Energy Tip# 17: wash and rinse in cold water

Congratulations to TerraPass tip readers who earned some coverage this week in Time magazine.

washingmachine.gifHow do you easily save 1% on national CO2 emissions as well as over $3 billion in energy costs? According to some studies, this could happen if we all simply wash our clothes in cold water.

Most of us are unaware of the full extent of energy required to wash our clothes. A staggering 85-90% of this energy is used by the water heater. Only 10-15% actually goes to running the washing machine. A switch of all U.S. washers to cold water would mean a savings of about 30 million tons of CO2 per year.

Sounds great. But will your clothes be just as clean? The general consensus is that unless you’re dealing with something like baby diapers or grease stains, cold water is more than up to the challenge posed by everyday laundry. There are a even a few cold-water detergents making their way to the marketplace, including Tide and Purex, although it’s likely that most enzymatic detergents will do the trick.

Canadians, who were issued a “one tonne challenge” to reduce their carbon footprint, may be familiar with the “Switch to Cold” campaign started by the Canadian Energy Efficiency Alliance. In the U.S., the Alliance to Save Energy also advocates the benefits of cold water washing and has highlighted a few useful detergents.

So hopefully in a few years when children across the country sing “this is the way we wash our clothes, wash our clothes, wash our clothes,” they’ll be singing about one of the easiest and most cost effective ways to reduce energy use and CO2.

Let’s take a look at the numbers (courtesy of the Rocky Mountain Institute)…

Average annual washing costs/household: $72 (electricity)
85 % savings: $61
Approx. CO2 savings: 1,281 lbs

Last week we had a record-breaking number of votes with 291 people (!) saying they would look into solar thermal for their hot water needs. If 3 people (about 1%) actually install these systems, we’re talking about a potential lifetime savings of 2,205,000 lbs. of CO2. If everyone who was interested carried through to installation, we’d see lifetime savings anywhere from 100-200 million lbs. of CO2, roughly equal to the entire amount reduced by TerraPass to date!

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  1. h.s.sharma - November 1, 2006

    Make a law that single persom travel is illegal.Minimum of five person must travel in a car/the Co2 emission would be reduced by 20%.
    What is the scenario in india 90% occupancy in a car is single person.Why should for transporting a single person ,a car which occupies the 16 feet to 20 feet road space (the length of the car),emits pollution in the form of CO(carbon monoxide,N2O.Tetraethyle lead CO2) and uses imported oil(India produces 30% of its consumption of oil) ????????????

  2. TheBowerbird - November 1, 2006

    You should have either posted a direct link to the Alliance to Save Energy article on the detergents, or listed some out in the article. It’s poor form to simply mention something in passing, as a proper detergent for cold water is essential!

  3. Adam Stein - November 1, 2006

    Fair enough — I’ve updated the link. Here it is:
    There are actually a ton of great tips on this web site, although they only specifically recommend one detergent: Tide Coldwater.

  4. kayla - November 1, 2006

    I have read that one should wash bed linens in hot water to prevent/kill dust mites.

  5. Adam Stein - November 1, 2006

    Kayla, from what I just read online, this is true: if you have a problem with dust mites, you want to wash your sheets in 130° water. Two things about this:
    1. This is only the case if you actually have a problem with dust mites, such as allergies or asthma.
    2. Your hot water heater should be set at 120° so it wouldn’t be possible to wash linens at this temperature anyway. In other words, if you have a problem with mites, you should probably be taking your sheets out to a professional cleaner.

  6. Rob Lewis - November 1, 2006

    Energy Tip #18(?): Shave Cold
    Modern razors are so good that they no longer need hot water to pre-soften whiskers. Besides, hot water:
    –makes the skin puff out, burying the roots of the whiskers deeper and making a close shave harder
    –dilates surface capillaries, so shaving nicks bleed a lot more than if the skin is cold.
    Cold water, on the other hand, makes whiskers stand up and away from the skin.
    You shouldn’t leave the water running while you shave. But if (like millions of people) you do, this tip will save HUGE amounts of energy. And it will keep your mirror from getting fogged up!
    Try it. I did, and I won’t go back.

  7. Antony Hodgson - November 1, 2006

    People should also be aware that in most places they can get away with considerably less detergent usage than manufacturers recommend since their labels are printed to apply everywhere. In Vancouver, for example, which has particularly soft water, detergent requirements are barely one third of what is recommended on the box:
    If you’re in an area with soft or even average water, experiment with using half of the detergent you’re used to and see if you can see any difference in your wash. If you can get away with it, there’s much less impact downstream.

  8. Jana - November 1, 2006

    I have used the special Tide for cold water for three or four months now, and am very pleased with the results. And, I have children, so they put it to the test. I still do the occasional hot-water load,and this same Tide works in all temps. Plus, I now hang clothes outside whenever the weather cooperates in the humid, rainy Midwest. But when all goes well, our sheets and blankets have the most wonderful odor–fresh air!!

  9. Steve - November 1, 2006

    #6… I’ve always just filled (partially) the bathroom sink with a bit of water, then tap the razor in the water while shaving. Works much better than leaving the water running – my blades last longer too.

  10. kmac - November 1, 2006

    Dumb question . . . but our hot water heater is natural gas. Would we save much on electricity and thus CO2? Anyway, I am now using cold water.

  11. Adam Stein - November 2, 2006

    Hi kmac —
    You won’t save electricity, but you will save natural gas, and that’s certainly a good thing. Burning natural gas releases CO2 into the atmosphere.
    – Adam

  12. Jonathan Lowe - November 2, 2006

    Well at least in Australia there’s no need to wash in cold water, because here’s proof that temperatures in Australia are not on the increase:

  13. tom - November 2, 2006

    Johnathan: while your observations are interesting, measuring temperature is best left to the experts.

    As cited recently in grist, there a quite a few ways the temperature is measured including:

    1. Satellite measurements of the upper and lower troposphere
    2. Weather balloons show very similar warming
    3. Borehole analysis
    4. Glacial melt observations
    5. Declining arctic sea ice
    6. Sea level rise
    7. Proxy Reconstructions
    8. Rising ocean temperature

    Let us know when you have done a more thorough analysis than NASA on the subject.

    Ed note: note that local temperature records are a favorite tool of global warming denialists, hence the snarkiness

  14. Thugs-Ma - November 8, 2006

    It all works out about the same for me. The Tide website said I could save $30 a year by washing in cold water using Tide. Add the $10 savings through Terrapass (for washing in cold) and I save $40. But by buying cheap detergents and washing in warm, I save money. I think it balances out.

    If I got the Terrapass way, I’ll be washing in cold and saving energy, but paying the difference in detergent.

  15. Corey K. Tournet - November 8, 2006

    Spin dryers offer a simple, practical way to dramatically cut clothes drying costs. In only 2-3 minutes, a spin dryer can remove the same amount of water that a tumble dryer does in 30 minutes. Moreover, they only use about 300 watts, less than 1/10th of what a tumble dryer uses. Finally, they are much gentler on the clothes (they don’t produce any lint) so your clothes will last longer as well.

  16. Maria - November 8, 2006

    I try to use a more natural detergent like Seventh Generation or the brand name one you can find at the Whole Foods Market. These don’t contain phosphates, chlorine, artificial colors and dyes and are biodegradable. Sometimes I add some baking soda to the water and this seems to help keep everything very clean. And I use cold water always, unless I am doing my bedsheets which I wash in hot water.

    If you are in the market for a new washer, purchase an H-Axis one. These front loading washers cost a little more up front, but the savings in energy and water over the lifetime of the washer more than make up for the up front cost. They are more efficient and get clothes cleaner. This study says they use 38% less water, but I’ve seen them advertised at 66% less.

  17. Jonathan Lowe - November 8, 2006

    Hi Tom,
    thanks for that. Just note that I have never measured temperature, just analysed it. But apart from the first 2, the others are meerly causes from temperatures increases not measuring temperature itself. I don’t measure how much I’m sweating to see how hot the day is. You measure the temperature to see how hot the day is. And that’s the data that I am analysing.

  18. Lynne - November 21, 2006

    I do have dustmites. And my cold water takes so long to fill it makes me crazy. But I want to go to cold water so I’ll get it fixed.
    A solution to dust mites? I live in Minnesota, its really cold here. I understand dustmites don’t survive in the cold. Put all linens outside for a couple of days before washing. If my logic works, it will kill the dustmites. Then wash sheets in cold water. I haven’t tried this yet, I just thought of it.
    Any reason why this would not work? I might to this with my pillows too. Cover them and place them on the deck a couple of days and let the buggers freeze.
    Lynne the mite fighter

  19. Anonymous - December 9, 2006

    Aren’t you all talking about CO not CO2

  20. Anonymous - December 9, 2006

    CO is bad for the atmosphere right? Plants change CO2 to oxygen.

  21. Adam Stein - December 9, 2006

    We’re talking about CO2.
    CO (carbon monoxide) is poisonous, but generally isn’t found in concentrations that are harmful. CO2 (carbon dioxide) is an organic compound that is necessary for life, but that at high enough concentrations will bring on dangerous climate change.

  22. Debbie - January 5, 2007

    1. I don’t trust the information on the Alliance to Save Energy website about Cold-Water Tide – it looks like a puff-job for P&G. What does Consumer’s Reports say about detergents in cold water? I’ve used ALL Free-Clear for years and always thought my clothes were clean (Tide Cold-Water has fragrances added).
    2. The Jan/Feb issue of the AARP magazine has a couple of paragraphs in the column ‘Health Report’ by Sid Kirchheimer (see page 33) in which he quotes U of Arizona environmental microbiologist Charles Gerba, PhD as saying that if we don’t wash underwear and towels in water that is at least 160 degrees F, live bacteria will be spread from one garment to another. He says that the bacteria will be killed in the dryer but unless you use bleach in your laundry you should immediately wash your hands after lifting wet laundry from the washer to the dryer – otherwise you could get an infection or even E. coli.
    I have set my hot water heater to ‘warm’ for years, never use bleach, and hang my laundry up to dry (unless we get a week of rain). I doubt his statement. Would anyone care to comment?

  23. Adam Stein - January 5, 2007

    In response to 2, my initial reaction was that people have gotten insanely germ-phobic, and the notion that wet laundry is a disease vector strike me as flatly ludicrous. But, of course, I don’t want to be the guy responsible for an outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease in Tucson.
    Fortunately, we were able to find our very own PhD microbiologist to back us up. According to this fancy Stanford academic, soap is the key to killing microbes. Cold water is fine, so long as you use soap.
    As for your first question, I tend to agree. Just use whatever soap you want. If your clothes pass the sniff test, it’s probably working fine.

  24. Ceredwyn Alexander - January 10, 2007

    I would also comment that unless you are washing cloth diapers (and one generally uses bleach with those), the bacterial load is waaaaaay to small to be problematic to normal immune systems.

    Also, most household hot water heaters will not be set to 160 degrees due to safety concerns. Households with small children and elderly should never set their hot water tank much above 120 in order to prevent scalding injuries. Dishwashers generally have a heating element inside of them to heat the water to the proper temperature which clothes washing machines lack.

  25. sarah - January 10, 2007

    I wash cloth diapers without bleach (cold water rinse, then hot water wash but water is only 120 degrees at the hottest) and we’ve never had a problem with bacteria. And we’re onto our 2nd child in cloth diapers.

    If you’re concerned about using cold water, buy some tea tree oil and add 3 drops to any washload. This is what we choose to use instead of bleach. It’s an essential oil that is claimed to be antiseptic and antifungal; I’ve seen it for sale at Target if you don’t have a natural food store close by.

    And we too us All Free & Clear detergent.

  26. mtlouie - January 10, 2007

    Hey! I’ve washed my clothes in cold water for years, no problem! I use LifeTree laundry soap, 1/8 to 1/4 c. per load depending on size. Buy this at my local health food store.
    Diapers? Haven’t had to wash those in a few years, but I used to wash them in cold with bleach. I know, I know. However, I even spent a few months in a situation where I had to hand-wash them every day.
    I’ve tried hydrogen peroxide based “bleach.” Doesn’t work particularly well, but I suppose that has to do with us being brainwashed to believe everything has to be white, white, white! Heard salt helps with this, but haven’t tried it. Don’t know if salt is taken out at the water treatment plant or not.
    I also rarely dry clothes in the dryer. Either hang them outside (sunshine is a good bleaching agent) or on drying racks.

  27. JR - March 30, 2007

    I have a friend who swears that rinsing her clothes in warm water cuts the time to dry them in the dryer. Her dryer is vented a long way from the dryer. She says that when her clothes are rinsed it cold water, the dry time is way longer.

  28. Jamie - May 31, 2007

    I also use cold water for all my loads except sheets and towels or occasionally my husbands really dirty work clothes. All Clear must be popular! They should make a cold water version. This is also what I use and have no problem washing in cold.
    I try to line dry as often as possible. The one problem being my husband hates the crisp feeling, thus prefers the crumpled dryer feeling. Any suggestions.

  29. E.B. - June 3, 2007

    I use All Clear too. It is great for cold water use. I also line dry as often as possible.

    When I was a kid we had too much laundry and not enough dryer space so we hung things outside as much as we could. To help get rid of that crisp feeling, make sure to shake damp items well before hanging (it also helps to speed drying), and try to take the items off the line a little earlier. In real life that rarely happens so when things are really like “cardboard”, my mother had us toss our them in the dryer for a few minutes (test your dryer – it shouldn’t need more than 10 minutes EVER). You can also toss into the dryer a damp small cloth/wash cloth to add back some needed moisture to the stiff items.

    As an adult, I found that if you also use vinegar in your wash 1)it helps to prevent some of that crispness when drying inside or out when added to the final rinse; 2)in with the regular load, vinegar acts as a disinfectant – I never use bleach any more; and 3) using either in the wash or the rinse, the vinegar helps remove any odors from tough-to-clean clothes – the smell of vinegar disappears when the clothes are dry.

    Another idea some might be interested in trying. I also have a clothes line in my basement near my furnatce that I use in bad / cold weather. In the winter, it takes a little longer but is great for large items like sheets. I also vent my dyer back into the house to add heat. If you do this, remember to put a filter on the end of the hose (an old pair of tights or pany hose works great) and clean it frequently. You can also purchase a vent converter for your dryer to do this – I installed one this past winter because I was tired of changing the location of the hose-end. This device is often a small box placed in the dyer hose between the dyer and the outside – it is easy to install. The box has a small screen or filter that can be removed for cleaning, and an item to redirect the air on the inside. For warm/hot weather, I vent it outside. In cold weather, I vent it back into the house and reuse the heat to dry items on the inside line at the same time AND it adds much need moisture into my older home and helps to reduce statis electricity. YES, I do have a detector nearby to check for dangerous carbon off-gases, and you should too if you select this or a similar method.

  30. Dave - June 8, 2007

    It seems we need to strike a balance between being environmantally responsible and being hygenic. Washing, even in hot laundry water (60degC) will not kill all bacteria though soap is an important ingredient it is not enough. A necessary component is a detergent containing tea-tree oil or eucalyptus oil. Here again we must strike a balance between environmentally unsuitable detergents and find natural alternatives.

    Dust mites living in bedding require certain bacteria to digest our skin cells and the removal of bacteria causes this very robust mite to leave the bedding in search of food elsewhere. They require a relative humidity of 55% to live as they can only draw moisture from the air. Some beds are more suitable than others for allowing a dust mite infestation micro environment, particularly heavy inner-spring mattresses. It is also important to realize that it is the dust mite’s faeces that contain the allergen (known as Der p 1) not the mites themselves. If you killed every last dust mite in your house you would still have several kilograms of dust must faeces remaining deep within their nests which dries up and becomes airborne.

    Wouldn’t it be better to invest in renewable energy sources? Many countries allow households to specify their electricity to be sourced from wind, solar or geo-thermal generators (I know it’s a grid but your electricity payment goes to the company that owns the renewable energy plant). We use 100% renewable energy and wash in hot water and use natural, environmentally friendly anti-bacterial detergents with tea-tree oil. Many citizens of many nations can be both clean and responsible if they choose. Is your country among those who allow their citizens to choose renewable energy?

  31. Carmen - June 12, 2007

    To the person who says that it should be illegal for one person and only one to drive:
    1) How does this work excactly? I’m an outside sales rep; there is no way to share drive space with my irregular schedule and broad territory.
    2) If you’re carpooling and dropping people off, at some point, the driver is the only person left in the car.

  32. Anonymous - August 4, 2007

    I have washed my clothes in cold water for years, and I always use the cheap big like 2 gallon liquid detergents. I have never had a problem with my clothes being clean. They also fade less and last longer. Tide cold water is just fine but I do not use it and frankly didn’t see a difference when I did. I live in Montana the water here is very hard but still no problems. Do not waste your time, money or words about how regular detergent and hot is cheaper because you don’t need it anyways. Save your money and save the earth at the same time.

  33. irishlassie - August 29, 2007

    I believe it all comes down to each of us becoming responsible in our thinking. Manufacturers should only produce those products, which the consumer purchases, that are safe in all areas period! We are given too many choices today. People will purchase what is available. I am always reading labels and we shouldn’t have to do this….it begins with us. Don’t buy products that aren’t what we expect and the manufacturers will quit making them or make the manufacturers produce what we expect from the beginning. I buy organic whenever possible! We are seeing more and more organics all the time, it’s sad that we have to pay more for them, but, I care about what I put into my body! You should also. And a word about driving alone. Some of us in this world are alone, but, in thinking responsibly I drive an efficient vehicle, and plan my trips to town so that I do everything I must do so that I don’t have to go to town again for some time. I only use the dishwasher once a week or when it’s full, I use a frontloading water efficient brand of washer, I replaced the thermostat with a energy saving one…my point again, be responsible in your thinking.

  34. Lucy - May 4, 2008

    yes. this is true true true

  35. endy - January 21, 2009

    I am not convinced about switching to cold-water. How can we “disinfect” the towels, heavy soiled underwears and dust-mite bed sheets?
    Convince me with hard-core evidences that I can wash them in cold-water. Thank you.