Illustration of washing machines

Laundry is a fact of life, but it takes a lot of resources to get all those clothes clean and dry. In electricity alone—to say nothing of water—Americans used almost 6 billion kilowatts washing laundry at home last year, and 57 billion kilowatts drying it. 

“Around 10 percent of a home’s total electricity use goes to washing and drying clothes,” says Noah Horowitz, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

Over the past two decades, increasingly tough federal regulations have required manufacturers to make washers that use significantly less energy and water. Efficiency improvements include increasing the tub's spin speed so that more water is extracted from laundry (and less time is required in the dryer).

MORE ON LAUNDRY

But unlike washersdryers themselves have not dramatically improved energy-wise. “Many appliances have become a lot more efficient, but the clothes dryer remains the SUV of the home,” Horowitz says. “The typical dryer uses more energy per year than a new refrigerator and dishwasher combined.” The first Energy Star certified dryers didn’t even show up in stores until 2014.

Heat-pump dryers are the most energy-efficient option. A heat-pump dryer extracts heat from the room air and uses it to heat the air in the dryer, but a conventional electric dryer relies on a heating element. Some dryers use both technologies and are known as hybrids. Energy Star claims that heat-pump dryers use 20 to 60 percent less energy than conventional dryers.

But heat-pump dryers are expensive—and slow. Our tests found that the LG DLHX4072V hybrid dryer used 50 percent less energy in heat-pump mode, compared with conventional mode, but took almost three times as long to dry clothes.

Dryers are among the few appliances that don’t have an EnergyGuide sticker at retail; these bright-yellow labels tell you the estimated annual operating cost and electricity use of an appliance so that you can compare models and make an informed choice. 

Richard Handel, who oversees CR’s tests of laundry appliances, says, “Compared to washers, there aren’t that many ways to reduce a dryer’s energy consumption.”

But he acknowledges that moisture sensors are an improvement that gives certain dryers a step up, in terms of efficiency. “Moisture sensors are better at detecting dryness than thermostats, and they promptly end the cycle. That saves energy and is also easier on fabrics.” 

Regardless of what type of washer you own, setting your water heater at 120° F rather than 140° F saves energy when doing laundry with warm or hot water. And of course it makes sense to do full loads rather than doing just a few items. 

We gathered the following energy-saving tips from CR experts and Energy Star:

In the Washing Machine

• Opt for cold water when you can. Our tests have found that laundry detergents have gotten much better at putting enzymes to work in removing dirt and stains at lower water temperatures. Brighten whites with cold water and a bleach alternative, such as OxiClean. You'll need hot water, however, for tackling oily stains, cleaning dirty diapers, or washing sheets and towels when a family member is sick. 

• Use high efficiency (HE) detergent for front-loaders, high-efficiency top-loaders, and where otherwise recommended by the washer's manufacturer. Water-efficient washers work best with these low-sudsing detergents. Regular detergent produces too many suds for these machines and can cause the washer to repeatedly rinse laundry, wasting water and time.

• Increase the spin speed. This extracts more water from your laundry, cutting dryer time. If you’ve tried this and found that clothes come out wrinkled after drying, remove the laundry from the washer, untangle, and shake out before you toss into the dryer.

• Avoid the sanitary cycle, except when truly necessary. It relies on an internal heater to boost the water’s temperature, and it increases energy use significantly, according to Energy Star.

In the Dryer

• Clean the lint screen. Do this before every load to improve air circulation and prevent fires. And if you use dryer sheets, know that they can leave a film on the filter that reduces air flow. So once a month, scrub the filter with a brush.

Clean the dryer duct regularly. This keeps the air moving, which helps dry your laundry faster, and helps prevent fires. 

• Dry similar items together. And don’t mix heavy cottons with lightweight fabrics. Dry (as well as wash) towels with towels, and sheets with sheets.

• Use the automatic cycle instead of timed drying. For most dryers, the auto cycle relies on one or more moisture sensors to determine when laundry is dry to avoid overdrying.

Try line drying. See Tricks and Tips for Line Drying Clothes for advice from our experts and CR readers.