Government Ruins the Dishwasher (Again)

The DoE wants you to use only the same 3 gallons to wash all your dishes

The regulatory assault on the dishwasher dates back at least a decade. For the most part, industry has gone along, perhaps grudgingly but also with a confidence that dishwashers would survive. Surely government rules wouldn’t finally make them useless.

But the latest regulatory push by the Department of Energy might have finally gone too far. The DoE says that loads of dishes can’t use more than 3.1 gallons. This amounts to a further intensification of “green” policies that are really just strategies to wreck the consumer experience.

The agency estimated that this would “save” 240 billion gallons of water over three decades. It would reduce energy consumption by 12 percent. It would save consumers $2 billion in utility bills.

But as with all such estimates, these projections have three critical problems.

First, saving money and resources is not always an absolute blessing if you have to give up the service for which the resources are used. Giving up indoor plumbing would certainly save water, just as banning the light bulb would save electricity. The purpose of resources is to use them to make our lives better.

Second, the price system is a far better guide to rational resource use than bureaucratic diktat. If the supply of water or electricity contracts, prices go up and consumers can make their own choices about how to respond. This is true with one proviso: There has to be a functioning market. This is not always true with public utilities.

Third, the bureaucrats rarely consider the possibility that people will respond to rationing by using resources in a different way. A low-flow toilet causes people to flush two and three times, a low-flow showerhead prompts people to take longer showers, and so on, with the end result of even more resource use.

What does breaking the dishwasher accomplish? It drives us back to filling sinks or just running water over dishes for 10 minutes until they are all clean, resulting in vastly more water use.

The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, which has quietly gone along with this nonsense all these years, has finally said no.

“At some point, they’re trying to squeeze blood from a stone that just doesn’t have any blood left in it,” said Rob McAver, the lead lobbyist.

The Association demonstrated to the regulators that the new standards do not clean the dishes. They further pointed out that this can only lead to more hand washing. The DoE now says it is revisiting the new standards to find a better solution.

All of this is rather preposterous, since dishwashers are already performing at a far lower level than they did decades ago. Even when I was growing up, they were getting better, not worse. You could put dirty dishes in, even with stuck-on egg and noodles, and they would come out perfectly clean.

I started noticing the change about five years ago. It was like one day to the next that the dishes started coming out with a gross-me-out film on the glasses. I thought it was my machine. So I bought a new one. The new one was even worse, and it broken within a year. Little by little, I started hand washing dishes first, just to make sure they are clean.

It turns out that this was happening all over the country. NPR actually discerned this trend and did a story about it. The actual source of the problem was not the machine or the user, but something that everyone had taken for granted for generations: the soap itself.

The issue here is phosphorous. The role of phosphorus in soap is critically important. It is not a cleaning agent itself but a natural chemical that unsticks the soap from fabrics and surfaces generally. You can easily see how this works by adding phosphorus to a sink full of suds. It attacks the soap and causes it to bundle up in tighter and heavier units, taking oil and dirt with it and pulling it down the drain. It is the thing that extracts the soap, making sure that it leaves surfaces.

Painters know that they absolutely must use phosphorous to prepare surfaces for painting. If they do not, they will be painting on a dirty, oily surface. This is why the only phosphorus you can now find at the hardware store is in the paint department (sold as Trisodium Phosphate). Otherwise, it is gone from all detergents that you use on clothes and dishes, which is a major reason why both fabrics and dishes are no longer as clean as they once were.

Why the war on phosphorous? It is also a fertilizer. When too much of it is dumped into rivers and lakes, algae growth takes over and kills off fish. The bulk of this comes from large-scale industrial farms in specific locations around the country. Regulators, however, took on the easy target of domestic soaps, and manufacturers faced pressure to remove it from their soaps.

Now it is impossible to get laundry or dish soap with phosphorous as part of the mix. If you want clean, you have to physically add your own by purchasing trisodium phosphate in the paint department and adding it to the mixture by hand.

Welcome to regulated America, where once fabulous consumer inventions like refrigerators, freezers, washing machines, and dishwashers have been reduced to a barely functioning state. The reasons are always the same: 1) phosphorous-free detergent, 2) a fetish with saving water, 3) weaker motors that use less electricity, 4) more tepid water due to low default settings on hot water heaters, and 5) reduced water pressure in general.

Put it all together and you have an array of products that no longer function in ways that make our lives better. There is an element of dystopia about this, especially given that these household appliances were first invented and widely deployed in postwar America. This was the country where women, in particular, first started to enjoy the “freedom from drudgery.” It was machines as much as ideology that began to enable women to cultivate professional lives outside the home.

No, we are not going to be forced back to washboards by the river anytime soon. But suddenly, the prospect of having to hand wash our dishes does indeed seem real. If the regulators really do get their way, functioning dishwashers could become like high-flow toilets: contraband to be snuck across borders and sold at a high black market prices.

It seems that the regulators can’t think of much to do these days besides ruining things we love. 

More by Jeffrey A. Tucker