Our very competence as parents, as employees and as citizens is judged in large part on our appearance - but at what cost?
By Michelle Martin
Published July 06, 2009
In our house, we really have no choice but to reduce, reuse, recycle, repair and repurpose. Some months, we have to add a sixth "R": renounce.
Unfortunately, the washing machine cannot be renounced. Right now, it needs to be repaired. Can't afford a service call, so it's in pieces on the basement floor while my husband teaches himself what to do. Two weeks later, he's still at it.
The last machine we had was an old top-loader, run with a timer, a motor, and a transmission -- quite fixable by an amateur who could have it up and running again pretty quickly, even back in the days before step-by-step instructions could be found online. However, when it needed replacing three years ago, we decided to do the environmentally responsible (and more immediately expensive) thing. We bought an energy star-rated, water-saving front loader.
Trouble is, it's full of electronic components which are difficult to test individually when a repair is needed. However, Stephen is nothing if not determined when it comes to home maintenance. Renaissance man that he is, he's taught himself to run diagnostics and use a multimeter correctly (not bad for an English major).
The online message boards have been of some help. On one of these, an appliance repair guy in Texas took pity and gave him a couple of useful tips. He even saw a web page where someone used an old 386 computer to work as a washing machine control panel, via the printer interface (somebody should tell this guy about ThinkHaus).
We just don't have the time to try something like that right now, as much of a genius at repurposing as that 386 fellow is. Besides - imagine the dark corridors you might find yourself wandering through after such a seemingly innocent innovation. First the washer starts flashing an F24 error message, next thing you know it's all "Stop, Dave, I'm afraid," as you open basement door after basement door...
When the clothesline in our backyard snapped in two, it was repaired in under an hour, and cost less than twenty bucks to fix. As I trip over piles of unwashed clothes, I am sorely tempted to go the low tech route for washing as well. Let's see...ten kids, ten washboards, a trip down to the lake. I could bribe everyone with the promise of a triple scoop at Hutch's.
Or maybe we should just pick up another old top-loader, used. The cost would probably be equivalent to what we've already spent at the laundromat.
But, no. It seems the control panel is being replaced. The part is expected to arrive by Monday (UPDATE: the part has arrived; we tried it out and it didn't work). It took the purchase and replacement of two other components to get to this point. A very helpful fellow at an appliance parts store up on the mountain told Stephen that this is a common experience, even among repair professionals. He also said we've done very well, going three years without a major repair considering the use it gets in our house (ahem - no doubt due in part to my fanatical pickiness about laundry methods). In his experience, six years total is normally what you get out of these babies- it doesn't necessarily matter which brand.
Our family could start railing against planned obsolescence, or arguing about the relative ecological footprints of water-hogging top-loaders versus machines that are more efficient but which don't last as long, and whose replacement parts are shipped from China.
For now the priority is, as it always should be, to focus on the first "R": reduce. Water-saving websites remind us that we can reduce laundry by wearing aprons when cooking, and dust jackets or coveralls when cleaning or doing yard work. We can spot-clean, when dirt is confined to one spot, without laundering the entire item. Our ancestors did these things simply because laundry was such hard work for them.
I'm normally pretty ruthless (there's another "R" for you) about not washing clothes that aren't actually soiled anyhow. When my kids throw clothing into the wash after only one wearing, in the absence of any real dirt or stains, they'll find themselves fishing it back out of the dirty laundry if they wish to wear it later in the week. Adolescent boys generally deal with this problem by spraying the offending item down with body spray, presenting a dilemma for the disorganized teen who is both eco- and self-conscious: wash clothes too often, or fill landfills with aerosol cans?
I joke, but that's part of the problem, isn't it? This self-consciousness that isn't entirely confined to teenagers goes beyond "keep up with the Joneses" worrying. It's more that our very competence as parents, as employees and as citizens is judged in large part on our appearance. And the standards for neatness and cleanliness have steadily risen with the advent of so-called labour saving devices, along with expectations concerning just how much we can cram into our day. It was all well and good when washing machines lasted for twenty years, were cheaper to repair and could be quickly fixed by an enterprising do-it-yourselfer. This is clearly no longer the case.
Moving from a global economy to a local one may be part of the solution- we will likely be forced into this despite ourselves. But it's probably time to re-think our whole laundry paradigm and not just in terms of energy use. We're all familiar with the slow food movement. Perhaps it's time for a slow laundry movement, too.
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