Green Living: There's big energy to be saved in the laundry room

Good thing my clothes can’t feel anything or talk.

If they could, they’d surely berate me. I used to bathe them in nice warm water. These days, they’re thrashing about in cold.

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From my viewpoint, it’s all good. Cold water means they don’t shrink, they don’t fade, I save money by not using hot water, and — more to the point of this column — I’m helping the environment by not using as much electricity.

According to most estimates, heating the water accounts for about 80 to 85 percent of the energy consumed by a typical batch of laundry.

It’s a big number. But so far, most of us seem to be sticking with the mind-set we learned from our mothers: hot for whites, warm for colors, cold just for delicates. According to recent data from Procter & Gamble, only about 30 percent of laundry loads in the United States are done on cold.

Things are changing in laundry-land, however, as more and more groups take up the flag for cold water, and detergent manufacturers develop new formulas to work better in cold water. This could be a bigger shift than the return to the clothesline (which probably wasn’t very big after all).

In February, the Alliance to Save Energy (ASE), a national nonprofit that works to promote energy efficiency, partnered with Procter & Gamble to promote the benefits of cold-water washing.

“Energy efficiency doesn’t always require huge investments or new equipment,” said Alliance president Kateri Callahan. “With just the switch of a dial, cold-water washing is one of the simplest ways to save energy and money and benefit the environment.”

Last week, P&G’s vice president of global sustainability, Len Sauers, gave a cold-water webinar for the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, which this year is focusing on efficiency.

P&G — maker of Tide, Gain, and other laundry products — has a horse in this race because it’s been looking at its overall sustainability, Sauers said. He presented a chart with the life-cycle assessment of P&G products, and the energy use of laundry detergent was represented by a purple column that soared above the others, mostly because of the hot water used with it.

The company decided to do something about that.

As our moms can tell us, warm water really does wash things better. Sauers launched into a wonderful dissertation on this, complete with a drawing of squiggly little “surfactants.” The workhorses of detergent, they break up soil and stains and prevent them from being redeposited on the fabric.

But they’re sensitive to temperature, and at the lower range they begin to clump up and lose their effectiveness. Ditto the detergent’s enzymes, which are there to attack particular stains, such as proteins, fats, and starches.

P&G’s chemists got to work, and Tide Coldwater was introduced five years ago.

Likewise other companies. A Seventh Generation detergent I’ve been using doesn’t tout its chilly ability on the front of the bottle, but the back label notes that it works in a temperature range of 45 to 145 degrees.

ASE has some cool statistics about cold-water washing. If everyone in the United States switched, the energy saved would be equivalent to the energy produced at the Hoover Dam — a suitably watery comparison — for four years. Or, if you choose, it could power the streetlights of New York City for 71 years.

Those mega-numbers are fun, but what about your household?

ASE says a typical home, which supposedly does 400 loads of wash a year, could save enough energy to watch TV for 1,363 hours, power a refrigerator for four months, or charge an iPhone 30,861 times.

The money savings, ASE says, could amount to $63 a year. When I do the math for a top-loading washer that uses 40 gallons a load, factoring in local electricity rates, I get savings of more like 65 cents a load and $260 a year for switching from warm to cold. Savings for an efficient front-loader would be roughly half that.

So in my house, cold it is! (Cleaning those funky damp towels from a recent camping trip was a rare exception, heh heh.)

Here are some tips for washing in cold water:

Use liquid detergents; generally, powders don’t dissolve as well in cold water.

If you’re using a regular detergent and aren’t satisfied with the cleanliness, switch to one specifically for cold water.

Mix the detergent with warm water before adding it to the washer to help with dispersal.

Pretreat stains.

For more efficient laundering overall:

Wash only full loads of clothing.

If you must wash in warm or hot, rinse in cold.

Hang clothes to dry. If you’re allergic to pollen, hang them inside.

If you do use the dryer, clean the lint filter to aid the air flow. Also, separate lightweight items from heavier ones because lightweight ones take less time to dry.

“GreenSpace” appears every other week, alternating with Art Carey’s “Well Being” column. Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @sbauers. Visit her blog at www.philly.com/greenspace.