Saving The Environment - The Minimalist Clothes Washer

Jun 13, 2009 (Updated Aug 1, 2012)

Popular Products in Washing Machines
The Bottom Line The minimalist clothes washer saves money and rewards initiative, while polluting less and consuming fewer natural resources!

Since my old poorly-engineered 2003 Maytag SAV ('Amanatag') top-load washer self-destructed, I have been in search of a reliable, long lived, yet eco-friendly clothes washer.  It has not been an easy journey.  Too many large appliance products are now being engineered to meet priorities that do not include a reasonable interval between repairs and a service life commensurate with their initial cost. 

This time around, instead of reviewing Consumer Reports ratings (which once declared my lousy Maytag A Best Buy), I decided to contact several service people that work on various washer brands, and visit a few consumer advocacy and appliance repair websites to get a handle on machines that worked for some people, and those that didn't.  By no means a scientific process, the process would at least involve the people who actually fixed the things (besides myself) and the topic's very obscurity provided some indicia of reliability.  It was at least as useful as trying to divine conclusions from normally well-intended but often vague owner reviews, together with the bar graphs of Consumer Reports.  

This effort really opened my eyes as to what is a good working machine – not now, or even five years from now, but fifteen years on.  I wanted a reliable and durable clothes washer, one that is easily and inexpensively repaired when it does break, with the possibility of staying in service for many years if properly maintained.  After all, if the U.S. Air Force and Army can indefinitely extend the life of bombers and tanks used in combat, why can’t we do the same with a simple home clothes washer used in the laundry room? 

The Choices

High Efficiency, High-Speed-Spin Front Load or Top Load Clothes Washers 
To begin with, one has to understand that almost no one makes a consumer-level clothes washer these days with a probability of lasting even 15 years without major repairs.  High efficiency front-load (HE-FL) and high-efficiency top-load (HE-TL) machines feature complex electronic subcomponents.  Drums or wash baskets in these designs spin at considerably higher speeds (950 rpm+), which put a great deal of stress on consumer-level mechanical components.  In particular, many consumer-quality front load designs that rotate a heavily-loaded wash drum about a horizontal axis appear to put more stress on their moving parts than some other designs.  Howzzat again?  Well, try envisioning 45 pounds or so of revolving clothing, water, and a double-walled wash drum on the end of a shaft supported - usually at just one end - by a sealed bearing assembly, and you can see the problem. 

Front load washers may fall victim to to damage or malfunctions caused by small forgotten pocket items such as a coin (jams operating components), failed or torn gaskets, corrosive water (attacks joints), galvanic corrosion (dissimilar metal reactions causing key part failures), or even higher-than-normal water pressure (affects pump noise/life).   

All high efficiency, high-speed spin washers (both top and front-load) invariably possess a motherboard and a host of electronic parts, and according to those who repair them for a living, washers crammed with multiple electronic sensors, touchpads, digital displays, and miniaturized circuit boards tend to need more frequent repair - i.e. - replacement.  They must be kept on an electrical circuit with functioning surge protection, because their vulnerable and expensive solid-state components can easily degrade or burn out with electrical power surges. 

Additionally, these mass-market electronics, frequently sourced from abroad, can sometimes produce error codes and malfunctions that stump even trained service technicians.  When this happens, the authorized service person will sometimes resort to replacing parts until the problem goes away.  The added wiring for the various sensors in new high-speed machines may require more protection from abrasion and short circuits, which the manufacturer may or may not have seen fit to incorporate.  The humid micro-environment and potential for leaking seals and torn gaskets raises the question of damage caused by moisture and condensation.        

Price-point engineering imposed by the reality of typical consumer budgets make it all the more difficult to make a long-lived product (as late as 2005, 75% of all washers purchased in the USA were priced at $525 or less).  Higher-priced high-speed washers do typically offer more features, and sometimes less vibration, but very few spend the extra budget on better-specification motors, bearings, circuit boards, or a more durably-engineered internal design. 

When these units do break, their parts are expensive, and because of limited parts inventories and foreign component construction, often are unavailable for days or weeks at a time.  Some front load models are not really designed to be easily taken apart for repair, so it takes the service tech more time to finish a given job.  Many of the newer designs have their individual parts integrated into expensive unitary component 'groups', so rather than simply replace a single item, your repair person may have to charge you for replacement of an entire parts assembly in order to complete the repair.  More than a few high-tech washer manufacturers restrict sale of repair manuals, tech updates, training, and parts availability exclusively to authorized repair personnel, usually preventing the owner from electing the cheaper option of DIY repair.  

Adding insult to injury, some owners of discontinued high-efficiency washers have tried to obtain parts to repair their machine after a few years of use, only to find they have been discontinued.  This can happen because the parts subcontractor supplying a component goes out of business, or simply because the manufacturer has no further interest in supporting an older product.  In the case of an electronic or major mechanical part, this leaves the owner with an inoperable 'parts orphan'.  

An increasing number of consumers have resorted to buying an extra-cost extended warranty (normally for up to five years, with lots of conditions/exceptions) to offset the increasing cost and frequency of high-speed washer repair.  However, once it's expired, they too are back in the market for a new model.  Unfortunately, the added cost of extending the warranty coverage doesn't protect the owner from lost time scheduling repeat service calls, taking a day off from work to let in the service technician, or going to the laundromat to wash clothes while waiting for parts to arrive from the manufacturer. 

In the long run, buying the extended warranty only makes things worse - much worse.  You end up paying hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars more over time to avoid the higher cost of more-frequent repairs and exhorbitantly expensive parts.  Furthermore, the practice removes ANY incentive on the part of the manufacturer to design longer-lived washers, to equip them with more durable, better-spec parts, or to build them using a conscientious, well-trained, and well-paid labor force.  Why should they build a longer-lasting, better quality clothes washer, when you are insuring them against responsibility and blame for breakdowns after expiration of the standard short-term warranty?

Another downside to the new high-speed, high efficiency machines can be found in their external styling.  Because of current marketing trends designed to make laundry appliances more visible in the household and to stimulate impulse sales based on perceived home values (i.e. matching design and color coordination), replacing a dead washer often means buying a new dryer as well.     

Traditional Design Top Loading Clothes Washers     
While nothing is 100% certain when it comes to mass-produced appliances (see my Maytag experience above), most who have looked at washer repair rates would be hard pressed to deny that traditional top load (TTL) clothes washers of mature design with simple, electromechanical knobs and manual water level controls tend to live much longer in the aggregate because of their simplicity, with some designs lasting longer (without repairs) than others, depending upon the specific design and component specifications.  These days, market forces, production costs, and government-mandated requirements mean they aren’t nearly as bulletproof as the 1960 Lady Kenmore of yore.  The sturdy steel porcelain cabinets have been replaced with thin-gauge painted or coated steel, while the outer wash tub on nearly all these machines is now made of polypropylene plastic.     

Many traditional design top-load clothes washers tend to be re-engineered or replaced every few years, either for reasons of perceived consumer demand, changes in brand ownership, a need to cut production costs, or because of an engineering or manufacturing defect in the former model.  The newer models do use a lot less water and electricity than their ancestors, though still more than the latest high-spin, high-speed-spin front load or top load washers.
According to the all-brand technicians I’ve contacted, about the only currently-made washing machine of any type that seems to consistently hold up for more than 10 years without major repair is the American-made, commercial-duty Speed Queen traditional top-load washer (Speed Queen makes front-load washers as well, but they cost more and use electronic controls).  Unlike most of today's consumer-level top-load machines, the SQ still features a belt-driven, single-reverse motor, sturdy gears, and steel outer tub for durability, as well as simple and well-proven electro-mechanical controls.  It is not quiet, nor particularly efficient, but it is well made of strong components, and is backed up by a better standard warranty than most other brands.  It is also still built entirely in the U.S.A. (Ripon, Wisconsin).  The SQ does cost somewhat more than some other traditional-type top-load washers, but its real disadvantage is when the machine does break down.  It is not the easiest design to repair, and requires specialized and expensive tools to perform some jobs.  Some repairs that ought to be simple, such as replacing a $3 tub seal, can be a real pain.

The Minimalist's Choice
Hands down, there is one inexpensive clothes washer of standard (3.2 cu. ft.) capacity that has any prospect of meeting our criteria – the traditional-design, Whirlpool Direct Drive (DD) Washer.  This is the run-of-the mill low-end Whirlpool top load washer with a mechanical direct-drive gearcase, a simple electro-mechanical knob-type wash cycle control (timer), a three-speed electric motor, tilt-front cabinet, a plastic outer tub and agitator, and electro-mechanical water level and temperature controls.  Whirlpool’s other captive brands, including RoperKitchenAid, Amana, Estate, and now Maytag (since 2/2007) also make versions of this design in their product line, as well as some models of Kenmore (110- model number prefix) sold over the years by Sears.  (You can look up your model number on the factory website to see part diagrams detailing interior construction).  In any case, the brand name stamped on the console is not the important factor; it is the specific internal design, coupled with a long production life and ample parts supplies, that gives value to the minimalist consumer.  

The current Whirlpool DD top-load washer hasn’t changed appreciably in its basic engineered form since the early 1980s, when it was first introduced.  It is a time-tested mass-production design that relies on relative simplicity and mature technology to achieve a reasonable cleaning performance and service life.  Like most other consumer-grade, traditional-design top load machines it has the lightweight plastic outer tub, and usually a two-piece agitator.  Despite goverment implications to the contrary, modern versions use surprisingly little electricity; with hot water supplied from an electric storage (tank-type) water heater, the Whirlpool costs about $41 a year for a family of four, $26 a year with a gas-fired storage (tank) water heater.  Curiously, the government doesn’t issue energy savings figures for those using passive solar heating, heat pump, or other energy-saving water heater designs, but given their greatly improved efficiency, annual water heating costs using such water heating systems for your traditional clothes washer should be significantly less than that.   

What sets the Whirlpool DD washer apart from the others is its simple design and long production life, with admirable parts commonality between models of the same basic design.  It is not built with components matching those of the Speed Queen, but its simplicity gives it a fair service life before major repair (8-10 years is common).  With no electronic displays or motherboard, it can withstand power surges that would destroy more technically advanced washers.  

The second advantage comes into play when - as with any other washer - repairs are needed.  According to my repairmen resources, most repair problems with the Whirlpool DD are straightforward and not hard to diagnose.  Since it’s so ubiquitous, parts sources are numerous (either locally or online), and numerous websites, DIY forums, and web pages are available to show newcomers various repair and maintenance tips.   Many appliance techs will carry the usual spare parts required to repair the Whirlpool DD in their truck.  The machine can be fixed with readily available hand and/or improvised tools (you may want a spanner nut wrench, an inexpensive tool available at any appliance repair store).  This is a distinct advantage for persons with limited income, as a friend or neighbor who's handy with tools can often repair such an appliance.  The Whirlpool DD design is so simple, in fact, that repairs not only tend to cost less than those of other, more complicated models, but Whirlpool thinks you’re capable of repairing it yourself - the company even quietly sells a DIY repair manual on its own website.  

The most expensive part on the Whirlpool DD design is probably the motor, costing around $140 new, but can be found in many machines being given away or sold for a few dollars.  A new inner porcelain steel tub is $130 or so new, but used examples are around.  A transmission is about $65 rebuilt, $125 new.  A timer is around $65.00.  Other parts such as agitator dogs and clutch assemblies cost less than that.  At some point the plastic outer wash tub ($110 new) may develop a crack (it can be patched with a waterproof sealant) or simply wear out, but used ones are available (recycled from broken machines).  Left untreated, corrosion on the metal housing or supports can eventually become a problem, though rusty areas can be sanded, primed, and painted with inexpensive epoxy appliance spray paint.    

An ‘Eco-Friendly’ Traditional Top Load Washer?
How can this be?  We know the government's 2007 Energy Star standards virtually eliminated modern-era traditional design washing machines from potential eligibility, whereas many HE-FL and HE-TL machines often receive certification.  Of course, the traditional-design top-load washer allows you do other things – wash large amounts of laundry quicklyuse inexpensive detergents, add laundry during a cycle, or wash small or large loads with varying water levels and equivalent cleaning ability.

But that's not the whole story. 90% of the energy costs incurred in operating a clothes washer comes from heating the water.  Newer traditional top load machines still use somewhat more electricity, but as we’ve seen, depending upon how much hot water you use, and how you heat it, there might not be a discernible difference.  Your other buying choices do play a role - positive or negative.  Ownership of a high-efficiency washer might provide few benefits if you also trade in your old tube TV for a new large-screen plasma set and home theatre.

But what about water use?  The traditional-design washers do use more water, so we infer they must be worse for the environment.  But if we look into the assumptions, one finds that clothes washer water savings comparisons tend to be exaggerated in many studies, often utilizing obsolete data to calculate water usage.  One 2008 EPA study of high-efficiency versus traditional washers stipulated traditional top-load washer water usage at a whopping 41 gallons per wash cycle (a usage level typically found on older-generation machines).  In fact, when evaluating the ‘water factor’ used to obtain Energy Star certification, I found that the average newer Whirlpool DD standard-capacity washer model gets a water factor rating of 7.25-9.25 (23-30 gallons per cycle) depending upon water level and rinse pattern.  Not too bad, considering that the government’s upper water factor limit is 8.0.  When you consider that 13.7% of daily water use in the USA is simple leakage from unrepaired fixtures (3,000 gallons per leak per year), the traditional-design clothes washer doesn't seem to be the problem.  

Of course, to get an Energy Star certification you have to meet both water factor and total energy use limits, as well as a “remaining moisture content in clothes” factor designed to account for additional dryer energy, which conveniently rules out many of the more-efficient traditional-design top-load washers.   Again, your own behavior greatly influences the bottom line.  The government assumes that all high-efficiency, high-speed-spin washer owners - regardless of brand/model - are satisfied with the cleanliness of their clothes and aren't fudging with extra wash or rinse cycles, nor using more hot water in order to increase cleaning power (or to reduce widely-reported high-efficiency front-load washer odors).  For those of you who don't precisely match the assumptions in the government model (washing mostly in cold water, using an indoor/outdoor clothesline or drying rack, using a high efficiency solar water heater or heat pump, or washing fewer than eight family-size loads of laundry per week), don’t count on saving much money before you pay to replace that washer again!

The Impact of State and Federal Energy Efficiency Standards
The feds don’t engineer clothes washers, of course, though they make no attempt to hide their approval of high-efficiency, high-speed-spin front and top load designs in the consumer information they distribute on the Energy Star website.  While their ostensible role is to set voluntary energy-use standards, these same standards have later been adopted as mandatory in subsequent regulations.  For example, a clothes washer that did NOT pass Energy Star standards in 2003 could not be sold today AT ALL.  Petitions filed by domestic manufacturers to obtain a slower implementation of these mandates have been ignored.  If manufacturers cannot technically achieve the "remaining moisture content in clothes factor" with traditional-design, electromechanical top load washers, they will eventually be forced off the market when meeting this performance standard becomes mandatory. 

Many U.S. laundry appliance assembly workers have already lost their jobs as a direct consequence of the government's decision to leapfrog washer efficiency standards.  If domestic manufacturers can't predict when or if they can meet these goals, their demonstrated prediliction is to shut down U.S. plants with tooling and equipment designed for traditional top-load washer production, then build and/or subcontract the manufacture of high-efficiency (and traditional design) clothes washers outside the U.S.A., usually in maquiladoras.  In doing so, these companies also frequently facilitate the transfer of proprietary technology to new brands with foreign ownership, who then take over the high-efficiency electronic washer market.  Meanwhile, the old traditional top-load washers, now also made in maquiladoras, stay in production as well, to be sold to countries without strict energy efficiency performance mandates.  Because of higher U.S. wage rates and labor costs as opposed to that paid in lower-wage nations, this blow to U.S. manufacturing jobs would have occurred anyway - in time.  But the government's Energy Star/DOE interventions, heavily supported by environmental officials in states such as California, have unquestionably accelerated the process.  

With few or no traditional clothes washer assembly plants in the state to worry about, California was the first state to aggressively implement its own mandated clothes washer efficiency standards.  However, since 2001 - when the state had the largest total number of persons working in manufacturing - California has lost one in four of these manufacturing jobs (down to 1.3 million in 2008), and these generally higher-paying positions have not been replaced.  This means fewer lower-class and middle-class workers in California can afford the new, more expensive high-efficiency washers so forcefully advocated by their state leaders.  Meanwhile, new foreign-built high-efficiency washers built in factories NOT subject to U.S. and state government environmental regulations now flood into not only California, but other states for sale to the American consumers that can afford them.  This is what happens when policymakers do not take a comprehensive, long-term view of all potential economic and environmental impacts when drafting goverment edicts.               

As you can see, these Energy Star standards have undeniable effects on consumers and the U.S. economy - often, a decidedly negative impact.  Because of the costs of the new washer technology and the desire of manufacturers to earn profits from sales in a competitive market, the hidden consequences of government efficiency standards can bite you even if you've decided to buy only high-efficiency, high-speed washers in future.  If the manufacturers (to meet consumer demands on price point and convenience features) build under-engineered or flimsy machines that can’t survive more than a few years of regular use, the government doesn't see that as its problem, and certainly isn't going to help you replace your dead washer.  Yet when promoting total savings of high-efficiency, high-speed designs, the government ignores reality, and assumes that high-efficiency washers have a service life cycle EQUAL to that of much simpler traditional top load machines - a rather unbelievable 11 years.  Nor does the government account for increased repair rates and out-of-pocket and/or extended warranty costs during that time ($50-$125 for an electromechanical dial timer vs. $580-$650 for a new electronic motherboard).  I ask you - if your expensive high-speed eco-washer dies in three, four, or even seven years after a couple of repairs, are you really going to be saving any money?   

Another unfortunate result of this campaign is that increasing numbers of clothes washers are purchased by American consumers not out of need, but because of the expectation that the new high-efficiency washer will generate the expected savings before it is no longer cost-effective to maintain or repair.  However, few buyers calculate their own real-life costs (including repairs and average life cycle) to determine if they are actually saving anything.

Environmental Costs of Short-Lived, High-Efficiency Clothes Washers 
When it comes to overall costs to the environment and national energy usage, the picture is a lot different.  Our government appliance energy standards consider only the short-term view.  What happens to all those washers that cannot be repaired, or resold to others, and must be replaced?  In the USA, around 32% are recycled, while the rest go to the dump – at last count, some 140-150 million pounds of discarded clothes washers each year

But this isn't the whole story.  Every year, as more unrepairable electronically-controlled high-efficiency washers compose a greater portion of that dismal 32% recycled rate, they generate large quantities of used electronic subcomponents - only 20% of which is actually recycled.  When not thrown into the local landfill, these electronic subcomponents (known collectively as E-Waste) are often sold to countries with very high repair capability and high raw material demand, resulting in high accumulations of E-Waste in impoverished areas of the world without strong environmental laws.  This pollutes landfills and underground water sources, increasing cancer death rates and risk of birth defects.  This certainly doesn't make me feel any better about what I'm doing for (or to) the environment.  

Meanwhile, to replace what's been thrown away, washing machine manufacturers and their contracted material suppliers must utilize tremendous amounts of electricity, water, and raw materials to produce new machines (using recycled metal and plastics helps, it doesn't solve the problem).        

The minimalist with significant amounts of laundry to clean can bypass this sad state of affairs by purchasing a new, scratch & dent, or slightly-used Whirlpool traditional top-load washer of the specified design ($125-$400).  In a stand-alone comparison, it is not the best-constructed machine, nor the most energy-efficient.  However, is simple, inexpensive, and cost-effective to repair, which gives it an insurmountable advantage in initial cost, and significant savings in long-term cost and consumption of natural resources. 

Unlike many of the ‘Energy Star-certified’ washers sold today, the Whirlpool DD design clothes washer is reasonably affordable for anyone, regardless of income. It can be repaired at reasonable cost by anyone of average mechanical ability with a few tools, such a neighborhood handyman (or handywoman).  When it can no longer be repaired, its remaining good components can be reserved and used to keep another inexpensive model of the same design in good working order.  And the next time you visit the store and pass the pretty new laundry appliances, you can feel just as good about your stewardship of the environment.  

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Member: Glen
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