Suds or Duds: Green Your Laundry Room

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An Energy Star, front-loading clothes washer uses half the energy and one-third the water of conventional top-loading washing machines.

The average American washer swallows 40 gallons per load–more than one-fifth of the average total household water use. Exceeded only by the refrigerator, conventional washers and dryers top the list for home energy consumption. Fortunately, it’s easier to green a laundry room than to get rid of a blueberry stain.

Washing machines: The laundry list

If your old washer has died, the best replacement is one backed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Energy Star program. It will use 40 percent less energy and about half the water of a standard model. A front-loading, Energy Star-labeled washer saves even more.

Front-loading, or horizontal-axis, washers are more efficient because gravity helps distribute water and then pulls it back out of clothes. Less-wet clothes take less time in the dryer. Front loaders also require less detergent. The downside is that front-loaders generally cost a few hundred dollars more. If you’re tempted to buy a new “super efficient” top-loading model, know that most of them still don’t compete with front-loaders in efficiency or performance, but cost almost as much.

Two terrific tools for gauging washer efficiency are the Water Factor (WF) and the Modified Energy Factor (MEF). The WF measures the water used per cycle in gallons per cubic foot of washer space; for example, a 3-cubic-foot-capacity machine that uses 27 gallons per cycle has a WF of 9. The lower its WF, the higher the machine’s efficiency.

The MEF, which replaced the less comprehensive Energy Factor in 2004, considers energy used not just by the machine but also by the water heater for each cycle and by the dryer to remove the remaining moisture from the clothes. It’s a complex calculation that makes it simple for consumers: The higher the MEF, the more efficient the washer. The Environmental Protection Agency also has a “WaterSense” label it awards machines with great water efficiency.

Before 2007, the minimum MEF for an Energy Star washer was 1.42, and no WF was required. Now the MEF must be higher than 1.72 and the WF lower than 8. The WF and MEF are not always listed on the label, so you may want to research them before making a purchase.

Compared with an old 1994 model, a new Energy Star washer will save you about $110 a year on utilities. If you’re wondering how long it might take to recoup in utilities the extra money spent on a front-loading machine, the Energy Star website also has a handy Savings Calculator tool to help you compare models (see Resources on page 73).

Let it all hang out

If you live in a dry climate and enjoy lenient neighborhood covenants, then save energy and money by drying your clothes naturally. A clothesline saves energy–a lot if you use it all the time–and is gentler on fabric than a tumble in a hot dryer.

Dryer models differ little in energy consumption, and Energy Star does not label them for this reason. A moisture sensor is worth the extra money; it’s more energy-wise than a timer because it can shut the appliance off as soon as the laundry is dry.

Spin tips

Even if new laundry appliances aren’t in your future, you can drastically cut your energy and water consumption by putting a new spin on washday habits.

• Wash clothing less frequently. (Do you really need to launder jeans you wore to a movie for two hours?)

• Use the moisture sensor on the dryer instead of the timer.

• Dry similar types of clothes together. It’s not efficient to have already-dry lightweight undergarments tumbling around with still-wet heavy denims.

• Always do full loads. It takes the same amount of energy to power a half-empty machine as a full one, and if you can’t or don’t change the water-level setting, you’re wasting water, too.

• Use cold water for both wash and rinse cycles whenever possible. Modern detergents don’t require warm water to dissolve, and your clothes will stay brighter longer.

• Use an indoor clothes-drying rack for lightweight items or on rainy, cold or snowy days.

• Keep the dryer vent and lint filter clean. Fuzzy buildup traps moisture and decreases the dryer’s efficiency.

Rinse re-cycle

Donate your outdated yet still working washer or dryer to a thrift shop, charity or construction exchange. You also could give it away in the classified ads or on Freecycle.

Most landfills ban large appliances, but almost all appliances are now recycled for their steel and other components. To locate a recycler, call an appliance retailer or repair service, a metal salvage operation or your local landfill authority. Or go to Earth911 for a searchable list.

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