Updated on 07.31.14

Saving Pennies or Dollars? Energy-Efficient Clothes Washing

Trent Hamm

saving pennies or dollarsSaving Pennies or Dollars is a new semi-regular series on The Simple Dollar, inspired by a great discussion on The Simple Dollar’s Facebook page concerning frugal tactics that might not really save that much money. I’m going to take some of the scenarios described by the readers there and try to break down the numbers to see if the savings is really worth the time invested.

Aimee writes in: how many loads of laundry do i need to do to have an energy efficient pay for itself?

Obviously, this is going to vary quite a lot depending on the specific “normal” washing machine and the specific high-efficiency washing machine. I’ll go into the calculations using some aggregated statistics to show how many loads, on average, you’d have to do in a high-efficiency machine to make up for the extra cost.

CNet reports that you can buy a normal top-loading washing machine for $300-$650 and a high-efficiency machine for $600-$1,600. We’ll take the 40th percentile in both ranges, as it will more or less average the ones readers might actually buy and ignore the very high end ones with unnecessary bells and whistles.

This means we’ll be using a cost of $440 for the normal machine and $1,000 for the high-efficiency machine. That’s a difference of $560.

What about energy and water use? I used the energy calculator on the Mr. Electricity site and calculated that a top-loading (normal) washer would use $0.62 in energy and water per load, while a front-loading (high-efficiency) washer would use $0.41 in energy and water per load. I assumed that you’d be doing equal amounts of hot, warm, and cold washing and an electric water heater with a cost of $0.12 per kilowatt hour in obtaining those numbers.

That means, for each load of laundry done, a high-efficiency washer would save you $0.21 per load.

At a rate of $0.21 per load, you’d have to do 2,667 loads to make the high efficiency washer worthwhile.

That’s a lot of loads at first glance. However, the average American household does almost 400 loads per year, which means you’d be at that level in about six and a half years.

Of course, much of this calculation is dependent on the exact numbers used. Let’s say, for example, you’re comparing the lowest-end top loader with the lowest-end front loader, you’d have a difference of $300 instead of $560. That would only require you to do 1,428 loads to catch up. That’s about three and a half years.

Let’s say you’re living in an area with an energy cost of $0.15 per kilowatt hour. Your savings per load would jump to $0.22 per load, requiring you to have to do only 1,364 loads to catch up. You’re getting down to three years and a few months.

Here’s the real truth: the big cost in washing clothes is the cost of heating the water. If you want to start saving money on each of your laundry loads, the best way to start is to minimize your cost of heating your water. A simple step would be to turn down the heat level on your water heater. A more drastic (and expensive up front) step that would save money in the long run is to use a tankless water heater.

For me, it would come down to cash on hand. If I were buying on credit, I would get the least expensive washing machine I could, as the interest on credit card debt destroys any energy efficiency savings I might get. If I were paying cash and could afford either option, though, I’d get a reliable energy efficient one, sticking with recommendations from Consumer Reports.

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  1. lurker carl says:

    Useless data.

    The tankless water heater won’t save any money, you’re still consuming the same amount of energy to heat water. Just because it’s tankless does not mean the laws of thermodynamics changed.

    Pretreat stains and set the machine for cold wash and rinse. Use a high quality detergent that works well in cold water instead of a homemade soap mixture that Grandma used with boiling water and a washboard. That solves the hot water issue.

    The remaining energy draw depends upon your particular machine, the cycle selected, volume of the load and total water volume if you’re on a well. The final spin affects how much water is removed from the load which determines how much energy is required to dry the clothes.

  2. Kerry D. says:

    Much of the HE hype we were told was about the minimal water usage… so, since we DO pay by the gallon, there is some cost plus if it is a heated cycle, there is a lot less heated water to pay for…

    But, I can tell you it doesn’t work any better than my old 21 year old machine that just broke. In fact, the clothes are not spinning out that well. Hoping to pin down the problem since that is causing a whole new set of problems.

  3. R S says:

    Electric tankless water heaters are not cost saving.
    I went through the exercise, for space reasons. The electric tankless water heater is 3x the cost of a tankless model. The electric tankless models require 120 amp wiring, so depending on how far you are from your circuit box, this can cost about $1k-2k alone.
    The other problem with electric tankless water heaters is that they only heat to 40-50 degrees above the incoming water temperature. Living in the northeast, the incoming water temp is often ~40 degrees in the winter, resulting in lukewarm water. The best way around this, is to put a tank between the incoming water & the water heater. The hope is the water from the tank will have heated up to room temp, before being sent to the water heater, allowing it to actually get hot.

    Gas tankless water heaters, I’ve heard are cost saving.

  4. Steven says:

    You completely ignored the cost of high-efficiancy detergents. I don’t use them, so I can say if they’re going to save you any more or not.

    The energy savings with tankless heaters comes in not having to heat the stored water. Yes, you still have to heat up the same amount of water that’s being used, but in a tank, it’s being kept hot whether it’s being used or not. That’s wasted energy.

  5. Jonathan says:

    A very efficient “normal” washing machine may be a better option than a High Efficiency machine, depending on your use. Especially taking into account the extra cost of the high-efficiency detergents that Steven mentioned.

  6. Debbie M says:

    I wash in cold, with only 6 loads per week, so the numbers don’t look good for me.

    The front loaders are supposed to clean clothes better (less likely to have to re-wash things), spin them drier (reducing drying time on the rack), and lead to less wear and tear on your clothes (you can go longer between replacing your most-worn/favorite clothing). Also, using less water would be polite of me since I live in a drought-prone area. I really don’t expect to save any money to speak of if I replace my old washer with one, but I might do so anyway, especially if I can find one used, just for those other benefits.

  7. valleycat1 says:

    We have an old regular washer (bought a used one, 15 years ago). The only rinse option is cold water, so when we do use hot or warm water wash, we’re only heating 1 tub of water & have a gas heater, not electric as Trent assumes. We are on a well, so there’s some minimal electrical pump cost for filling the tub. My spouse repairs it the (very few) times it doesn’t work. Now that we are empty-nesters, we wash 3-4 loads/week, which is less than half the amount Trent estimates. It would take us forever to justify spending double to get a HE one – & my friends who have switched are not happy with them for various reasons.

  8. Walt says:

    Why do you have to heat your water at all? I use only cold water for washing clothes and I’ve never had a problem….the detergents these days are good enough that you don’t need hot.

  9. valleycat1 says:

    If the biggest cost per load is heating the water, then use cold water as the default – no matter what type of machine you have. We’ve found using cold rinse works just fine, no matter what wash temp is used. Hot water wash is only necessary for really germy items or certain heavily stained items (hot water sets some types of stains).

  10. Tom says:

    HE Washers do not require HE detergent. I use regular detergent with no problems in my HE washer.

    Tankless electric water heaters reduce the latent portion of your electric bill by not keeping 50 gallons of water at 120 degrees 24 hours a day. I’ve never heard the complaint from comment #3 that they don’t work as good as tradition tank heaters..

  11. Jonathan says:

    “I’ve never heard the complaint from comment #3 that they don’t work as good as tradition tank heaters.”

    The issue regarding cold temperatures does make perfect sense. Since the tankless heaters only heat the water an extra 40 degrees or so there is going to be a significant impact if the water starts out really cold. When paired with a solar hot water system or even underground storage a tankless might work better in such an environment. If the water is entering the house at near freezing temperatures then I’m not sure how to get it heated with a tankless hot water short of using 2 heaters.

  12. Baley says:

    HE detergent doesn’t cost more than regular detergent and you use half as much. The clothes spin dryer, so the drying time is cut dramatically. And you can wash much more clothing in them at once. We bought ours on sale, so we got a huge deal and are saving money with every load. HE front loaders are the way to go!

  13. Diane says:

    Twelve comments so far and no one’s mentioned the environmental impact of the extra water consumption of top loaders…
    I have a ten-year-old front loader. I only use cold H20 and Trent’s homemade soap. If something is really dirty, I’ll pre-treat and then add a bit of Oxyclean. I love that things come out much closer to dry. The HE W&D set was a splurge when I bought this house and I’m still happy to see it every time I pull into my garage. Crazy, I know, but priceless!

  14. jackowick says:

    @1 It’s not useless data, it’s a broad comparison model which varies based on the individual. I’m a single person and wash in cold water so this doesn’t work for me, but I’m not calling it useless.

    I buy bulk & cheap laundry detergent which makes me a bit of a hoarder, but it’s the most cost effective way for me to get immediate gains.

    I’m in the market for a new washer though. A $600 low end model would work though since I don’t need to worry about getting a giant volume of laundry into each load.

    Plus, there’s always that X factor of selling a home with “high efficiency” appliances. A seller won’t think to start knocking off nickels and dimes for an old school washer if they see the bells and whistles. It’s not an easily quantifiable savings, but if your washer, dryer, dishwasher are all “efficient”, it’s a selling point.
    Thanks Trent.

  15. jackie says:

    Tankless water heaters save energy when there is no water consumption. They do not save (much) energy on hot water you’re actually using.

    Wash in cold water and the cost of heating water go away for laundry. There are cold water detergents that promise to give the results of a hot water wash. I can’t speak to the price of those detergents though. We use cold for all loads except a weekly load of sheets and towels.

    Water savings is not just a financial issue. It’s about not stealing precious resources from our neighbors, children, planet… Nations go to war over fresh water (and will continue to do so more frequently) and yet so many of us just treat it as an infinite resource.

    Utilities often include HE washers in their rebate programs. You might be able to get $50 off the price for filling out a few forms.

    Someone who has $1000 to spend on a HE washer probably wouldn’t buy the 40 percentile low efficiency washer. HE consumers are more likely to be considering high-end regular efficiency as an alternative.

    As several people have mentioned, the drying savings are huge! Of course if you line dry then that point isn’t relevant. But even line dry clothes come out better with HE washers because the clothes come out less drippy and don’t dry as stiffly.

  16. jim says:

    90% of the cost is heating the water. This is pointed out by the Mr Electricity site linked to by Trent. Water temp will make the most difference. Running a super efficient washer with hot water costs more than running an inefficient model with cold water.
    I’ve washed my laundry with cold water for years and it has worked fine. My clothes don’t get especially dirty. YMMV.

    Comparing a $440 model to a $1000 model is not equivalent as far as features. High efficiency alone does not cost $600 more. That $1000 model will have extra fancy features that no $440 model will have. If you do a feature to feature equivalent comparison then the basic inefficient washer for $400 is feature equivalent to a $600 HE model.

    GE Model # GTWN3000MWS is $404 at Home depot and costs $46 /yr to operate.
    GE Model # GFWN1100LWW is $584 and costs $16/yr to operate.

    Those 2 models are pretty equivalent in feature set and for $180 more you get a much more efficient model.

    Also don’t forget to check for tax rebates and incentives from your local utility. Buying a high efficiency washer would net me up to $280 from my state and utility. For the basic GE models I listed above the rebates would work out to about $200 which makes the HE model cheaper cost to the inefficient one after rebates/credits. So for me it would make no sense to buy anything but an HE model. Undoubtedly most rebates won’t be that generous but you should certainly check.

  17. Telephus44 says:

    I wanted to chime in on 2 other important variables that reduce costs – detergent and dryer times. I have a HE front-loading machine. Instead of going through one bottle of laundry detergent per month, I go through one bottle every 4-5 months. I buy the same stuff (not the HE detergent) and you can use a LOT less.

    Second, and this doesn’t speak just to the washer, but to my entire system – the HE washer spins the clothes so that they come out much less wet than a normal washer. So a load that might have taken 60 minutes in the dryer now only takes 30 minutes. That’s considerable cost savings to me. Yes, I know I could hang my clothes, but I don’t.

  18. Jonathan says:

    @Telephus44 – There are top loading washers that also spin the clothes in a way that gets rid of most of the excess washer. Our Fisher & Paykel top loader does this very well. That doesn’t take away from your point, that is certainly one area where a machine can save a lot of money if using a dryer.

  19. jackie says:

    Jonathan, Fisher & Paykel only (currently) makes HE washers. Yes, they’re top-loaders, but they’re also energystar.

  20. kristine says:

    Walt- I’m with you. I never use hot water- only cold. maybe once a year we have to use hot for something nasty after camping, but that’s it.

    One thong no on eh as mentioned- I have seen ads for some thing to “get rid of the smell” that accumulates n a HE washer. What is that about? Isn’t part of the reason we wash clothes to get rid of bad smells?

    With a tankless water heater, do you then not get the 1 gratis hot shower if the power goes out?

  21. kristine says:

    yikes- my keyboard is dying. sorry if it that was indiscernible!

  22. Steve says:

    I am under the impression that all new machines must meet (relatively, compared to the past) high efficiency standards. Furthermore I read in Consumer Reports that top-loaders hadn’t been designed yet capable of cleaning your clothes properly while meeting the required efficiency standards, though that was a few years ago.

    I also have anecdotal evidence (my parents in law’s experience) that the new top loaders tend to have problems due to the tighter seals, leaving water sitting in the machine developing mold or whatnot.

  23. Telephus44 says:

    @kristine My inlaws have a HE front-loader, and it does definitely get a damp “moldy” smell to it. I simply don’t close the door all the way on mine so it has a chance to air out, and I’ve had no problems with it.

  24. Jonathan says:

    @Jackie (#19) – The High Efficiency standard differs from the Energy Star Standard. By default an HE machine will also be Energy Star Compliant, but the opposite is not necessarily true. I just searched the specs and manual of the Fisher & Paykel EcoSmart washing machine and found no indication of it being an HE machine. Now the F&P Aqua Smart does say that it qualifies for Tier 3 of the Super Efficient Home Appliances Initiative, which one can probably assume makes it an HE machine, although I didn’t see that specifically stated.

  25. AnnJo says:

    I’m hoping this whole discussion is about whether to spring for an HE machine to replace a dead old top loader washer, not a fully functional one. If your old machine works, it’s not likely to be frugal to discard its remaining useful life, or environmentally friendly to create the demand for the production of another one, even if it would be more efficient.

    It takes a lot of efficiency to make up for the resources sunk into the production of the new machine – metals that must be mined, processed into parts and shipped, often from overseas, stores that must be heated, etc.

    I think that if an item you own is at the end of its useful life, the question of whether to replace it with a less expensive less efficient model or a more expensive more efficient one is worth looking into on both frugality and environmental grounds.

    But I know people who replace perfectly good cars, washing machines, etc. with hybrids, HE front loaders, etc., and feel they are doing a good thing for the environment, without considering that the cost of using a product is only part of its environmental burden. The cost of getting the product to them, production, sales, shipping, all get ignored.

  26. jim says:

    Annjo makes a good point. Usually the time to decide if you want to buy an energy efficient model of an appliance is when you’re old one is broken down or otherwise needs replacing. Generally you don’t want to get rid of a perfectly good item to upgrade to an efficient one. There are rare exceptions for example if you have a refrigerator from the 1980’s or earlier then you’d save a ton of money by getting a new one. Those old fridges used closer to $200/yr electricity and new ones only use $50/yr.

    EnergyStar rating on a clothes washer isn’t too hard to obtain. Look for the “Energy Efficiency Tier Rating”. That gives better measure of efficiency. They have Tier I, Tier II and Tier III. The Tier III appliances are the most efficient.

  27. Bill says:

    @#15 jackie

    “Water savings is not just a financial issue. It’s about not stealing precious resources from our neighbors, children, planet… Nations go to war over fresh water (and will continue to do so more frequently) and yet so many of us just treat it as an infinite resource.”

    There is not a drop more or less of water on the planet than there was 10,000 years ago. Using more or less water does not take water from your children or the planet. Water is continuously recycled.

    Water conservation is a local issue, my saving water in Portland does not mean there was more water available for Texas this past summer and it will not stop a war in some far off country.

    There is nothing you can do to pollute water that can not be cleaned by the normal and natural processes.

  28. Riki says:

    Bill —

    Does that mean we shouldn’t worry about pollution on a local or national or international level?

    I’d rather prevent issues that have to clean them up after the fact, thanks.

  29. Bill says:

    @#28 Riki

    Pollution is a very different issue from conservation.

    You can clean as many rivers as you want, not a single drop more will appear in what ever this years drought stricken region needs it.

    Pollution is a huge issue, but it will not make less water rain on your yard, or increase the rain during a drought.

    Pollution effects the environment down stream of the incident point. It dose not effect the volume of the water delivered to a particular spot.

    Which was the original point, but I care very much about pollution, very much about local issues. A lot about regional issues and a little about national since I can do nothing about it.

    This comment only applies to water. Air pollution is a way more complicated issue.

  30. Nancy says:

    Timely post & responses!

  31. Gretchen says:

    I’ve previously heard a lot of bad things about the cleaning in the HE units, once randomly from behind the counter in a bakery: “don’t ever buy one- they don’t clean and take forever. ” Plus the mildewy issue.

    If i’m not line drying, I run the clothes on a second spin dry at the end to get rid of some more remaining water in the clothes.

    Also, I must really bring down the average of that number of loads- we only do 2 most weeks.

  32. Jonathan says:

    I was giving this some thought today and wanted to address two points.

    First, is regarding water conservation. Bill is correct in his statement that the water isn’t getting used up. There are, however, impacts to unnecessary water usage. If your water is treated through a municipal treatment center then using more water requires more treatment (chemicals, etc) and more power to pump the water. If you get water from a well, the more you use, the more electricity you use to pump the water to your house. Few people have systems in place that do not require some additional resources to support additional water use.

    Second is in regards to AnnJo’s comment about replacing working appliances. I do agree with her comments, but wanted to point out that replacing a working appliance doesn’t have to be the impact she suggests. If the old appliance is donated or sold cheaply, then it is able to remain in use. Its possible that buying a new energy efficient appliance and giving/selling your old one to someone else prevents their purchase of a new appliance that would likely be less energy efficient than the new one your purchased.

  33. slccom says:

    From what I read, you should NOT use regular detergent for the following reason:

    No you can’t use regular detergent

    You have to use high efficiency soap. I have an HE washer and they manual emphasizes only use HE detergent. It has to do with the suds and your clothes will not be cleaned properly. Someone asked a similar question on Yahoo Answers and the answer they got does a great job of explaining why not to use regular detergent –

    Don’t use your regular Tide. Now for the reason WHY: All front loading, and a few top loading, washers, use small, high speed, water pumps. When these pumps are called on to pump, the very small pump will turn very fast trying to move as much water as its much larger, older cousins. If there is even the slightest amount of SUDS-MAKING detergent in the water, the small pump will instantly turn the water to suds, thus locking down the pump. The washer will sense this lock down, thus shutting down the washer with an LD (long drain) or SL (suds lock) code. Sorry. Lose the Tide. The HE detergent is more expensive, will NOT make suds, but will keep you out of hot water.

    Also, her glass on the door is cloudy looking and she says she can’t get it off the glass. I’d be afraid to chance using regular detergent, especially since these new washers can be rather pricey.

  34. AnnJo says:

    Jonathan @32,

    Unless you assume a perfect market in used goods (i.e., every functional used item finds a buyer/donee and none of those buyers/donees would otherwise have gone without), a decision by someone to purchase a new model before the old one is used up WILL increase demand and unnecessary use of resources.

    Unfortunately, poorly conceived and/or corrupt government policies guarantee that many functional items will be junked rather than used to the ends of their working lives. Recent examples are the Cash-for-clunkers car program and the local utility programs that offer free removal and small rebates when you replace an old appliance with a more energy efficient one. The latter programs REQUIRE that the old model be functional.

    These programs all pretend to be environmently friendly, but end up being just the opposite.

  35. Jonathan says:

    I agree AnnJo. Like I said, I agree with what you said in your original comment. I just wanted to point out that there are alternatives. Some people just want a shiny new appliance, and in those cases donating or selling cheaply to someone who can use the old one can, in some cases, offset the impact of the purchase.

  36. littlepitcher says:

    High-efficiency machines are far less durable than their cheaper brethren. Took barely a year to wear one out on motel linens, while the secondhand $100 machine is still going strong.

  37. Baley says:

    @littlepitcher: I’m going to be picky here and point out that you just made a broad generalization (HE machines are far less durable than their cheaper brethren) off of one specific incident (Took barely a year to wear one out, etc.). This is a fallacy. Whether or not your generalization is true, you should back it up with statistics instead of a one-case scenario.

  38. Alice says:

    Annjo / Jim: Thanks for pointing out that there is nothing wrong with keeping and using older top loading washers. My Whirlpool is just over 25 years old and still working better than many of the new ones that family members have bought. It spins the clothes our very dry so that the drying time is cut to almost half. It has outlasted 3 dryers to date and has been moved 5 times.

    It washes a 26# load and has held up through my children and most of my grandchildren. I wash an average of 4.5 loads per week and am as pleased with the cleaness of the clothes as I was when it was new. I know it will need replacing some day down the line and I plan to replace it with another top loader.

    I use a very low priced liquid detergent that is concentrated and wash in cold water. My clothes come out exceptionally clean and smelling fresh. My daughter’s front loader is only 4 years old and has had to be worked on many times. She has to keep an insurance policy on it. I have never had an insurance policy on mine so there is no extra cost just to have the newer type of appliance.

    I have always washed an average of 4.5(sometimes more when needed) loads per week, so over a year’s time that comes to 930 loads. In the past 25 years that means 23,400 loads from just one washer. I’m sold on top of the line top loaders as well as keeping them as long as they work properly. I’m not concerned about mine being a selling point for a home. Any time I move it goes with me. Most homebuyers have their own or they have their own opinions for what they want.

  39. Alice says:

    One major point I wanted to make is this; if you can afford it, buy the top of the line washser whether you prefer the top or front loader. It will pay off in the long run.

    Thanks to Trent’s continual writing about having an emergency fund for those purposes, I have enough to pay cash for my next washer and / or dryer. Last year I had to replace the refrigerator and the freezer and I was able to pay cash for each one of them. I was able to pick out exactly the features I wanted in each appliance and not have to worry about how much interest I would have to pay on a credit card.

    Thanks, Trent. I can’t be without an emergency fund now that I know how easy it makes life.

  40. Bill in NC says:

    Love my new HE washer.

    Picked a top-loader – stainless steel tube, no central agitator, holds at least twice as much as the old washer.

    No moldy rubber boot worries with a top-loader (no need to run a freshening cycle).

    Hard to see why people complain about the cost of HE detergent considering you won’t need to use more than a tablespoon’s worth per load.

    I did make sure to purchase the 4-year extended warranty for $100.

    And skip the tank-less heaters – they are much more complex than any tank (need to be back-flushed several times a year to prevent scale build-up for one)

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