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How Federal Energy Regulations Affect Dishwashers

Procter & Gamble’s new ad campaign encourages people to “do it” every night by filling their dishwashers instead of wasting time and water handwashing.

Persuading consumers to put crusty dishes in a machine that would clean them does not seem to need sexual innuendos concocted by Madison Avenue. Despite this, study results suggest that roughly one in every five Americans who possess a dishwasher do not use it.

The US Energy Information Administration surveys Americans on their energy use on a regular basis. According to a 2001 poll, 16% of respondents used their dishwashers less than once a week. By 2009, the figure had risen to 18%, and it was about 20% in the most recent two polls, done in 2015 and 2020.

The rise of underused dishwashers is linked to federal energy efficiency rules, which have rendered newer machines less efficient. The US Department of Energy has strengthened those requirements, which restrict the amount of water and power dishwashers consume, twice in the previous 20 years. Manufacturers have accomplished these requirements by designing machines that use less water over a longer wash cycle.

Data compiled by D.C.’s Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) show that average cycle times rose from just over an hour when the first standards were adopted in 1987 to nearly two-and-a-half hours as of 2018. In complaints collected by CEI, many consumers said the longer cycle times had led them to start handwashing dishes.

The regression in dishwasher use is a great lesson in unintended consequences. As Procter & Gamble points out in its “do it” campaign, handwashing uses far more water than machine washing. Environmental standards that discourage the use of machines undermine the original goals of those rules.

President Donald Trump understood that, even if his exact figures were a little off. “The dishwashers, they had a little problem,” he said during his 2020 campaign. “They didn’t give enough water, so people would run them 10 times, so they end up using more water. And the thing’s no damn good.”

The Trump administration briefly liberalized dishwasher standards, but the Biden administration quickly reimposed the old rules. Millions of Americans will now spill needless gallons of water down the drain by cleaning their dishes in the sink while a machine that could have done the work for them sits sadly handicapped and idle.