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The Culture War Comes For Dishwashers

I can’t believe we’re really doing this ... again.

A dishwasher and American iconography.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

From the outrage factory that brought you Joe Biden’s War on Gas Stoves comes a new hit just in time for summer: Joe Biden’s War on Dishwashers.

Late last week, the Department of Energy announced new efficiency standards for household dishwashers, the result of a congressionally mandated regulatory review that nevertheless has sent conservative media into a tizzy. “As usual with environmentalist crusades, the target is poorly chosen and the ‘solution’ is likely to aggravate people, with no benefit to the planet,” The National Review slammed. Fox Business complained that the “war on appliances continues.” The Daily Mail deployed its signature scare caps to blare that “now Biden is going after your DISHWASHERS.” From the trenches, Reason wearily dispatched that “Joe Biden’s War on Dishwashers Rages On.”

When a commissioner for the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, whose job it is to make sure the stuff in our house doesn’t kill us, pointed out last January that maaaaybe having methane-leaking gas stoves in our kitchens isn’t the healthiest of ideas, a similar conservative firestorm had also ensued. Never mind that a federal “ban” was never actually on the table: right-wingers and honorary right-wingers alike tripped over each other to profess that theylove their gas stoves the most.

I even sort of get it! A Wolf Gas Range is pretty sexy. But a Miele Lumen Ecoflex dishwasher is … not. In America, chefs are celebrities and gas is the aspirational cooktop featured on many a food and home renovation show; even refrigerators have become show-offy status symbols. But the humble dishwasher is tasked with handling our messes once the Instagramable #foodporn has been scraped away. Why, then, is right-leaning media acting like a SWAT team is posed to bust through our windows and spirit away our outdated dishwashers when we didn’t even realize we were supposed to love them in the first place?

The answer is that “news purveyors” have what Intelligencer calls “a strong incentive to keep consumers in a constant state of agitation” with “new fights that touch on such existential questions as who we are as Americans” since these “tend to light up amygdalae better than old, stuffy arguments over … jobs, wages, and the rising cost of living.” What this means in practice, though, is that the battle lines have been drawn before there are any battles to be had. “Americans with conservative views came to see driving a gas-guzzler, eating meat, and other climate-unfriendly practices as salient to their political and cultural identities,” explains The New Republic, “while recycling, eating vegan, and other environmental habits became coded as coastal leftist habits.” In other words, dishwashers have been recruited into the ongoing culture wars — because energy efficient = bad! — and may now take their seat somewhere between “masks” and “drag queen story hours.”

The dishwasher battle is especially supercharged, though, because former President Donald Trump has taken a keen personal interest in it. During a 2019 rally now best remembered for the president’s rant about not being able to flush his toilet, Trump also took aim at energy-efficient dishwashers: “Remember the dishwasher, you press it?” he’d regaled his audience. “Boom, there’d be like an explosion, five minutes later, you open it, the steam pours out, the dishes. Now you press it 12 times, women tell me. Again. You know, they give you four drops of water. And they’re in places where there’s so much water they don’t know what to do with it.” If you parsed that, congratulations.

A year later, Trump confirmed he’d lifted the “burdensome regulations” on dishwashers and subsequently boasted on the campaign trail that “now you can buy a dishwasher and it comes out beautiful.” (I, for one, don’t believe the former president has ever done dishes in his life — “now you press it 12 times, women tell me”??? — but I digress).

In truth, Trump actually hadn’t lifted a regulation on dishwashers so much as he’d written a new one, Wirecutter points out. Under Trump’s watch, the Department of Energy introduced a whole new product class for special dishwashers that run on short cycles, which are hyper-fast and usually energy- and water-intensive. These new speedy dishwashers wouldn’t be regulated and therefore could use unlimited water and energy. Huzzah! Only, hilariously, manufacturers didn’t exactly rush to make these new machines (the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, an industry interest group, actually opposed them), and Biden eventually closed the silly little loophole.

The rules proposed by the Biden administration last week build on the Trump-era rollback by further calling for “conventional household dishwashers made in or imported into the U.S. as soon as 2027 … to use 27% less power and 34% less water — no more than 3.3 gallons during their normal, default cycles,” Bloomberg reports. “Normal, default cycles” is the key term here because it’s actually the only dishwasher mode that the government restricts; “short cycle” modes are still allowed on dishwashers sold in the U.S., and aren’t regulated by the new rules. The short cycles just can’t be the default modes on the appliances. Surprisingly, this actually makes a huge difference: A Consumer Reports survey found most people don’t actually push the “short cycle” button, and only 6% of people use it “most of the time.” Even with short-cycle optionsavailable on all future dishwashers, the DOE still expects its new regulations to amount to $3 billion in utility bill savings over 30 years, reduce CO2 emissions by 12.5 million metric tons, and save 240 billion gallons of water.

So what are conservatives so upset about? One complaint is that energy-efficient dishwashers take too long to run, and while it’s true many cycles top two hours, there is, again, still a short cycle option available on some machines if you want it (though what’s the rush? You’re in a hurry to unload the dishwasher?). There is also Trump’s complaint that energy-efficient dishwashers aren’t as effective at cleaning as energy-sucking ones, though “several of today’s models that already meet the [newly] proposed efficiency standards have five-star cleaning performance ratings from Consumer Reports,” the Appliance Standards Awareness Project (ASAP), an organization that advocates for more energy-efficient appliances, pointed out in a recent statement. Wirecutter likewise concluded that “crappy cleaning performance and long cycles aren’t an inevitable outcome of efficiency standard” and “if your dishwasher is slow and sucks (and a better detergent doesn’t fix the problem), blame the company that built it.”

Well, how about the cost, then? A representative from the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, the aforementioned industry interest group, told Reason that “we’re seeing costs of new products going up dramatically” due to new energy regulations, but Bloomberg reports that the DOE estimates consumers will only pay “an extra $15 for a new standard-sized dishwasher but could take in potentially three times that in reduced operating costs over the device’s lifetime.” ASAP additionally notes that “most dishwashers that don’t yet meet the proposed standard could be modified to do so by making changes in their programming, rather than physical design modifications,” meaning lagging manufacturers don’t need to start from scratch, either.

Of course, rational arguments about the new standards aren’t really the point. The fury is because the Biden administration has the audacity to do something that kind of sort of maybe could be called “regulatory overreach” if you’re totally unmoored from reality. Again, these standards were required to be reviewed by the DOE, hadn’t been updated since 2012, and the vast majority of dishwashers on the market require only simple programming tweaks to comply with the standards if they don’t already. This isn’t going to ruin anyone’s kitchen, much less their life. But in today’s political environment, it all somehow still means war.

Just don’t tell the conservative rabble-rousers that the same DOE energy efficiency proposal for dishwashers also cracks down on another familiar piece of large equipment.

Otherwise a “War on Vending Machines” will be next.

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City. Read More

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