Laundry lore passes down through generations. My grandmother shared a tip for removing fruit stains that I still use and have taught my children. (If you don’t have this priceless tip in your family’s legacy, here’s the failproof secret: pour boiling water – carefully! – on the stain from a foot above it.)

Clinging to laundry tips of yesteryear can be risky, though. Clothes washers and detergents have come a long way in recent decades, so far in fact that most of us have not kept up. Even as we toss clothes into sophisticated machines, we hold a mindset akin to our ancestors, convinced that clean clothes depend on scalding water.

Many people – perhaps most – still routinely wash clothes in warm water. Catching up to the times and setting washers on cold could simplify laundering routines, reduce power demands and save money.

Roughly 90 percent of the energy consumed by clothes washers goes to heat water. Compared to a cold-water cycle, a warm-water one takes roughly twice the energy and a hot-water cycle five times as much, the Union of Concerned Scientists reports in “Cooler Smarter.”

A generation or two ago, heat was essential to the cleaning process because the mechanical and chemical aspects of clothes washing were less sophisticated. But now detergents are formulated for a wide range of temperatures and washers are more adept at removing dirt and stains without the need for heat or violent agitation.

The average temperature of warm and hot settings on clothes washers has declined steadily as appliance manufacturers have worked to meet requirements for Energy Star certification. One washer now even defaults to a cold-water setting.


There are occasions when warm or hot settings are advisable, as with greasy items, heavily soiled clothing or bedding for those with dust mite allergies. But frequent use of cold-water washes can extend the life of fabrics, reducing shrinkage and fading. Cost savings from switching to cold can amount to more than $100 per year.

Cold-water washing also minimizes greenhouse gas emissions (roughly 1,600 pounds fewer each year per household) and saves water (as cold-water cycles typically rely less on water and more on clothes agitating each other).

Consider buying concentrated detergents to save on packaging, and then adhere to the recommended amounts. There are a wide range of plant-based detergents (without petroleum byproducts) that are free of fragrances and dyes, making them better for the environment and human health. Exposure to the residual chemicals that detergent leaves in clothing can aggravate asthma, allergies and multiple chemical sensitivities.

Reduce the need for detergent, water and energy by reusing lightly worn items, such as wearing pants and pajamas repeatedly. (Even Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh has gone on record asking consumers to save on water by not washing their jeans frequently.)

Try instilling this habit of clothing reuse in children – admittedly a struggle when their bureau drawers magically refill with clean clothes. Our sons began acquiring this habit only after learning to hang out laundry. The realization that all those clothes they had painstakingly pinned up were a single day’s accumulation got them thinking more about which items were truly hamper-ready.

When replacing a clothes washer, consider buying a front-loading machine (which typically uses up to half as much water as top-loaders and less soap). Front-loaders spin more efficiently, treat clothes more gently and reduce the amount of drying time needed.


Choosing an Energy Star model can save water, energy and money over the washer’s lifetime. Efficiency Maine offers a $50 rebate on purchase of certified models. (Disclosure: this columnist does contractual writing for Efficiency Maine.)

Whether you use a front-loader or a top-loader, run full loads without overfilling the machine (filling roughly three-fourths of the space with loose-packed clothes). Overstuffing the machine can reduce spinning action, adding to drying time.

Since the clothes dryer is a major energy guzzler, try minimizing its use. Whenever possible, hang laundry to dry. Line or rack drying takes a little time, but saves money, reduces wear on clothing and offers a free solar disinfectant.

Spinning and pinning our way to a cleaner environment may seem mundane. But our collective choices in the laundry room add up, given the 35 billion loads of laundry Americans wash and dry each year. Playing it cool with the wash water and giving dryers a rest can lighten laundry’s load on our overburdened planet.

MARINA SCHAUFFLER, a freelance writer and editor, is online at

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