Monday, March 28, 2011

Greener Laundry -- 3 Ways to Green your Washing Machine


According to Energy Star, a joint program of the U.S. EPA and Department of Energy designed to help people find energy efficient products, the average house is responsible for twice the greenhouse gas emissions as the average car. If we make even modest changes in appliances and practices within our homes we can reap significant rewards towards a cleaner planet and reduced personal energy consumption.

Within the home the two most obvious places where we can change our behavior and significantly impact home energy consumption are the heating and cooling system and the laundry room. As to the former, simply changing the setting on our thermostat a few degrees can significantly reduce our carbon footprint and save money.

As to the latter, changing our laundry habits even a little bit provides homeowners with quite a bit of control in terms of energy efficiency and saving money. For example, says Celia Lehrman, deputy home editor for Consumer Reports Magazine, "Are people washing their clothes too often? We tend as a country to be fixated on wearing something for ten minutes and then I have to go wash it. That is a simple thing to fix."

Below we'll look at the three main areas of the laundry room--washing machine, detergent and dryer--as well as how a few simple changes in how we do laundry a planet friendly chore.

Greener Washing Machines

First, a few statistics to get the ball rolling: according to data compiled by a number of organizations used for this story, 80 percent of the environmental impact of clothing is in keeping them clean. Ninety percent of the energy consumed to wash clothes is used to heat the water for washing the clothes. Additionally, non-Energy Star rated washers use around 40 to 50 gallons of water per load while Energy Star rated washers use quite a bit less, around 18 or 20 gallons.

Given that the average home does between 350 and 400 loads of laundry each year, there is certainly room for improvement in terms of energy use and water consumption. This is all the more true in areas where utility and water rates can be rather high.

There are three types of washing machines--conventional top-loaders, these have a large agitator in the middle; high-efficiency top-loaders, these don't have an agitator and use less water than conventional models; and front-loader washers, these tend to be the most water and energy efficient.

According to Lehrman, front-loaders are the best of the three for a few reasons. The first is that they use less water, which also means they require less energy to heat the water. They also have a much faster spin cycle, which extracts more moisture from the clothes thereby requiring less time in the dryer.
However, she warns consumers need to be careful when purchasing one of these washers, "Because they spin so much faster some models can vibrate quite a bit, which is one of our testing parameters," says Lerhman. "We rate for noise and vibration, and we started using vibration because we got a lot of complaints from readers that these washers would shake everything in the room if they were not on a concrete floor such as in a basement."

In general, adds Lehrman, when purchasing a new washer, consumers should look for an Energy Star rating. "They will not only use less energy, but also tend to spin more water out of the laundry so that clothes spend less time in the dryer. Drying actually can be more expensive than washing clothes, especially if you wash in cold water rather than hot because you're not paying to heat the wash water."
Lehrman also notes there are a number of manufacturers coming out with machines that include an Eco-cycle, usually a setting that reduces energy consumption and water use. However, these cycles can't be used on heavily soiled clothes and they also can't be used in tandem with some of the other settings on the machine.

For those seeking the most energy efficient machines, it is important to take a look at Energy Star's ratings.

Maria Vargas, a spokesperson for Energy Star, says there are two measurements to keep in mind. The first is the Modified Energy factor (MEF), which is a metric used to compare the relative efficiencies of different clothes washers--the higher the MEF, the better. Essentially the MEF measures the energy used to run the washer, heat the water and run the dryer. The minimum MEF for an Energy Star rating is 1.8.

The other issue is the Water Factor (WF), which measures the water efficiency of the machine by calculating the gallons of water used per cubic foot of capacity per load. The minimum for an Energy Star rating is 7.5.

In general, says Vargas, an Energy Star rated washing machine will use 30 percent less energy and at least 50 percent less water than a non-rated machine. "Overall," she says, "these ratings are intended to demonstrate not just the energy efficiency, but that they are cost-effective to use."

Vargas also points out that with the average lifespan of washing machines having greatly expanded over the past few years, "Every time someone makes a purchase that is not Energy Star rated, it is a missed opportunity for a decade or more because these appliances last so long."

It is also important to note that washing machine manufacturers are working hard to come up with the next best green innovations for their products. For example, says Heather Gordon, a spokesperson for Bosch Home Appliances, their line of energy efficient machines includes three important features.
The first is what the company calls ActiveWater. According to Bosch, this feature allows the washer to deliver the same cleaning effectiveness with 13 gallons of water that other models deliver using 400 gallons. The key technology is a sensor that calculates the amount of water required to clean the clothes. The company also has what it calls a Jet Dispenser that also uses a sensor to detect how much detergent is required based on the size of the load. The third technology is 3-D Water Flow, which circulates water through the outer drum of the washer, door nozzle and back panel. This saturates the clothes quickly and evenly reducing water use during the wash cycle.

Additionally, says Gordon, Bosch washers and dryers are made in North Carolina as opposed to overseas and the company uses recycled materials in these products. This reduces emissions during assembly and shipping.

Whirlpool also has a handful of nifty innovations for the green washer, says Doug Feingold, a spokesperson for the company. The first of these is an Eco-Monitor that provides consumers with an instant rating--from good to best--describing how eco-friendly the selected cycle settings are. There is also EcoBoost, which enhances resource efficiency by adjusting water temperatures and mechanical energy.

These are just a few of the branded innovations making their way to market, and while they may sound great, they do not come cheap. Bosch's eco-friendly appliances range from $1,000 to more than $1,500. Whirlpool's eco-friendly washers range from about $700 (manufacturer's suggested retail price) to upwards of $1,400 depending on brand and model (Whirlpool also manufactures Maytag and Amana brands).

Even with rebates from manufacturers and state and federal governments, washing machines with the full range of eco features are expensive without much relief in sight.

Detergents

While the washing machine may hold the key to an efficient laundry cycle, the detergent can help reduce the actual pollutants being flushed into the waste stream. According to Consumer Report's Lehrman, launderers can look either to an eco-friendly product, such as those manufactured by Seventh Generation and other specialty producers, or reexamine the detergent they already use.

"Are people using the right amount?" she asks. "Overdosing with detergent is a big problem. Detergents today are far more concentrated than in the past and the problem is that when you use too much, residue will remain on the clothes. Also, if you use a newer washing machine with a soap sensor, it will detect more sudsing and extend the cycle time, which uses more energy and is tougher on your clothes.
"People are very used to simply filling the cap and then pouring that in, but you only really need a very small amount; what in some instances may seem like not enough."

Lehrman goes on to add that it is important to look at the fill line on the cap and follow the directions accurately. The point to concentrated detergents is to reduce the amount entering the waste water, but this is negated if people fail to follow directions.

There is also the issue of washing clothes in cold water in order to avoid the cost and energy associated with heating water. Some people may think that this reduces effectiveness, but there are a number of detergent brands on the market specifically designed for cold water washing.
"We have tested several, such as Tide 2X Ultra for Cold Water, and it did very well in our tests as did others," says Lehrman. "Also, use high-efficiency detergent in machines that require it, otherwise the machine has to rinse more to get the suds out."

In terms of eco-friendly detergents, Lehrman says the quality and effectiveness depends on the brand. "We have had some that do quite well, such as Kirkland and Seventh Generation," she says, "but when you get further down the list, some did not do so well at all so it is really hit or miss."

She adds that effectiveness and quality of wash are important considerations when it comes to these detergents. "If you go with a more eco-friendly detergent, but are washing clothes more because they aren't getting clean, this is not an overall benefit for the environment or very energy efficient," she says.
Asked why regular detergents are so wrong and Seventh Generation's products are so right, Martin H. Wolf, Director, Product Sustainability & Authenticity for Seventh Generation, says "This shouldn't be characterized as right versus wrong. Seventh Generation has a different philosophy to the design of its products than do conventional companies."

In part, this design philosophy, he says, includes not using any volatile organic compounds (VOCs) whereas standard detergent manufactures include at least some VOCs. Instead, the company uses plant-based ingredients to produce it products. "If an ingredient poses a risk to the environment, conventional companies may continue to use it as long as the ingredient is not restricted by law," says Wolf. "[The] use of plant-based ingredients has environmental advantages, though few conventional brands limit their formulas to plant-based ingredients.

"Thus, the Seventh Generation product design philosophy is to provide a cost-competitive, premium performance product while providing the lowest possible level of risk to the consumer and the lowest impact on the environment. Is Seventh Generation the right cleaner to use? It isn't about right or wrong. It's a question of what the consumer values. We provide choice and it is up to the consumer to decide."
Wolf adds that his company designs its detergents for use in cold water.

Dryers

As compared to washing machines and the various detergent choices, dryers represent a challenge in terms of reducing their environmental impact.

"We don't rate dryers," says Energy Star's Vargas. "The EPA has established Energy Star as a means to effectively differentiate products that are more energy efficient and cost effective, which requires a leap in technology between an Energy Star rated product and one that isn't. There is no leap between dryers."

Lehrman agrees, saying that the technology for dryers hasn't changed dramatically over the past few years. "The earth-friendly thing you can do is not trade your dryer in until it is exhausted in order to save on waste. Get your full use out of it," she says.

This is not to say that companies are not trying to make dryers more efficient. Both Whirlpool and Bosch have various brands and models that include a range of strategies to increase energy efficiency such as moisture sensors, using higher heat so clothes dry more quickly or lower heat with a longer tumble, and so on.

"However, the problem is that most of the models that have these options cost a lot of money--$900 to $1,200," says Lehrman. "So even though it could save about $40 per year, it would take a particularly long time to earn that extra money back or save money over the life of the dryer."

Both Lehrman and Vargas suggest using a washer that thoroughly spins the moisture out of clothes and making sure dryer vents are unblocked as common sense and inexpensive ways to up energy conservation. Making sure a vent is not blocked with lint is also a good way to prevent a fire.

There is one other option that will completely eliminate the energy use of a dryer --- a clothesline.
Colleen Vanderlinden is a writer and air drying aficionado who says that with a few common sense steps people can just as easily dry clothes on a line. "One of the benefits of air drying," she says, "is that clothes will last longer because there is less wear and tear on the fibers. I've also found I do less ironing because the clothes don't get tangled together in a rotating dryer drum."

Her tips include:
  • Jeans: These can be tricky to dry because denim tends to stiffen. To resolve this dilemma put about one-half to three-quarters of a cup of distilled vinegar in the rinse cycle of the wash. The vinegar will act like a fabric softener and the smell goes away as the jeans dry. This same trick can be used for towels. You should also shake items out, just a little, before hanging them.
  • Sheets: These can be a problem due to their size. To keep them from dragging while on the line fold them in half--this is the only time she recommends this--and hang them on the line. Sheets are fairly thin so they should dry fine.
  • Dress Shirt: These can be tricky if you want to avoid ironing. Hang them with clothespins from the hem (upside down) and pull the fabric taught as you pin them on the line. You can also place the damp dress shirt on a plastic or wool hanger and hang that on the line.
  • Avoid Stretching: You want to be careful not to stretch clothes--especially t-shirts and cotton blouses. Hang them from the hemline or folding them across the line as flat as possible.
Vanderlinden also says that air drying is not just a warm weather strategy. Dry basements and other areas can be used as temporary drying areas through the winter and in rain.

General Green Washing Suggestions

The following should help as well:
  • Wash in non peak hours--saves money and these are times when more efficient, less dirty power plants are operating. Peak hours are when utilities bring peak plants online and these tend to be dirtier and less efficient.
  • Set the correct wash size--this will determine how much water is used so for smaller loads you want to use less water.
  • Wash in cold water - heating water for wash makes up about 90 percent of the energy used.
  • Replace an older washer with a new model of at least average efficiency. According to AHAM, clothes washers use on average 64 percent less energy since 2000 while tub capacity has increased by 9 percent.
  • Choose a washer with a faster spin speed. This will reduce drying time.
  • Choose washer with more energy saving settings for wash and rinse cycles.

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