How many washing machines should a family have?

For that matter, how many drills? How many stepladders? Barbeques? Air mattresses? Chocolate fountains?

Answer: clearly < 1.

My wife and I use our washing machine maybe three times per week at most, and even back when I was a kid my parents didn’t do a load of washing every day.

As for how often I need to put a hole in a wall, it couldn’t be more than a few times a year. Reach something high up? Perhaps once a month. Have a guest sleep over in our living room? Every month or two, max.

You get the picture: lots of household objects don’t get constant use. For many, in fact, for most of the year their main function is to form part of the junk mountain preventing the closet from closing properly.

Problem: no fractional appliances

The trouble is, you can’t typically buy a fraction of an appliance. I saw a whitegoods store was advertising 50% toasters the other day, but it turns out they just meant half price, not half the toaster.

This is hugely inefficient. There are two options, both bad:

  1. Own one of these items and allow it to sit idle and take up space for 99% of the time.
  2. Own zero, and when you need it either find an annoying workaround or obtain one short-term by borrowing from a friend or renting.

There’s got to be a better way.

My proposal: common ownership pools for expensive, infrequent-use items. A handful of families share a single barbeque/air mattress/chocolate fountain, resulting in lower costs and storage burden.

How many families?

Calculate how many useable hours there are in a week for a given item (people don’t typically like mowing their lawn at midnight, for example), calculate how many of these hours one family needs, and divide through to get an efficient number of owners.

Washing machine example

Useable hours per week: say between 7am and 10pm every day of the week == 105 useable hours per week

Hours required by one family: my household probably has a lower use than average, so let’s round up a little to 5 washes per week. Factor in 4 hours per wash (much too pessimistic, but best to build in a margin for error somewhere) == 20 hours per family

105/20 ~= 5 families

So five families should be able to share one washing machine. Scheduling and maintenance might pose some logistical difficulties, but overall this seems like a reasonable estimate to me.

Questions to answer before implementing a plan like this

  • How do you deal with scheduling time for each family to use the item?
  • What if there is a conflict – how do you break ties?
  • How much slack needs to be included to ensure that the item will be available when it is needed? (Presumably this is a function of the amount of time required for a single use, and the consequences of non-availability.)
  • Who owns the item? If one of the owners wants to exit the arrangement, how are they compensated for their share?
  • What constitutes ‘acceptable use’ for the item, and in what condition should it be returned after each use?

I don’t think there is enough money in this to build a startup around, but it could certainly work in a Baugruppe-type scenario…