Whether you want to protect the environment or protect your clothes from wear and tear, high-efficiency washing machines are picking up momentum in the marketplace. Although they tend to cost quite a bit more, high-efficiency machines are guaranteed to save you some cash on your electric and water bills, and they're widely regarded to get clothes cleaner than traditional washers.
In the U.S., the washing machine revolution began in the mid-1990s, when the Department of Energy (DOE) updated its standard of power consumption for household appliances and the federally sponsored Energy Star program began certifying washing machines. According to the Soap and Detergent Association, about 15 percent of American households had made the switch to energy-efficient washers by 2005.
Efficiency, under the new guidelines, refers not only to the amount of electricity it takes to power the washing machine itself; it's also a measure of the amount of energy used to heat the water and the energy needed to dry the clothes. Washing machines score points by using less water and by getting the clothes dryer in the spin cycle, so that they don't need to spend as much time in the dryer.
The American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists reports that, on average, 80 percent of the energy used by a washing machine goes toward heating the water, so it makes sense that high-efficiency models use less water. Because they use less water, high-efficiency washers require special laundry detergent that is specially formulated to produce fewer suds than normal detergent -- leaving no residue on clothes.
Because of lower water levels, clothes tumbling in and out of the water naturally create more suds than traditional washing machines. If you use normal detergent in a high-efficiency washer, it could produce too much suds, and possibly even flood the machine. Most major laundry detergent manufacturers offer high-efficiency products, and they're clearly marked with an "HE" label.
Read on to learn about how washing machines are constructed and some of the costs and benefits of purchasing a high-efficiency washer.
High-efficiency Washer Construction
Does doing laundry make you agitated? It shouldn't if you have a high-efficiency model, because this type of washer doesn't have an agitator -- a large protrusion shaped like a pillar or post in the center of the basin. When the tub of a traditional washer is filled with water, the agitator spins, moving its contents in a circular motion and against each other to create suds and clean the clothes.
Instead of using an agitator, high-efficiency machines spin and rotate the load in both clockwise and counterclockwise motions and at high and low speeds, so that garments rub against each other. In many front-loading washers, the centrifugal spin of the tub lifts clothes above the water level, and then drops them back into the water.
Most high-efficiency washers don't have to fill up with water for the rinse cycle, either. Instead, reports The Washington Post, they rinse fabric using high-pressure sprays, saving even more water.
When high-efficiency washers began hitting the market in the mid-1990s, they were all front-loading, meaning that they operate on a horizontal axis, much like a standard drying machine. Today, most major manufacturers offer both front- and top-loading high-efficiency washers. Most top-loading high-efficiency washers use a combination of spin cycles and either a wash plate at the bottom of the tub or a small agitator to create friction and clean the load.
Many newer models of high-efficiency washers also utilize cutting-edge "smart" technology, enabling the machines to detect the size of a load and the type of fabric, so they can run at optimal temperature and water levels. The Chicago Sun-Times reports that Kenmore is currently developing diagnostic technology for the company's high-efficiency washers that will enable customers to hold a cell phone up to the machine so it can connect with a technician's phone, telling the repairman what's wrong.
Benefits of High-efficiency Washers
Performance should be the most important factor in selecting a new washing machine, and most experts agree that high-efficiency washers are able to get clothes just as clean as, if not cleaner than, traditional washers.
Frayed and worn-looking jeans are still fashionable, but if you have a high-efficiency machine, you'll have to find another way to give your clothes that punk-rock look. High-efficiency machines are proven to put less wear and tear on fabric because they have gentler spin cycles. Unlike agitator-style washers, which actually beat the filth out of fabric, high-efficiency models toss and tumble clothes until they're clean.
Removing the agitator from the tub also creates more space, meaning that high-efficiency washers have greater capacity. Running fewer loads of laundry saves energy and water (and it can also mean less bending over, if you have a front-loader). Front-loading washers not only save space inside the machine; they can also have a dryer stacked on top of them, saving a few feet of floor space.
Because high-efficiency machines tend to have more customized settings, it's easier for users to find a setting that's right for a particular load, providing a better wash cycle. And although the wash cycle takes longer for high-efficiency machines, spin cycles remove more water from fabric, which allows for shorter drying times.
They also use less energy. All current Energy Star-rated machines are required to use 30 percent less energy than traditional models, and most high-efficiency washers use at least 50 percent less water. In some cases, the water level is so low that you can't even see it.
Problems with High-efficiency Washers
Although they've gained popularity over the past decade, high-efficiency washing machines certainly haven't been immune to consumer complaints. For years, owners of the machines have griped about noise, smells, mold and mildew problems, and even that clothes don't come out clean.
Among the complaints leveled against high-efficiency washers, the most common is that mold and mildew thrive around the rubber gasket on the door of front-loading machines. According to Consumer Reports, the problem has been so widespread that class-action lawsuits have targeted LG and Whirpool in recent years. Most washers have a small amount of water left in the tub after the wash cycle is finished, but it's more likely to evaporate with top-loaders.
One way to help prevent mold from developing is to keep the door of front-loading washers open so that excess water can evaporate. Another is to make sure to remove clothes promptly after the wash cycle is finished. Above all: Read the owner's manual, and be sure to use the proper detergent for your machine, says MSNBC's Herb Weisbaum.
Next on the list of customer complaints is noise. The spin cycles on high-efficiency machines are much faster and longer than traditional washers, and, depending on the make and model, the vibrations can be loud. There's no sure fix to the noise problem, but purchasing a thick mat to put under the machine can help absorb some vibrations.
Newer high-efficiency washing machines also tend to have many customized settings, but with the addition more high-tech features, there are more parts that can malfunction. Although some parts of the machine -- like the motor and the tub -- are often covered by long-term warranty, electrical components sometimes are not, and repairs are usually expensive.
Costs of High-efficiency Washers
When it comes to dollars and cents, the sticker price for high-efficiency machines is almost always higher than traditional washers, but because they conserve so much water and energy, they can save you money in the long run. A new high-efficiency machine can cost anywhere from $700 to more than $2,500 (compared to traditional machines that range from about $600 to $1,600). However, according to Energy Star, they can save you up to $135 each year in utility bills.
Forbes.com says that the average amount of time that most homeowners keep their washing machines is 12 to 13 years, and over that time, the savings provided by high-efficiency washers should more than cover the initial expense -- especially in places where water is more expensive.
The up-front cost of the washing machine tends to vary based on the quality and style, but it also depends how many customizable settings it has. You can save some cash by getting a more stripped-down model that doesn't offer as many special wash cycles.
Another way to save money when purchasing a new high-efficiency washer is through rebates. For the past several years, vouchers and rebates ranging from about $100 to $200 have been available to buyers of energy-efficiency appliances. The terms of federal and local rebate programs are subject to change, so use Energy Star's Special Offer/Rebate Finder to browse current deals.
As with any big-ticket purchase, high-efficiency washers have hidden costs in the form of repairs. You can save some cash on the initial purchase by forgoing the manufacturer's extended warranty, but it's possible that you'll end up paying more in the long run on repairs. If you do pass on the warranty, be sure to do your homework before pulling the trigger on a new high-efficiency washer to make sure there aren't any know problems with it.
For some useful links and lots more information about high-efficiency washers, read on.
- American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists. AATCC Technical Manual 2010 "High Efficiency Washers in North America." 2010.http://www.aatcc.org/testing/mono/docs/204-HiEfWash.pdf
- Department of Energy. "Energy Conservation Program for Consumer Products: Clothes Washer Energy Conservation Standards." Jan. 12, 2001.http://www1.eere.energy.gov/buildings/appliance_standards/residential/pdfs/clwshr_rule.pdf
- DiFulco, Denise. "Time to Say Bye to Washers of Old?" The Washington Post. April 2, 2009.http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/01/AR2009040100962.html?sid=ST2009040101121
- EnergyStar.gov. "Clothes Washers." 2010.http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?fuseaction=find_a_product.showProductGroup&pgw_code=CW
- Guy, Sandra. "The High-Tech Laundry Hookup." Chicago Sun-Times. Sept. 11, 2010.http://www.suntimes.com/technology/guy/2696684,CST-NWS-ECOL11.article
- Perratore, Ed. "Mold Can Be a Problem for Some Front-Loading Washers." Consumer Reports Home and Garden Blog. Aug. 28, 2008.http://blogs.consumerreports.org/home/2008/08/mold-on-washers.html
- Schiffman, Betsy. "The Energy Conservation Myth." Forbes. July 12, 2002.http://www.forbes.com/2002/07/12/0712home.html
- The Soap and Detergent Association. "High Efficiency Washers and Detergents." 2005.http://thecityofwillits.com/files/water%20conservation/High%20Efficiency%20Washers%20&%20Detergents.pdf
- Weisbaum, Herb. "The Clothes Are Clean … But What's That Smell?" MSNBC. MSN.com. Nov. 19, 2009.http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/33997384/