Efficient washing machines

How appliance standards can help prevent washing machines from needlessly wasting energy and water.

Steve Buissinne via Pixabay | Pixabay.com

If you’re like my family, doing laundry is part of your weekly routine. Our washing machines remove stains and odors from clothing, and they are big time-savers in today’s modern life. But if washing machines aren’t energy-efficient, they can needlessly waste a lot of energy and water. That’s bad for the planet and our pocketbooks.

Thankfully, there’s currently an opportunity to increase their energy efficiency: last month, the Department of Energy proposed new efficiency requirements for clothes washers that would lower utility bills for consumers and reduce global warming pollution. 

What are the environmental benefits of stronger washing machine standards?

Stronger washing machine efficiency standards would reduce energy use and water waste.

For both top-loading and front-loading machines, improved clothes washer efficiency would reduce the amount of energy—electricity or gas—used by water heaters and clothes dryers, since better-spun clothes dry faster.

The proposed clothes washer standards would prevent 53 million metric tons of global warming pollution over 30 years. That’s the climate equivalent of taking more than 11 million cars – imagine all the gasoline-powered passenger vehicles registered in Florida and Illinois – off the road for a year.

The proposed standards would also conserve water. With much of the western United States in a water crisis, eliminating needless water waste is critical. Clothes washers currently account for 16% of households’ indoor water use. Under the Department of Energy’s proposal, top-loading washers would use 31% less water than units just meeting the current standard. Overall, the proposed standards would save 2.5 trillion gallons of water, which is equivalent to the amount of water in nearly 4 million Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Dry riverbed in California
NOAA | Public Domain
Clothes washers currently account for 16% of households’ indoor water use. With much of the western United States in a water crisis, eliminating needless water waste is critical.

What are the consumer benefits of stronger refrigerator efficiency standards?

  • Lower utility bills: Analysis done by the Department of Energy as part of its rulemaking process found that clothes washers that meet the new proposed standards would pay back their higher upfront cost by reducing consumer water and energy bills. The Department of Energy estimates that the proposed standards would save U.S.consumers up to $14.5 billion over 30 years of sales.
  • Renters, in particular, stand to benefit. Stronger efficiency standards are particularly important to reduce utility costs for renters, who rarely get to choose their own appliances. The Department of Energy analysis shows that most renters have clothes washers in their homes, and they are much more likely to be top-loading models, which are generally less efficient. The proposed standards would help ensure that landlords buy efficient washers—whether they’re top-loaders or front-loaders—for their rental units.
  • Good cleaning, easier on clothes. Testing by the Department of Energy found that top-loading washers meeting the proposed standard can maintain good cleaning performance without increasing cycle time and that efficient top-loading washers reduce wear and tear on clothing in comparison to less efficient machines.

FAQ on efficiency standards

What are efficiency standards?

Efficiency standards specify the minimum energy and/or water efficiency of specific products. 

Who created efficiency standards?

The first minimum efficiency standards for many residential and commercial products were created by Congress with the passage of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975. As a result of this law, national energy efficiency standards for appliances, lighting products and equipment have been saving energy and money, often with little notice. 

Since 1987, Congress has established or directed the U.S. Department of Energy to set efficiency standards for more than 55 products. Congress also charged the Department of Energy with periodically reviewing and updating all standards to keep pace with technological change. 

Residential clothes washing machines are among the many products for which efficiency standards are required. 

How have standards made washing machines more efficient?

The first national efficiency standards for clothes washers were part of the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act, which was adopted by Congress and signed into law by President Reagan in 1987. 

The Department of Energy has not updated the efficiency standards for clothes washers in over a decade, since 2012 – so it is imperative that it swiftly finalizes the recent proposed rule.

How has washing machine technology improved since the last efficiency standards went into effect?

Today’s technology allows clothes washers to use less energy and keep clothes clean while helping them last longer compared to technology from a decade ago when these standards were last updated. 

The proposed standards would ensure that all models take advantage of proven efficiency improvements, such as using an impeller (or “wash plate”) in place of an agitator, increasing spin speeds, using a more efficient motor, and reducing the amount of water consumed. 

While some top-loaders today use impellers, many still use old-fashioned agitators that require more energy and water and generally don’t clean clothes as well. These outdated models don’t spin out rinse water as thoroughly, requiring a clothes dryer to run longer and use more energy compared to top-loaders with impellers.


Who opposes efficiency standards?

Unfortunately, not everyone supports energy efficiency standards. Anti-regulatory groups oppose standards on principle and some appliance manufacturers who want to be able to keep selling less efficient equipment are opposed as well.

It’s important for Americans who support more efficient appliances like washing machines to make their voice heard while the Department of Energy is accepting comments. 


Johanna Neumann

Senior Director, Campaign for 100% Renewable Energy, Environment America Research & Policy Center

Johanna directs strategy and staff for Environment America's energy campaigns at the local, state and national level. In her prior positions, she led the campaign to ban smoking in all Maryland workplaces, helped stop the construction of a new nuclear reactor on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and helped build the support necessary to pass the EmPOWER Maryland Act, which set a goal of reducing the state’s per capita electricity use by 15 percent. She also currently serves on the board of Community Action Works. Johanna lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her family, where she enjoys growing dahlias, biking and the occasional game of goaltimate. 

Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG

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