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Avoiding the washing-machines-that-don't-wash syndrome

July 1, 2011
The EPA will soon toughen up its requirements for dishwashers that earn the Energy Star label. Starting next year, Energy Star dishwashers will have to

The EPA will soon toughen up its requirements for dishwashers that earn the Energy Star label. Starting next year, Energy Star dishwashers will have to be 8% more efficient than those that earned the label in previous years.

What's interesting about this development is that though the current specs apply only to water use and electrical power, a careful reading of the EPA document reveals that the Agency is leaving room in future updates for levying a minimum requirement for cleaning. At some point in the future, Energy Star dishwashers must, in fact, get dishes clean.

You might think that getting dishes clean would be sort of a minimum requirement for any dishwasher, Energy Star-blessed or not. But it looks as though EPA might have learned something on this score from the fiasco surrounding energy efficient washing machines that don't get clothes clean.

The brouhaha about washing machines erupted recently with the introduction of legislation called the Implementation of National Consensus Appliance Agreements Act of 2011. The Bill, which has yet to be voted on in the Senate, would make efficiency standards more stringent for appliances. Critics of it pointed out that after more stringent efficiency standards kicked in four years ago, Consumer Reports found some washers leaving its test swatches “nearly as dirty as they were before washing.” In contrast, the magazine's 1996 report — when efficiency standards for washers were still rather modest — found that, “given warm enough water and a good detergent, any washing machine will get clothes clean.”

Apparently, efficiency standards and clean clothes are still sore points with washing machine manufacturers. I have never found one willing to discuss this subject. When I contacted General Electric's Appliance Div., for example, they declined to talk to me. My request for an interview with the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers also went unanswered.

But one contingent not at all reluctant to talk about the shortcomings of efficient washing machines is washing machine buyers. You can get a feel for their angst by reviewing a few of their comments on the Consumer Reports web site. “I wear beige khakis to work most days and often find marks on them that the wash did not get out the night before,” said one of them.

Another laments: “Paid big money for this washer and dryer. I didn't feel the clothes were getting clean. Wash cycles take way too long. It does not work at all on heavily soiled clothes - we use our old top-load washer for anything at all dirty. The old one runs a cycle in less than half the time and gets the clothes clean.”

And then there is the soccer mom who complains her energy efficient washer, “is a terrible machine for pants, especially jeans. They come out so twisted and wrinkled that you have to smooth all the creases out before you put them in the dryer or you will end up needing to iron your jeans - not good.”

Finally, if Consumer Reports comments are any guide, politicians interested in new regulations should consider mandating appliance reliability. There are inumerable posts on that site just like this one: “We have owned this (machine) two years, and today we are having a new motor control board installed to the tune of about $600. The repair person (who comes from the store where we bought the appliance) noted that there is no brand these days that lasts very long at all, and that repairs like this, very early in the life of the appliance, are very common.”


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