Who doesn’t love chores that can be done at the push of a button? Take laundry. The TV infomercial pitchman William “Billy” Mays Jr. used to ask his late night audience whether they were “on the ball?” He was selling a “patented” long-lasting detergent dispenser the size of a softball that users placed inside their washers. “Just toss and go,” Mays urged his viewers. “Get on the ball and you’ll never have to pour and measure detergent again.”
Mechanical engineer Jerrod Kappler is not a Mays devotee, but he shares his vision. He and his team at GE Appliances have harnessed some far flung physics like Bernoulli’s principle that gives airplane wings lift and allows planes to fly, and built a new “smart” washing machine that knows how much detergent and softener your laundry needs and dishes out the right dose.
Two reservoirs inside the washer, one for detergent and the other for fabric softener, hold enough supply to last for two months, or more than 100 ounces each. “We wanted consumers to empty the whole bottle into the washing machine,” Kappler says. “They can recycle the empties and get rid of the clutter.”
Bernoulli’s principle is helping Kappler and his team to dispense the right amounts of the fluids from the reservoirs at the right time. “We are basically passing water over a hole and that creates a vacuum,” Kappler says. In flight this same vacuum holds a Boeing wing aloft. In the washing machine it sucks out the detergent and the softener from their storage tanks. “There are two nice things about this,” Kappler says. “You don’t have any moving parts, and you are premixing all of the detergent and the fabric softener before it gets on the garments.”
The machine is also using sophisticated pressure sensors to determine how much the dispenser dribbled out. Kappler says that the average dose size is about an ounce and a half. “We can detect amounts significantly lower this level,” he says.
The dose amount, of course, depends on the type of laundry. The machine comes pre-programmed with more than 50 precisely calibrated cycles that the team tested in GE’s massive washing machine lab in Louisville. “We have 200 washing machines running,” Kappler says. “We can measure every input and every output.”
Kappler can hold a detailed discourse about “very absorbent loads like towels,” and discuss the details of specialty cycles for jeans, comforters, as well as “a delicate cycle” for business casual. “The user can override them, depending on hard or soft water, but we recommend our setting because people overdose detergent pretty extensively.”
Kappler says the washer can also communicate with the smart grid and run the laundry when power costs the least. This all happens through a built-in Ethernet jack.
All this makes Kappler perhaps the ultimate laundry room insider. “The engineering far exceeds what the typical casual observer thinks makes a washing machine,” he confides. “Our new GE top load washing machine has a tremendous amount of energy in it. There are a lot of dynamics involved.”