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Wash Clothes in Cold Water

by Deborah Mitchell
The Challenge

About 90 percent of the energy used to wash clothes heats the water, a practice that is increasingly unnecessary as advances in clothes washers and laundry detergents have made it possible to get white and colored clothes perfectly clean in cold water. Except when washing out particularly tough stains, such as oil, every load of laundry done in hot water wastes energy.

Wasted energy contributes to the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

The overall amount of water used to wash clothes is also an environmental concern. Currently, washing clothes accounts for 15 percent or more of a household's total water use. This high volume of water consumption is worrisome not only in areas prone to drought or where water is scarce but in all communities, as climate change, growing demands for water, and pollution make water conservation a critical priority if we want to ensure sufficient, safe water for future generations.

Appliance manufacturers, detergent producers, and innovative consumers have come up with ways to wash clothes using less hot water and less water overall. The result is big savings in energy and water, with a bonus of financial savings for consumers in terms of water and energy costs. Are you ready to make a difference?

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  • Set your water temperature to "cold" on your clothes washer. Unless your clothes have oil or grease stains, cold water is usually adequate to clean white and colored clothes. In fact, washing clothes in cold water allows fabrics to retain their color and strength longer.
  • If you have hard-to-clean clothes, switch the temperature to warm instead of hot and you can reduce the load's energy use by half. You can also use spot remover or presoak the clothes to help loosen the grease or stains.
  • Use cold-water detergents whenever possible. Be extra kind to the environment and use biofriendly detergents. Manufacturers of natural laundry detergents offer products that work well in cold water and contain no harmful additives. 
  • Wait until you have a full load to wash clothes. If you have a smaller load, use the appropriate water-level setting.
  • Set the thermostat on your water heater to no higher than 120°F.
  • When buying a new clothes washer, look for Energy Star labels. Clothes washers with an Energy Star label use 20 percent less energy than standard clothes washers and also spin the clothes better, which reduces drying time. A full-sized Energy Star clothes washer also uses less water: about 15 gallons per load compared to 23 gallons in a standard machine.
  • If you're looking for a productive way to get some exercise, reduce your non-renewable energy usage to zero by using a small handcrank clothes washer (good for single people) or a larger hand washer for larger loads. The handcrank model looks like a small cement mixer and can wash up to 5 pounds of dirty laundry. (That’s about one-third of what a top- or front-loader clothes washer can manage.) The handcrank clothes washer can use cold or hot water. The larger hand washer can handle bigger loads and also relies solely on human-supplied energy. Hot water is recommended but you can use warm or cold.

Until waterless clothes washers hit the market (and that day will arrive), give your laundry the cold shoulder in the fight against global warming.

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