New dishwashers and clothes washers are stylized and sleek, with electronic sensors, LEDs, and digital displays. They're quiet. (“Is it on?” advertises one of the upper-end dishwashers.) The newer paired washers and dryers really are nicely designed and even talk to one another. One might even say they're pleasant to look at. (Tea and crumpets in the laundry room, anyone?)
Touted alongside the high-tech styling that speaks for itself is something that really can't: energy efficiency. Energy Star. The yellow tags with the appliance's typical energy usage on a sliding scale. So getting a new dishwashing machine or clothes washer is not just about looks, but also about cost of operation. It appears worth the money to buy the more expensive model because the energy savings will make the purchase wise in the long run.
But wait … there's more! If you time the purchase right and satisfy a few requirements, you can get tax breaks on your new energy-efficient appliance! At other times, there were bounties for trading in your older appliance.
The one little detail you can't test in the store
In a store you're able to open/close the door on the machines to see how solid they feel. You can see how they look. You can ask about the features. You can compare a number of brands side by side on price, features, and energy usage. If you have a smartphone, you can see if this store is selling the machine at a good price or not.
The one thing you can't test, though, is this:
Does the machine actually clean?
Unfortunately, there's growing evidence that newer washing machines are having trouble doing what they should be doing, which is cleaning. Consumer Reports did its best to play up its study's results for newer washing machines. The article didn't go out of its way to laud the cleaning ability of any washing machine it tested; the most charitable adjective it used was “middling”and the worst was “particularly dismal.”
All but forced to be dirty
Why do clothes come out nearly as dirty as when they went in? Why aren't these machines doing their job?
The operating standards for appliances for energy and water usage are mandated. Whether these energy standards are well-meaning legislation gone awry, technology not keeping pace with public policy or a growing population, or collusion between environmentalists and manufacturers to subsidize new, expensive machines, is immaterial.
What is happening, though, is that washing appliances are mandated to use less water and less energy with time. Top-loading, standard-sized washing machines (with capacity greater than 1.6 cubic feet) must have an integrated water factor (IWF) of no more than 8.4 starting in March 2015. What is the integrated water factor? So glad you asked. It's “the sum, expressed in gallons per cycle, of the total weighted per-cycle water consumption for all wash cycles divided by the clothes container capacity in cubic feet.” Starting in January 2018, the IWF is to be no greater than 6.5. (The current maximum is about 10.) There are similar requirements for overall energy usage of new machines.
Dishwashers are similarly being mandated to use less energy and water. Starting about June, 2013, standard dishwashers can use no more than 5 gallons of water per cycle. Currently the maximum is 6.5 gallons per cycle.
The double whammy to clean clothes and dishes is that detergents are crippled, too. Many states have regulations preventing the sale of detergent with more than an ineffective amount of phosphates, a natural rinsing agent. So, this has to be circumvented either by buying out of state, or by adding the phosphates back in (after checking with local regulations governing the use of phosphated detergents, of course).
So, assuming that you want clothes that don't look like a giant ring around the collar, and dishes that don't have caked-on food, what do you do? Unless there's a giant breakthrough in dishwasher or clothes washer technology, I don't think new appliances will do the trick. There are too many requirements placed on the machine designs for them to do an effective job, and the requirements are just getting stricter.
The real bargains in both cost and performance will mean “going retro” — buying and maintaining machines that were manufactured before the regulations were put into place. Think Craigslist and thrift stores. Think junkyards. Think “old and ugly.”
If that doesn't appeal to you, when the machines you have break, just forget about them. Don't replace them. Do things the old-fashioned way until enough people complain (or enough legislators realize that their clothes are dirty!) so that the regulations are modified. Buying new machines are basically throwing money down the drain. They just aren't up to the job.