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Unreliable ratings

Water star system fails to shine

washing machine sinking into water
Last updated: 01 April 2021

As you read this, large  parts of Australia will be experiencing drought and water shortages. Living with these conditions in recent years – often for prolonged periods – has made us pretty good water savers. More and more of us are taking basic steps such as using the eco cycles on appliances, adjusting the water level in our washing machine or reusing grey water.

From CHOICE research, we also know that most people understand and use the star rating system that indicates water efficiency when shopping for a new appliance.

We were recently asked to give our views on the Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards (or WELS) scheme to inform a government review, which gave us the opportunity to lay out all the ways in which we find it lacking.

Some of the biggest problems come from the way that appliances such as washing machines are tested. Manufacturers are generally able to choose the cycle used in testing. At CHOICE, we've done a lot of research into how people use their appliances and changed our test methods as a result. For example, we test on the 'normal' cycle, with a less-than-full load. This can make a big difference: when we compare the amount of water used in our tests to the amount indicated by a machine's star rating, we find that some machines can use over 100 litres more per cycle than suggested by the label.

 In our tests we find that some washing machines can use over 100 litres more per cycle than suggested by the star rating label

As a result, we've argued for changes to the standards behind the scheme, to test machines on the cycle that you're mostly likely to use at home. We also think that labels should warn you about the maximum amount of water a machine might use on other cycles.

We've also noticed that water labels fail to give an accurate signal of the amount of water used by combined washer/dryers. These appliances use water as part of the drying cycle – and often a lot of it. The average amount of water used in the drying cycle of the machines we've tested is 51 litres – but in some this can exceed 200 litres. You won't be able to tell this from the star rating though, because it currently only covers the amount of water used in the wash cycle.

This might all seem a bit complicated, but there's a simple message. Labelling systems such as star ratings are great because they make it simple to compare products – but they need to be based on reliable data.

There's also a bigger question about whether some of the machines we've tested should even be allowed to be sold in Australia. When many of us have happily adjusted to taking short showers and recycling water around the house, none of us should be tricked into buying a washing machine that can guzzle over 200 litres in less than an hour.