The Wall Street Journal’s front page Saturday features an intriguing group of individuals who have MacGyvered their home appliances. Their notion, popularized most famously by former President Donald Trump, is that washing machines, dishwashers, and other home machines don’t work well anymore—and federal energy and water efficiency standards are at fault.
But there’s one thorny problem that the paper never mentions: while there will always be occasional lemons, actual testing of the products has repeatedly shown that today’s new models generally perform better, not worse, than their energy and water-guzzling predecessors.
The Journal’s case that modern washing machines make it “harder ... to clean pants” rests heavily on a Tennessee woman who is “trying to get her clothes to stop coming out covered in detergent residue” and has found “clothes emerging nearly dry to the touch.” She pours extra water into her high-efficiency top-loading washing machine and often runs it a second time.
The Journal could have done some rudimentary research here to shed some light on what’s happening.
The high-efficiency machines available today mix clothes in and out of water rather than fully immersing them. This can be surprising to users, even appearing as a design failure.
These machines—growing in popularity—require a very small amount of detergent (which is more concentrated than it once was). Using too much can lead to residue. The article even links to a previous Journal piece warning against overuse.
As for clothes emerging dryer than they used to, this is mostly thanks to rapid spinning. It’s a feature, not a bug. It greatly reduces the energy use required by clothes dryers.
But what about overall washing performance? Consumer Reports—which has tested washing machines exhaustively for decades—has found that super-efficient front-loading machines actually clean the best. And among top-loaders, high-efficiency “impeller” machines (such as the one faulted in the article) perform better than more traditional agitator models in washing performance, on average. The Journal doesn’t tell readers any of this, though. Instead, it adds a California man who “thought his washing machine wasn’t doing a good job on his laundry.”
The Journal refers to an individual who submitted to the government a photo of dirty spoons. That’s the case for “consumers questioning the cleaning power” of dishwashers.
Outside of anecdotes, we have good evidence about what’s happened to dishwasher performance since today’s dishwasher efficiency standards took effect in 2013. The results from testers have been excellent. Consumer Reports expert reviewers have found that today’s dishwashers “do such a good job at cleaning that new features don’t often change our test results much.” Wirecutter’s testing has shown that “modern dishwashers have never been better at removing grime,” and unclean dishes are uncommon today and usually attributable to using certain discount detergents, improper loading, or failure to clean filters.
Beyond cleaning performance, the protagonists’ case against new dishwashers focuses mostly on the length of the cycles. Here there’s some truth: the primary cycles on dishwashers have gotten significantly longer over the past several decades. There are actually several reasons: they use less energy and water but still need to get dishes clean; detergents switched from using phosphates (which harm the environment) to enzymes that need more time to clean; and consumers demanded quieter machines.
But there’s not exactly a crisis here.
The Journal allows that “many” new models have quick cycles. In fact, by 2017, nearly 90% of dishwashers sold had a quick cycle. These cycles usually take about an hour, if not less, and generally perform well, with some exceptions for the most crusted-on foods. That’s shorter than the main dishwasher cycles were back in 1983, according to a chart in the Journal article. So if you have a new dishwasher and need your dishes done at the speed of the old days, you’ve got an easy option. No need to jerry-rig your machine, or blame the government, for that matter. And the short cycles are even legally permitted to use more energy and water; we generally haven’t seen manufacturers abuse this.
If people were so upset about longer cycles, you’d think everyone would be using the short cycle. Yet it turns out its use is somewhat limited, perhaps because folks often run a dishwasher at night and unload it in the morning. A Consumer Reports survey found that a majority of consumers do not choose to use this option, and only 6% choose it most of the time. And modern dishwashers are much, much quieter than older models, so consumers are not bothered by having the machine run like they were decades ago.
As for pending proposed strengthened standards for dishwashers from the Department of Energy (DOE), the agency has projected no substantial impact on the duration of a normal cycle.
Perhaps most bizarrely, the Journal says that planned regulations would make it “slower to…boil pasta.” No evidence is presented, and this is simply not true. The DOE’s original proposed efficiency standards for gas and electric stoves specifically ensured that high-output burners could continue to be used on gas stoves. The agency’s revised proposal from August showed it was only considering efficiency levels that could still be met by stoves with as many as six high-output burners.
A recommended modification to this pending standard by efficiency advocates and manufacturers would, if adopted, even mean that very few gas stove models today would need to be modified at all. And for electric models, the efficiency improvement would be achieved by reducing wasted power when burners are not on, so there would be no impact to heating power.
Appliance hacks vs. the bigger picture
In identifying some individuals who are hacking their appliances, the Journal has missed and obscured the bigger picture: these appliances are working better than they used to while costing far less to operate. This has been the pattern for decades now. If history is any guide, when the DOE gets its job done and updates the standards for these products, their performance will only continue to improve.