If you're trying to save money and be kinder to the environment, a good place to start is your laundry. From the type of washing machine you own to the amount of laundry detergent you use, there's always a corner to cut somewhere. When you know how to make the most of what you have, it'll be like finding pants-pocket money every day.
When it comes to your washing machine, there are three efficiency elements to consider: water, energy and time. An efficient washing machine is one that gets the largest amount of clothes clean (without damaging them), using as little water and energy as possible, in the shortest amount of time.
For our purposes we can discount time as an efficiency factor, because while our time is important, it's also free (unlike water and energy). Time is also the one washing machine variable that's not measured under the Australian standard – there are minimum requirements for dirt removal, gentleness, rinse performance and spin efficiency, but no maximum when it comes to how long a cycle can run for, and cycle length doesn't affect the energy and water star ratings.
Front loaders are way more water-efficient, and because most of the energy used is to heat the wash water, they're far more energy-efficient as well
This leaves water and energy. Most of the energy used when doing your laundry is for heating the wash water so the more water your machine uses, the higher its energy consumption.
Front loaders, with internal water heaters, make this energy consumption easy to measure, but it also applies to top loaders where, in the absence of an internal heater, energy is used by your home's hot water service instead, and that's included when calculating the energy star rating.
As important as efficiency is when it comes to washing machines, bear in mind it's not everything – we all want efficient appliances, but balance that against a washing machine that does a great job of cleaning your clothes without damaging them. Our washing machine reviews can show you which washers do the best job, as well ones which are the most efficient.
Top loaders use a lot of water because they need your clothes to float freely in order to wash them – an average 128 litres per cycle in our tests. Front loaders on the other hand work by repeatedly picking your clothes up and dropping them into the wash water instead, requiring an average of just 56 litres for a cycle.
That means front loaders are way more water-efficient, and because most of the energy used is to heat the wash water, they're far more energy-efficient as well.
We also find front loaders do a much better job of getting your clothes clean, and are gentler on your clothes as they do it. But the trade-off for low water consumption is a longer cycle time – over five hours for some front loaders we've tested, compared to a typical top loader's approximately one-hour cycle.
It takes as much energy and water to wash a full load as it does a half load
Also, if you wash in cold water, like most of us now do, then you're taking heating-related energy consumption out of the equation and top loaders now have a very slight energy efficiency advantage (0.117kWh per cycle, compared to 0.267kWh), as the much shorter cycle time means pumps and motors aren't running as long.
This advantage is nowhere near as big as the one enjoyed by front loaders for warm washes – hot or cold, top loaders still use way more water.
CHOICE tip: Our recommendation for both efficiency and performance? Get a front loader. If you're a top loader enthusiast though, or if front loader just isn't suitable for you, then consider switching from a warm to a cold wash – it'll reduce your running costs significantly.
To calculate the annual running costs of your machine you need to know how frequently you run it, how much energy and water it uses per wash, and their respective costs.
Assuming, as the Australian standard does, you run a warm wash every day, your washing machine's annual energy consumption is prominently displayed on its energy star rating label, (e.g. 600kWh). Multiply this by your electricity cost (we estimate 40c per kWh) to get your annual energy cost. Using the example figures, your washing machine's energy cost is 600 x 0.40, or $240 per year.
Your washer also has a water star rating. Rather than an annual figure, this shows the water consumption per wash (e.g. 42 litres).
Multiply this by 365 for the Australian standard-friendly annual water consumption from running your machine once a day, then multiply this figure by your water cost (we estimate $2 per 1000L) to get the dollar amount – that is, 42 x 365 x 2 / 1000, or $30.66 per year.
Add your energy and water costs together to get the annual running costs for your machine – in this example, just over $270.
What if you only wash in cold water? The energy star label won't help, because that only gives you the figure for a warm wash. At CHOICE, we test using a cold wash because that's what most Australians do at home, so it's more relevant to you, so you can find the cold wash energy consumption from our test results. You can use this to do your own calculation, or simply refer to our 10-year running cost figures, which we've conveniently calculated for you already.
Detergent costs add up
The final efficiency factor to consider is detergent, and it's a biggie. Your detergent will be the largest expense in your laundry, but also the most variable as detergent prices vary wildly – from as little as 10 cents per wash in our latest test, up to a staggering $1.24 per wash.
The good news is we consistently find some of the best performing detergents are also some of the cheapest in our laundry detergent reviews – choose wisely and you'll get a great wash for a fraction of the price of the market leaders. Compounding those savings, we've also found you can get a great wash with just a third, or even as little as a quarter of the recommended detergent dose.
Washing machines have to carry a label that shows their comparative energy efficiency, with a series of stars, plus a number that tells you its total annual energy consumption.
Some manufacturers may publish the figures for both warm and cold washes, but only the warm-wash figure is required on the label. It's also worth noting that for top loaders, which don't have internal heaters, the quoted figure includes an estimate of the energy used by your home's hot water service, as well as the energy used by the machine itself.
A bigger washing machine may have more stars than a smaller one, but it will probably use more energy overall in a year
Back to the label – the more stars, the more energy-efficient the machine. However, you can only compare star ratings between machines of the same capacity. A bigger washing machine may have more stars than a smaller one (because there are inherent energy savings in a larger load), but it will probably use more energy overall in a year.
This may also give a false impression of economy – bear in mind that star ratings are calculated on a full capacity wash, and most of us don't come close to filling our machines – if you've got an 8kg capacity machine but, like most of us, wash multiple smaller loads rather your energy and water consumption is likely to be greater than washing a single, really full load.
Equally if you select a different program or temperature, your energy and water consumption will probably differ from the label – a gentle wash, for example, will use more water than a cottons program (the extra water compensates for the gentler mechanical action of the machine), and can probably only accommodate a couple of kilos of clothes at a time, further reducing efficiency.
Keep in mind also that a five-star energy rating isn't a guarantee of five-star washing performance – manufacturers can make their machines wash much better than they do, but this would drive energy and water consumption up, and star ratings down.
We find in our testing that there's very little difference in wash performance between warm and cold water, especially for washing mixed colours
Because good ratings sell more machines, unscrupulous manufacturers may minimise water and energy consumption as much as possible while barely meeting the minimum performance thresholds required by the standard. In other words, they may not wash really well, rather, just barely well enough.
Also remember that at CHOICE, like in your home, we don't necessarily test the program that's used for the energy label: we select a 'normal' cold wash for our tests – whereas energy labels use a warm wash, and oftentimes an 'eco' program. We use a different program to the label because most Australians wash in cold water these days, and we want our testing to reflect what you'll experience in your laundry at home.
Wash in cold water
We find in our testing that there's very little difference in wash performance between warm and cold water, especially for washing mixed colours, so switching to a cold wash can save on running costs without much impact on performance. If you wash in cold water exclusively though, it's a good idea to run an occasional hot wash to help clean out scrud and keep your machine running at its best.
Try to always wash a full load
It takes as much energy and water to wash a full load as it does a half load, unless the machine has special sensors or half-load setting options. Most of us only load our washers to half-full, but washing two half-loads will use significantly more water and electricity than one full load, so break out the scales to see just how much your washer can actually handle – you might be surprised.
Pre-soak or pre-treat heavily soiled items
Particularly with modern, high efficiency washing machines, pre-treating stains before washing is the best way to make sure your clothes come out clean – that way you won't have to wash them twice.
Unplug your machine when it's not being used
Some machines have a 'standby' mode, which means they're still using energy even when not in use. While it won't be much, the energy consumption from a house full of such 'vampire' appliances can really start to add up.
If your machine has energy-saving features, use them
These can include a 'fast wash' program for lightly soiled clothes or water-saving programs. Just make sure they actually ARE more efficient – gentle programs, for instance, will use MORE water than a regular cottons program.
Washing in cold water is still an energy-efficient way of washing, but using solar hot water in your washing machine for warm-to-hot washes can save a significant amount of electricity and carbon emissions.
To take advantage of solar hot water in the laundry you need a washing machine with a hot water connection. If you're a top loader enthusiast then that's not going to be an issue, but the majority of front loaders only have a cold water intake (an internal heater makes a hot water intake redundant and gives the machine greater control over water temperature), so your choice of a suitable appliance will be limited, though not impossible.
If you're using solar hot water in the laundry, though, there are a few things to remember.
- Many stains are set by hot water, so a cold fill and slow heat up to optimum wash temperatures helps the stain removal process. But if a dual connection washer is designed well, it should fill with cold first then add the hot water, so check for this feature if you're in the market for a new machine.
- Hot water entering the machine must be no hotter than 60°C, so a tempering valve may be needed for solar hot water heaters if there isn't a temperature controller already fitted.
- Using hot water for rinsing can cause creases to set more readily, so it's not generally recommended.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.