Dirty laundry is a fact of life, and it takes a lot of energy to get all those clothes clean and dry. In electricity alone, Americans used 8 billion kilowatts washing laundry at home last year and 61 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.

One factor in that consumption? America’s reliance on high-capacity machines. “Full-sized washers and dryers are the norm in the U.S., whereas compact laundry appliances are popular abroad,” says Mark Allwood, a senior market analyst at Consumer Reports. Plus, more than 80 percent of homes in the U.S. have dryers; manufacturers report that dryers aren’t as popular in other countries.

Today's Washers Use Less Energy

Over the past two decades, increasingly tough federal regulations have required manufacturers to make washers that use less energy and water. Manufacturers can improve a washer’s efficiency by changing the wash time and the amount of water used, along with increasing the drum’s spin speed so that more water is extracted—shortening dryer time and saving energy.

More on ENERGY EFFICIENCY & Laundry

New washers that bear the Energy Star label use about 70 percent less energy and 75 percent less water than agitator washers did 20 years ago, according to Energy Star. For some consumers, opting for an Energy Star washer is also an easy way to receive a rebate from the utility company.

Unlike washing machines, the energy efficiency of most dryers has not dramatically improved over the past 20 years, and the first Energy Star certified dryers showed up in stores just several years ago. “While many of the appliances in our home have become a lot more efficient, the clothes dryer remains the SUV of the home,” Horowitz says. “The dryer uses more energy per year than a new refrigerator, clothes washer, and dishwasher combined.”

Dryers are one of the few appliances that do not sport a bright yellow EnergyGuide sticker at retail. (The sticker tells you the estimated annual operating cost and electricity use of the appliance so that you can compare models.) But there’s little difference in energy use among dryers that aren’t Energy Star certified, according to the government program, so that yellow sticker wouldn’t be that helpful.
 
“Compared to washers, there is less that a manufacturer can adjust to reduce a dryer’s energy consumption,” says Emilio Gonzalez, an engineer who oversees CR’s tests of laundry appliances. “However, models with moisture sensors and more sophisticated controls can sense when loads are dry and terminate the cycle before overdrying occurs, using somewhat less energy than thermostat dryers.” 

Ways to Save Energy When Doing Laundry

Front-loaders are typically your most efficient washer type because they use less water and their drum spins faster and extracts more water, shortening dryer time. High-efficiency top-loaders, the type without an agitator, are usually your next most efficient option, while agitator top-loaders are the least efficient.

Regardless of what type you use, setting your water heater at 120° F rather than 140° F saves energy when washing laundry in warm or hot water. For more ways to trim your energy costs, we gathered the following energy-saving tips from CR experts, the Department of Energy, and Energy Star:

In the Washing Machine

• Do full loads. And wash similar items together and use 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 Oxi-Clean.

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

• Use HE detergent for front-loaders, high-efficiency top-loaders, and whenever the manufacturer says so. These low-sudsing laundry detergents work with water-efficient washers. Regular detergent produces too many suds for these machines and can cause the washer to repeatedly rinse laundry, wasting water and your 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.

In the Dryer

• Clean the dryer’s lint screen. Do this before every load to improve air circulation and prevent fires. And clean the dryer duct regularly for the same reasons.

• Clean the moisture sensor occasionally with soap and water if you use dryer sheets. They can leave a film on the sensor, making it difficult for the sensor to assess when loads are dry.

• Dry similar items together. And don’t mix heavy cottons with lightweight fabrics. Dry 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.

Or try line-drying your laundry. See “Tricks and Tips for Line Drying Clothes” for advice from our experts and CR readers.