Nightmare Washing Machines in the US

Colors of anger

Washing machines in the US are a real nightmare. They don’t wash clothes clean and, when combined just right with the dryer, they create holes in clothing. Even Steven Jobs praised European washing machines.

Shopping is a part of every vacation in the US. American brands like Nike, Hollister, and Gap are all less expensive in the US than they are in Europe. Every store has some kind of sale going on, to draw in clueless tourists who think it’s a one-time deal. In the end, customers walk away happy with their luggage a bit heavier than on arrival.

I have a theory: American washing machines and dryers intentionally damage clothing so that they have to be constantly replaced. Retail business runs around the clock, keeping poorly paid employees busy. These employees have to eat, too, just as their customers do, which in turn necessitates mall food courts.

This theory explains why clothing is cheaper in the US. If clothing were more expensive, the entire business model would collapse: customers would buy better washing machines and dryers; clothes would last longer; cheap off-brand clothing would disappear; businesses would close; the unemployment rate would rise, etc. etc.

Catherine, a fussy German housewife?

Some might think I’m picky when it comes to laundry and that may be. It’s true that I don’t like it when dirty laundry isn’t sorted properly (I have five laundry baskets and everything’s sorted by color). I will gripe if my husband buys the wrong laundry detergent and woe unto they who don’t fold the hand towels the way they usually are. I have the feeling that some family members do that purposefully just to get out of doing burdensome household chores. Okay, fine, I don’t care, I’ll admit it: I am picky about my laundry. This made the shock even bigger when I first started doing laundry here in the US. Clothes came out of the wash just as dirty as when they went in. Colors faded unusually fast. Even worse, there were suddenly holes in t-shirts and sweaters.

Dr. Beckmann taught me everything

Did you know that I worked for years in Germany for Dr. Beckmann, the stain specialist? I learned everything there is to know about stains, sorting, pre-treatment and more through this client. Dr. Beckmann is also a shining example for how German SMB have successfully been exported. Heiner Beckmann, son of the co-founder, has systemically developed its export business for the foreign market since the 1980s. It’s thanks to him that I can buy Stain Devils here in the capital.

Stain devilsDr. Beckmann’s recipe for clean laundry

As always, my knowledge only helped me part of the way. The recipe for clean laundry, according to Dr. Beckmann, goes like this: chemistry + mechanics + time + temperature = stain-free, fresh-smelling laundry. “Chemistry” here stands for laundry detergent. “Mechanics” stands for how stains are treated before being washed, as well as how the washing machine drum turns. Temperature and time should be clear enough. Any piece of clothing that is stained or dirty can be cleaned when these four factors are combined correctly.

Why don’t American washing machines do the job right?

My first American washing machine was a top loader and had three washing programs: cold, warm, and very warm. Since the lid could be opened while the machine was running, I was able to check the water temperature myself.

The water flows into the machine like it would from a faucet, so “very warm” wasn’t any warmer than what came out of the kitchen sink. This is in stark contrast to German washing machines. In Germany, the water also flows from the same source as the faucet, but it’s heated to the right temperature. In the US, the water is never warmer than 40ºC (104ºF). This is the first strike for not following Dr. Beckmann’s recipe.

American top loaders look like kitchen gadgets

Top loaders are very popular in France, since they take up less place in the kitchen or bathroom. They have nothing in common with their American cousins, however. American top loaders are not only twice as large as those in France, but they also function much differently.

There’s no drum in American washing machines, but just an open compartment with a column in the middle. It reminds me of an oversized food processor without the blades. The result is that the laundry isn’t properly agitated. This is strike two against American washing machines for not following Dr. Beckmann’s recipe.

Time is money also applies to doing laundry

After 30 minutes the wash was done! 30 minutes! At first I thought that I had forgotten to press the start button, so I put it through the wash program again. At some point I asked my circle of acquaintances about it and sure enough, 30-35 minutes is the time of a standard wash program. And if it’s a quick cycle, then it’s just 15 minutes. Strike three according to Dr. Beckmann.

Beating laundry into submission with detergent

Now we come to the funny party. In order to overcompensate for the failure in using mechanics, time, and heat, Americans go in for the kill with chemistry. Detergent here attacks colors and fabric. Bleach ist added to the mix. It’s no wonder than t-shirts quickly wear out and become full of holes. I’ve recently given up looking for mild detergent and have finally found detergent for colors, but only after a long search.

Other newbie mistakes

Europeans fresh off the boat in the US often fill the washing machine up with dirty laundry first. I remember standing there like an idiot when I couldn’t find the compartment for the detergent. I ended up just pouring the powder directly on top of the laundry. That wasn’t a good idea, what with the 30-minute wash program and the lukewarm water. I found residue all over my darker pieces of clothing. I even found it after the next wash and the wash after that. I only solved the problem by switching over to liquid detergent.

Where do these holes come from?

Chemistry + Mechanics = Holes? Apparently, over time, that’s enough to damage the fabric. The dryers also do their part. Dryers here are also a nightmare. Although I’m extremely cautious, at some point all of my clothes shrink significantly. Really significantly. And why? It all comes back to Time is Money. Clothes need to dry fast, so the temperatures get turned up. My dryer is set to the lowest setting and the timer is automatic. Sometimes the laundry comes out a bit damp, but just as often, I find that one piece of clothing or another has become a bit shorter or a bit smaller.

I hate my dryer even more than my first washing machines. Yes, plural. After two months, I threatened my husband with divorce if we didn’t get a new washing machine. I asked for a front loader, since the drum does a better job of washing. The second washing machine luckily broke after six months. I say luckily, because we bought it used and so it wasn’t much better than the first one.

Consumer Reports is the American equivalent of Stiftung Warentest

After all that, I went on the search for the American version of the Stiftung Warentest. I found it in Consumer Reports and researched the test results for washing machines for three hours. Who would have guessed such a thing from a native French women, eh? I finally ended up purchasing an American washing machine that I’m all around happy with. It’s a front loader that can hold 7 kg, the wash cycle runs for one hour and nineteen minutes and I can slow down the spin cycle. My laundry always comes out clean. Always.

The Final Word

My inspiration for today’s blog post comes from Steve Jobs. Yes, the same Steve Jobs of iPhone, iPad & co. (fame?). No, I haven’t revolutionized an industry and I’m not writing about Apple today. Let me go out on a little tangent.

For my birthday, my husband (to whom I am still married, thanks to the third washing machine!) gave me a biography on Steve Jobs. It’s a great book and was the right thing to be reading, since I was staying in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Anyhow, Steve Jobs was a perfectionist and aesthete and had this to say in an interview with Wired:

It turns out that the Americans make washers and dryers all wrong. The Europeans make them much better – but they take twice as long to do clothes! It turns out that they wash them with about a quarter as much water and your clothes end up with a lot less of detergent on them. Most important, they don’t trash your clothes. They use a lot less soap, a lot less water, but they come out much more cleaner, more softer, and they last a lot longer.

And that’s exactly how it is. Thanks, Steve Jobs.

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  • My German husband and I visit his family in Germany pretty much every year. He always comments about how much better the washers are there. They are small and take forever, but seem to clean very well. I think the secret is the water temperature along with the time.
    When our German friends visit I always do their laundry and they are terrified of the dryer, but amazed to see nothing shrinks when I dry their clothes. That’s because I know how to use the dryer! I’ve had clothes shrink in the dryer in Germany because I had to learn how to use it properly.
    I hate hanging clothes to dry because they become misshapen and are stiff like cardboard. Not to mention taking forever.
    We always do laundry before leaving to come back to the US and it is an all day affair with the size of the washer and dryer. There are good and bad attributes for both kinds. A German washer that is larger and takes a little less time to wash would be “perfekt”!

  • Interesting cultural preferences. I am an American living in Holland. I honestly can’t say that I’ve ever noticed a difference in cleaning. But I’ve definitely noticed the insane length of the dryer. Dead slow and it takes at least twice through for the clothes to be completely dry and ready to wear…

  • Um, no. You are completely and entirely wrong. As someone who has lived on both sides of the pond, I would give my right arm for an American washer/dryer over a European one that is too small and takes forever. And don’t get my started on those European “dryers” that don’t actually do a damn thing.

    • What a wonderful proof for cultural differences! I guess you’re fluent in German, then you should check the comments at the end of this post: ‎(which is more or less the same as this one).
      Thank you for your comment Eliza!

  • I completely agree with your analysis of US washing machines and dryers! Americans don’t make household appliances that are built to last, just like they don’t make houses or cars that are meant to withstand the test of time. It’s a different mentality. Americans like variety and “newness”, so the fact that you are forced to buy something new to replace the old broken down one is actually a good thing here! It’s strange, and annoying and frustrating but it’s a fact of life one has to deal with when living in the US!

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