The Department of Energy Liberates Us from Clean Clothes

CEI doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with the editors of Consumer Reports (to put it mildly), but they do have a great feature in the current issue (subscription req’d.) on washing machines. In short, complying with recent energy efficiency regulations has produced washers that simply don’t work as well. Efficiency cheerleaders predicted that, given a few years to comply, we’d end up with cheaper, better machines and no performance trade-offs. They were wrong.

Normally we’re not ones to gloat, but CEI (and CR) predicted exactly this outcome:

The rule, which will take effect over the next six years, will supposedly increase clothes washer efficiency by 35 percent. New sensors will monitor the machines’ use of hot water, and faster spin cycles will wring out more moisture from laundry before it’s dried. The new machines will cost more, of course – about $670, compared to the current average of $421. DOE estimates that this price hike will be fully offset by the machines’ higher efficiency within five years of purchase.

But that depends on some very questionable assumptions. DOE used an extremely high estimate of more than seven laundry loads per week per household, yet a Mercatus Center survey found that less than a third of US households do this much laundry.

More dubious still is the assumption that these new models will be as reliable as the time-tested machines they’ll replace. Consumer Reports regularly warns against newer, “ultra-high efficiency” major appliances – because they tend to be trouble-prone.

This unfortunate outcome is especially relevant this week, as the Senate Commerce Committee prepares to consider increasing the severity of yet another federal efficiency mandate – the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules for new cars and trucks. More on the connection between the two here.