The CEI Airs Its Dirty Laundry: Save the Inefficient Top Loader or Thousands Will Die

Remember those entertaining folks at CEI (Competitive Enterprise Institute)? That's right, these are the people who brought us the hilarious CO2: We Call it Life commercials, and blamed the global malaria crisis on Rachel Carson. What are they getting into now, we hear you ask yourselves? Apparently these crazy cats are now busy sending their underwear to politicians in an attempt to save the American way of life or, more accurately, to defend the poor, misunderstood budget top-loading washing machine. Apparently new government legislation that requires washers to use 21% less energy is to blame for a downturn in washing performance. Furthermore, the CEI tells us, this is a sign of a much more insidious creeping evil in our midst that is leading to thousands of deaths a year:

"Government mandates for higher efficiency are almost always accompanied by claims that the higher prices they cause will be more than offset by their alleged savings from lower energy costs. But that raises a fundamental question—if these new technologies are so good, then why do we need laws to force consumers to buy them? In fact, efficiency mandates often flop, and in some cases they flop disastrously. Government fuel efficiency rules for cars, for example, already contribute to thousands of deaths each year due to vehicle downsizing. Many people dislike compact fluorescent bulbs for perfectly valid reasons, but there is now a push to mandate their use by banning incandescent bulbs."

We might be tempted to point out that larger cars are hardly safer for those outside them, or that climate change caused by excessive energy use is responsible for way more deaths than those evil small cars but then, of course, we remind ourselves that we are mere Treehuggers, and CO2 is life after all.

Returning to the details of the great dirty-underpants-in-the-post debate for a second, our fellow TreeHugger John Laumer has an interesting aside — it may be that government efficiency measures are not the only reason that top-loaders are failing to perform as required:

"When HA (horizontal axis) washers became popular just a few years back, the washing machine market segmented into one design for the low income person...these are the cheap VA's (vertical axis washer with agitator)... and the more expensive HA's (with no agitator needed) for the higher end market. (Note that as in all consumer products, a radical design change starts out with a higher price than its predecessor; then as the new design becomes a commodity, its prices go down, making it competitive with the previous design and the previous design leaves the marketplace...or almost does.

No doubt, VA manufacturers thought lower prices would buoy agitator machine sales for awhile. However, VA model makers eventually started adding all sorts of digital features (feature creep) to compete superficially, so that even VA model prices started ascending. Examples: digital timers, silver anodes, designer facia to "work with" the decor and accoutrements of the upstairs hallway laundry area (now that home builders have convinced owners to have washing machines upstairs, as opposed to the basement or mud room).

We need to appreciate what was going on in the background as the HA vs VA markets segmented also: the plants that made VA washers in the US worked with old manufacturing equipment and tax write offs were done for. Return on capital employed was good; but US labor costs high. With VA washer sales falling, the only thing holding the factories and jobs here were Superfund cleanup commitments, and perhaps the terms of State and local economic development contracts. Now they are leaving.

Washers sold in the &250- $300 price range today are fundamentally no different from the models designed in the 1950's. The only thing that has changed really is the controller setup. The factories that make the old designs have moved to countries where the middle class buyer does not demand digital programming etc. No amount of additional digital clap trap on the dial set is going to make our clothes last longer or save more energy or water. CEI was designed around the same mind set apparently."

Of course, whatever the details of washer designs on the market, government mandated energy efficiency measures, or outright bans on items like the incandescent lights, may not always be the best way to achieve results. We'd suggest a more universal, and fair, solution to level the playing field — simply include the true cost of CO2 emissions in the price of energy. Somehow we're not convinced that the CEI will like that solution either — this author is just hoping they don't start sending their dirty laundry to him!

Thanks John for the superb technical and economic insight!
::Competitive Enterprise Institute::via site visit::

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