Earth Notes: On the Cost of Washing (2009)

Updated 2024-02-08.
What is the water, energy and carbon cost of keeping clean? Who says cleanliness is next to impossible? #water #washing
TL;DR — water itself might not always be a direct problem. But heating it for washing uses a lot of energy. So saving water saves money and carbon too!

On this site I'm mainly interested in energy costs and the resulting carbon emissions.

Water does not usually seem to be in short supply in the UK. (Though the 1976 drought in my childhood is still firmly in mind...) Water is a resource worth conserving. It will become more scarce with climate change and energy shortage. For example, London may have to consider firing up some energy-intensive desalination plant.

I was originally provoked to write this note by an advert in the Times 2009-03-07 for the Ecocamel water-saving showerhead. It injects air into the water stream, claiming to save up to £250 per year per household in water and energy bills (40%/55,000l less water showering per year). The Ecocamel showerhead costs about £25 in 2009; £30 upwards in 2017.


Very much to its credit the ad explains some of its assumptions and calculations in reaching the estimated savings. Our gas tariff (with a standing charge) comes in at about half the cost per kWh quoted in the ad. But even if our water was metered our per-m^3 charge would be lower than that indicated in the ad. Further, as of 2009 only one of us in our household of four currently takes a shower, thus we could not possibly currently achieve the savings suggested. Though only one tenth would be enough to pay for itself financially in a year.

Some largely spurious though interesting 'facts' (unverified by me, source not cited) quoted in the ad are:

Assumptions quoted in their savings calculation are (vs our situation):

Cost of Showering and Bathing

bubbles in bath DHD

For my bath as of 2009-03-08 ~4/week assumed water usage each time ~100l. (~16p as metered/billed by Thames Water, energy <4kWh <12p gas heated.)

The two children have shallower, cooler baths, about 4 per week also.

One adult takes a similar number of showers per week.

By reducing my (already shallower, cooler) baths from daily to every other day we saved ~2kWh/day gas in 2009 compared to 2008. Thus bringing the total cooking/DHW consumption down from ~8kWh/d to ~6kWh/d. In 2009 I will try to replace most of my baths with showers to aim to save up to another 2kWh/day (~730kWh or 139kgCO2 per year).

As of 2012-12 a new Flowpoint showerhead and a 4-minute shower timer free from Thames Water may get my occasional shower down to <30l and <2kWh. A quick measurement 2013-01-06 with mains water at ~10°C indicates a consumption of about 0.032m^2 gas or 0.34kWh/min while showering. IE a little over 20kW given a nominal boiler output of ~24kW, so for a 4 minute shower, and allowing for warm-up time, ~1.4--1.6kWh.

Cost of Washing Dishes

dirty dishes utensils crockery cutlery waiting to be loaded into domestic dishwasher in kitchen closeup 1 JR

In the dishwasher as of 2009-03-08: washing tablet <10p, electricity >10p (0.86kWh for normal 'quickwash' programme with inlet temperature between 10°C and 20°C), water consumption 18l specified in manual (though not clear if this includes prewash/rinse) thus <10p as metered by Thames Water.

We do some washing by hand in the sink, but relatively little.

Maximise energy and water efficiency by running your dishwasher full. If necessary buy a little more of whatever cutlery/dishes you run out of fastest, so that running out no longer forces you to run a load prematurely!

Cost of Washing Clothes

washing machine steel perforated drum from outside 1 DHD

See how we have reduced the cost and CO2 emissions of washing with our new machine. As of February 2010 we do maybe 25% or a little less of the washing on cold (the mains water temperature is low enough right now to have even low-temperature detergents such as small & mighty struggle with significantly-soiled clothes). But we do the clear majority on 30°C, some tough stuff on 40°C. Once per week we do a towels and machine 'maintenance' wash on 60°C. Almost all the non-cold washes are done on delay to finish at breakfast time which is convenient and causes less CO2 emissions from the grid than drawing the power later in the day. May annoy very light sleepers though! Compared to our previous machine and regime we may be saving half a unit (and ~0.25kgCO2 emissions) every day on average.

In our (old) washing machine as of 2009-03-08: washing tablet <10p, electricity >10p (cold fill for a 40°C wash with 0.74kWh and inlet temperature between 10°C and 20°C), water consumption 63l specified in manual thus ~10p as metered by Thames Water.

For maximum energy and water efficiency make sure that you run the machine full. Just like with a dishwasher, if necessary buy a little more of whatever you run out of fastest so that running out no longer forces you to run a load prematurely!

With our new washing machine, ~10% more energy efficient (and even more water efficient) anyway, we have an alternative. We can use a cold cycle saving 80%--90% energy but using a more advanced and expensive detergent to compensate. That leaves us in about the same place financially per-wash cost.

Given an assumption therefore of a 2009 cost of ~30p for a 5kg load (6p/kg), and given some figures suggested by Zanussi for clothing weights (see below), we get a cost of maybe 1p for briefs/underpants, 3p for a business shirt, 3p for pyjamas, 3p for a sheet or duvet/quilt cover, and maybe 7p for a bathrobe / dressing gown / housecoat.

Some of Zanussi's indicative laundry weights:

ItemApprox Weight
bathrobe 1200g
quilt cover 700g
man's work shirt 600g
sheet 500g
man's pyjamas 500g
tablecloth 250g
pillowcase 200g
man's shirt 200g
night dress 200g
tea cloth 100g
blouse 100g
ladies' briefs 100g
men's underpants 100g

Laundry Detergents for Cold(er) Washes

Method Free and Clear laundry detergent packshot

Something like 90% of the energy that goes into a typical domestic washing-machine cycle is expended in heating the water. Being able to wash at a lower temperature is a potential energy saver.

There have been programmes in the UK/EU such as "turn to 30" to encourage washing at 30°C rather than 40°C or hotter. Those are indeed valuable, but being able to wash in cold water as is common in the US and Canada would be much better still.

As of August 2009 the lowest-temperature widely-available laundry detergent is the Ariel Excel gel (and Fairy gel) at 15°C from Proctor and Gamble. Our cold water inlet in London at least is only at/above 15°C for about half the year, thus apparently precluding cold washes entirely in winter. However, P&G makes "Tide Coldwater (HE)" in the US, rated down to 4°C, which might work well here. But P&G is not willing to sell it in the UK. Doing most or all UK domestic washes in cold water could save a noticeable fraction of our entire energy consumption. (Consuming nearly 5TWh electricity annually circa 2007 out of ~400TWh UK total, or ~0.5kWh/d per household corresponding to maybe less than one wash per day, see IBNW23 at I was sufficiently annoyed by this 'market failure' that I forwarded my response to Ed MiliBand at DECC. On re-analysis of the numbers, domestic laundry probably only accounts for 1% of domestic electricity consumption. But that's still significant and there for the taking if P&G (and presumably Unilever) would sell existing formulations in the UK.

In October 2009 we bought some (Unilever) Persil "small&mighty" at an offer price of ~10p/wash. The bottle is clearly labelled as good down to 15°C. In fact, Unilever customer services said that all their pure liquid detergents, eg not capsules, are tested down to 10°C. It actually works well even below 10°C and indeed we prefer it to the Ariel.

Other Washing Costs

cistern for pub WC small 1 DHD

We had a big old (9l?) WC flush albeit with a water-saving device. We follow a if it's yellow, let it mellow policy. (Flushing a fraction of a litre of dilute sterile urine at most with several litres of drinkable tap-water is horribly wasteful.) But its flush was not always fully effective. Even though we upgraded to a water-saving flush at the end of 2011 with the option of a partial flush when required, I imagine its consumption remains a significant fraction of our total.

We do not own a car to wash. So that's one significant avoided cost!

As to the washing costs calculated above... Ideally I should compute/include the CO2e emissions of the water and detergent with the electricity/gas to get a better measure of the environmental rather than financial costs.

The Cost of Not Washing

latrine home built in village near Dhaka Bangladesh 1 AJHD

Implicit in all of this is that the cost of not washing, and of poor hygiene and sanitation in general, is high — in health and money.

For example, 19th November is World Toilet Day which exists to remind us that:

4.5 billion people live without a household toilet that safely disposes of their waste. The Sustainable Development Goals, launched in 2015, include a target to ensure everyone has access to a safely-managed household toilet by 2030. This makes sanitation central to eradicating extreme poverty.

The infamous 1854 Broad Street cholera epidemic in London killed over 600 people. It showed how poor sewage management carries a heavy cost.

Covid-19 has demonstrated the benefits of, for example, simple hand-washing with soap. It also shows the sometimes lethal costs of inadequate hygiene. And it is not just the people failing to take these measures who suffer.

2024-01: Less Laundry

For the last couple of months (ish) I have been trying to reduce the amount of laundry I produce, for a number of reasons:

  • To reduce the need to dry my laundry, which is harder in winter (generally on a rack, inside).
  • To reduce energy and water demand.
  • To reduce microfibre generation, eg from my synthetic fleeces.

I no longer automatically change every day even the items that are next to my skin.

I have adjusted some of my other habits to help make this work.

So far I do not seem to have upset anyone with smell, and I may have halved my laundry volume.