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The Purpose of a Washing Machine

We recently bought a new computer. We didn’t want to, but we felt we had no choice.

Our 20-year-old washing machine began banging, then smoking, and finally stopped working altogether.

We phoned the appliance repair shop and discovered it had gone out of business. Couldn’t find another one that looked trustworthy. Apparently appliance repair is a dying industry.

So, we began making the rounds to stores looking at new washing machines.

“The new machines are programmable,” we were told.

“What does that mean?”

“It means they have computers in them that determine the optimal settings for your wash.”

“Do they all have computers?”

“Yes. It is just that some have bigger computers than others.”

So, we went to another store. Got the same answers.

And another.

“Why programmable?” we asked. “What do the computers do?”

The answer was that “the computers are designed to make the washing machines more efficient and environmentally friendly by saving energy and water.”

So, that is how we came to buy a new computer. Seeing no other option, we bought one of these environmentally friendly machines with an embedded computer system, choosing one whose computer was reputed to be relatively more reliable.

It was easy to see right away why these machines are supposed to save energy and water. The new machine agitates less energetically than our old machine. And it draws very little water, in fact leaving some of the clothes out of the water while they are being washed.

But then we became aware of other characteristics of our new machine.

The first thing we noticed was that the “normal” cycle on the new machine took about an hour, compared to 40 minutes on the old machine, a 50 percent increase in working time.

The next thing we discovered was that the reduced amount of water and the quieter agitation left soap in the clothes, causing some members of the family to develop irritating rashes. We switched to a High Efficiency detergent. Then we tried using a heavy-duty cycle, which used a little more water. This also raised the cycle time to almost twice the time of our previous machine. As well, the computerized programming required that the machine use warm water for the heavy-duty cycle, while we had been using cold water in our old machine; once the cycle was chosen, the computer in the new machine did not allow us to control the water temperature as our old machine did. These steps still did not rinse out all of the soap, so we resorted to adding a 22-minute rinse cycle at the end of the wash cycle. It is now taking two and a half times as long to wash our clothes in our new, energy-efficient machine. And soap residue in the clothes is still an issue.

An even bigger issue is that the life expectancy of the new machine is five years, largely due to the fragility of the computer and the high cost of replacing it. Basically, when the computer breaks down, the machine is toast. Compare that to our old machine, which lasted 20 years. The cost of recycling old washing machines and building new washing machines four times as often will more than cancel out any energy savings of the computerized model.

When our 20-year-old dryer died a few months later, we looked a little harder. On the later pages of the catalogues and websites of the same stores that had said all machines were computerized, we discovered non-computerized dryers—and non-computerized washing machines. The stores sell them, but they do their best not to let customers find out about them—and for good reason. We bought a non-computerized dryer that cost half of what a computerized model would cost, and it is expected to last considerably longer.

I care about the environment as much as anyone else. But the purpose of a washing machine is not to save water and electricity. Otherwise, we wouldn’t wash at all. The purpose of a washing machine is to wash clothes.

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