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Why your high-efficiency washing machine smells like cat pee: The official story

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Last summer, BrickUnderground investigated the dark side of high-efficiency washing machines—specifically, why the low-water machines (easy on apartment-building plumbing and the environment) sometimes leave your clothes smelling like cat pee (mold) and what you can do about it.

Our advice then was to switch from liquid to powder high-efficiency detergent in order to eliminate black gummy buildup in the detergent drawer and rubber door seal; to keep door propped open between loads to dry things out; and to periodically use a tablet product like Affresh ($8.45 on Amazon) to dissolve odor-causing residue.

But why does the smell keep coming back?

We hoped to find out more last week, when Maytag and Whirlpool—manufacturers of the Affresh tablets along with copious models of high-efficiency washers—invited us (for the last time, we presume) to a Chelsea loft to look over their newest machines. Lined up like gleaming storm troopers along the perimeter, many were the size of a typical Manhattan bathroom, with control panels more complex than our microwave (sorry, no Bed Bug Cycle yet).

We headed for the lab-coated engineer stationed behind a table of scientific props in the middle of the room. We sought answers, a hint of technological innovation to come, and reason to hope that we wouldn't sometimes have to throw clothes out because the appliance that's supposed to clean them actually makes them stink.

Sadly, much of what we heard sounded more like spin than fact.   Bear in mind, as we did, that as producers of both high-efficiency machines and Affresh tablets, Maytag and Whirlpool are making money off both sides of the equation.  Here is what we were told:

  • The source of the "odors" is actually a matter of international mystery.  Besides dancing around the word "mold"--and stating that no one in fact knew whether mold was the cause or not (really?)--Maytag's engineer postulated that the problem might even be our fault, having more to do with the smell of our clothes before they are washed, and even--who knows?--oily skinned families might notice greater odor build up in their washers.
  • "Odor" issues are not limited to high-efficiency machines. We were told (again and again) that washing-machine odor is a worldwide phenomenon afflicting traditional machines too. To which we say: Our experience is limited to our experience, but we have used at least a dozen traditional machines in our laundry life before encountering the problem in a high-efficiency Bosch front-loader. Morever, perusing the Affresh website later, we noticed a companion product  aimed at dishwasher and garbage disposal odors. A worldwide "appliance freshener" market? That's not only key subtext--it's big business.
  • The reason "odors" can persist despite powder detergents and good detergent-drawer and door-seal hygiene probably has to do with build-up hidden inside the machine’s drum. Okay, we buy this. What was disappointing was that our engineer was not aware of any mechanical innovations in the works to address the problem--like maybe, we suggested, some sort of internal powerwash--nor did he offer us reason to believe his cohorts were looking into it. Instead, furthering our Affresh conspiracy theory, he suggested that we use three Affresh tablets at once rather than sequentially. He also said the company will soon sell a stronger, commercial version of the Affresh tablets for home use.

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