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The Quest of doing Laundry: Calculating cost, emissions, and values

Around this time last year, there were several exciting events concerning water usage. For one, LEED version 4  officially took over the LEED version 2009;  one of the changes is the inclusion of process water in the Indoor Water Use Reduction credit. Secondly, extensive rain and snowfall helped California recover from years of severe drought. On a personal level, I moved into a from a 400-sq foot studio to a 750 square feet 2-bedroom home, where the water bill was no longer included in rent.

The Dilemma of “No Laundry On Site”

I live in San Diego where the weather is sunny, often hot and dry as a kiln. Most of our water is imported, so our bills are twice as high as the national average. As my co-inhabitant and I became more aware of the water we use through our monthly bills, we began to change out all the existing faucets and showerheads to low-flow fixtures and smaller aerators as part of my local utility’s free saving kit. After catching the low hanging fruit, we focused on the more challenging items including laundry.

The dilemma began with the lack of existing hook-ups for a washer and dryer in this new home. At first, my trips to the laundromat were fun and allowed me to read my stack of books. As the days went on, weekend getaways, familial duties, and other distractions made it painful to commit two daylight hours each Saturday to this chore. And so, it stretched to two weeks and eventually buying new clothes to compensate for the pile of unwashed clothes.

Eventually, we were motivated to do something about it. What began as a project to find the most return on investment and convenience, ultimately changed my habits, viewpoint, and forever changed the way I do laundry!

The High Hanging Fruit

From a Portland study, it is estimated 22% of water used in a typical residential home is for washing clothes. Moreover, using a common laundry room like a laundromat typically saves more water and electricity. However, as a busy working professional and a geek at heart, I was curious about the numbers behind the laundry solution.

Initially, I thought there were a few possible options to this problem:

  1. Spending thousands of dollars to install a conventional washer and dryer, or
  2. Continuing to go to the laundromat every weekend, or
  3. A portable washer and a hang-dry rack – a semi-automatic solution.


What is a portable washer?

Portable washing machines are designed to move from a storage area, such as a closet, to a kitchen or bathroom where you can hook it up to a faucet and start washing clothes. Before putting clothes in, hook the machine’s hose up to your kitchen faucet and fill the washing machine basin with the right amount of water. Add detergent – liquid works best, and only a small amount – then add clothes, shut the lid, plug the appliance into an electrical outlet, and turn it on. This particular unit has a spinning component to squeeze water out of the clothes before drying on the rack. Between the hand wash in the backyard and a fully motorized washer, this machine was the product of modern conventional technology and washing methods from  1855.


The Math

When you put two engineers in a room with a decision to make, naturally, they break out their calculators. And that’s exactly what we did – a cost analysis between our three options to do laundry. The table below illustrates the detailed version of our cost analysis.


There’s one cost left to look at: operational cost, largely for utilities for option 1 and 3, and the commercial cost of using the laundromat for option 2.  Each option has a variety of factors that we did a deep dive into. The results are below.

Operational Costs

To summarize our calculations, the operating resource costs are shown below:

Since we have climate advocacy in our hearts, I’m sure you’re also wondering: what’s the emission footprint? Using the 2014 emission factors from the San Diego County, I estimated the operating emissions for the four categories.

What this emission graph showed was that driving and natural gas usage have a stronger emissions impact than electric and water usage. While natural gas is generally cheaper and cleaner than coal, it is not a carbon neutral fuel source. The table below summarizes the total emissions with option 3 the clear winner.



Even though option 3 has the lowest emissions, , we still must consider the cost. Is the best thing to do for global warming also cost-effective? First, let’s review.



Clearly, the conventional option is the most expensive. It was surprising to me that the operating cost of a typical portable washer performs as well (cost-wise) as one of the best Energy Star rated washer/dryer combos available.

Finally, I put  the numbers into a Life Cycle Cost Analysis calculator with the default discount rate of 11%, escalation rate of 3% on utilities charge, sales tax of 8.0%, etc.

There are two main highlights from the results:

  • Option 3 is the least expensive option.
  • Option 1 has the highest net present value. While appliances depreciate over time, Option 1 may have the best return on investment if we consider selling the house.

To be fair, I considered two other qualitative factors. In terms of convenience and personal comforts,  the clear winner is Option 1, with Option 3 as the next best, and Option 2 the clear loser.



The Decision

Ultimately we went with the frugal choice (option 3). Laying the numbers out provided assurance and clarity that we made the logical decision. Despite the lower emissions footprint, we are using more almost three times as much water as the conventional washer.  Since we have adopted the portable washer into our household, we try to reuse the water from the washer, washing dishes, and other areas to water our container garden. Although the portable washer uses more water than a conventional washer, the ability to recycle the greywater is a benefit.


Does this mean portable washers are the best choice for everyone? It depends.

Even with our frugal habits, portable washers can use 3x more water than conventional washers. The assumptions used in this blog were based on my specific needs, not the standard family size household or scalable across areas with heavier clothing. I’m guessing that there could be an inflection point where one solution will beat the other, which suggests a future tool like an interactive dashboard to show the changes in results when you input your own household’s needs.

Nevertheless, aside from the cost analysis, another important qualitative factor is the idea of convenience and personal preference. Saving the planet, saving water, and saving sentient beings are all great things we applaud, but can require inconvenient lifestyle changes. But step by step, starting with watching YouTube videos and tricking your brain with impenetrable logic, I am trying to shift away from convenience as my top priority. Day by day, we make use of newly acquired habits to grow. Hopefully, so will our tomato plants.

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