Facing Front

Washing Machines Are Getting Cleaner and Greener

Europeans who visit America find much to marvel at, but there’s always room for quiet astonishment at the top-loading washing machines which, while easier on the back than front-loaders, waste copious amounts of water, wear out clothes prematurely, leave them wet and, to a European eye, dingy.

Elaine K. Osowski Photo

This eco-laundry room sports Maytag’s new high-efficiency washer and dryer, a natural linoleum backsplash from Hendricksen’s Naturlich, and biodegradable detergent.

Americans have used top-loaders since the days of the hand-cranked wringer machines—but that’s changing. A host of appliance makers, from European companies like Asko to U.S. standbys like Maytag and Amana, are invading the American market with water-efficient, high-speed front loaders that cost more up front but can save up to $100 a year in utility bills. At the same time, the laundry room is steadily becoming more environmentally safe with detergents and bleaches that are kind to the groundwater-and to clothes as well.

John Morrill of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) says the industry is motivated by the possibility of new federal government regulations. “But energy efficiency is a strategic direction for some companies, even without a national standard,” he says.

Top-loading machines fill with water and use an agitator to circulate the clothes. Front loaders spin on a horizontal axis (like laundromat machines), and use a third less water, a third less heat energy, and a third less detergent. That efficiency has some drawbacks: European machines traditionally have smaller capacities and take more time to cycle than their American competitors.

Both those problems are addressed in machines like the Maytag Neptune ($999), which has the largest capacity (2.9 cubic feet) of any washer currently on the market. What’s more, washing times are competitive with top-loaders, and 30 percent more water is extracted to shorten drying times. The Neptune reduces water use by 40 percent and energy use by 65 percent.

Amana’s Stainless Steel washer ($1,999) should stand up to a lifetime of heavy-duty use; it claims the fastest spin speed of any domestic front-loader, meaning that clothes will need only light drying, saving electricity and time. The Gallery from Frigidaire ($799) is the most affordable front-loader.

ASKO machines, from Sweden, claim to be the most eco-friendly on the market, using only 11 gallons per load compared to a top-loader’s 40 to 60. Most heat their own water (to a scalding 205 degrees), a far more efficient process than drawing it from the hot water tank. ASKO washers use as many as five rinse cycles (as opposed to one or two in conventional machines), so removal of residual detergent (a skin irritant) is very thorough. Although not cheap (the popular 20605 model sells for $1,599), the stainless steel ASKO is built to last at least 20 years, and its many features allow spectacular water and energy savings of up to $200 a year.

Yet another new twist on the washing machine is the U.S.-made Staber Industries System 2000, which combines the ease of a top loader with the efficiency of a horizontal axis. Company President Jim Staber claims 66 percent water savings and 75 percent detergent savings.

Because front-loaders are so efficient at getting leftover water out of clothes, they push the dryer’s role in the background. But eco-dryers (usually operating on gas, which is twice as efficient for the purpose as electricity) offer moisture sensors that will automatically stop when they sense a load is done, rather than continue through a pre-set cycle. The Maytag Neptune dryer offers an energy-saving control that allows customers to specify how dry their load needs to be.

An eco-laundry is much more than appliances, though. Consider the bottle of chlorine bleach usually found on the shelf. Waste chlorine bleach is flushed into the sewer system (or septic tank), where it reacts with the organic materials present to form poisonous compounds called trihalomethanes (THMs), linked to cancer and birth defects. Seventh Generation makes a bleach whose active ingredient is harmless hydrogen peroxide.

Morganics offers a line that includes the concentrated Excel! biodegradable and phosphate-free laundry detergent. Morganics’ Craig Ricketts says Excel! contains no petroleum products, and that its ingredients break down completely into oxygen, proteins and carbon dioxide. Another company, Ecover, makes biodegradable laundry products that deserve plaudits for what they don’t contain: no petrochemicals, optical brighteners, chlorine, synthetic perfumes or phosphates. “Our products biodegrade in three to five days,” says U.S. manager Ken Vanderveen.

Some green laundry practices are just common sense. Don’t run the washer half full. Pre-soak very dirty clothes. Use “warm” rather than “hot” settings. It’s all part of being both clean and green.