News of the week
The Energy Department reinstates energy efficiency standards for dishwashers, clothes washers and dryers
Back to saving energy and water
This week, the Energy Department (DOE) announced that it was finalizing the revocation of a rule created by the Department during the Trump administration. Under Donald Trump, in 2020, the DOE created a new category for washers, dryers, and dishwashers that allowed for unmitigated waste of energy and water.
Citing consumer choice and the possibility of spurring manufacturers to create more product offerings, the DOE in October and December of 2020 stated that standard-size dishwashers with a normal cycle time of 60 minutes or less were not subject to any energy or water conservation standards, thus allowing for unlimited water and energy usage. The agency made similar allowances for clothes washers and dryers.
On December 29th, the National Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, the Consumer Federation of America, and the Massachusetts Union of Public Housing Tenants petitioned the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to set aside the Trump era’s relaxed energy and water use standards. Also on the 29th, 14 states, along with the District of Columbia and the city of New York, filed a separate but similar lawsuit.
Closing this loophole created by the Trump administration returns the energy and water conservation standards to previous levels. Standard-sized dishwashers, regardless of their normal cycle time, are again required to use less than 307 kilowatt-hours per year and five gallons or less per cycle; compact dishwashers, regardless of their normal cycle time, are again required to use less than 222 kilowatt-hours per year and three-and-a-half gallons or less per cycle.
Dishwashers vs old-fashioned hand washing
I’ve heard the hand washing vs. dishwasher debate since I was in high school—which was better at saving energy and water—with both sides entrenched in their views. Like most other debates, the real answer is: it depends.
A study from 2020 and sponsored by Whirlpool found that hand washing—and washing the way everybody does it with the hot water running out of the faucet the whole time—produces more than twice the greenhouse gases and uses twice the water of a typical dishwasher cycle, although the common practice of pre-rinsing dishes before putting them in the washer complicates the picture, as does the heat drying option. You might take the results with a grain of salt, as Whirlpool makes dishwashers, but the study was conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan, who also found similar results in previous studies.
There is, however, an earth-friendly way of washing dished by hand. Use a two-basin sink and fill one with hot soapy water and the other with cool water (no soap). Then you can clean up your dishes in one basin, rinse in the other, then let the dishes air dry. This is efficient and eco-friendly hand washing. Even so, it is only slightly more efficient than using a dishwasher.
The history of the dishwasher, at least in America, is a story of class, war, and consumerism. For the wealthy, washing dishes had always been done by servants. In the mid to late 1930s, to pay for New Deal programs and to build up armaments in preparation for the United States to enter World War II, the top marginal tax rate went from 25 percent in 1930 to 79 percent in 1936. (The top rate remained high, over 90 percent in the 1950s and remaining over 50 percent, until 1980 and the beginning of Reaganism and the country’s move toward neoliberalism.)
Back to the 1930s. With increased taxes chipping away at their wealth, rich families could no longer afford the servants on which they had relied. But they still did not want to wash their own dishes. These families were the first customers to whom the dishwasher was marketed.
Part of the success of Sears was its ability to exploit the aspirations of the working and middle classes. With Kenmore, Sears developed dishwashers that the new, postwar, prosperous middle class could afford to purchase in emulation of wealthier folks. Other companies, like Frigidaire, followed suit. Even still, dishwashers did not start to become common in American kitchens until the 1970s. By the early 1980s, building plans for homes started to include space in the kitchen for a dishwasher.
Me and my dirty dishes
Personally, I’ve never had a dishwasher. There has never been a day when I woke up in the morning and thought that my life would be better if I went out and bought one. I’ve never even turned one on. We have a dishwasher in the employee kitchen where I work. I’ve put dishes, knives, spoons, and forks into the dishwasher; and I’ve pulled those things out once they were cleaned, but I’ve never flipped the ON switch of that or any other dishwashing machine.
I don’t hate dishwashing as much as a lot of other folks. It might have something to do with my older sister manipulating me into helping her with family chores when she was a teenager and I was around five. She would wash up after dinner, with me helping her, drying the dishes. She turned the whole thing into as much fun as a kid could have at the kitchen sink, by singing songs with me. I looked forward to doing the dishes as much as I looked forward to playing with my toys or drawing on my chalkboard. As I recall, our favorite song to sing together was the Kingston Trio hit “MTA.” Decades later, I can still remember all the words.
Or my enthusiasm for dishwashers may be underdeveloped because I sensed the appliance would be underused. About 80 percent of Americans have dishwashers, but at least 20 percent of those folks (or more) admit they use them less than once a week.
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