Water-saving washers owe debt to dry Kansas town

Plagued by drought, Bern residents showed how front-loaders save

Published: April 14, 2015 06:00 PM

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Front-loading washers were slow to catch on in the U.S. in the late 1990s—representing just two percent of the market—despite growing popularity in Europe. Americans liked their agitator top-loaders. Faced with the challenge of encouraging consumers to switch to expensive but water-saving front-loaders, the Department of Energy picked Bern, Kansas, with its periodic water shortages and population of 200, for a study in 1997. And here’s what happened next.

At the time Bern was mostly a farming community. Severe drought conditions in 1988 in northeast Kansas drastically cut water for Bern, according to the DOE report. The town put conservation practices in place, some folks hauled water from farm ponds to give to livestock, water rates increased, and a project was started to get water from neighboring Nebraska.

Bern, Kansas website

Washing, weighing, evaluating, and recording every load

So the DOE and Maytag teamed up to do a 5-month study. “The purpose was to determine what the impact was in a real community if it switched over from agitator washers to front-loaders,” says Van Baxter, a senior researcher at the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the lab that led the tests. “It got a lot of press and publicity.”

All told, 104 participants signed on and 103 completed the study. For two months data was collected on the current washers, and then they were replaced with Maytag Neptune front-loaders and data was collected for three months. Participants could keep the front-loader if they liked.  

Survey says: Water use cut significantly

The study found that the agitator top-loaders used on average nearly 42 gallons of water per wash load and the front-loaders used about 26 gallons (and 58 percent less energy to run the washer and heat the hot water). Jill Meyer was a newlywed in Bern in 1997 and participated in the study. “We kept the washer and I was impressed. But it didn’t last as long as I expected—eight years.” When she went to buy a new washer in 2005 it was an emergency and she says the hardware store in a nearby town only sold agitator top-loaders. “It gets our clothes clean, but uses a lot of water.”  

Calls to three other study participants found one was still using the Maytag front-loader, one bought a new front-loader after the Maytag needed repairs a second time, and the third wasn’t happy that mold developed around the front-loader door and he replaced it with an agitator washer.

Bern residents celebrate at the Capitol

18 years later, agitator washers outsell front-loaders

Last year front-loaders represented 24 percent of all washers shipped to stores, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, a trade group. Agitator top-loaders are the least expensive type and accounted for 39 percent of shipments, but since the Bern study high-efficiency top-loaders came on the market and increasing sales now represent 36 percent of shipments.

Today’s washers

“We tested the Maytag Neptune front-loader when it came out and since then front-loaders have gotten more water and energy efficient and cleaning has improved,” says Emilio Gonzalez, the engineer who oversees Consumer Reports' tests of washers and dryers. “Manufacturers have addressed a lot of the mold and mildew issues by using different gasket materials, changing how the water drains from the gasket, or altering the door so that it stays slightly ajar between uses.” HE top-loaders are impressive. They typically clean better than agitator washers while using less water and usually cost less than front-loaders. See “Washing machines that save water and money” for more details.

Two Maytag front-loaders made our list of top picks including the Maytag Maxima MHW8100DC, $1,300 and the  Maytag Maxima MHW5100DW, $950. If you’re shopping for a washer use our washing machine Ratings to compare washers and then click the Features & Specs tab to compare features and find out if a washer is Energy Star-qualified. That Star may earn you a utility rebate so use the Energy Star rebate finder. Questions? E-mail me at kjaneway@consumer.org, and hats off to Bern, Kansas for leading the way.

Kimberly Janeway

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