Come on New York Times—washers can be green and efficient

Consumer Reports News: March 08, 2011 05:09 PM

Should the government mandate greener washing machines if they cost more and don’t clean as well? That’s one of the questions columnist John Tierney poses in today's Science Times section of the New York Times. The article compares the results of Consumer Reports’ latest washer tests and finds today’s models underwhelming and overpriced in the wake of stricter washer-energy rules. It also talks about the "energy rebound effect"—the premise that consumers who drive fuel-efficient cars, for example, might use more energy by driving more or spending their savings on big-screen TVs, airplane trips, and other power-hungry products and services.

We can’t say whether energy-efficient washers are spurring Americans to do more laundry. But we can confirm that Tierney's interpretation of Consumer Reports’ washer tests is misleading. Consider what he says about top-loading washers: "To comply with federal energy-efficiency requirements, manufacturers made changes like reducing the quantity of hot water. The result was a bunch of what Consumer Reports called 'washday wash-outs,' which left some clothes 'nearly as stained after washing as they were when we put them in.'" That is, indeed, true for the biggest duds in our latest washer report. But we also recommended a dozen top-loading models online with very good washing performance for as little as $500.

Tierney also notes that back in 1996, Consumer Reports said "any [top-loading] washing machine will get clothes clean," whereas now, only some manage that feat. But that face-off compares apples to oranges: Our testing and scoring protocols for washers are significantly tougher than they were when Bill Clinton was in the White House. Explains Mark Connelly, Consumer Reports’ Deputy Technical Director:

"As an organization that tests both performance and energy efficiency, Consumer Reports has seen product performance improve or remain at high levels, while energy efficiency standards have become increasingly stringent over the years. Washing machine performance has actually improved while dishwashers and refrigerators performance has remained at high levels."

Tierney's column also neglects to mention that the latest Energy Star standard for washers, requiring that machines use 11 percent less energy and 20 percent less water, just took effect in January. Consumer Reports often sees a drop off in performance as manufacturers adapt to tougher rules. But the products almost always improve, whether you're talking cars, low-VOC interior paints—which now top our Ratings—or even energy-efficient washers.

That means you needn’t spend more for a greener washer and get less, especially if you’re considering a front-loading model (a consumer category that didn’t exist in 1996). The CR Best Buy Kenmore 4027[2], for example, offers excellent performance and efficiency. And at $800, it's less than the "average [of] more than $1,000" that Tierney cites in his column.

Our guess is that even this model won’t make you want to do any more laundry than you have to.

—Daniel DiClerico

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