Wash - front or top?

Like many of you, I took some trips this summer – including ones that involved camping and other muddy outdoor activities. As usual, such excursions increased my appreciation of appliances: rinsing cookware in a cold, rocky stream and losing food to mold after just a few days reminded me how great my dishwasher and fridge really are! But as the sweaty shirts and muddy shorts accumulated, the appliance I was in desperate need of returning to was the washing machine... Washer

…which brings me to the point of this post, which I thought of while doing the weekend’s 7th load.

Laundry enthusiasts like me prefer top-loading washers to the front-loading variety. You can’t open the latter to fiddle with its contents, or you’d have a watery mess on your floor. But the front loaders are supposedly more energy efficient and use less water, so they’re easier on the wallet and better for the environment. I’m sure that’s true for the industrial washers at laundromats, where the high capacity really sets the front-loaders’ frugal features apart from the top loading variety - but for the average fits-in-a-closet model of washer I have, there is surely little difference…right?

To find out, the ClearlyEnergy team broke out stats on power and water use for household-sized washers – there’s actually quite a bit of variation in size, with models ranging from 2.5 to over 4 cubic feet of capacity. To keep things simple, we went with those in the 3-4 cubic foot capacity range, as that’s about average. We distinguished between the two washer types (front loaders vs. top loaders), but found that whether the machine is Energy Star-rated makes a much bigger difference than how it loads. Turns out pretty much all front loaders are Energy Star, so there’s no question that any front loader is way more efficient than my old inefficient top-loader…Check out the numbers:

Type of washer Annual Water Use in gallons/year (and $/year) Water Heating Electricity in kwh (and $/year) Running Electricity in kwh (and $/year) Annual Energy Use (kWh/year) and cost
Energy Star Front Load 5,007 ($42) 112 ($11) 28 ($3) 139 ($14)
Energy Star Top Load 6,578 ($55) 137 ($14) 34 ($3) 172 ($17)
Non-Energy Star Top Load 12,309 ($103) 295 ($30) 74 ($7) 443 ($37)

The price of running a washer breaks down into cost of electricity to heat the water (that’s about 80 percent of it, which is why you can save a lot by washing cold!) and the cost of the relatively small amount of power used to run the actual washing process – turning the drum, wiggling the agitator, whisking everything around in the spin cycle. As the table shows, Energy Star washers use way less water – no wonder they’re so much more efficient! But even within the Energy Star world, front loaders use less water on average than top loaders, and therefore cost less to run per year. Not by much, though: if I do laundry at the rate of the average American household (a whopping 392 loads annually according to Environmental Protection Agency) and my electricity costs are the national average of 10 cents/kWh, I’m only paying about $3 more per year for my top loader’s extra energy due to using more water. I’m willing to sacrifice a latte for being able to handle my laundry mid-cycle. 

But that’s not the overall cost of doing laundry: I’m not just paying to heat the extra water, I’m paying for the water in the first place. Even comparing Energy Star washers to each other, a front loader uses about 1,500 fewer gallons per year – and at the national average of about $8.4/1000 gallon, it means a front loader saves at least $13 per year in water use alone...compared to a conventional top loader, the savings are over $60/year. Now I’m reaching the point where it’s not really worth the ability to add a sock to my load here and there…

…And there’s more: How wet are my clothes when they enter the dryer? Turns out the horizontal axis of the front loader can squeeze more water out of the laundry after rinsing, thereby reducing drying time and costs – less cash wasted on electricity when I don't line-dry my clothes. Here are the drying costs, assuming I would have to stick 392 loads a year into the dryer:

Type of washer Energy a dryer will use (kwh) Annual cost of drying
EnergyStar Front Load 408 $41
EnergyStar Top Load 458 $46
Non-EnergyStar Top Load 697 $70

Well, that clinches it – a front loader saves me about $50 per year in energy costs and around $60 per year in water bills compared to my old school top loading washer. But even comparing Energy Star top loaders to their front loading equivalents, going with the latter still saves nearly $26 per year…that’s a lot to pay for the mere ability to get “hands on” with my wet clothing.

A pretty convincing additional benefit for those living in small houses like mine: the front loaders allow for a flat surface on top, so you can stack a dryer on them to save space or use the surface like a counter. I’d kill for some extra counter space!

Of course the cheapest washer models are still the non-Energy Star top-loaders, and they do save you few hundred bucks at the time of purchase. But it’s pretty clear that their front-loading or high-efficiency top loading equivalents will make up for the initial price difference in just a few years – and a household washer’s lifetime is typically 11-14 years making Energy Star a no-brainer. 

If you’re in the market for a new washer, and want to find which model fits your needs, ClearlyEnergy’s appliance section will open soon to help you figure it all out. Just enter your preferences - we'll tell you what the models cost and consume, what that means in real dollars, and we'll even let you know whether your state or utility offer additional rebates for disposing of your old washer or purchasing an energy efficiency one. Click here to be one of the first to know when the appliance section launches!

By Lisa Zelljadt, you can find me on Google+

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