The Plight of the Washing Machine

Carmen Snowdon is an expert in Water Efficiency

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Carmen Snowdon, WRc's Director of Commercial Services and specialist in Water Efficiency, is asking the important question: do we really know how much water our washing machines use? With increasing pressure on our water resources, the industry is again revisiting ideas and options for managing demand – including the topics of metering, tariffs and affordability. 

Early in my career, I was fortunate enough to work on affordability trials with Defra and South West Water, exploring how the industry could simultaneously help customers be more water efficient, whilst also supporting them in ensuring they were accessing all of the support and benefits they were entitled to, as well as making use of water company affordability schemes. At the time, so-called ‘innovative’ tariffs were seen to have a relatively modest impact on customer water demand.

The Consumer Council for Water have been working with water companies to pilot recommendations from their (much!) more recent 2021 affordability review – schemes which they say “aim to break down the existing barriers to help and ensure financial support and advice reaches those that need it most”. The difficulty, however, with some of these activities is in knowing how to help customers understand their own water use, and how they can make more water-efficient decisions in their home. Coupled with this, many decisions we make about water use in the home have a wider sustainability impact – water and energy use (hence, carbon) are inextricably linked, and then there are issues associated with chemical use, personal care products and, increasingly, micro-pollutants including microplastics. For me, no appliance embodies this more than the humble washing machine - and we recently had a lively conversation across WRc’s technical forum on just this topic.

“It’s using machines for real, and it matters which add-on rinses are used” commented one of my colleagues. Washing machines have a water consumption associated with them on energy labels, however in reality every wash uses a different amount of water. So how can a normal home tell the water consumption associated with their preferred wash cycle – or more importantly know how to pick a cycle which uses less water because a low energy ‘eco’ cycle may well reduce temperature but use more not less water than a standard wash.

On day-to-day consumption, the washing machine can have a big impact on daily water consumption. The two images below show water use at a home with 2 occupants – one on a day without washing machine use, and the other on ‘washing’ day – with 3 washing machine cycles throughout the day. The machine in question has its water use on the technical product sheet stated as “Water consumption 11220 l/annum, based on 220 standard washing cycles for cotton programmes at 60 °C and 40 °C at full and partial load. Actual water consumption will depend on how the appliance is used.” However, there is no information on how different washing machine cycles or extra settings actually impact the water or energy use of the machine, or guidance on how to select a more water-efficient cycle - effectively leaving consumers powerless to make informed choices.

Images courtesy of Anglian Water App, in a smart meter trial area – thanks Mum & Dad!

A matrix of consumption with different programmes and settings would at least allow people using machines to understand this – and could well reinforce efficient behaviours such as making sure the machine is full before putting it on. I’d love to know if anyone has experimented with monitoring their own water consumption using different cycles and has any insight to share.

Whilst discussing this, our technical teams also highlighted the impact clothes washing has on microfibre release into wastewater – and the possibility of these reaching the environment. There is a proposed Bill to make it mandatory for microfibre filters to be installed on all new washing machines – but is this really the most effective location for fibres to be removed from the system? What happens to the fibres when disposed of into domestic waste, and are there toxins – such as POPs – present in those fibres that might make their way into landfill? Would it be more efficient to remove all such fibres at wastewater treatment works? Indeed, if we use less water in our washing machine cycles, do fewer fibres get released from clothes – or is it all about spin speed?

So, what is the relevance of all these thoughts? Well firstly it is quite startling how little we really know about basic appliances we interact with on a day to day basis in our homes – if we don’t have basic information to make informed decisions, how can we possibly empower ourselves and others to be making consciously sustainable decisions? And secondly, what started as a simple consideration of how to help customers make informed decisions about saving water and energy turned into a complicated web that has provided me with opportunity to reflect on the importance of cross-disciplinary thinking – not approaching a challenge from just one perspective or with one outcome in mind. One of the things that I have always thought made WRc a little special is our ability to rapidly assemble teams from all different backgrounds and work closely together to solve difficult challenges. More often than not, this will be under our WRc Portfolio collaborative research programme – you can find out more information about it on our website here.

I’m hoping to see a cross-disciplinary washing machine focused project in the near future – I’d love to hear from you if you’d like to be part of it!

Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019

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Have you experimented with monitoring your water consumption? Got some thoughts on the proposed Bill on mandatory microfibre filters? Keen to get the ball (or drum) rolling on a washing machine WRc Portfolio project?

Head over to the WRc LinkedIn channel to have your say and continue the discussion with your network. 

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Created by potrace 1.16, written by Peter Selinger 2001-2019

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Carmen Snowdon

Director of Commercial Services

Carmen is a Chartered Environmentalist and formerly a Principal Consultant in Demand Management. With over 15 years at WRc, she draws on cross-sector knowledge, contacts, and experience in senior technical, commercial, and management roles to lead a team focusing on effectiveness, efficiency and risk management. Carmen is also a Fellow and Committee Chair of the Institute of Water South West Area.

2023-01-26 12:36:00