By Kristen Walker, American Consumer Institute
At the very end of last year Commissioner Richard Trumka, Jr. of the Consumer Product Safety Commission declared war on gas stoves. The public outcry was substantial, and with good reason. All of a sudden, an appliance used in numerous homes and countless restaurants across America for decades was being deemed dangerous due to “toxic chemicals?” Turns out the data backing up these claims was not very reliable. Trumka’s backpedaling that no one was coming for your gas stoves was too little too late, and New York became the first state to ban natural gas stoves and furnaces in most new buildings.
It’s not just about gas stoves. Now there are more calls of action for other appliances such as dishwashers, clothes washers, and refrigerators. Oftentimes the result of such onerous regulations on basic household appliances is a restriction of consumer choice, decline in product quality, and more out-of-pocket expense all in the name of climate change.
Take for instance the clothes washer. This commonly-used item has gone through many regulatory updates over the years, and the results are mixed at best.
Customer satisfaction with washing machines has shifted over the years. 13 of 18 top-loaders in 1996 received a score of “excellent” with the other five ranking “very good.” By 2007, not one was excellent and seven out of 21 were considered “fair” or “poor.” In 2017, 61% of consumers stated they were completely satisfied with their washing machines, leaving the other 39% somewhat or not at all satisfied.
The most common complaints involve mold and mildew buildup in the washer, and ruined laundry. It is reported that after the regulations mandated in the year 2000, front-loading washers could no longer effectively clean themselves through the typical wash cycle and, as a result, detergent suds and laundry residue would build up and molder in the washer door seals and drums. Rather than fix the problem, it was recommended that customers buy new low-sudsing detergents manufactured specifically for high-efficiency washers. Consumer reports even began issuing remedies. But that didn’t stop a number of lawsuits against washing machine manufacturers.
In 2000 the Department of Energy (DOE) promised an estimated water savings of 11 trillion gallons, greenhouse gas emission reductions of 95.1 million metric tons, and a net economic benefit of $15.3 billion. The cost of a new washer would increase $249 by 2007, and the annual utility bill would drop $48. A 2000 Rasmussen Research survey of 1,997 consumers stated only 15% of respondents used their clothes washers as frequently as the DOE assumed (392 loads/year), and nearly 70% did not use them frequently enough to recoup the upfront cost of the new efficient machines mandated by the standard.
The poorest always suffer most because affordable options are removed from the marketplace.
In its 2000 analysis, DOE claimed a washing machine’s lifetime was 14.1 years; most manufacturers say 10. Some studies claim 50% of discarded washing machines were less than 10 years old, whereas 20% did not reach a lifetime of five years. Manufacturers also used to promise a five-year warranty on major parts; nowadays they offer one year with the option to purchase more. It seems to be a fairly common sentiment that washers (and other appliances) just aren’t lasting as long as they used to.
No one seems to talk about the amount of energy and waste involved in manufacturing a higher volume of washing machines that will more quickly become scrap metal. DOE’s estimates have the average household purchasing a new washer twice in three decades; yet other analyses have it closer to three (and in some cases four or five). That hardly seems environmentally friendly.
Just because DOE can update appliance regulations does not mean that it is always necessary or warranted. When contemplating new regulations the department must consider how such regulations will affect product quality as well as the economic impact to consumers and manufacturers, and not just their potential for energy efficiency. With the drastic increase in cost, reduction in consumer choice, and decline in product quality, it hardly seems like they have adhered to their own dictates.
Quit sacrificing quality and performance for political agendas. Let consumers decide and dictate what type of appliance they want or need in their house. Consumers know best.
Kristen Walker is a policy analyst for the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit education and research organization. For more information about the Institute, visit www.theamericanconsumer.org or follow us on Twitter @ConsumerPal.