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issue: September 2008 APPLIANCE Magazine

61st Annual Laundry Appliances Report
Playing with Water


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by Lisa Bonnema, senior editor

As concerns surrounding water and energy usage grow, laundry appliance engineers are finding creative ways to wash with—and without—water.

According to Chris Shanley, product manager, laundry, at BSH Home Appliances Corp., washers are responsible for approximately 22% of water usage in the home. “Our products represent a great chance for the conservation of both water and energy,” he tells APPLIANCE.

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The words hot and water seem to be synonymous with clean clothes. But today’s appliance engineers are flipping tradition on its head. New and inventive laundry concepts are not only using less heat and less water, but, in some instances, are eliminating them all together.

Replacing Water with Plastic
Perhaps one of the most interesting washing concepts currently in development is coming out of the United Kingdom. Stephen Burkinshaw, a professor at Leeds University, has found a way to clean clothes by using plastic chips instead of water. Sound outrageous? Perhaps. But the concept is garnering international attention. So much so that Burkinshaw has started his own company, Xeros Ltd., to market the technology to the residential laundry and dry cleaning industries.

The washing method uses the absorbent properties of plastic to clean fabric and requires less than 2% of the water used by conventional washing machines, creating a virtually “waterless” cleaning technology. The process begins with about a cup of water and detergent to loosen the dirt or stain in the clothing. The clothes are then tumbled with polymer granules (or chips) for up to 30 minutes. The dirt is transferred to the chips, where it is absorbed by the plastic. Clothes are said to emerge from the process not only clean, but almost dry, reducing the need for tumble drying.

Xeros hopes to have the technology on the market as early as 2009. It recently received funding of €500,000 (approx. US$780,000) from its commercialization partner, UK-based IP Group, which has set certain milestones Xeros has to meet. Bill Westwater, CEO of Xeros, says the company is still deciding on the technology’s route to market. “Certainly Xeros is willing to work in partnership with established players, as well as considering ‘going it alone,’ as Dyson did,” he says. Changing Consumer Habits
Even with its environmental advantages, the success of Xeros technology will depend on consumer acceptance. “We believe this is a good example of a disruptive technology—one that turns existing industry practice on its head,” Westwater tells APPLIANCE. “Ultimately, the consumer will decide whether they prefer our ‘virtually waterless system’ or whether they want to stick to conventional washing systems.”

Dean Brindle, product line manager for Augusta, GA, U.S.–based Electrolux Home Products North America (www.electroluxusa.com), isn’t quite convinced that consumers will easily accept a washer without water. “The basic principles of cleaning with water have been in place for hundreds of years, and consumers may be reluctant to adopt a waterless technology,” he says.

Richard Allen, product manager for ASKO Appliances Inc. (Richardson, TX, U.S.; www.askousa.com) thinks there are other hurdles to jump before consumers will even consider waterless washing technology. “Once mainstream society can use and accept front-load wash technology, then the issue of waterless laundry technology can be addressed,” he tells APPLIANCE.

Others are skeptical that nonaqueous methods can match the performance of traditional technologies. “Washing is not just about removing dirt; it’s a complex process that removes dirt, microorganisms, extraneous matter (grass, lint, animal hair, etc.), and imparts fresh, clean-smelling fragrance to the clothes,” notes Scott Davies, product manager for Fisher & Paykel Appliances (Huntington Beach, CA, U.S.; www.fisherpaykel.com). “This must be achieved without damaging the fabrics, using too much energy, or requiring effort on the part of the customers, or replacing water and detergent with more-harmful chemicals. I believe wetting is required to achieve this.”

Watering Down Most manufacturers are spending much of their R&D time and efforts designing machines that use less water and detergent. Fisher & Paykel’s AquaSmart washer, for example, achieves a water factor (WF) of 5.96 and a modified energy factor (MEF) of 2.15, both of which exceed the Energy Star requirements of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) by 25%.

Clothes sit on a specially designed wash plate that moves the garments up and over the outside of the wash basket, and then down through a puddle of water. “The MEF of 2.15 is achieved by wetting the clothes with a warm soapy solution which is just enough to wet the clothes and no more,” Davies explains. “The machine then fills with just enough cool water to create the puddle. Because AquaSmart does not rely on immersing the clothes to wash them, it achieves a water factor of 5.79. The clothes are soaked, but not underwater all the time.”

Brindle of Electrolux says electronic sensors are playing a key role in reducing water usage. “For example, many washers include water-level pressure sensors to adjust the full water level to fit the load size, minimizing the water used in every load and saving energy and money for the consumer,” he explains.

H2ITION technology from GE Consumer & Industrial (Louisville, KY, U.S.; www.ge.com) uses a variable-speed drive system, a water-level detection system, and software to introduce the right amount of water to each wash load. “Other less-sophisticated technologies rely on timing devices,” notes Jennifer Mintman, product general manager. “And yet others use mechanical water-level detection systems that do not have the ability to compensate for differing load sizes.”

The shortage of copper has become a real challenge for motor manufacturers, so companies like Fisher & Paykel are making the switch to aluminum washing machine motors. While aluminum is a renewable resource and is less expensive than other metals, Scott Davies, product manager, says it is hard to get the same power out of an aluminum motor. “We have achieved this with a very special magnet technology,” he says.

The Case for Cold

Another way manufacturers are reducing energy consumption is by offering lower-temperature cycles. “Using cold water to wash is the simplest way for consumers to save energy, as nearly 70% of energy usage is directly related to water heating and water usage,” notes Brindle of Electrolux.

However, Matt Kueny, senior product manager, Miele (Princeton, NJ, U.S., www.miele.com) says washing with cold water offers some design complexities. “There are some challenges associated with the exclusive use of cold water, particularly in front-loading machines,” he says. “From a practical perspective, there is very little energy savings when washing in cold water versus warm or hot, particularly with machines that have onboard heaters.”

According to Kueny, lower temperatures often mean that other washing factors need to step up, whether it is the detergent or cycle time. “All cleaning processes are based on four factors—time, temperature, mechanical action, and chemical action,” he explains. “Reducing water temperatures will simply require an increase in time, chemicals, and mechanical action to achieve comparable cleaning results.  Simply lowering the temperature will reduce the cleaning performance of the machine.”

A prime example of this trade-off is BSH Home Appliance’s ECOAction option that is offered on some of its washer models. The function allows users to choose a lower-temperature cycle, but it does extend the time of the cycle so that washing performance is not affected. But consumers who are willing to sacrifice speed can save up to 20% energy using the option.

Indesit Co. of Fabriano, Italy (www.indesit.com), offers a Fast Cycle in its Moon washing machine that achieves speed at a lower temperature, but is designed to clean clothes that aren’t heavily soiled. “We
designed the Fast cycle for washing a limited quantity of not particularly dirty laundry, a deliberate choice based on our understanding of how customers’ needs have been changing radically, in terms of textiles, lifestyles, detergents, frequency of washing,” says Daniele Rossi, product technical director, laundry.

Davies of Fisher & Paykel says that as long as water temperature is not too cold—less than 68°F (20°C)—cold water can be very effective in cleaning. “Cold water is actually better at removing protein-based stains, and with detergent loading, can be very effective with oily stains,” he says. “We use the same amount of detergent, but our pump dissolves it in a smaller amount of water for distribution throughout the wash. This gives a concentrated detergent solution, which we recirculate through the clothes load even before we start to agitate. This and other techniques make washing in cooler water more acceptable.”

A key component in effective cold-water washes is the detergent. “The washer is just as effective in cold water as in hot water, assuming the detergent is active,” notes Brindle of Electrolux. “As these formulations become more effective, consumers will be satisfied with the improved cleaning performance.”

Earlier this year, The Clorox Co. introduced what it claims is the first-ever bleach specifically formulated to enhance detergent’s cleaning power in cold water. Interestingly enough, Chris Shanley, product manager, laundry, for BSH Home Appliances Corp. (Huntington Beach, CA, U.S.; www.boschappliances.com), says its machines have always added bleach to the cycle using cold water. “Our cleaning performance research has shown that bleach always performs best in cold water,” he says.

“Bleach is most effective in cold water,” echoes Allen of ASKO. “The purpose of bleach is to act as a stain remover in lieu of temperature.”

Kueny of Miele disagrees: “Cold-water bleaches and detergents can reduce energy consumption, but cannot provide the proper cleaning results for certain fabrics.”

In the end, Mintman of GE says the reality is that some stains and soils require the addition of heat energy for removal, which means more work needs to be done. “Accomplishing high levels of cleaning performance for a wider range of soil types using cold water only will require advances in the chemistry of cleaning products and cycle algorithms, as well as the possibility of geometry changes inside the wash basket,” she says.

The Conservation Challenge

Indeed, as environmental regulations continue to get stricter and consumer expectations grow, appliance engineers still have a lot of work ahead of them. “Balancing energy and water conservation while maintaining cleaning performance is the greatest challenge we face,” Kueny confirms. “Laundry products are already past the major savings point regarding energy efficiency—ongoing standard enhancements will yield marginal energy savings. Reducing water usage remains an open topic, but water efficiency is being addressed by all manufacturers.”

Davies of Fisher & Paykel agrees, adding that even with advancements in areas such as electronics and motor technology, it is getting more difficult to meet ongoing conservation demands. “Energy consumptions have more than halved over the last 10 years, and further gains are becoming harder and harder to come by,” he says. “The focus should now be put on modern flat-screen TVs, which contribute much more to the energy drain,” he says.

While that may be the case, it seems pressures will only continue to intensify, with new standards on the horizon. In March, the DOE announced more-stringent requirements for all washing machines that want to qualify for the Energy Star label, a joint program of DOE and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. By July 2009, all qualifying Energy Star washing machines will have to be at least 43% more efficient than the current federal energy efficiency standards and have a maximum WF of 7.5. By January 2011, all Energy Star washing machines will be 59% more efficient than mandated energy standards and will have a maximum WF of 6.0.

Whether the answer is colder water, more sensors, or plastic granules, there is no doubt that tomorrow’s laundry appliances will have to clean better and clean greener—and they will have to prove it to the consumer.

 

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