Friday, July 10, 2009

Washing Machines, Free and New

A discussion of washing machines ends up touching on all sorts of issues: quality, efficiency and the abundance of free goods in the U.S.

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Readers checked in with some cogent comments on washing machines which reflect key issues in an economy of tightening money and resources. If you really don't have much spare money or credit, or are just thrifty and need what money you have for other projects, then as noted below an amazing array of goodies are available for free or for very modest sums.

Buying new appliances has one major payoff--much higher efficiency. A "life-cycle" analysis of any device which uses power and water (inputs which cost money) calculates the total savings gained over older less efficient models, which can be quite substantial. But such an analysis should also recognize the energy and material cost of manufacturing the item. An old item which lasts a long time has a lower life-cycle cost than one which breaks down in a year and must be replaced (especially if it cannot be readily repaired.)

This is the ultimate problem with cheap furniture from Ikea and poor-quality stuff from Home Cheapo: it may look nice for a few months before it rusts/pulls apart/breaks, but once it goes to the landfill it's true life-cycle costs were very high: non-renewable resources were invested in an object which had a short-lifespan of actual utility. Maybe the price tag indicated it was "cheap," but how cheap was it when compared to a more costly higher-quality item which lasts five, ten or fifty times longer?

Then there's the issue of repair. Older appliances, autos, lawn mowers, real wood furniture, etc. are typically repairable. Not so many new machines with electronics which fail. The entire device is always dependent on the weakest component. If that component is prone to fail and costly/impossible to replace, then the lifespan of that machine will very likely be far shorter than that of an older, better engineered and better-made equivalent.

How many times have you heard this story? The electronic board on a car goes out and the replacement costs $800 or even $1,200. How much is the car worth? Maybe not much more than the replacement cost of the electronics parts. So the entire vehicle is junked.

Ikea-type particle board furniture looks very nice when first assembled, but once the screws pull out of the particle board then it's impossible to fix without going to a great deal of trouble. Once the super-thin veneer peels off, revealing the particle board underneath, the once-chic item is quickly reduced to shabby junk--perhaps its "natural state" given the poor quality of the materials used in its construction.

These three reader comments each address these issues from a different perspective:


Soon after I moved in to my condo (with a laundry room) in SF back in 1998 a friend bought a home in Mill Valley that still had the original "avocado" green Maytag washer and dryer that the original owners of the home bought in 1968.

My friend and his wife bought a fancy ~$1,000 Bosch washer and dryer and gave me the green Maytag washer and dryer for free. A couple years later the dryer stopped getting hot so I slid it out of the laundry room in to my living room (thinking of the comedian who says "If you have ever had a major appliance disassembled in your living room than you might be a redneck") took it apart an replaced the thermostat (for under $6).

The green Maytags were working great when the same friend asked if I wanted to buy his $1,000 Bosch pair for $200 since now that they had kids they were buying a bigger ~$1,500 Maytag "Neptune" combo. I bought the Bosch washer and dryer and gave the old green Maytags away on Craig's List (I had a guy give me a sob story that he lost his job and his wife was pregnant so I gave him the washer and dryer for free).

The fancy front loading Bosch washer and dryer did not get my clothes any cleaner and ended up making my life harder since the super fast spin cycle (to spin out more water and reduce drying time and energy use) set the wrinkles in my clothes and the front loader locks preventing you from tossing in the sock that you spotted on the ground after the cycle stops. The most annoying "feature" was an auto turnoff (again to make the Euro Greens happy) that prevents you from getting things super dry (and makes you leave damp towels hanging around the apartment).

I sold the Bosch washer and dryer for $200 when I moved to Davis and I bought the cheapest GE washer and dryer combo at Lowes (with a 20% off coupon) for just under $600 out the door and they work great. I can't imagine that my clothes would be much cleaner (or dryer) if I paid $1,000 more for a fancy washer dryer set.

Kevin G.

Regarding the replacement of washers and dryers: My family returned from vacation (celebrating our twentieth wedding anniversary, thank you very much!) to discover that our 14-year-old washer was broken (again). We'd known that both it and our 20-year old dryer were not long for this world, so we were already prepared to replace them at the next breakdown.

We chose to spend about $1500 on a new set of high efficiency appliances from GE. They were delivered yesterday, hooked up (no extra charge) and the old ones removed (no extra charge -- and hopefully heading for recycling). My hope is that these, too, will provide us with many, many years of service. A bit expensive? Perhaps -- or perhaps not.

The old model had a giant drum that filled up two three times with water. How much water was that per filling? 20 gallons? 30? However much it was, it was clearly a lot. The new one sips water. I suspect it takes closer to 10 gallons to do the entire load (not just a single cycle). Likewise, the old one was an energy guzzler, where the Energy Guide on the new washer estimates that it will cost us about $11 per year for electricity and gas. Finally, it's high speed spin cycle leaves the clothes more damp than wet, so drying times (and energy consumption) are cut dramatically as well.

So where am I going with all this? I suspect we'll be able to cut our monthly water bill by $10 to $15 per month and our energy costs by $30 per year (guessing big time on that one) due to the new washer. Yearly, let's just call the savings $30 + ($12.50*12) = $180. $800 for the washer divided by $180 = 4.44 years. That's the time the unit needs until it pays for itself completely in energy and water savings. In other words, if the machine last a mere 4 1/2 years it will be essentially FREE to us.

In any case, I just wanted to present you with a different take on the cost and benefits of buying a new washer. I could do a similar analysis on the dryer, but really don't have a clue what the difference in energy consumption between old an new is except that I'm sure it is substantial.

Tree Hugger

Free stuff does exist. It is a little section of Craigslist. That good used washer from Wednesday's entry is easy to replace for the cost of a little time and effort. By watching the ads and answering in a nice and polite form there are probably several chances a week at a good working replacement for the cost of picking it up. When my wife and I moved from Texas to north Virginia, we gave away most of our big furniture and misc. items. We condensed our things to one car and one small-bed Ranger. Later when we had a 3 bedroom place for a while, every room was nicely furnished with free stuff. We got TV's, beds, couches, tables, chairs, a portable convection oven I adore, and dishes, etc.

The cost of moving alone would have been enormous, had we rented a U-Haul, much more still if we paid a moving company like many people do. There would be additional storage costs if a smaller place was chosen. The expensive moving fees are well known by the general population. If people don't give it away they have moving sales. One way or another there is always going to be plenty of stuff available at a fraction of the cost, or dare I say it, Free! (like a scavenger hunt)

Thank you, readers, for your commentaries.

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