Sustainability in Clothes Washing

by Richard M. Goodman

A previous blog post addressed the relative hazards or toxicity of cleaning chemicals, emphasizing that minimal human toxicity and environmental impacts promote sustainability.  In addition to detergent selection, another aspect of the simple household chore of clothes washing is the energy utilized.  Depending on the size of your family and how frequently you wash clothes, the energy consumption can be significant.  The major consumer of energy in clothes washing is normally the heating of the water used.  In fact, if you normally do a wash load at say 130 degrees F, your energy consumption is actually 60% greater than if you used 85 degrees.  Further, with the availability of many cold water laundry detergents which use  environmentally green formulas, there is no need to ever use water above 85 degrees.

Another aspect of the home laundry energy usage is the nature of the hot water system in your home.  In one extreme is the typical old-fashion poorly insulated electric hot water tank.  In a climate like Bethesda, the energy consumption of such a tank can be up to 25% of total household energy usage.  Highly efficient modern, especially natural gas, hot water heaters can significantly cut down on energy usage versus the typical tank, perhaps 50% or more.  Of course, if you use 100% solar to heat your hot water your energy usage is virtually zero.

So, here again by paying attention to a routine household activity you can promote sustainability by dramatically reducing energy usage to perform the simple act of cleaning your clothes.  Saving energy for the same material outcome is the very definition of sustainability. And by optimizing the efficiency of your hot water tank and always washing clothes at 85 degrees or less you could potentially save about 5-10% of your total household energy costs even without the use of solar derived hot water.

Richard M. Goodman, PhD, is a chemical scientist and consultant focusing on how surface science concepts can solve real world problems.  The periodic column considers aspects of sustainability from a scientific perspective. See Goodman’s profile with Association of Consulting Chemists and Chemical Engineers (ACC&CE) at

Solar electric panels grace a roof on Lisa Heaton's home in Bethesda.

Solar electric panels grace a roof on Lisa Heaton's home in Bethesda. (Photo by Lisa Heaton)

It’s getting hot—and humid—here in the Washington, DC, area. Learn how you can put all that solar radiation to work for you—and how much more affordable it is now, thanks to federal, state and local incentives.

Join Bethesda Green at our first annual Solar Bethesda Expo, Saturday, June 12 from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  It will take place at the Bethesda Green offices, 4825 Cordell Ave., 2nd Floor, in Bethesda, Md.

Solar Bethesda’s Gold Sponsors are Solar Energy World and the Maryland Clean Energy Center.

We’ll have exhibits from 13 local solar and energy companies, including one station where you’ll be able to view your home using satellite mapping—to determine how suitable your site is for a solar power system.

Representatives from the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection and the Maryland Clean Energy Center will be there, too.

You can get info on costs, benefits, various types of solar equipment, tax credits and other incentives. We’ll have one discussion about solar purchasing cooperatives. There will also be a panel discussion featuring local residents who are living with solar systems.

Solar Really Pays for One Neighbor

One Bethesda homeowner who will be on the panel is Lisa Heaton, who had a 4.5 kilowatt solar electric system installed on her roof in May 2009. It cost her about $5,000–after a federal tax credit, a Montgomery County grant of $5000, and a Maryland grant of $10,000. And she’ll earn back her investment fairly quickly, thanks to much lower electric bills. To wit:

In 2009, their first calendar year with solar, Lisa and family paid a total of $591 for electricity. From January through April 2010 they paid $117.  In comparison, during their last full year with only Pepco power, they paid $2,035–so they saved $1,444 on electricity that first year and this year they’ll probably save around $1,684. At that rate, the system will pay for itself in another two years. Plus they are generating their own electricity with no emissions!

And that doesn’t even count the months, such as this past April, when the Heatons generated more electricity than they used, resulting in a $53 credit from Pepco!

So it does pay to go solar! And solar hot water systems are even less expensive.

Come to Solar Bethesda, Saturday, June 12, and find out if solar is right for your home!

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Solar Bethesda expoSolar Bethesda

When: Saturday, June 12 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: Bethesda Green, 4825 Cordell Ave., 2nd Floor, Bethesda, Md. (we’re in the Chevy Chase Bank building!)

Click Here to RSVP

[Do you already have solar? Tell us about your experience by leaving a comment!]