The Nearly Waterless Washing Machine: A Really Good Idea

With water, or the lack thereof, becoming the hottest new topic since global warming, the nearly waterless washing machine by Xeros Ltd (a private company out of Leeds, England) looks to take the appliance industry by storm.

The Nearly Waterless Washing Machine: A Really Good Idea
Photo: Image Zen, Creative Commons, Flickr

The Xeros washing machine uses only one cup of water. This is in comparison to 27 gallons if your washer was manufactured after 1994 and loads from the front, or 40 gallons if your washer is a top-loader. Prior to 1992, when the Energy Policy Act went into effect with its regulations governing water conservation, washing machines used an average 51 gallons. Before 1980, when water conservation was a non-issue, machines could use as much as 60 gallons per load, depending on their size.

The Xeros machine, with its single cup of water and a pinch of detergent, works by circulating about 1,000 plastic chips to clean laundry. Simply throw in the clothes and a cartridge in the back of the machine dumps about 45 pounds of these plastic chips into the load. When the water is done dissolving the dirt, the chips absorb the water, eliminating the need for a rinse cycle. Then the chips disappear into a grill at the bottom of the machine, to be reused about 100 times before they need to be recycled or disposed of.

No one is volunteering the composition or dimensions of the chips, but logically they are smooth like poker chips, otherwise your laundry will look like the dog got it. The inventors do say the Xeros (which means “dry” in Greek) can remove even tough stains like lipstick, and has a water and energy footprint 98-percent smaller than conventional machines. Because the clothes come out of the washer less saturated than from conventional machines, added energy savings are also realized in reduced drying times.

The machine will reportedly become available in the UK sometime in 2009. Company founder Stephen Burkinshaw, a professor of textile chemistry, assures that the cost of this revolutionary washing machine will not be “dramatically” different from conventional machines.

Whatever the cost, this clothes-washing revolution couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. Water – even more than oil – is essential to life in the future, especially in water-poor nations like Africa, where almost 88 percent of water goes into still-marginal agriculture to feed an increasing population. This leaves a meager 5 percent for industrial development and less than 8 percent for drinking, washing, cooking and bathing. The situation is even worse in India, where 90 percent of water goes to crops and only 3 percent is leftover for private use.

Even in developed countries, water supplies are waning due to drought, poor management, excessive use and failing infrastructure. This situation, exacerbated by a six-fold increase in water consumption in the 20th century, is largely the result of improved methods of water delivery. In my grandmother’s day, water arrived in a tin pail and was delivered to the kitchen three times a day. Today, it comes out the faucet at the rate of 145 gallons per person per day – an extravagance that suggests the infinite availability of a finite resource.

In fact, potable water is increasingly finite. By the year 2025, unless something is done to curb use, two-thirds of the world (and 45 percent of the US) will face critical water shortages. In the US, the shortage will be influenced by dramatic population growth and increasing drought in the southern tier of states from Georgia to California.

In the UK, where clothes washing accounts for 13 percent of daily household water use, the Xeros could save enough water to irrigate about 5 million acres of wheat, even if only one in six households installed it. The savings in the US, where water use is even more extravagant, would be almost double.

The washing machine, second only to the toilet in its reputation as a water hog, is long overdue for an efficiency upgrade. I just hope Xeros’ technology pans out and becomes sufficiently affordable to make it a permanent fix and not simply one of those here-today, gone-tomorrow gadgets like “smart” electricity meters, which are now proving to be relatively useless in curbing energy consumption because they don’t provide immediately visible consumer feedback.

Disclosure: I don’t own stock in any appliance manufacturer.

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