Say Goodbye to Your Washing Machine

The federal government thinks your clothes washer is contributing to global warming, and the feds intend 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, only to determine the popular top-loading design (also called vertical axis, because the agitator is in the vertical position) 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 (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, 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 comprise 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.  Under authority delegated to it in the 1987 National Appliance Energy Conservation Act, DOE can set energy efficiency requirements for clothes washers and most other household appliances.  And on May 23, the department announced new standards that will effectively regulate top-loaders out of existence over the next few years.  


Even assuming the global warming rationale is justified, there are serious doubts that a nation of front-loading washers will really 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 time-span that these standards took effect.  “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 appliances is so weak, then who is supporting DOE’s rule?  Not consumers.  Those who prefer front-loaders are free to go out and buy them.  The rule will only serve to limit choices for the rest of us.  “It’s distressing to see the federal government treating 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—and a member of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Board of Directors.


Energy-efficiency standards can be explained only 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.  At any given time, numerous standards are at various stages in this lengthy pipeline.  New rules for window air-conditioners and refrigerators (their third go-round) were recently finalized, and standards for water heaters and central air-conditioners are nearing completion.  Useful or not, this exercise keeps a lot of Washington paper-pushers permanently employed. 


Several 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 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.”      


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


Ben Lieberman ([email protected]) is a policy analyst with CEI.