Whirlpool smells profit in new washer with anti-odor, smart grid features

It may feel a little creepy to think of your washing machine talking to the power company, but that's among the bells and whistles appliance manufacturers are coming up with to perk up a market that's been smacked down hard by the recession. For now, Whirlpool Corp. (WHR) wants to get an edge by protecting clothes from moldy smells if you forget to unload the wash. But eventually, it plans to sell appliances that can communicate with the planned smart power grid to save energy.

Whirlpool is shipping a new Duet washer with a feature that tumbles wet clothes around for up to 10 hours after finishing the wash -- to keep the clothes from getting musty or wrinkled. In its announcement, the company claims its research found 72 percent of consumers felt it was important that clothes don't get smelly if left in the washer, but only 47 percent are satisfied with how their washers currently handle this.
This nifty feature comes at a price: The washer and its matching steam dryer are $1,599 each. That's a big ticket any day, but especially so at a time when homeowners are still putting off home-improvement plans and cutting corners on those projects that do get done. When Whirlpool -- which had been struggling even before the recession -- reported a 47 percent drop in third-quarter earnings, management said only cost-cutting helped it deal with low demand for appliances.

But it's another feature in the Duet washer that may help it sell: The washer and dryer are Energy Star-qualified as being efficient. The washer also has a feature that lets the user time the cycle to start up to 18 hours after loading, ideally to schedule the wash during hours of lower power use.

That's useful because, as our sister site WalletPop reported recently, a number of states will launch rebate programs funded by federal government grants to encourage households to replace old appliances with Energy Star-approved ones, a sort of "Cash for Clunkers" program for appliances. And while "Dollars for Dishwashers" may not perk up the economy as a whole, the offers rolling out in the spring could give a shot in the arm to the manufacturers.

Whirlpool was among the companies that shared $3.4 billion in federal grants in October under the Smart Grid Investment Program, a stimulus project to upgrade the nation's electric grids, including installing millions of "smart meters" that report usage back and forth between users and the power grid. Whirlpool has said it will use its $19.3 million grant to develop "smart appliances" with the ability to communicate with the grid and cut back energy use during peak times and crank it up during low-demand periods. Whirlpool has said it will ship one million "smart dryers" by 2011, and all its new appliances will be able to communicate with the grid by 2015.

If manufacturers can develop a washer that sends an alert when a dark sock gets mixed in with a load of whites, then they may be on to something, but as we've reported before, shoppers don't necessarily see the advantage of paying more for a green product, and the recession has made that tougher. In Whirlpool's announcement of its "smart appliance" commitment, it noted that the smart dryers could save a typical consumer $20 to $40 a year in energy costs, but it also acknowledged its plans are contingent on development of the smart electricity grid in the U.S. and on "appropriate policies that reward consumers, manufacturers and utilities."

So until then, the feature that keeps your clothes from getting smelly if you forget them in the washer will have to do as a selling tool.
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