How to pick an energy efficient washer and dryer

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By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

The washer and dryer section has become like the candy corner of Big Boxes.

Shiny  machines shimmer in red, blue and silver enamels, bearing proud crests of insanely  extensive settings, offering everything from a steam to a gentle tumble. It’s almost indecent. And if you’re over a certain age, quite appealing.

But how do we winnow down these delectable selections, to find the most energy and water efficient? That, after all, is why we’re here, trying to improve our energy profile while replacing the sad, rattling washer and dryer that’s in residence at home.

We asked some people at Energy Star about their advice for finding the greenest of the lot. We also checked Consumer Reports and nosed around a couple stores. Based on all that, here’s our washer advisory.

1. Watch out for fancy dressers. In the stores, we found ourselves drawn to sleek,  top-loading washers with glass lids and shiny finishes. These machines have finally awakened to the fact they’ve been out-styled by those front loaders that dominate the market.

This presented a quandry: We could save money, several hundred dollars, on some of these top loaders, but would we be getting the same energy and water efficiency as those robust front loaders?

Turns out, probably not. The front loaders are, as a class, the most efficient in electricity and water consumption. Still, the new top loaders aren’t just all snazzy facade. Newer models have reduced water consumption. So if you find yourself looking at top-loaders, because they cost less or perhaps because you don’t have to bend over and fall on the floor to use them, don’t beat yourself up, they’re OK. Look for the ones with the best Energy Star numbers (see below for deciphering advice).

Energy Star told us: In general, we are seeing improvements in water efficiency in new top loaders being introduced into the U.S. marketplace today. Manufacturers are using new design approaches, such as a short central agitator that draws clothing down to a lower water level for washing, which reduces overall water consumption of the machine

Tip: Look for the short central agitator.

2 — Now about those front loaders. The craziness continues. You can find them in every color, made by every manufacturer you can think of (or of whom you can think). You can go with an American-made machine — but good luck with that because even the Maytag plant in Iowa closed — or for a brand with  green cred (we put Samsung in this category; but LG, Whirlpool, Kenmore also have a story to tell).

You almost cannot go wrong in this category if you want to keep it green by using less energy AND less water. In fact, all of the top 50  Energy Star Most Efficient  washers are front loaders. And 49 of the top 50 most water efficient washers also are front loaders, according to Energy Star.

Some of these machines are so energy efficient, they’re touting less than $20 a year to run, though the official word is that on average an Energy Star-certified washer will cost $85 a year to run.

As you know, the greenest energy is that which you never consume. Energy Star estimates that if all the washers sold this year in the US were Energy Star rated , US consumers would save

  • 540 million kWh of electricity
  •  20 billion gallons of water
  •  1.8 trillion BTUs of natural gas every year
  • For a grand total of $250 million in energy bill savings annually

Of course you’ll want to cross check these energy efficient machines against how well they wash clothes! It wouldn’t be a fair trade if your green inclinations resulted in frayed polo shirt collars.

Here’s where Consumer Reports comes in. They’ve tested the latest models for both efficiency and effectiveness. You’ll have to buy a subscription to get their full report, but you can see a their buying guide on the web.

3 – Here’s the good news: Several machines won top ratings for energy and water efficiency while also scoring well for “washing performance.” It makes sense. The same manufacturers who took special pains to assure their washers were conserving knew how to make them get your socks and shirts sparkly clean. For example, the top-rated washer (Samsung’s WF457ARGS[GR])  scored 89 out of 100 points by achieving an “excellent” rating for energy and water efficiency, washing performance, capacity and vibration.

A warning, though, peak performance can carry a price tag. Many of the top-rated machines retail at $1,100 or more. Happily, several do not. LG, Electrolux and Samsung all offered a large capacity model that scored well (at least 84 points) and rang in at $720 to $1,000.

4 — So yes, it’s still a complex prospect, finding the intersection of conservation, effectiveness and price that’s your personal sweet spot.

One consolation for the sticker shock you may experience, though, will be the long-term savings you’ll can enjoy with a current model Energy Star washer.

We’re not completely jumping up and down over the agency’s promise that new washers use 20 percent less energy than “regular washers,” mainly because what’s a “regular washer” and when did it come out? Seems like we should be enjoying 20 percent improved efficiency, and could perhaps even improve on that sometime soon.

In the meantime, read the actual Energy Star card that comes with your washer, and if you cannot find it, know that you may have stumbled upon one of the 40 percent or so of machines (standard machines?) that are not Energy Star.

Here’s a confusing side note, that’s worth knowing: The HIGHER the MEF, the MORE energy efficient the clothes washer.

Now,  the next rating has a scale that moves in the opposite direction.  The Water Factor (WF) measures water efficiency in gallons of water consumed per cubic foot of capacity. The LOWER the WF, the MORE water efficient the clothes washer. Confusing enough? Argh!

So you want a HIGH MEF and a LOW WF. Jot that down.

About the water savings, Energy Star says you’ll use only about 15 gallons per load, compared with the 23 gallons used by a “standard” machine.

That’s pretty compelling.

Also noteworthy, the washers have sort of doubled their energy savings by getting better at  wringing the  water out of your clothes. The new machines are notorious for having longer wash cycles of 85 to 105 minutes, but a part of that intensive washing involves a big squeegy session. The clothes come out in a sort of near-dry state far from the soggy mass that used to be delivered. This saves drying time, and that’s important because it’s the dryer that’s your energy hog.

5 — What about dryers?  You would ask that. Dryers don’t get an Energy Star rating. The truth is, dryers are rather a sore subject in the energy saving realm. No one’s figured out how to create hot air cheaply (save politicians), hence, the focus has been on making washers do wondrous work.

So dryers are dryers are dryers. We do like some of their many new functions. We’re especially steamy about steaming; those the washers now have that function too.

But we have to face the fact that the most energy efficient dryer is… your clothesline. Wind power is not just for power plants. You can use it to air your clean laundry.

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