Clean Duds Without the Washday Blues

August 17, 2001

By Michael Jessen

If doing the laundry gets you agitated and singing the washday blues, get ready to shout hallelujah.

Innovations are coming thick and fast to a washing machine market determined to help you save water, energy, detergent, and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions all in the same wash.

According to West Kootenay Power's PowerSense program (www.wkpower.com/powersense/) washing and drying clothes costs about $9.50 per month for the average home. Energy efficient appliances therefore can save substantial amounts of money.

Since electricity generation leads to emissions of carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases contributing to global warming, reduced use of electricity will mean significant CO2 emission reductions.

Although U.S.-based Maytag has been a leader in energy efficiency since 1997, the most recent innovations are being brought to market by Asian and European manufacturers.

In late June this year, Japanese appliance maker Sanyo Electric promised clean duds without suds.

Sanyo's new Denkaisui model range uses ultrasonic waves and electrolysis instead of liquids or powders, the Osaka-based company announced. The ultrasonic waves produce bubbles that batter dirt particles, which are then dissolved by a combination of activated oxygen and hypochlorous acid generated by electrolyzing the wash water.

Billed as an environmentally friendly washing machine, the top-of-the line Denkaisui was scheduled to arrive in Japanese stores this month at a cost of $1,030 US. No word yet on whether the machine will be sold for export.

Sears, Roebuck, and Co. also unveiled a top-of-the-line machine in June manufactured by Whirlpool Corp. in Germany to challenge Magtag's energy efficient Neptune line. The front-loading Kenmore Elite HE3t washer uses about 60 litres of water for a normal cycle compared to 160 litres in a conventional washer. Besides saving hot water, the machine also saves energy during operation -- welcome words for consumers wracked by rising energy costs.

Maytag (www.maytag.com) estimates that its Neptune line, introduced in 1997, has saved enough electricity to light 1.3 millions homes for a year, the equivalent of three cities the size of Vancouver. The company estimates the appliances have 4.9 billion gallons of water, more than enough water to provide a lifetime supply of drinking water for residents of a city the size of Calgary.

But if North Americans had greater access to Sweden-based Electrolux washers, even more water and energy would be saved. Electrolux's (www.electrolux.com) best washing machines consume less than 1kWh (kilowatt-hour) per cycle and less than 40 litres of water per cycle. Electrolux also puts a great deal more emphasis on corporate social and environmental responsibility. Visit www.corporate.electrolux.com and compare the information available there to that on the web site of North American manufacturers like General Electric (www.ge.com), Amana (www.amana.com), Maytag (www.maytagcorp.com) and Whirlpool (www.whirlpool.com).

The Electrolux year-end results 1999 document reveals another Electrolux innovation that may be vision of things to come. "We have also started a pilot of a new business model that we call Functional Sales on the island of Gotland in Sweden. Together with the energy utility company Vattenfall, Electrolux offers a pay-per-wash option for the participants' laundry needs. This gives everyone the chance to pay for only the "function" of Clean Clothes. At the same time it creates incentives for reducing energy and detergent consumption."

New American minimum efficiency standards for clothes washers will be phased-in starting in 2004. According to Howard Geller, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (www.aceee.org/), the standards will reduce hot water use and the total energy consumption associated with clothes washers by about one-third. "As a result, consumers will cut their energy, water, and detergent purchases by over $25 billion during the next 30 years," noted Geller.

If you're just fed up with doing the laundry, Alex Fowler is working on the solution for you -- self-cleaning clothes.

Fowler, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, hopes genetically engineered bacteria impregnated into every single fibre of a fabric, could live, breed, and eat up dirt, creating self-cleaning clothes.

A vacuum pump developed by Fowler and his team sucks a few drops of agar jelly containing a harmless strain of Escherichia coli bacteria into the hollow fibres of milkweed and cotton plants where they form a thriving colony.

So if your shirt was impregnated with a strain of E. coli designated to feed on human sweat and the proteins that cause body odours, you'd only have to wear it to jolt the bugs into action. For some other strains, you might have to douse it with additional nutrients occasionally. "You could end up having to feed your shirt instead of wash it," Fowler told the New Scientist magazine.

Self-cleaning clothes may be a whiter shade of pale, but washing machines that are good for the planet and your pocketbook are available now.

ONE SMALL STEP - Did you know that 86% of the energy used by your washing machine is for heating water? Just switching your water setting from hot to warm or cold can cut energy use in half. Horizontal axis or front loading washing machines use one half to one third the energy of vertical axis top loaders because they use less water. Don't forget to rediscover your clothesline. Use the sun's power to dry your clothes for free. Plus, they'll smell better and last longer.

RESOURCES - Want to know what's the best washer? Check out the Washer Buying Guide at www.whatsthebest-washer.com/. Learn more about energy saving appliances at the Appliance Standards Awareness Project at www.standardsasap.org/ and the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star Program at www.energystar.gov/.

Michael Jessen is the owner of toenail environmental services, a consulting company that helps businesses and communities profit from environmental leadership. He can be reached by telephone at 250/229-5632 or by e-mail at toenail@netidea.com. His firm's award-winning web site is at www.toenail.org/.


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