In a classic case of a government solution in search of a problem, Washington has for years set energy efficiency standards for home appliances. By now, refrigerators, air-conditioners, and many other appliances have been subjected to multiple rounds of successively tighter requirements from the Department of Energy (DOE). The Obama administration has taken this pre-existing regulatory blank check and run with it, finalizing standards for over 20 products. As might be expected, such arbitrary government mandates come at a cost — a higher purchase price for regulated appliances, but also compromised performance, features, and reliability. And the downside can easily swamp the often-modest energy savings. The regulations for clothes washers may be the worst of them all.
The clothes washer standards currently in force were promulgated in the final days of the Clinton administration. At the time, DOE estimated that they would raise the cost of a new washer by nearly $250, or 59 percent, and many questions about quality were left unanswered in the rush to regulate. In 2007, when the standard was fully phased in, Consumer Reports magazine noted that that some new models “left our stain-soaked swatches nearly as dirty as they were before washing,” and that “for best results, you’ll have to spend $900 or more.”
Washington’s response to its anti-consumer mistake? Even tougher standards. In 2007, President Bush signed a big energy bill that, among other things, required new clothes washer efficiency regulations by 2011. It also required DOE to consider revising them again — but only to make them more stringent. This has provided a perfect opening for the very aggressive Obama DOE — the same thinking that leads the administration to believe it can design better cars also extends to appliances. Yet another clothes washer rulemaking is in the early stages, this one to take effect in 2015.
Consumers benefit most not from government dictates but from freedom of choice. After all, anybody who really wants a super-efficient clothes washer is free to buy one, and federally-mandated energy use labels provide all the information needed to do so. Government standards simply force that choice on everyone, whether it makes sense or not. And it often doesn’t. For example, senior citizens, who do fewer loads of laundry than families, are even less likely to earn back the higher up-front cost in the form of energy savings.
Don’t expect appliance makers to fight back on behalf of their customers. Many manufacturers support these kinds of standards (while others seem resigned to their inevitability). After all, they skew the market towards more expensive models, and also give dissatisfied buyers little recourse, as non-compliant models are illegal to sell. Of the Clinton clothes washer rule, one appliance lobbyist said “selling it in the marketplace is easy, if there’s a standard in place. It’s not a matter, necessarily, of consumer acceptance.” Appliance makers are among those urging DOE regulators to set new standards for clothes washers, as well as many other appliances.
While some federal regulators are trying to reduce laundry-related energy use in this ham-fisted manner, other regulators may be stifling a better approach. Companies such as Proctor and Gamble, the makers of Tide, are making advances in detergents that work well in cold water. Since a good portion of the energy used in cleaning clothes is for heating the water, further progress that would allow most loads to be satisfactorily cleaned in cold water would likely save more energy — and at far less cost and hassle — than clothes washer efficiency standards. But new Environmental Protection Agency disclosure requirements may mean that the trade secrets behind these new detergents would have to be revealed — and thus could be copied by global competitors. This is a major disincentive to undertaking the cost of developing them in the first place.
Thus, we have one group of federal regulators reducing laundry-related energy use in a dumb way, while another group of regulators is working to thwart what could prove to be a smarter way — just more dirty laundry from Washington.