The proposed rule would tighten the energy and water efficiency standards for residential clothes washers, despite the fact that the standards currently in effect are causing numerous problems for consumers. This includes diminished clothes washer features, performance, reliability, and useful life. The proposed rule would exacerbate these problems and thus violates the consumer protections built into the law. For these reasons, we believe the proposed rule should be withdrawn and that the Department of Energy (DOE) should shift its focus to addressing the drawbacks caused by the existing clothes washer standards.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute is a policy and analysis organization committed to advancing the principles of free markets and limited government. For over 20 years, we have participated in rulemakings conducted by the DOE regarding energy and water conservation standards for home appliances, including previous rulemakings on clothes washers.1 Our focus has been on ensuring that the consumer protections built into the underlying statute, the Energy and Policy Conservation Act of 1975 (EPCA)2, are given full weight by DOE in the rulemaking process. In our view, these consumer protections have frequently been downplayed or ignored by the agency when setting excessively stringent appliance efficiency standards that raise overall costs and/or compromise product quality, choice, and value.
Michael Mannino is an appliance service technician currently with Appliance Doctor in Apopka Florida. He received a two-year degree in Major Appliance Repair in 1980. He has serviced thousands of clothes washers since that time, both ones that predate DOE efficiency standards as well as ones that comply with them. Mr. Mannino participated in DOE’s March 28, 2023 public meeting on the proposed rule.
The Biden administration is in the process of proposing stringent energy efficiency standards for many home appliances, including furnaces, stoves, refrigerators, and dishwashers. It is also implementing final rules for air conditioners and light bulbs that take effect this year. This sweeping and aggressive approach to appliance regulations is explained in part by the administration’s “whole of government” prioritization of climate change considerations, which has been fully adopted by DOE.3 It is now standard practice for the agency to claim climate change benefits in its appliance rulemakings.
While each of the Biden administration’s appliance measures threaten to compromise product quality, choice, and value for consumers, perhaps most troublesome of all is the proposed rule at issue here for consumer clothes washers. As it is, the existing energy and water efficiency measures for clothes washers have caused widespread problems for consumers. The proposal to tighten these provisions would make things worse.
EPCA expressly forbids DOE from setting an efficiency standard that in any way compromises appliance quality, nor one that does not save a significant amount of energy and/or water. The statute also makes clear that the best interests of consumers take precedence over other considerations, including climate change. As will be discussed below, the proposed rule violates EPCA on all of these counts and should be withdrawn. Instead, the agency should use its authority under EPCA to fix the problems with the current clothes washer regulations.
- The Proposed Rule Exacerbates the Adverse Impacts of Regulations on Clothes Washer Quality
EPCA authorizes DOE to consider setting and periodically revising energy conservation standards for most home appliances, including clothes washers.4 Such standards are to be set so as to “achieve the maximum improvement in energy efficiency…which the Secretary determines is technologically feasible and economically justified.”5 It is important to emphasize that EPCA does not prioritize efficiency above all else in the standards-setting process. Instead, the statute contains a number of provisions protecting consumers from excessively stringent standards that may do more harm than good. Most relevant here is the provision in the law categorically prohibiting any new or amended standard if the Secretary finds, by a preponderance of evidence, that it is “likely to result in the unavailability in the United States…of performance characteristics (including reliability), features, sizes, capacities, and volumes that are substantially the same as those generally available in the United States at the time of the Secretary’s finding.”6 [Hereinafter the “features provision.”] This provision prohibits setting an efficiency standard that would sacrifice any desired product characteristics.
Unfortunately, a diminution in product quality has already occurred due to the previous efficiency standards applicable to clothes washers. Successively more stringent energy and water requirements took effect in 1994, 2004, 2007, 2015, and 2018. The 2007 and subsequent standards have been particularly problematic, and in several respects the quality of clothes washers has declined since then. Many of the problems stem from the fact that compliant models must use considerably less water per cycle, as well as the replacement of the traditional agitator in many models in favor of more efficient but less effective alternatives. These problems would be exacerbated by the proposed rule which would require further reductions in energy and water use.
The decline in clothes washer reliability and useful lifetime, especially since the 2007 standards, has been very evident to those who have serviced machines over that span, but it remains unacknowledged by the agency. Instead, DOE asserts that it has no need to look back at the actual performance of appliances complying with past standards and compare it the agency’s original expectations. In the agency’s words, as long as it uses “the best available data at the time,” it has no need to recognize any adverse impacts it did not anticipate when setting the earlier standards.7 Unfortunately, the agency continues to ignore real-world evidence that consumer utility has suffered.8
The history is very relevant to the proposed rule here. When DOE promulgated its 2007 standards in 2000-2001, it predicted minimal impact on the reliability and on the nearly 14-year average useful life of a clothes washers that prevailed at the time.9 However, commenters pointed out that compliance would necessitate a transition to newer, costlier, and more complex systems (front-loaders, agitator substitutes), all with no track record for reliability.10 Time has shown these concerns to be warranted. Expensive repairs, including ones within the first three years of purchase, are no longer uncommon. Of course, reliability and longevity of clothes washers are related, as it rarely makes sense to undertake repairs that cost half or more of the price of a new machine. These problems are likely to be exacerbated by the proposed rule.
Clothes washer performance has also suffered, but even the most common problems have been ignored by the agency. For example, neither the agency’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking nor its lengthy Technical Support Document make any mention of mold, but mold accumulation in clothes washers – which was virtually unheard of in pre-standards models – is now a common problem. This is particularly true of front-loading models since 2007. Not only does mold lead to unpleasant odors emanating from clothes washers and pervading the laundry, but it can compromise performance and even impart stains on washed items. Addressing it requires many consumers to periodically run the clothes washer empty with a cleaning agent designed to get rid of the mold.11 Such products have become strong sellers, which is evidence of how widespread the problem has become. And, as discussed in the next section, the need to occasionally wash the washer as well as the increased need to run some loads more than once adds to the energy and water use – one more reason why the real-world savings from these standards fall short of DOE’s projections.
Overall, mold problems are a time-wasting expense for consumers, and one that did not exist before DOE efficiency regulations. Yet the agency simply assumes away this issue as well as others that have emerged with regulated clothes washers and instead proposes to ratchet down further on the energy and water restrictions that caused them.
EPCA protects access to clothes washers that are as durable and long-lasting and perform as well as those available prior to federal regulations. The law is already being violated by current DOE regulations, and things would only get worse under the proposed rule.
- The Energy and Water Savings are not Significant
Along with the features provision, EPCA has another standalone requirement – separate from the agency’s balancing of factors that go into the determination of economic justification – precluding any new or amended standard “that will not result in significant conservation of energy….”12 This consumer protection prevents standards that risk being more trouble than they are worth. Unfortunately, the statute does not quantify significant conservation, and a 2020 agency rule doing so has since been reversed.13 Nonetheless, the proposed rule saves so little energy and water that it fails any rational interpretation of this provision.