop ummmhhing!

  6. Aj Builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a | | #6

    Mold
    Front loaders.... mold issues The good, bad and ugly, of progress.

  7. Robert Connor | | #7

    We must have used more energy for clothes in the 50s
    That was back when everybody dressed sharp. You really don't need to worry that much about energy for ironing now because most clothes have some polyester that helps resist wrinkles and people dress more casually. Back in the 50s it was all cotton and everyone, at least in the movies, was a sharp dresser.

    Armando, if you really are concerned about energy, then why have kids? The most energy hungry activity any human can do is create children. Having 1 child will increase your carbon score by a factor of 6!

    Oh, and I find that hot water is necessary for most clothes but by the time it gets into a front loader it is barely warm. Some FL have heaters but they take a long time. Cold water does not remove odors.

  8. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #8

    Response to A.J. Builder
    A.J.,
    Your reference to "mold issues" confuses me. What problems have you experienced?

    Are your clothes moldy? Is your laundry room moldy?

    Why do you think that your washing machine is to blame for your mold problems?

  9. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #9

    Response to Armando Cobo
    Armando,
    Like Robert, I think that your worry about ironing is a red herring. People who want the crisp, ironed look for their clothes are probably going to continue to iron their clothes, whether they use a clothes dryer or a clothesline.

    And people who don't need a very crisp, ironed look -- or who buy clothes that don't require ironing -- aren't likely to pull out an iron just because they use a clothesline instead of a dryer.

  10. Bob Holodinsky | | #10

    Reliability vs. cost
    I have been in the appliance industry for over 3 decades and my unofficial observation is the hefty price of the front load washing machines wipes out any savings on water advantage .It was not uncommon for a conventional washer to last 15 to 20 years with very little service. That does not seem to be the case with the front loaders ..The prices may have fallen but the quality has changed as well......any one else have some insight on this? ..regards,Bob

  11. User avater
    Armando Cobo | | #11

    Really???
    With all the Political Correctness nowadays, does anyone understands Satire anymore?

  12. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #12

    Response to Armando Cobo
    Your wit was too dry, Armando. I just assumed that your were a sharp dresser.

  13. Aj Builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a | | #13

    "Front load washer mold"
    Search

    Another issue, tangled contents, variable wash time, wash times going toward endless if the machine senses not ready for high speed rinse.....

    Early adopter issues.... They are improving.

  14. Robert Connor | | #14

    Also, a bigger issue
    I assumed Armando has kids because he refers to them. Having one child will much more than wipe out any savings of energy anyone does with efficient cars and appliances. In fact, the worst gas guzzling, SUV driving, steak every day eating, fly on vacations and cigar smoking single guy has less of a carbon score than a father. Why do all these energy improvements if you go and have multiple kids?

    It would be interesting to know about the carbon footprint of different. Cotton uses a lot of water to create and has to be ironed. But back in the 70s there was a lot of polyester and isn't that made out of oil. But leisure suits never needed ironed and John Travolta's white polyester suit from Saturday Night Fever is still in some closet in Hollywood, without a wrinkle. Also, I think dry cleaning must be an environmental disaster so do people who have to dress up in offices do worse for the environment.

    Martin, I know you don't have much of a carbon footprint because after your avatar, you are so not a sharp dresser!

  15. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #15

    Mold problems in some front-loading washers
    A.J.,
    Thanks for alerting me to the problem of mold growth in some models of front-loading clothes washers. I was unaware of the issue before your comment sent me Googling.

    Here is the summary: Some front-loading washers sold between 2001 and 2008 had design problems that allow mold to grow in the machines. If you are worried about this problem, don't buy a used front-loader; buy a new one.

    The good news is that appliance manufacturers have made design changes that experts say have eliminated the mold issue in the newest machines.

    The best article on the issue was published by Consumer Reports. Here is the link: How to prevent smelly mold buildup in front-loading washers.

    For more information on a class-action lawsuit -- apparently unsuccessful -- see Is your washing machine growing hidden mold?

    Kimberley Mok, a blogger at the Treehugger website, shares her experience with front-loader mold problems and expensive repairs in an article called Lawsuit over front-load washers may drive consumers back to energy-wasting models.

  16. Keith H | | #16

    Mold issues: two anecdotes
    Until recently I owned a ~2005 Kenmore (made by Frigidaire I believe). It consistently experienced moldy odor. Clothes could not be left in it after the cycle for even an hour, if you cleaned the pump and evacuation tubing of the machine (required at least 2x a year) you would find a brown bio-film sludge. To call it mold would be a kindness. I now own a 2010 GE. It seemed great initially. Eventually the pump burned out and the service tech replaced it with a whirlpool pump (looked like the same design as the frigidaire) for availability and cost. And lo, the mold odor returned.

    The upshot here is that I suspect the cheaper end of the front loaders are still experiencing the same issues. Caveat emptor.

  17. Keith H | | #17

    New small agitator high efficiency top loaders
    Martin,

    During your research, did you find any good information on the energy use of the new 'high efficiency' top loaders or their wear and tear factor on clothing?

  18. Keith H | | #18

    AJ: Tangled contents is a red herring + clothing life energy
    AJ,

    Assertions that front loaders somehow tangle or damage your clothing are a red herring. I've seen it with sheets, nothing else.

    IMHO, front loaders are an amazing upgrade in terms of clothes durability. SWMBO will not allow a top loader anymore because a decade of front loaders means that her business clothes don't really wear out anymore.

    Given what has to happen to produce clothing these days: extract oil from ground, make clothes (polyester) or pesticides (cotton), ship raw material to asia/etc, produce, ship back to US, ship to shiny lit heated retail space, drive to said store to purchase, then the whole discard waste stream. it seems to me that durability of clothing (at least for adults) should probably trump energy use of the machine.

  19. Jin Kazama | | #19

    on a few different thing here ...
    about MOLD issues ..
    MOLD is present in older models only if you do not wipe the front door seal area and leave the door closed all time ..
    Leave the front door open and it will help greatly.
    We've been using BOSCH front loader for 10 years + without any failures/problems.
    They are design from factory to last 10 yeasr @ 4 cycles per week or more .

    Then, why no mention of the make up air for the dryer ??
    At -25c outside temp ...it must hurt alot.
    Anyone ever run calcs on that factor ?

  20. Eric Sandeen | | #20

    On lost quality time
    Satire or no, there's no reason to lose quality time w/ the children over a clothesline. Time spent outside, with children helping do household chores in the fresh air, sounds like excellent quality time to me!

  21. Kevin Dickson, MSME | | #21

    LG Washer/Dryer Combo
    I have to mention my current favorite washing machine, which includes a ventless dryer.
    http://www.ajmadison.com/cgi-bin/ajmadison/WM3987HW.html#LG_Washer_Dryer_Combo_WM3987HW

    PROS:

    1. Saves valuable space in the house
    2. Saves having to move the laundry from the washer to the dryer
    3. No vent required

    CONS:
    1. Historically, these combos don't dry as well as people expect, but this one gets good marks
    2. Although it is a condensing dryer, it would be more efficient if it were a heat pump condensing dryer.

  22. Sean McGrath | | #22

    http://www.laundry-alternative.com/product/Spin-Dryer
    The web site says: "3200 rpm spin dryer gets clothes nearly dry in only 2-3 minutes. removes much more water and detergent from the clothes than a conventional washing machine spin cycle. much gentler on clothes compared to a tumble dryer and nearly 100 times as energy efficient. highly portable, only 22 lbs. and no hookup required."

    They don't say how much energy it uses. For a load washed in a 25 year old top loader I get 1/2 to 1 quart of water extracted per load and my old gas dryer time is less than half.

  23. Ed Dunn | | #23

    Durability
    I bought my first front loader in about 1997. It lasted 10 years before it became completely unrepairable. The repairman told me that the front loaders he noticed typically last only that long versus the top loaders going twenty. Not very sustainable. Anyone else run into this problem?

  24. Daniel Gonzalez | | #24

    Stats are off the Charts
    When it comes to buying appliances that cost this much, I believe people should be taking a little longer to buy them. Now according to your stats, I simply find outstanding that

    1. the energy saving machines don't save on electricity, just mostly on the water (they should be more explicit).

    2. the dryers are the bulk of the energy consumption.

    I'm wondering what are things that can be put in place besides putting clothes on a line to dry that will save a little bit on time but also not waste so much energy. I know that when it comes to washers, I found that front loading has been (as of lately based again on your data) better than the top loading washers when it comes to energy. Thank you for writing this article, quite insightful!

  25. Carl Fosler | | #25

    I just bought a new washer
    I just bought a new washer and dryer to replace my 25 year old units, but I normally only do one or two loads a week, so I'm sure that help extend their life. I replaced my washing machine with one of the Consumer Reports better rated machines, a EnergyStar 3.7 cu. ft Kenmore steam front-load washer #41372, with Accela-Wash™ option (Accela-Wash wash cycle is 38 minutes instead of the standard 60 minutes). As I understand it, this model is based on LG's Turbo Wash models but with a better interface. After checking the EnergyGuide, my yearly cost at my usage level was only a couple of dollars a year, but I worry that the machine "phantom load” might be more then my usage cost, so I hook up my KillaWatt to see. I found that after I turn the washing machine off, I had a "phantom load” of 7 watts, but I found that it turn itself off after 75 seconds. I just check, and found that the machine has NO measurable “phantom load” since the last wash more then a week ago, so it looks like in this model, they have fixed the "phantom load" problem. Not sure why it delays shutting off for more then 60 seconds, unless power is needed in other models that use the same electronics. Too bad I didn't put the KillaWatt on my old washing machine before I replaced it, so I would know how much I'm really saving.

    Another factor that Martin doesn't talk about, new machine actually measure the size of the load at the start of the cycle, and then change the washing cycle depending on the load size. I have only done two loads since I put the KillaWatt on, but they only used 0.11 and 0.09 kWh per load, (both more then half, second smaller then first load), so it seems to use less energy depending on the load size.

    I bought the matching Kenmore dryer, so I'm guessing it has the same more then 60 seconds delay before shutting off, but since it an electric dryer with 220 hookup, I don't have a way to measure it power usage.

  26. Joe M | | #26

    Don't use washing machines at all!
    We live in a backwards society. Where someone not far away is looking for a golden opportunity to make a profit off of YOU. Even the so called "green" movement is increasingly about money. Until you "live it" you have no idea what green is really about. I personally live it every single day. Off the grid.

    For over a year, I, my wife, and 3 kids have been washing our clothes using only plastic blue tubs bought from Lowes fairly cheap. One for wash. And one for rinse. We have a nearby creek that runs clear and all year long. All it takes is a stroll down the hill and into the creek with our pull behind cart. Filled with gallon jugs. We buy our drinking water and save the jugs. And they really add up.

    It takes about 12 jugs for each tub. And we can do 3 loads of clothes from that. Its all done by hand. We manually agitate the clothes on and off over the course of 2 hours. So they soak for awhile. Then agitate. Then soak. And so on. By the end of the 2 hours, they are clean. We ring them out by hand and put them in the rinse tub. Swish it around for about 5 minutes. Then ring again and hang.

    Repeat the process 3 times. Each time adding a single jug of water to replace what was lost. We add a little soap each time to replace that too. So that is 27 gallons of water total for 3 big loads of clothes.

    Someone gave us a fairly new washing machine to use in the winter time until we got our house built. I tested it out with a generator by doing a "small" load. It took 15 jugs to get the washer to wash the small load which consisted of a towel, 2 shirts, 1 pajamas, and 3 rags. Seems like much of the water sets below the tub wasting space. When it came time to rinse, i dumped 4 jugs in and agitated it by hand, then hit the spin cycle. I'd had enough of such wasting of resources. Not only does it use way too much water. But it uses up electricity you have to pay for.

    Clearly we live in a backwards society full of laziness. All the labor I spend washing clothes by hand keeps me fit. It seemed hard a year ago. But its a piece of cake now. I cannot imagine not doing it. Anyone who calls "Energy Star" appliances green clearly has never worked a day in their life. Try living my life. You will find out that society knows nothing about living green Our ancestors knew over a 100 years ago. And they were the reason why we didn't see today's technology 1000 years ago. Because people were taught to live by necessity. If we did that now, we would see most of the technological junk of today vanishing. Because we don't need most of it. I drove by someone's house the other day and they were flying one of those $1000 drones above their yard. It hit a tree and broke. That's what is wrong with people today. They think money is everything and all they wanna do is sit on their butts and play with toys all day. Yeah. Its a backward society alright. You can't prove me wrong.

  27. User avater
    Dana Dorsett | | #27

    Try that in a typical NYC condo.
    Seriously?

    20+ years ago I observed a woman in Korea carrying basket of laundry and an axe, headed out onto the ice on a river in the middle of winter to do the wash. I hope like hell she has a shiny LG or Samsung (and indoor plumbing) by now.

  28. User avater
    Stephen Sheehy | | #28

    Joe M.
    I hope you make your own soap.
    You buy drinking water? Probably spend more on drinking water than I do running the washer and dryer.
    Two people, two hours each. Four hours at minimum wage, that's $29.
    It is pretty green, though, I'll give you that.

  29. Aaron Gatzke | | #29

    Water jugs
    You are buying water?
    Now that is a lot of plastic waste generated from a family of five.

  30. Alan B | | #30

    Article brought back from the ages
    I'm surprised that Joe M went to the trouble of hunting the archives to find this article to comment on
    That said, is there an equivalent all about dryers article?

  31. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #31

    Response to Alan B
    Alan,
    Dryers? Use a clothesline!

    Seriously, though -- here is the link to the article you are seeking: Alternatives to Clothes Dryers.

  32. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #32

    Response to Joe M (Comment #26)
    Joe,
    OK, you've gotten a lot of responses. I'll take your comments seriously, since I used to live the way you do. (Although I did my laundry in a big sink indoors, using either cold water delivered by gravity from a spring above my house, or warm water heated on the wood stove. When my pipe froze, I melted snow to obtain water.)

    Green? Maybe. A quick analysis:

    You're using 9 gallons of water per load. That's better than an efficient washing machine that uses 12 gallons per load. So far, so good.

    You aren't using any electricity. That's good.

    The main issue is possible water pollution. If you use a biodegradable detergent (and I'm sure you do), that lessens the effect on downstream neighbors. But you'd need a biologist to tell you if your behavior is affecting water quality enough to be detrimental to fish populations.

    While it sounds like you aren't using purchased water to do your laundry, I'm sure that you realize that your trips to the store to buy all those plastic jugs of water for drinking aren't very green. So there's room for improvement there.

    Finally, there are the practical issues. Stephen Sheehy mentioned one: Two hours? Really?

    (The corollary to the "two hours" problem is that when one of you ends up getting a job, the laundry task falls 100% on the shoulders of the unemployed spouse. For more information on this issue, see the history of feminism.)

    The other practical issue is snow.

    Good luck!

  33. User avater
    Dana Dorsett | | #33

    Hey, snow is nearly pure water, delivered to the house for free!
    :-)

    Again, if you want to snowshoe on down to the river with a bucket and an axe in hand to break a hole in the ice to fetch liquid water for your laundry, have at it. Everybody needs a hobby, and if it keeps you in shape, great!

    But not sharing your hobby doesn't automatically make the rest of the developed world using the power grid for those tasks "...a backwards society full of laziness." In most US urban areas (and in many downstream of agricultural runoff zones) that approach quickly becomes an environmental & public health disaster.

    "Our ancestors knew over a 100 years ago..." that water-borne pollution & diseases spread quickly in high density areas. Care to wash your clothes in water drawn from the Hudson by Pier 45 at the end of West 10th? (I dare ya! :-) ) How about if everybody in NYC (and everybody upstream) were washing their clothes in the Hudson?

    Managing the water resources for urban areas is a big job, but in the grand scheme it's sustainable (or can be) and for the most part healthy, (recent mismanagement of Flint Michigan's water supply & infrastructure notwithstanding.)

  34. Tyler Keniston | | #34

    bigger machines earning more efficiency points?
    If I have learned anything from this article it probably would be that getting picky about washing machine efficiency stats should not be at the top of my to-do-list when greening a home, or even a laundry room.

    That said, if and when in the market for a new machine, I would like to use the numbers to be able to make accurate comparisons.

    What I am confused by is how the size of the machine (volume) affects its MEF and WF rating since both get better green points when the size is large proportional to electricity and water use. Economy of scale at work IF we wash the right amount of clothes in the right size machine, but what if we put the same load regardless.

    Does it stand to reason that a larger machine that uses more water than a smaller machine will still be more efficient regardless of load size? Or does it all hinge on putting a bigger load in a bigger machine?

    Imagine the scenario at the extreme: A machine the size of my entire basement that uses bath tubs of water, yet a small amount in respect to the size of my basement (due to it being a ratio, it earns big MEF points and small WF points.) Do these numbers all hinge on an assumption that a larger machine will be filled more, therefore wash more clothes with the represented efficiency? Certainly if I put a standard load of my weekly clothes in the basement sized machine (even though it has great MEF and WF stats) it would be grossly inefficient, no?

    Am I just missing something?

  35. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #35

    Response to Tyler Keniston
    Tyler,
    No energy-efficiency formula is perfect, and I think that you have correctly identified one of the weaknesses of the MEF and WF formulae. The lesson for homeowners: Don't buy a washing machine with a larger capacity than you need.

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