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U.S. consumers are wasting $4 billion annually to power clothes dryers that, unlike other common household appliances, have barely improved their energy efficiency since the 1970s, a report today says.

A typical electric dryer may now consume as much energy per year as the combined use of an efficient new refrigerator, clothes washer and dishwasher, reports the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. Homes pay more than $100 annually to run an electric dryer and $40 for a gas one, its report finds.

"Dryers have gone largely unnoticed," says Noah Horowitz, NRDC senior scientist, noting regulators have focused on other appliances. Since the 1970s, he says U.S. efficiency requirements have been updated seven times for fridges but only three times — each one modest — for dryers. As a result, new fridges — and dishwashers and washing machines — have more than halved their energy use.

Yet, he says Americans spend $9 billion annually to operate inefficient dryers, 75% of which are electric. He says they could save $4 billion of that — and reduce heat-trapping carbon-dioxide emissions — if all electric units were updated to the most efficient hybrid heat pump model sold overseas, mostly in Europe.

The Environmental Protection Agency is taking steps to boost dryer efficiency. Next year, for the first time, it will allow manufacturers to use the Energy Star label on dryers that use 20% less energy than the minimum efficiency standard. These models will likely have auto sensors that will stop the machine once clothes are dry.

In January, vented dryers — the bulk of the U.S. market — will face a new standard that will boost efficiency about 5%, says Kathleen Hogan, deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency at the Department of Energy. She says that standard, finalized in 2011, was jointly developed by industry and environmental groups.

"There's more opportunity in dryers," Hogan says, adding DOE is working to improve its testing of dryer efficiency before it finalizes another standard, likely in 2017. She says heat pump dryers are becoming more common in Europe, where energy prices are higher, but remain expensive.

"We need to bring those prices down," she says. These dryers are efficient, because they recapture the hot air used by the dryer and pump it back into the drum to dry more clothes. They take longer, though, to dry clothes.

Horowitz welcomes the new Energy Star label but says stricter mandatory standards are needed. The good news, he says, is that consumers can take simple steps to cut costs. He says washing clothes in cold water can save 50 cents per load, and using the maximum spin speed will reduce the amount of time they spend in the dryer.

Unless in a hurry, he suggests consumers also pick a dryer's low temperature setting, fill the drum two-thirds to three-quarters full with clothes and, since the drum is already warm, do two or more loads consecutively. Best yet, he says, they can save the most energy with old-fashioned line drying.

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