Money Laundering: Are High Efficiency Washing Machines Worth It?

As part of our personal economic stimulus home purchase, H and I have been replacing quite a few appliances around the house – most of them because the existing ones were either too small and woefully old, or they were terribly inefficient.  The washing machine is old, and uses a lot of water – something that really angers me because I see it as a monumental waste.  H doesnt really care about this fact, but after we were getting clothing coming out of the washer (or the dryer) with holes in them, that was the last straw for her.  We went to the store to poke around once, and took the truck just in case of an impulse purchase, but we were able to look around, and hold off on the purchase.

After this, I decided to do some research on which washing machine would be best in terms of efficiency.  This is kind of an odd ball as far as appliances go, because you have to watch use on two fronts – electricity and water, where as most appliances you just need to concern yourself with how much energy is being used.  First, I went to the energy star website and tried to find out which units used how much water an electricty per load.  Of course, since this program is run by the EPA, nothing is simple.  They’ve done all this analysis and scored each unit based on something they call a ‘modified energy factor’ and a ‘water factor’.  Of course, this didnt really do much because the explanations are not that clear, but they offer a spreadsheet (g0 to clothes washers resources, then qualified clothes washers) you can download to look at all the data and see for yourself.

Once I got the spreadsheet downloaded, I did a double sort – first on the water factor, then on the energy factor.  I pulled the top ten out of the list, because the numbers were virtually the same.  It seemed that when one washer did better with water, it wasnt quite as good in the energy side, and vice versa – but again, we were talking about a very nominal amount.  Once I had this information, I looked up each make and model number just to see about how much they would cost – and I got glaringly different results.  For all but 3 washing machines on the list, they were $1,200+ units (for just the washer – dryers were about the same price)!  I am not about to pay that much for a washing machine, and I got even more curious about the prices because the others on the list were around $600, or 50% less!  Since there was virtually no difference between the amount of resources used between each unit, it couldnt be that one unit was more efficient.  The extra expense was in the features – which I don’t need.

When I ran some quick numbers on wether or not the more expensive units would save more money than the other units in the group, I determined the payback period to be over 100 years!  By that time, I will have gone through at least 3 washing machines, if not more.  Due to the extremely small difference in efficiency and the large difference in cost, it got me thinking about the models on the very bottom end of the spectrum, and how they would compare to one of the $600 units, as well as one of the $1200 units.

The cheapest unit on the market right now runs about $400, and is not energy star certified – while all the ones on my list are.  According to the product fact sheet, the unit uses approximately 470 kWh/per year, while the ones on the energy star list ranged from about 90 kWh/year on the low end, to 284 kWh/year on the higher end.  Where I live, energy prices are about an even 8 cents per kWh, so we are talking a yearly cost difference of somewhere between $27 and $12 per year, depending on the unit selected.  You’d pay about 34 per year for  the cheapest unit on the market, 12 for one of the $1200  and  7 for the $600 unit .  Given the approximate life span of a washing machine of 15 years (I’m being generous here) you’ll save approximately $405 over the lifetime of the unit, if you picked the $600, and compared it to the cheapest unit on the market.  The initial cost of the most expensive unit, however, is over $1,000!  Even counting in energy savings (based on prices in my area) I still wouldnt be able to get a positive return over 15 years!

Like I mentioned earlier though, there’s also some water useage to consider, which is a lot harder to price out (in my area anyway).  Our water is sold in “blocks” where we pay one price for the first 1,000 gallons, then a higher price for the next 1,000 gallons, and so on.  Where this could really save a person money was if they were able to use a more efficient unit to keep themselves from going into a higher water usage block that would be unavoidable with the cheaper unit.  As I mentioned, this would be hard to pin down, and even more so with laundry needs changing over time.

What seems to have happened in the washing machine industry is the companies are larding up the units with tons of (unneeded, in my opinion) features that they can sell for high margins.  If you look carefully however, you’ll be able to find a very high efficiency unit at a low price – making it easy to get the return on the investment that you’re seeking.  The cut off, however seems to be the $1,000 price point – once you get above that, no amount of efficiency will be worth the extra cost you paid for all the bells and whistles of the fancy unit.  (Who needs to control the washing machine from a cell phone app, or have a washing machine delay the start time, anyway?)

To add an interesting caveat, I got an email from a reader named Lupi, who had the following to say about High Efficiency Washing Machines:

Good article. Here’s what you missed. It appears that the newer more expensive HE machines have about a 5 year lifespan. This makes it almost impossible to get a payback from energy savings. In addition, we need to think of the environmental impact of all those machines in our landfills. I would happily trade the old Maytag I had that lasted 15 years for the newer Maytag HE Bravos that required a new bearing ($415) after 4 years. Apparently manufacturers have decided that people would prefer to upgrade after 5 years. Washing machines are different from cell phones and computers. I want to keep mine as long as possible.

Once I got her email, I knew she had a point and decided that it was worth adding to this article. I had not had any problems with our washing machine, so I couldnt be sure if there were some bad brands or models, but I have noticed that there are still a ton of old washing machines floating around out there, and the new ones dont seem to have as long of a life span, though I’ve found nothing solid to back this up.

As if almost on cue, my our washing machine breaks a few months later, and we need a new electrical control board to get it working again. It has been over a month, and we still dont have the part, but we had the debate that Lupi mentions – should we just buy a new one, or fix this one? We ended up fixing it (though it’s not fixed yet).

So, are high efficiency model washing machines worth it?  It depends, like everything.  The cheaper units on the energy star list will always give you a positive return on your investment though depending on the amount of energy used, payback period will vary. While the ones that cost $1,000+ will most likely not be worth it in the end.  Here’s a handy sheet on the energy star website that has estimated lifetime operating cost, as well as MSRP (which you shouldnt have to pay – you should be able to find it on sale somewhere).

In the end, H and I got our washer for about 575 (est yearly operating cost: $11), and our dryer for $650, for a total cost of $1200.  Our payback period versus the least efficient machine on the market should be about 8 years, give or take.

Readers:  Are you in the market for a new washing machine (or any appliance)?  If so, do you take as much time as me deciding what to purchase, and consider all relevant factors that are important to you?  Or do you just search out the best deal and be done with it (I have the luxury of waiting because my old washer is not broken).  If you’ve recently bought a new washer (or other appliance) did you rank initial cost, or lifetime cost higher in your decision making process?

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13 thoughts on “Money Laundering: Are High Efficiency Washing Machines Worth It?

  1. I know exactly what you mean. Personally, I think the popular “green movement” is way over-hyped and isn’t even working. It’s a way for corporations to hijack something that should be good, and to ruin it.

    The same payback period can be found across other “green initiatives” as well. The Prius and the Volt are great examples.

    For an appliance like a “green washer”, you will pay a LOT more in the long run, for essentially no “green value”. Not only does the washer cost more initially, the detergent costs a lot more. If you try to use the old stuff, the washer is smart enough to stop running and make you clean it out.

    I think that true “green living” needs to come from the heart of the individual, and not some popular agenda trying to sell more products. Hang your clothes out to dry, or wash them using an old ribbed board/ringer. Telework if you have the chance, to save gas. Install a solar panel here and there. Buy local food and grow as much as you can, instead of paying corporations to poison you. Make your own household goods like shampoo, soap, carpet cleaner (baking soda and cloves/cinnamon makes great carpet cleaner!).

    Not only will you “live more sustainably”, you will save money, which is great as well because your saved money can be used to fuel more “sustainable living”. It’s cumulative.

    • Oh one thing I forgot. When buying these “green machines” you are also trusting the machine to not crap out on you before the “payback period” runs out. The way things are made today, cheaply in China and other countries, I don’t put much stock in it lasting very long . 🙁 Hope I’m wrong because all I could buy was a “green washer” as well.

    • I’d have to agree that the green movement is getting out of the hands of where it started (and I feel like it belongs) and into corporations just slapping “green” on everything they make so they can double the price. I do feel though, that if you do your research (this is key) that you’ll be able to save money buying some products that do have the green labels – but even then, i’d still rather make it myself if I could.
      I like your idea with the ribbed board, but that’s just not something that i’m willing to do!

  2. We have really high water rates where we live so the payback period in the water savings alone has already made it worth the cost of the machine, and it’s just over five years old.

    • our water rates are reasonable, but they do start to get higher the more “blocks” you use – which is good, but they could probably be a bit higher. THere’s not much water around here, so it’d be nice for conservation if it hurt a bit more.

  3. $1,000 is way too expensive for a washer. Geez…
    We live in a high rise and we have a laundry room in the basement. I think the HOA got a nice front load model when we upgraded a while back. In our case, I think it’s worth it because they are in used constantly.

    • That’s what I thought joe – and those were not even the most expensive models on the market! There were some that were 1200-1300 per unit! I think we did pretty good – now it’s just a matter of seeing how long they last.

  4. As a former home owner I can tell you that it is rather expensive to both own and maintain a home. Washing machines tend to have common sets of features that make it easier to make a purchase decision such as water & electricity consumption, top vs front loader, manufacturer etc. As a ballpark figure I try aim for $600-$800.

    • HA! Well im not sure if I was as ready as I would have liked to be, but it’s a fun ride just the same. On a more serious note – when you’re in this position you should always look at the payback period of high efficiency stuff. Sometimes it’s not that great.

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