Is Your Washer Politically Incorrect

Is Your Washer Politically Incorrect

August 16, 2000
Originally published in The Chicago Sun-Times

The federal government thinks your clothes washer is contributing to global warming and is going to make you do something about it.

Over the past few years, conventional washing machines have become politically incorrect. Federal bureaucrats and government-funded environmental activists have spent millions of tax dollars critiquing them.

They determined that the popular top loading design uses too much water and, more importantly, too much, energy to heat that water. Energy use, particularly fossil fuels burned by utilities to provide residential electricity, results in emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Thus, the Department of Energy believes that, among other environmental evils, these energy-guzzling washers "contribute to raising the global temperature via the greenhouse effect."

The feds prefer front-loading washing machines. Government studies conclude that these horizontal axis designs (usually loaded through a door on the front of the machine, like at Laundromats) consume less energy, and reduced energy use means reduced carbon dioxide emissions.

Unfortunately for them, front loaders remain unpopular with consumers. In addition to costing several hundred dollars more than top loaders, front loaders have certain performance drawbacks, such as longer cycle times. Today, they compose less than 10 percent of the American market.

So, if most people don't want front-loading washing machines, what Can Washington do, mandate them?

Well, yes. DOE, under authority delegated to it in the 1987 National Appliance Energy Conservation Act (NAECA), can set energy efficiency requirements fo• clothes washers and most other household appliances. DOE recently announced new standards that will effectively regulate new top loaders out of existence over the next several years.

Even assuming the global warming rationale is justified, there are serious doubts that a nation of front-loading clothes washers really will use less energy. More than a dozen federal energy efficiency standards for other household appliances have been enacted in the past decade.

As with the new clothes washer rule, each of these standards was predicted to single-handedly save vast quantities of energy. In reality, the conservation effects have been negligible—indeed, per capita energy use has actually risen over the span that these standards took effect.

"People always seem to find more uses for energy," said energy analyst Herbert Inhaber, author of Why Energy Conservation Fails.

If the justification for these supposedly eco-friendly appliances is so weak, then who is supporting DOE's rule? Clearly, it is not consumers. Those who prefer front loaders are free to go out and buy them.

The rule will only serve to force that choice on the rest of us. "It is distressing to see the federal government treating the consumer preference for top loaders as an obstacle to be overcome through mandates," says Fran Smith, director of Consumer Alert, a Washington-based consumer group.

Energy efficiency standards can only be explained by special interest politics. The proposed Washing machine standard is supported by a coalition of DOE bureaucrats and federally funded advocacy groups who make their living from the efficiency game.

Ironically, the process of creating an appliance efficiency standard is itself a marvel of inefficiency, requiring 34 discrete bureaucratic steps unfolding over the span of several years.

New rules for window air conditioners and refrigerators (their third) were recently finalized, and standards for water heaters and central air conditioners are nearing completion. Useful or not, this keeps a lot of Washington paper pushers employed.

Appliance manufacturers also support DOE's new rule, which will give them a guaranteed market for pricey front loaders that would otherwise remain slow sellers. Producers admit that they don't even have to worry' about consumer satisfaction with front loaders, since the public would no longer have a choice.

A spokesman for one major manufacturer conceded that "selling it in the marketplace is easy, if there's a standard in place. It's not a matter, necessarily, of consumer acceptance."