By Melissa Segrest
Green Right Now
Here’s some household math: The typical U.S. family spends almost $2,000 a year on utility bills. Of that, heating water consumes about $240, and appliances eat up $180. That average family also washes about 400 loads of laundry a year, according to federal statistics.
The washer and dryer are the second and third biggest energy-eating appliances in your house (after the refrigerator), and up to 90 percent of that energy is used to heat water. If you use hot water to wash clothes and warm water to rinse, you may be spending up to 10 times more money on that load than if you opted for a cold wash/rinse, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy says.
Which style of washing machine is the least energy efficient? The kind that you probably have – a top-loading model with an agitator in the center, which is the style that’s in 75 percent of homes today, according to Consumer Reports.
If your washer is more than 10 years old, a new Energy-Star rated washer could save $135 a year. Energy Star is the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy program that identifies the most energy-efficient appliances, and provides information for consumers.
Now that we know our old washing machines are sucking up energy, why is it so hard for us to toss the old energy gluttons? “A lot of people are aware of energy efficiency, but it’s very hard for Americans because we don’t want to throw things out that still work,” Maria Vargas of the federal Energy Star program said. (And many enviros say using something until it collapses can be greener than buying new. So no worries if that applies to you.)
WHEN IT’S TIME FOR A NEW MACHINE
When you think about buying a washer in particular, there are really two price tags: the one you pay up front, another that you pay over time to operate it.
There isn’t as much high-tech evolution in the dryer market, and no federal ratings because older models use about as much energy as new ones. However, newer dryers have sensitive moisture sensors inside the drum that will turn the dryer off when clothes are dry, an improvement over excessive drying that eats energy and wears out clothes.
Today’s greener washers can use about 30 percent less energy and 50 percent less water than your current one, the Energy Star website says.
Another way to look at it. A washing machine made between 1994 and 2003 probably uses about 904 kilowatt hours of electricity a year. A similar new Energy-Star rated machine would consume about 192 kilowatt hours annually, according to Whirlpool.
What do these new energy-efficient machines do differently?
Among their features:
- Automatic adjustment of the water level to fit the size of the load
- Front-loading washers are usually more energy efficient, but new top-loaded machines without the agitator also use less water than the older versions. Both gently swish and spin clothes through less water.
- Larger machines mean more clothes per load, which means fewer washings. Shorter washing cycles mean more loads washed in a day.
- Faster, longer spin cycles remove more water, which mean less dryer time (although that can result in tangled clothes).
- Fewer suds from “high efficiency” detergent means less water is needed and fewer potentially troublesome surfactants in the water.
There may be sales tax exemptions or credits, rebates and even recycling incentives for a new washer. Some states have their own efficiency standards and tax breaks/rebates. You can research on the rebate section of the Energy Star website. Retailers should also have information about rebates and trading in your old washer.
Among the new bells and whistles? Soil sensors, machines that assess the weight of the load and type of fabric, automatic temperature controls, more wash and rinse cycle options, higher quality lids or tops (stainless steel), automatic dispensers of detergent and fabric softener, steam cleaning, time-delays and touchpad controls.
Once you’ve decided what size washer and dryer you need, and your price range, start looking for labels.
Every new washer should have a big yellow EnergyGuide label that proves the appliance meets the minimum energy standards set by the federal government. The label offers two bits of information: A comparison of that washing machine’s energy use with similar washers, and an estimate of how much you will pay annually for energy to run the washer.
The second label to look for is the Energy Star, a designation for the most efficient machines. Only 25 percent of washers have the label, says Vargas. Early next year, Energy Star will raise the bar and require a higher level of efficiency before a washing machine can get their label.
The Energy Star program has its critics, including energy-efficiency and consumer groups, states and independent reviewers. After audits found Energy Star’s scrutiny of manufacturers’ claims were not stringent enough (several bogus products were submitted and received approval), the government said in April it would improve the certification process.
Despite the criticism, Energy Star ratings are among the few independent assessments of washer energy efficiency. So to understand those ratings, learn about two key terms:
Modified Energy Factor (MEF): The most important number, it represents the total amount of energy to run the washer, heat the water and run the dryer. The higher the MEF, the more efficient the washing machine. To get the Energy Star label, a washing machine must have a minimum MEF of 1.8. Top-rated washers have MEFs of 3.3.
The Water Factor is simpler. It shows how many gallons of water a machine will use based on its size for an average load. The smaller the Water Factor (WF) the more efficient the washer. The minimum WF for an Energy Star rating is 7.5 gallons. (The most efficient washers on the market have WF’s of only 2.65-2.7 gallons.)
MORE SHOPPING TIPS
Another rating system is from the Consortium of Energy Efficiency. It divides energy-efficient appliances into three tiers of “super efficiency,” two of which exceed Energy Star minimum requirements. You can look at their ratings online.
On the Energy Star website, start by narrowing the list with your preferences in size, type or brand. Then click “Find Clothes Washers” to reach the washer ratings. They appear in alphabetical order by manufacturer, but you can change the ratings to find washers with the highest MEFs and the lowest WFs.
Here you may run into some confusion, because the top five model numbers on the site don’t match model numbers in stores or online. That’s because three new Whirlpool and two new Maytag models aren’t in stores yet. They will arrive in October, according to a Whirlpool representative
Other model numbers also may not match up exactly with those in a store. That’s because model numbers can vary based on the retailer. Usually, the first four or more numbers/letters in the model number on the Energy Star site will correlate with the model number of the washer in the store.
If you’re not sure, ask the retailer or study the product information to see if it lists the MEF and WF ratings. Unfortunately, even that may not tell you whether the machine you are looking at is the same as the one on the Energy Star site — so the “star” could lose a little of its luster when you hit the store.
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