Use Cold Water for Most Clothes Washing (16/365)

It’s simple. If you use hot water at home to wash your clothes, heating the water is the single largest expense of running a load of laundry.

Use Cold Water for Most Clothes Washing (16/365)

I base this on the numbers calculated by Mr. Electricity on the cost of washing machines, using a set of rather rigorous data.

If you wash on hot and rinse on warm, you’re going to use an average of 4.5 kWh per load, which at a cost of $0.15 per kWh will cost you $0.68.

On the other hand, if you wash on cold and rinse on cold, you’re going to use an average of 0.3 kWh per load, which at a cost of $0.15 per kWh will cost you $0.04.

The numbers are clear: if you wash on hot, you’re dumping water down the drain.

Of course, there are a lot of counter-arguments for this.

The chief argument for using hot water is that hot water is the best route for getting your clothes as clean as possible. The high temperature of the water is most likely to kill bacteria and also to cause more movement of the water, causing more soiling and germs to be removed from the clothes.

However, hot water also does the most damage to clothes, causing them to shrink, wrinkle, and fade more than other temperatures. I would only use hot water if the clothes are seriously soiled for some reason. For example, I’ll use hot water for a load of cloth diapers or, in my own recent experience, towels that were used to clean up a bathroom in which a four year old girl attempted to flush most of a roll of toilet paper at once.

Most of the time, our clothes simply aren’t dirty enough to warrant the rough treatment that a hot water washing would give them.

What about warm water? It’s the middle of the road choice. I tend to use it on our children’s clothes, as they tend to accumulate food stains and warm water removes them well. I’ll also use it on any adult clothes that became sweaty or particularly soiled due to the day’s activities.

If you’re interested, washing your clothes on warm and rinsing on warm will cost you $0.53 per load, and washing your clothes on warm and rinsing on cold will cost you $0.29 per load.

Still, most of my clothes are washed in cold water. Most days, my non-workout clothes never get very dirty at all. They accumulate a bit of dried skin flakes (as everyone’s clothes do), but so does the carpet in a house and I don’t bathe the carpet in hot water to remove those flakes. Cold water easily removes such particulate matter and the soap leaves the clothes quite clean.

Another factor: cold water washing is also the gentlest choice for your clothes, extending their life. There’s less garment wear on a cold water washing as well as fewer wrinkles (meaning less ironing) and less shrinkage. All of these factors extend the life of your garments, meaning you don’t have to go clothes shopping as often, saving yourself even more money.

What about the rinse cycle? I can’t see a good reason to rinse your clothes in warm water. Your clothes are already clean at that point – the rinse merely removes any excess soap that still happens to be in there. Using cold water instead of warm for the rinse cycle will save you $0.15 per load.

I advocate using cold/cold for washing and rinsing most non-soiled clothing. When clothing is moderately soiled (with sweat or food, for example), I’ll use warm/cold for a load. I use hot water only for things like cloth diapers or items that have come in extensive contact with bodily fluids.

Assuming that our household runs an average of one load a day, one warm load a week, and one hot load every three weeks (which is about our average), rinsing everything on cold, we would spend $34.06 in energy costs per year. On the other hand, if we ran our daily load with a hot wash and a warm rinse, we would spend $248.20 in energy costs per year. Running mostly cold washes with all cold rinses saves us $214 per year. That’s a savings worth writing home about.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Images courtesy of Brittany Lynne Photography, the proprietor of which is my “photography intern” for this project.

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37 thoughts on “Use Cold Water for Most Clothes Washing (16/365)

  1. josh says:

    “The numbers are clear: if you wash on hot, you’re dumping water down the drain.”

    Where do you put your cold water?

  2. Robert DaVia says:

    I use cold water for my clothes washing as well. The argument about using hot water kills bacteria I don’t understand.

    How hot is the water you use in your clothes washer? I’m pretty sure it’s not hot enough to kill bacteria.

  3. marta says:

    Water tends to go down the drain regardless of temperature. I like it that way, as floodings aren’t fun to deal with.

  4. Johanna says:

    I thought the point of hot water was to remove grease, not to kill bacteria.

  5. Kai says:

    Here’s a question. Why are you washing clothing that *isn’t* at least ‘moderately soiled’ by your definition.
    If my clothing has gone through one day’s wear with nothing but some dead skin cells on it – I don’t wash it. It goes back in the closet for another wear.

    If it is moderately soiled (ie. sweaty/smelly/has food on it, etc.), *that* is when it goes in the laundry – where I wash on cold.

    If I had children that leave clothes in truly gross condition, I might also wash on warm or hot, but as it is, cold water does fine to get out my dirt, sweat, and food stains.

    You can save a lot more energy (and water!) by not washing clothes every time they contact your skin in the first place.

  6. Andrea says:

    So Trent’s kid wears cloth diapers, and the cloth diapers are washed on hot, and Trent does a load of hot laundry once every three weeks? Am I missing something here? Wouldn’t a three-week-old used diapers be truly foul and smell up the house by that point?

    Admittedly, I don’t have kids yet, so haven’t done the whole diaper thing, but it just seems to me that basic hygiene would call for washing diapers more often than that…

  7. Michelle says:

    I used to wash my clothes in cold, but I started noticing big greasy looking blotches on clothes that were previously blotch-free. I started washing in warm and the blotches disappeared. Since that was my experience, I’m happy to pay a more to keep my clothes greasy blotch free.

  8. Joanna says:

    He must be excluding cloth diapers from the routine he states. Cloth dipes are washed every 2 – 4 days at our house. 3 weeks would likely ruin the diaper.

  9. lurker carl says:

    Johanna’s right, hot water will emulsify grease and oils so detergent/soap can break it down and remove it. Same principle as washing greasy dishes in cold water, you need hot water.

    Use bleach to kill bacteria, the water in a typical residental washing machine does not remain hot enough.

  10. My kids get into way to much stuff. I need the hot water to kill stuff and get all the grease, art stuff, and everything else my kids come in contact with out of there cloths.

  11. Meagan says:

    I generally do underwear and towels on hot and everything else on cold. I have a dirty but not greasy job and cold works just fine for work clothes

  12. jim says:

    I totally agree on this one.

    I use cold water for my own clothes. I have used cold water exclusively for years straight. It has worked perfectly fine for me. However, my clothing generally doesn’t get stained with dirt or food.

  13. Leigh says:

    I learned at the Real Diaper Industry Association meeting this fall that a warm rinse is more energy efficient if you are using a dryer. It makes the water more fluid so more of it can spin out. It takes much much less energy to heat the water to warm than it takes for the dryer to evaproate the extra cold water.

  14. Liz says:

    I tend to look over my clothes when I’m sorting, and sometimes I’ll just do a load of random stuff that I think needs warm water. The t-shirts that I wear when I volunteer at the food tent for our church festival or fire department fish fry come to mind, because there’s grease floating in the air at those things.
    But I always wash my towels in warm — I’m willing to spend a couple of bucks a month for the comfort, real or imagined, that washing towels in warm water gives me.

  15. Daria says:

    I bought one of those top loading small water use washers- a GE. I only use HE detergent with the amount specified and yet my clothes were not coming out clean until I switched to hot water. I wipe out the inside of the washer regularly and I do not use fabric softener. I wish that I had never bought this washer. I liked my old kenmore better.

  16. Gretchen says:

    I agree, if they aren’t dirty, don’t wash at all!

    When I’m not hanging on the line, I run a second special dry cycle, which gets some extra water out so they won’t be in the dryer so long.
    I marked the spot in the cycle where new water stops coming in with a marker.

  17. Gretchen says:

    Thought 2: “. The high temperature of the water is most likely to … cause more movement of the water,”

    huh?

  18. Laurie says:

    Hot water also kills dust mites. You should absolutely wash your sheets/pillowcases/towels in it.

    I can’t believe the difference it made in our son’s allergies when I started washing EVERYTHING in hot. He’s highly allergic to dust mites and it has allowed him to stop having to take Zyrtec daily. His sheets are washed weekly and we have gone fiber free otherwise in him room! It had never occurred to me that his clothes – stored in the closet of the same room he slept in would be contaminated with dust mites, but they apparently were.

    I’ll take the <$5 increase on our gas bill (I went from running 2 hots loads – sheets & towels – to running 7 hot loads a week, so about 28 loads a month) and buying clothes slightly more often. I also noted that stains on my kids play clothes that had been washed multiple times on cold (with Tide!) suddenly disappeared also.

    Bottom line – if you want CLEAN – not just "not dirty" – clothes, you need to wash on hot and dry on hot.

  19. valleycat1 says:

    Any calculation on how much it costs if you have a gas water heater and/or a gast dryer?

    And, warm water is more fluid? (comment #13) Maybe it doesn’t take quite as much heat to dry, but that would only be a small marginal decrease.

    Our dryer runs based on time, not dampness of the clothes (I know, new ones have sensors), but I’m guessing the dampness and drying time isn’t impacted all that much between water temps.

  20. Squirrelers says:

    I tend to wash most things on cold as well. Saves money all around (including being easier on clothes). However, certain items of clothing are washed in hot. No middle ground here, as warm seems like an halfway option with less value.

  21. Pat S says:

    Most companies produce coldwater detergent. Bonus, it is more gentle on most of your clothes, and most don’t need the hot water.

  22. Johanna says:

    @valleycat: “And, warm water is more fluid?”

    I’d never thought about it before, and it sounded like nonsense to me at first, but I looked it up, and it makes sense – the viscosity of any liquid changes with temperature. You know how when you heat syrup or honey it gets thinner? It’s the same for water. You don’t notice it because water is so thin to begin with, but on tiny size scales – like the spaces between the threads in your clothes – it makes more of a difference. So the spin cycle should be able to get more of the water out when you rinse in warm water, so the dryer has less to do.

    (If you want to get into the physics-nerdy details, look up “Reynolds numbers.”)

  23. Sandy says:

    I’m with #7 and #18 – it’s a fact that washing in cold water leaves unacceptably high counts of bacteria and fungi in clothes, as well as not getting out grease stains. And it doesn’t matter what detergent you use! I tried it for several months in my front loader, and in the end gave up. I got sick of marks not coming out and the clothes smelling like they hadn’t been washed at all. Maybe cold washing works in top loaders, but I figure if they’re not that dirty, why wash them at all?

  24. Kevin says:

    @Kai

    (Re: Wearing clothes more than once)

    I agree, for the most part. I’ll wear shirts twice before washing. I’ll wear a pair of pants all week.

    But underwear is strictly a one-wear item. I actually go through at least 2 pair a day (I go to the gym after work, and can’t bring myself to re-wear the pair I’ve already had on all morning).

  25. Kevin says:

    @Michelle

    Change your detergent.

    Some detergents are specially-forumulated for cold water. You were likely using one that wasn’t, and expected it to work the same in cold water as it did in warm. Hence, splotches.

  26. Riki says:

    I really try not to be hysterical about germs. Soap by itself actually does a pretty good job of killing most things. Unless you’re washing clothes at temperatures close to the boiling point of water, hot water isn’t really hot enough to do much to kill bacteria.

    I wash in cold water and definitely do a lot of re-wearing before washing my own clothes. I have found a lot variation between detergents, though — there are some that left my whites a little bit dingy after a few washings. Fortunately I found one that works very well in cold water.

  27. valleycat1 says:

    See this article from The Daily Mail UK , October 17 2011: How washing machines can put your family’s health at risk

    According to this article, washing everything in cold or cool water put your family at risk from fecal germs and the norovirus remaining on clothes, but the machine itself becomes contaminated. The council recommends that all clothes, linens and other fabrics should be laundered at a high temperature — i.e., 60c (140F) — to be sure bacteria, viruses and dust mites have been destroyed

    40 degrees celsius is 104F (will kill some germs); 60 degrees celsius is 140F (even better). And maximize the wash time & use higher heat for drying, according to a biologist friend of mine.

  28. valleycat1 says:

    The article also points out that clothing can look clean without actually being hygienically clean.

  29. AnnJo says:

    Wouldn’t line drying in sunlight kill off most nasties left behind by a cold-water wash? Not to mention that most detergents contain some bleach, which functions best in cold water.

    A phrase that has always stuck in my mind is: “The solution to pollution is dilution.” In other words, short of an operating room, the goal is not to create a sterile environment, but to reduce the number of nasties to a level that your immune system can handle without becoming overloaded (sick).

    Even for soiled cloth diapers, I would think that soaking and bleach would be more effective than hot-water wash.

  30. deRuiter says:

    It’s a good idea to wash all pet bedding in hot water and dry on high heat to stave off any possibilities of lfea infestation. I wash a lot of dirty things with hot water and they come really clean. It’s not worth putting up with potential germ contamination to save a few dollars.

  31. valleycat1 says:

    I’ll add one more comment here to my post #28 – this applies not only to clothing just laundered but also to clothing you’ve worn. Even newly purchased clothing tests positive for various bacteria & viruses. If you’ve handled raw meat, changed a dirty diaper or used a toilet, or been in public during the day, it’s likely your clothing has picked up more than just a few skin cells.

  32. Michelle says:

    @Kevin

    I did change my detergent, multiple times, and yes, I used the cold water formula. No change. The only thing that worked was using hot/warm water.

  33. Riki says:

    Bacteria is everywhere. Every single surface you touch has bacteria on it. Tons of bacteria.

    Generally they don’t cause a problem, especially if you practice good basic hygiene (washing hands after using the washroom and at intervals during the day, using a fresh dish cloth and avoiding cross-contamination in the kitchen, etc). In fact, coming into regular contact with bacteria and viruses is good for most people; it helps keep your immune system in good working order.

    There are thresholds for levels of certain types, for instance fecal coliform bacteria, and there are some types of bacteria that are more likely to make you sick, but in general simple counts of the number of bacteria on a surface doesn’t tell us much. The type of bacteria is much more important than the number.

    Like I said, for the vast majority of people, using regular (non-antibacterial) soap and water and regular detergent in cold water will keep things under control and within the range of what our immune systems can handle on a daily basis.

  34. Angie unduplicated says:

    Hot water wash also kills mildew spores, another source of allergens. If you have children in school, it’s advisable to use the hottest wash possible to kill lice, nits, and bedbug eggs tour child may bring in from playmates.
    Ask yourselves if you’d feel comfortable sleeping in a motel with linens washed in cold water. Aha! Hot water, with plenty of bleach, is what works for me.

  35. jim says:

    The water viscosity thing is interesting.

    I would be interested to see how much of a difference it really makes. Theoretically it makes a difference… yes… but HOW MUCH? I mean are we talking 10% difference?… 1% difference… 0.001% difference?

    Assuming the water temperature and viscosity impacts the dry time to a measurable amount then I would think the simple solution to that would be to just spin the clothes a little more. Increased spin time would not be much difference and would cost very little. It wouldn’t be hard at all to setup the spin cycle to to spin the clothes until X amount of water is removed. Or they may just set the spin cycle to spin for more than enough time to make sure as much water is removed as possible no matter the water temperature. e.g. if we know that a typical load of laundry washed at 60C temperature takes 5 minutes of spin to get as much water out as possible and you would have to spin it 10 minutes to get all the water out if its 40C then they may just build washers to always spin 15 minutes. The ‘overkill’ system.

  36. jim says:

    I guess I’m just miraculously lucky. Cause the way some people make it sound I should have been stricken with the plague years ago cause I wash my clothes in cold water.

  37. Kai says:

    Personally, I don’t lick my clothes – do you?

    I don’t care if there is some bacteria on my pants – I wash my hands before I eat, and (at least where I live) nothing exists that is going to burrow through the skin on my knees to infect me.
    For clothing, clean = not dirty. I don’t need clothing to be medically sterile, and I prefer not to contribute to the creation of superbugs by trying to kill everything in my environment.

    I can see why in some washing machines, cold water doesn’t do as well. But in mine, I haven’t noticed any difference from switching to cold.
    I would feel perfectly comfortable sleeping in motel sheets washed in cold water. I might prefer that they be bleached, but I don’t care about the heat. Even if I was highly concerned about motel linens, there’s a huge difference between the kind of washing I want done when sleeping where others have slept, and the kind of washing I need to do to clothing which has simply been on my own body for a day.
    I *have* noticed a difference in whites, but hot water didn’t fix it, so it might just need bleach. As my ‘whites load’ is merely one t-shirt, I have taken no action to rectify this problem.

    Why is this an all-or-nothing for so many people? The point is that for a lot of people, at least some loads don’t need to be washed in hot water to be sufficiently clean for the needs. That doesn’t mean you have to defend your diaper-washing regimen…

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