When Cincinnati firefighter Ed Wallace bought a high efficiency Whirlpool washing machine, he came to regret the decision almost immediately. The machine used less water—not enough to clean Wallace's work clothes—and his colleagues at the firehouse quickly took notice. "I walked past my guys and they say, 'Dude, you stink!'" Wallace said. "I smelled myself, and yeah, that's me stinking."
Now, President Joe Biden is pushing regulations that could force Wallace's stinky situation upon millions of Americans.
Biden's Energy Department last month proposed new efficiency standards for washing machines that would require new appliances to use considerably less water, all in an effort to "confront the global climate crisis." Those mandates would force manufacturers to reduce cleaning performance to ensure their machines comply, leading industry giants such as Whirlpool said in public comments on the rule. They'll also make the appliances more expensive and laundry day a headache—each cycle will take longer, the detergent will cost more, and in the end, the clothes will be less clean, the manufacturers say.
The proposed washing machine rule marks the latest example of the administration turning to consumer regulations to advance its climate change goals. Last month, the Energy Department published an analysis of its proposed cooking appliance efficiency regulations, which it found would effectively ban half of all gas stoves on the U.S. market from being sold. The department has also proposed new efficiency standards for refrigerators, which could come into effect in 2027. "Collectively these energy efficiency actions … support President Biden's ambitious clean energy agenda to combat the climate crisis," the Energy Department said in February.
While the Energy Department—which did not return a request for comment—acknowledged in its proposal that "maintaining acceptable cleaning performance can be more difficult as energy and water levels are reduced," it expressed confidence that Whirlpool and other appliance manufacturers can comply with its regulations without sacrificing stain removal and other performance standards. For the Heritage Foundation's Travis Fisher, however, manufacturer concerns over the proposal are justified.
"When you're squeezing all you can out of the efficiency in terms of electricity use and water … you by definition either make the appliance worse or slower," said Fisher, who serves as a senior research fellow at the foundation's Center for Energy, Climate, and Environment. "Why are we so focused on the energy output, as opposed to if it's helping me wash my clothes? That standard has kind of gone off the rails."
Beyond the performance standard debate, the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers argued that the Energy Department's washing machine regulations "would have a disproportionate, negative impact on low-income households" by eliminating cheaper appliances from the market. The Energy Department estimates that manufacturers will incur nearly $700 million in conversion costs to transition to the new machines.
The department countered concerns over higher appliance prices by arguing in its proposal that consumers will ultimately save money under the regulations through lower energy and water bills. Still, those estimated savings won't apply to all consumers, roughly a quarter of whom "would experience a net cost" thanks to the efficiency rule, according to the Energy Department's proposal.
The Energy Department is required to conduct efficiency standard reviews every six years under the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, which Congress enacted in 1975, two years after an Arab oil embargo inflated gas prices in the United States. The Clinton administration subsequently established the country's first washing machine energy and water efficiency standards in 2001, just before former president George W. Bush took office. Those standards led to "ruined laundry, ongoing maintenance, and service calls," prompting Whirlpool to release a cleaning product "specifically designed to address moldy washing machines," according to George Washington University's Sofie Miller.
The debacle has not stopped the Biden administration from moving forward with more stringent appliance energy efficiency standards, which have not been updated for washing machines since 2012. The tightening of those standards "could put performance at risk" but is unlikely to provide "meaningful energy savings," the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers says, because most appliances covered under the Energy Policy and Conservation Act "now operate at peak efficiency."
"They keep tightening the standards, and I'm not sure their reasoning makes sense anymore," Fisher told the Washington Free Beacon.