California is changing the way it handles its dirty laundry. A law signed by Gov. Gray Davis requires all residential clothes washers to be at least as water efficient as commercial washers starting in January 2007.
The bill makes California the first state to mandate water efficiency standards, a step that could become a model for other states. Washington and Texas have already begun to tighten their washing machine standards.
The California law is expected to translate into higher costs for the more environmentally friendly washing machine models but lower operating costs in the long run, water officials said.
It will also lead to some changes in how Californians wash their clothes, as most water-efficient washing machines load from the front, not the top as most washers do now.
The law comes at a time when California is receiving as little as half its normal rainfall and is enduring a second year of drought conditions.
"It's really inappropriate for us not to implement every conservation measure possible," said Bill Jacoby, water resources manager at the San Diego Water Authority and one of the main supporters of the new law.
A water-efficient washer, Jacoby said, would use about 7,000 less gallons of water per year that would add up to almost 1 billion gallons saved annually. That would be enough to supply 6,000 households for a year.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, front-loaders typically use less water - from one-third to one-half the amount that top-loaders require. Because less water is used, less gas or electricity is required to heat the water and clothes get wrung out more completely, reducing the cost of running a clothes dryer.
California's new water efficiency standards will be tacked onto the new federal standards that were enacted last year to make washers more energy efficient as well.
The U.S. Department of Energy estimates the federal energy standards will raise the average cost of a washing machine by about $250 to meet the 2007 standards. The water efficiency standards could make the price go up even higher than that.
The nonprofit Consortium for Energy Efficiency estimates 78 million American households own washing machines and approximately 7.5 million washers are sold in the United States annually.
Tony Saca, owner of Filco, Inc., a Sacramento-based appliance chain, said the average price of an energy and water efficient model in his store is about $1000, compared to the base price of $499 for less-efficient models.