Image: Washing machine
Al Goldis  /  AP
A Whirlpool washer is shown at G&W Maytag in Lansing, Mich. The average American family does about 400 loads of wash a year. That requires thousands of gallons of water. A new high-efficiency washer can cut that water usage in half.
By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/18/2010 6:09:01 PM ET 2010-02-18T23:09:01

I have a hard time getting rid of things. My parents taught me to use something until it wears out.  I guess that’s why my wife and I have the same washer and dryer we bought when we moved into our house 25 years ago. They work just fine, so why buy new ones?

Let me answer my own question — because new models would be better for the environment and save us money in the long run. A new washer and dryer would use significantly less water and electricity.

The federal government hopes to give me and millions of other Americans the little nudge we need to go appliance shopping. It’s set aside $300 million in stimulus funds to offer rebates to those who buy energy-efficient appliances.

This rebate program is designed to boost sales and convince shoppers to choose the greener, but often more expensive models.  The savings will help shorten the payback period.

“There are costs associated with buying the new machine, but there are also costs associated with keeping your old machine,” notes Celia Kuperszmid Lehrman, deputy home editor at Consumer Reports. “Some of the costs to the environment are actually pretty big.”

For example, the average American family does about 400 loads of wash a year. That requires thousands of gallons of water. Lehrman says a new high-efficiency washer can cut that water usage in half. Plus, it spins out more water, so the electricity or gas needed to dry the clothing also drops dramatically.

With an appliance that is less than five years old, the incremental change in efficiency is probably not worth the cost of replacing it. But you’ll clearly come out ahead with an appliance that’s 15 years or older.

But what about the energy it took to make that washer, refrigerator of dishwasher? Doesn’t that have to be considered?

“If your appliance is between 10 and 15 years old, the benefit to the environment is positive, even with the energy it took to make the appliance in the first place,” Lehrman says.

A state-by-state proposition
Last year’s “Cash for Clunkers” vehicle program was run by the federal government, so the rules were the same in every state. This appliance rebate program is being handled at the state level.  Each state decides which appliances qualify, the size of the rebate and when the purchase must be made. Some states have already launched their rebate programs.  Many others start in April.

For example, Connecticut offers a $50 rebate on qualifying refrigerators and $100 on washers. In Rhode Island the rebates on these same appliances are $150. Consumers in Nevada and New Mexico can claim $200 on a fridge.

“These state programs can be quirky and you really have to check the fine print” advises Tom Watson, a green projects manager for King County, Wash. “But this is a terrific opportunity to save some big bucks on energy-efficient appliances.”

The U.S. Department of Energy allocated the $300 million in stimulus funds based on each state’s population and specific rebate program. For instance Ohio receives $11 million while Alaska gets $658,000.

What happens to old appliance? In some states you can do what you want with it. You can recycle that old refrigerator, sell it, donate it to charity or move it into the basement or garage. Of course, if you keep it you wind up using more energy, not less.

That’s why many states pay more if the old appliance is recycled. Some states, including California, Louisiana, Massachusetts and Wisconsin, require proof of recycling with every rebate claim.

“We knew that if we didn’t require recycling we might not displace energy use but actually increase it,” says Sara Vandergrift with Focus on Energy, Wisconsin’s energy efficiency program.

The recycling rules are usually easy to meet. For instance, in Wisconsin many retailers will pick up the old unit, sign the rebate form and properly recycle the old appliance. Residents can also take the old machine to a municipal, utility or private recycling facility and get a receipt that proves they did it.

Some states don’t offer rebates on appliances
Indiana has restricted its 6 million program to HVAC systems: furnaces, boilers, heat pumps and air conditioners.

“We wanted to get the biggest bang for the buck in terms of energy savings,” says Eric Burch with the Indiana Office of Energy Development.

Oregon will use its $3.6 million in stimulus funds to get high-efficiency heating systems into the homes of low income residents. The goal is to retrofit approximately 1,800 homes in the state.

“A lot of these homeowners are in crisis,” says Shellí Honeywell with the Oregon Department of Energy. “They have no heat because their heating systems don’t work. We’re excited to be able to go in and replace these furnaces, to provide heat, energy-efficient heating, in these homes.”

Tip: Don’t wait too long
Whatever sort of rebate your state offers, a lot of people will want to cash in on it. They’ll apply for the money as soon as it’s available.  Those who wait may miss out.

Indiana’s program started Feb. 1. During the first 10 days of the month, the state received hundreds of applications.  In Wisconsin, the initial response has been so big (7,000 applications in the first 30 days) money that was supposed to last a year may run out in just nine months.

You can find detailed information about the rebate program and what your state is doing on the U.S. Department of Energy Web site.

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