As simple as possible, as complex as necessary

The simplicity of modern washing machines

9 March 2011

If you tell someone you're a web designer, they'll usually have a rough idea of what you do (design websites). As a web developer though, I'm often met with blank looks.

One way of explaining the difference is that as a developer I do more of the "plumbing" behind the scenes.

Very occasionally, I get to do a bit of real (if trivial) plumbing, as when I ordered a new washing machine recently.

Washing machine water inlet pipes: cold tap connected, hot tap not connected
Do we need the hot tap?

One thing that has changed in the 8 years since I last bought one, is that instead of 2 water inlets for hot and cold, there is now just one. Cold water only machines are apparently the norm now (here in the UK at least) for a number of reasons discussed in detail by service engineer and white goods expert Andy Trigg. Chief among them is that modern washers use much less water then in the past, and heating this small amount in the machine is usually more efficient than using water pre-heated by your boiler, which will have cooled in the pipes and therefore take time to run hot.

We tend to think of electronic devices as evolving to become increasingly complex as more features and "intelligence" are built in to each new generation. Here though is an admirable example of an element being deliberately taken away and sold to us as a "feature".

However, simplicity isn't about blindly removing things. Every decision, whether adding or removing something, needs to be weighed up carefully and justified.

While I'm instinctively attracted to the idea of machines with fewer parts and therefore fewer things to go wrong (and of course to the environmental benefits of using less energy), there are valid arguments in favour of keeping the more complicated dual-inlet design, as put forward by several participants in a lengthy discussion on Andy's blog.

  • For boil or hot washes, getting the water to the right temperature would probably be more expensive when starting with just cold water (but do you really need to wash at more than 40°?)
  • If your machine is right next to your hot water tank or boiler, the "pipe cooling" factor will be less of an issue.
  • If you have a solar powered heating system, the hot water it provides will always be cheaper than that heated by the machine.

As I rarely wash above 30° I'm more than happy to dispense with the (for me) unnecessary complexity of a second pipe/inlet, but the point is that decisions about how simple things should be are rarely simple.

However much we may value and strive for simplicity, it's important to accept that a degree of complexity may well be justified.


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