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The Washing Machine and Water

March 31, 2010


On the American television reality series Survivor, the host, Jeff Probst, reminds participants that in the game “fire represents life.” To prove his point, he dramatically extinguishes the torch of the contestant voted out of the game at the conclusion of each episode. In real life, however, it is water, not fire, that represents life. As the global population continues to increase and the climate continues to change in unpredictable ways, water is becoming a resource drawing increased attention. Some analysts have predicted a coming era of conflicts that are fought over rights to water. The latest crisis causing alarm between India and Pakistan, for example, is not over religion or territory but water [“Pakistan threatens to bring water dispute with India to the boil,” by James Lamont, Financial Times, 30 March 2010]. Lamont reports:

“Some analysts say that climate change justifies the modernisation of river treaties across south Asia. They warn that water stress threatens to cause conflict among populations relying on rain-fed water systems. Already mountain hydrologists can pinpoint where water stress will be greatest in the years to come. As the availability of water in Himalayan-fed river systems that support 1.3bn people drops, researchers expect increased friction between India, Bangladesh and Pakistan in a battle for resources.”

In addition to consuming water, humans use it, inter alia, to grow food, manufacture products, produce power, for recreation, for bathing, and for washing clothes. Although many people around the world continue to use rivers, lakes, and streams for many of their daily activities involving water, with more than half of the world now living in urban areas, providing for their water needs is becoming a critical infrastructure issue. That is why researchers continue to explore ways to use less water to perform many of the daily tasks in which humans participate — liking washing clothes and relieving themselves.


For most people in the developed world and a growing number of people in the developing world, washing clothes is no longer done in streams or using washtubs. They are using modern electric washing machines. A big selling point for many of today’s new washing machines is their energy efficiency. In the future, another big selling point may be how water efficient they are. A number of new washing machines (and I use that term in its broadest sense) are being introduced each year. I’ll describe a few of the more interesting models that have been highlighted in the online magazine Gizmag. Back in 2006, the magazine first reviewed the LG Steamwasher [“New clothes washer uses steam and no detergent,” by Mike Hanlon, 22 March 2006]. Hanlon reported:

“The electric-powered clothes washing machine was invented less than 100 years ago. Before that time, was the washboard (now better known as a musical instrument) and before that clothes were washed by hand using a variety of instruments, most notably the worlds’ favourite all-time multipurpose tool, the rock! The science of cleaning our clothes has advanced rapidly in the last few decades, and a new washing system from LG that incorporates steam technology to clean clothes without the use of detergent is a significant breakthrough. The steam capability can be used as a stand-alone 20-minute SteamFresh Cycle, which refreshes clothing, or combined with a normal hot or warm water wash cycle for better cleaning and a reduction in wrinkles.”

While the LG Steamwasher was considered a breakthrough, it didn’t feature reduced water use as part of its marketing plan, although, as a front-loading machine, water savings compared to top-loading machines was a benefit. In 2008, Electrolux introduced a top-loading machine that did feature reduced water use as a primary feature [“Water saving Water Aid Top Load Washer from Electrolux,” by Emily Clark, 16 March 2008]. Clark reported:

“Top loaders have generally been considered the water wasters of the washing machine world, but the new Water Aid Top Load Washer from Electrolux addresses this issue by delivering water savings of up to up to 7,800 liters (over 2000 gallons) per year using sensors that determine the load size and only supplying the exact amount of water needed to wash and rinse. With a four star Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards (WELS) rating, the top loader uses Electrolux’s Water Aid technology to automatically set the water level to suit your load size and fabric type, optimizing time and providing quality wash cycles without wasting water. The machine also uses a patented system that recirculates water to ensure it is only used where it is needed. Considering that the average load of washing uses less than 50% of average machine capacity, using only enough water for a specific load can lead to extensive water savings.”

The newest innovation in washing machines not only addresses water and energy efficiency but the irritating task of having to sort clothes as well [“Individual Washer takes care of sorting and color-coding laundry,” by Jude Garvey, 10 March 2010]. Garvey reports:

“What really annoys me about doing the laundry is having to sort through all the colors and fabrics. Especially when – despite my care – I accidentally include something red with all my whites and I’m left with oodles of pink sports socks and tees! A clever design concept from Yali Dai could solve all my laundering problems. The Individual Washer is an upright washing machine that can sort and wash all your clothes together – regardless of color, material or washing temperature requirements. Hooray, that means no more extra sorting, no more color bleeding and no excess water usage! The Individual Washer design concept features three compartments that are used for color, fabric and temperature sorting. As the machine can wash all sorts of fabrics and colors together – it means less time in the laundry for you and with less water and electricity usage – it’s great for the environment as well. The touch LCD screen at the front controls the rotation frequency and temperature for each of the three spaces and a shared engine takes care of rotating each of the oars in the individual compartments. The inner lid ensures that the clothes are kept separate from each other once the machine is on. The Individual Washer design concept is a brilliant idea for people who want to pile all their clothes into the washer without having to worry about sorting out colors or fabrics first.”

If you are environmentally concerned and don’t mind doing laundry by hand, then the Laundry POD might be for you [“Laundry POD: from salad spinner to washing machine,” by Karen Sprey, 16 March 2009]. Sprey explains:

“It’s a great example of thinking outside of the box: as industrial design firm RKS were redesigning a salad spinner they discovered women were buying them to wash their delicates, so they modified the technology and created a portable, hand-powered laundry machine. The Laundry POD is stylish, easy to use and eco-friendly, saving energy and water, and is perfect for delicate items, ‘in between’ and small loads, camping and travelling. You can’t turn on the TV or read a newspaper these days without being reminded of the need to save water and reduce electricity consumption – or of rising utilities costs. The prototype Laundry POD is a winner on many counts:

  • There’s no wasting of water and energy by using big machines for small loads
  • Gray water can be re-used for watering plants, flushing, etc. when eco-friendly soap is used
  • It’s made from recycled materials but looks stylish
  • It can be used anywhere as there’s no need to hook it up to a water supply
  • It saves trips to the laundromat and dry cleaner – great for apartment dwellers and students
  • It’s big enough for a small load, but small enough for easy storage

There are other portable hand washers on the market, but the big advantage of the Laundry POD is that it also extracts water rather than users having to wring out the clothes manually. This improves drying time, reduces the risk of damage to delicate items – and saves on elbow grease (which, let’s face it, is one of the main reasons we prefer our washing machines over grandma’s old-fashioned mangle washer).”

If water savings are your primary goal, then finding a waterless washing machine may be what you are looking for. There is even one of those being developed [“‘Waterless’ washing machine cleans using nylon beads,” by Darren Quick, 25 June 2009]. Quick reports:

“A washing machine that cuts water usage by 90% is due to hit American shores next year. The Xeros washing machine, which takes its name from the Greek word for ‘dry’, cleans clothes using reusable nylon polymer beads with an inherent polarity that attracts stains. The beads are added to the wash along with as little as a cup of water and a drop of detergent. After the water dissolves the stains, the beads, which become absorbent under humid conditions, soak up the water along with the dirt. The dirt is not just attracted to the surface, but is absorbed into the center of the beads. The beads are removed automatically within the machine at the end of the load so there’s no need for the user to worry about separating the beads themselves. They also don’t require cleaning and can last for about 100 loads or laundry, or about six months of average family usage. Since the Xeros doesn’t require a rinse or spin cycle it uses just 2% of the energy of conventional washing machines, cutting CO2 emissions on top of the water savings. The energy savings are further enhanced by the fact that the clothes come out nearly dry, meaning no power-hungry clothes dryer is required. Xeros claims that, taking all these factors into account, its machine achieves a 40% reduction in carbon emissions over conventional washing and drying. The technology was developed by researchers at Leeds University who have established a spin-off company called Xeros Ltd to market the technology.”

The Xeros washing machine is supposed to be available for purchase later this year. The American writer E.B. White once wrote, “We should all do what, in the long run, gives us joy, even if it is only picking grapes or sorting the laundry.” I admit that sorting the laundry is not high on my list of joyful activities, but I’m glad that researchers continue to explore better and more efficient ways to help us complete an activity that will continue as long as people wear clothes. Tomorrow I’ll discuss how new toilet designs are also promoting water efficiency.

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