Politically Incorrect Washing Machines

Federal government officials think your clothes washer is contributing to global warming—and they are going to 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 (DOE) 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 like the machines in Laundromats consume less energy — and reduced energy use means reduced carbon dioxide emissions.

Unfortunately for them, front loaders remain unpopular with consumers. Today, they comprise less than 5 percent of the American market, and, despite heavy green hype over the last several years, DOE estimates that sales will increase only slightly. 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 standards for clothes washers, among other household appliances. And DOE is in the process of creating standards that would effectively regulate new top loaders out of existence in three years. The NAECA was initially enacted as a belated response to the energy crisis of the 1970s, but is now being used to advance the global warming agenda. Thus, they argue that front-loading washing machines and other efficient gadgets will use less energy and help curtail this potential disaster.

Even assuming the global warming crisis is not as spurious as the energy crisis, there are serious doubts that a nation of front loaders will use any less. energy. People always seem to find more uses for energy, notes energy analyst Herbert Inhaber, author of “Why Energy Conservation Fails!”

If the justification for these supposedly eco-friendly clothes washers is so weak, then who is supporting DOE’s proposed rule? Clearly, it is not consumers. Those who want front loaders are free to go out and buy them. The proposed rule would 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, executive 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, and the process that has created many others like it, 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 standards for window air-conditioners and refrigerators (their third) were recently finalized — and standards for fluorescent lamps, water heaters and central air-conditioners as well as clothes washers are nearing completion. This exercise keeps a lot of Washington paper pushers permanently employed.

Several appliance manufacturers also support DOE’s new proposed rule, which would 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.

Worse yet, the clothes washer rule is but one of hundreds of misguided federal micro-management schemes, including a growing number of global warming-inspired ones. In the aggregate, this market interference is taking a real toll on consumers.

The era of big government is definitely not over, but the era of top loading washing machines —and freedom of choice — apparently is.