- Do you have a new washer with an Energy Star sticker, the EPA/DOE seal of approval for appliances meeting energy efficiency guidelines?
Energy Star qualified washers use at least 40 percent less energy than standard washers and roughly half the water (www.energystar.gov). If you're in the market for a new washer, look for an Energy Star qualified model with the highest possible MEF, or Modified Energy Factor. The upfront expense may be greater, but more efficient machines mean lower operating costs. Dryers, by the way, are not Energy Star rated because there's so little variation in energy use among the models.
If your machine hails from the avocado/harvest gold era, obviously, it's time to find a replacement. In general, newer washers are more efficient than ancient ones. Age alone, however, is not a good gauge of your washer's efficiency. That's because the Energy Star program highlights appliances more efficient than the average of current models, so there are plenty of washers that fall short of the standard. Remember, too, that Energy Star washers range in capacity from 1.6 to 3.8 cubic feet, so tailor your purchase to your household's size.
If you're using a laundromat, don't beat up on yourself. Many laundromats already use energy-efficient washers since the water-heating bills for all those machines do add up. In general, the side-loading models commonly found in commercial laundries are more efficient than top loaders.
- How often do you wash most of your clothes?
Except for those of us dedicated to earning our jeans some street cred, we generally wash our clothes too often. Sure, socks and undies need to be washed after each wearing, but do those jeans and polos really need a wash after every wear?
- Do you run only full loads?
When it comes to energy and water use, full loads are the most efficient. Make it a habit to top off the machine. Stuffing the washer past full, however, actually makes it harder to get your clothes clean. So full, but not too full.
If you must do a smaller load, adjust the water level whenever possible. If you're lucky enough to have a washer with a "mini-basket," use it. Such baskets fit over the washer's agitator, enabling you to wash truly tiny loads with a minimum of heat and water.
- Do you use cold or warm water instead of hot water to wash your clothes?
Roughly 90 percent of the energy used for washing clothes goes directly to heating the water! For all but the most stubborn stains, washing in hot or even warm water is unnecessary. Most detergents are now formulated to wash in cold water. When you do use the hot setting, you can reduce your overall water heating bill, which accounts for 13 percent of home energy costs, by turning your water heater down to 120 degrees ("Normal" on heaters without temperature markings).
- Do you air dry your laundry on a clothesline or drying rack?
Solar power doesn't get more direct than a clothesline. If you live in a rain forest or where the winters are long, things can still dry pretty fast inside on a drying rack. Best of all, hang drying clothes is easier on all fabrics. Overdrying breaks down fabrics, especially synthetics, which can end up looking "bleached."
- What's your monthly dry-cleaning bill?
While those blouses and suits just back from the dry cleaner look pristine, the behind-the-counter process is anything but. The most common dry-cleaning solvent, perc (perchloroethylene or tetrachloroethylene), turns up in our groundwater and soil nationwide. It's also a potential carcinogen, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
Happily there are other options besides this nasty stuff, such as liquid CO2 cleaning and "wet cleaning." As the industry slowly shifts away from perc, it's grown easier to find cleaners offering these services. A quick Web search using either term will get you started. By the way, even if the garment tag says Dry Clean Only, professional wet cleaning does a better -- and safer -- job.
- Do you sort your laundry into different types of loads?
Your washer comes with three temperature settings -- hot, warm, and cold -- and it's OK to sort accordingly.
Most items will do fine in cold water; many items that seemingly require hot water will do just as well in a warm load. As for the left- and right-foot socks, they can to learn to get along by the second rinse.
- When buying new clothes, do you check what fabric's used and whether it requires dry cleaning?
A garment's price tag is just the beginning of what it costs. Dry-cleaning bills add up -- not to mention the previously mentioned problems with perc-based cleaning. Likewise, the factories generating synthetic fabrics from plastics and petroleum-based chemicals aren't exactly pollution-free.
Recycled synthetics offer a welcome, um, loophole to this problem. Jackets and pants made from recycled soda cans (those stamped with a No. 1 for polyethylene terephthalate or PET) offer a way to keep trash out of the oceans and pollutants out of the air. Similarly, organic cotton takes a lot less energy and pesticides to grow than its industrial cousin. And if you love silk, just remember that it really can be washed by hand instead of being dry cleaned. After all, traders were plying Asia's Silk Road long before drive-thru cleaners popped up along the way.
- If you have a dryer, how often do you clean the lint screen?
Yeah, yeah, it really is better if you clean the dryer's lint filter after every load. Sure, it takes a moment and the fuzz is sort of weird. But consider this: as lint collects over the filter, loads take longer to dry. So that time you "save" is wiped out watching the clothes go round.
- Unlike washing, there's no need to sort stuff before drying.
Kind of a trick question, we admit, so you get partial credit if you said "True." Perhaps you thought we were talking about drying your whites separately from your colors.
In fact, though, you can reduce your electric bill by 5 percent by putting items of similar weight (towels for example)
in the same load and then using the dryer's auto/moisture-sensing setting. At the end of the cycle,
if just a few items remain damp then hang them inside to finish drying. Overdrying, by the way, can
cause fabrics to deteriorate more quickly.