How to select a washing machine


Jan 22, 2009


Popular Products in Washing Machines
The Bottom Line I make my living helping people figure this stuff out, and a lot has changed since most of the other articles were written. I hope you find this tutorial useful.

Washing machine technology has come a long way in the last 10 years (in America, anyway). We have gone from 99% top-loading washers to about 60% top-load and 40% front-load, with about 1/5 of the top-load market being high-efficiency top-loaders. With the great variety of brands, prices, styles, and features, how is one to make a decision? Please allow me to help.

CONVENTIONAL

First, how many people are you washing for? If it's just you, you may want to consider an Energy Star-qualified conventional top-loader. These machines look like the old-fashioned machines we grew up with, and they still have the agitator, but there is no longer a Load Size knob. Instead, it has a load sensor that will determine how much water is needed. This saves water and energy. These machines usually sell for around $600. Machines with the Load Size knob will use quite a bit more water, and won't clean any better, plus they'll cost more to run. On average, after 3 years you'll have saved enough with the Energy Star model to cover the price difference, and the rest of the savings are just gravy.

There are also some top-loading machines that will look a little more sophisticated, usually with a more streamlined look, and with only a single knob for cycle selection. These machines work the same, but with two major differences: capacity and spin speed. These fancier looking machines often increase capacity by about 25%, and increase spin speeds by about 80-100%. This results in fewer loads of laundry (savings) and more water wrung out of the clothes before they hit the dryer (savings). These machines will cost a bit more than the old-fashioned-looking machines, usually around $750, and are a great option for people who need greater capacity but aren't comfortable with the idea of not having an agitator, or who want to make a smaller investment in a washer but still want energy and water savings.

With any conventional top-loader, you should maintain the machine by running Washer Magic through it once every 4-6 weeks, to remove detergent, fabric softener, and stain residues. If you don't know where these residues are because you don't see them, carefully run your finger under the metal rim of the opening to the washtub. Feel that goop? See how it's all blackish-green and gross? That's what you need to get rid of. Now that you know your enemy, vanquish him! A single-use bottle of Washer Magic retails for about $4.

RECOMMENDATIONS

For conventional top-loaders, I recommend Whirlpool-manufactured washers and dryers, specifically Whirlpool, Maytag, and Kenmore. I highly recommend Energy Star models, because the water and energy savings are significant. The Kenmore 800, Kenmore Oasis, Whirlpool Cabrio, and high-end conventional top-loader all have load sensors, making them Energy Star-qualified. 

Inglis by Whirlpool is not a worthwhile brand (exclusive to Best Buy) because it uses components of lesser quality to achieve price points far below most other conventional machines. Estate by Whirlpool is also a sub-par brand designed for the bulk buyer (usually developers, condo associations, etc.).

HIGH-EFFICIENCY

Next, we have high-efficiency washing machines. If you do at least 9 loads of laundry in an average week with your conventional top-loader, a high-efficiency machine will make a big difference in both the number of loads you do and the amount of water and electricity (and/or gas) you use. 

These machines are also gentler on your clothes, as there is no agitator. Front-loaders wash by tumbling clothes, while top-loaders wash by shuffling the clothes up the center and down the sides. In both cases, the clothes scrub each other clean, instead of just sloshing around in a tub full of soapy water. With nothing to snag on or pull against, clothes like hooded sweatshirts, coveralls, and even comforters pose no problems. Being able to wash things like comforters, by the way, also helps save money by not spending $20-40 at the dry cleaners.

FRONT-LOADERS

For those whose homes don't have much floor space, a front-loading pair may be the best choice. These machines will generally have the capacity to handle at least 50% more laundry than a conventional top-loader. They will also use far less water. A conventional machine uses about 42 gallons of water, beginning to end, for a Normal cycle. A high-efficiency machine will use, on average, about 14 gallons of water for the same cycle. They also use, on average, 50-75% less energy. Every front-load washer is Energy Star-compliant, and many are Tier 2 or Tier 3 (which may qualify you for rebates from your city or state).

These machines also have high spin speeds, anywhere from 950-1300 rpm. This results in much less water left in the clothes, so the dryer won't have to run so long, which will save you energy. Front-loaders are also appropriate for people who want the storage that comes beneath when pedestals are added (these are not free, however).

Front-loaders are best placed on concrete floors or reinforced first floors, and, when properly installed, can be incredibly quiet. Only a few are appropriate for second-floor installation (Samsung and Electrolux make washers that you might want to consider for the second floor). Front-loaders have more vibration as a result of higher spin speeds, and the axis upon which the drum spins (the X axis). The vibration goes to the shock absorbing system, and then to the floor. 

If the machines are not going above the first floor, the only other considerations would be the dimensions of the machines versus the space you have, whether you want them stacked or not, whether you want pedestals or not, and the features you want in your machines.

Front-loaders have a wide price range, from about $600 up to $2000, depending on the brand and model. Generally, capacity, cycle options, and special features will increase as the price increases.

FEATURES

There is a mind-boggling laundry list (heh) of features available in today's front-load washers and dryers. Here is a run-down of most of what you'll find available:

Internal water heater: gradually heats water in washing machine to 145-155 degrees Fahrenheit for sanitizing and to increase whitening activity in bleach and bleach alternatives

Steam: In washer: helps with stain removal at end of wash portion of cycle
In dryer: relaxes wrinkles in clothes that have been left in the dryer too long, removes odors from clothes that are otherwise clean (smoke, perfume, etc.), removes wrinkles from clothes from the closet

Silver Care: water passes over silver plates in washer, carrying silver ions with it, and the natural anti-microbial activity of ionic silver sanitizes laundry without use of fabric-damaging bleach or additional energy; some people have expressed concern about silver entering the environment, but amounts are minute, and is far less damaging than the large amounts of silver jewelry that gets lost in waterways (Samsung exclusive)

Direct Drive: instead of having the motor at the bottom, and having belts drive the drum, the motor is directly behind the drum; LG and Samsung tout this as superior technology, but little evidence supports these claims, and repairs can be very costly for this style of motor, because any harmful movement of the drum goes directly to the motor, instead of just damaging a belt

Filter trap: a place where little bits and pieces of stuff left in clothes (or falling off clothes) gets trapped instead of heading directly into the pump; some manufacturers, like Whirlpool, keep this trap behind the fascia panel at the bottom, while others, like LG, GE, and Samsung, have them accessible from the front without the need for dismantling anything

Smart-Dispense: a special pedestal that has three dispenser jugs in it, two for detergents and one for fabric softener; the machine can automatically detect how much it needs based on the concentration of the detergent, size of the load, and water hardness (GE exclusive)

Delay start: you can delay the wash cycle by up to 24 hours, depending on the model; use only powder detergents for delayed start

CAVEATS

Because these machines work differently, they must be treated differently. First, only high-efficiency detergent can be used. It costs the same as conventional detergent, but doesn't make all those suds. Suds don't help the cleaning; they're just there to make you feel like cleaning is happening. 

Suds are the enemy of your front-loader (and, really, any washer). They can get behind the drum and break down the grease in the bearing ring, which will destroy the drum's ability to spin and cost you a new drum ($400-600, depending on the model, plus installation). They can also destroy your control panel ($200-300, depending on the model, plus installation). 

The manufacturer will not cover this damage, as it is considered abuse, and the user manual will tell you as much. Service agreements will also not cover this damage. No, you can't just use less regular detergent. Whatever detergent you like, there's an HE version. Sears also carries a very popular and very reasonably priced store-brand HE detergent called Ultra Plus, which gets very good reviews online (google: sears ultra plus detergent).

Second, always put your laundry chemicals in the dispenser. Do not put them directly in the drum (the only exception is Affresh tablets; we'll get to that in a minute). The dispenser is designed to distribute the detergent evenly, so everything gets cleaned. Bypassing this system will result in substandard results.

Third, you need to maintain your washer chemically to keep it clean and happy. Laundry detergents and fabric softeners leave residues that build up over time. These need to be eliminated to keep the machine clean and fresh. The easiest product to use is called Affresh. It's a tablet that you place directly in the washer drum without any laundry. Run a hot cycle or whatever tub-washing cycle your machine has. This will strip all that nasty gunk, so your machine will smell fresh and operate better. This should also be done before doing your first load of laundry, to remove manufacturing residues that could otherwise redeposit on your laundry. 

Other products, like Washer Magic, are also acceptable, but Affresh is the simplest and cheapest, at around $8 for a pack of three tablets (enough for three months of use, according to the manufacturer). You can also run a bleach-only cycle in addition or instead every now and then, to kill any mildew that might be in there. That leads us to #4.

Fourth, leave the door open when you're done. I know, I know, you're used to closing things when you finish using them. Me too. But, have you read those reviews for front-loaders complaining about mold and mildew? 99% of those reviews result from one thing: closing the door. 

Mildew spores are in the air everywhere. Yes, even in your clean home, ESPECIALLY in your clean home. Mildew loves people, because people do things that let mildew thrive. We get things wet, we keep temperatures between 55 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit, we get things dirty, we keep the air fairly stagnant, we have lots of dark rooms and closets, and we prefer humidity levels around 45-70%. Those conditions are great for mildew. 

Now, a front-loader is air- and water-tight when it's running, so it's also air- and water-tight when it's not running. That means that whatever water is left behind after the wash is taken out remains in the washer if you close the door. Moisture, stagnant air, warmth, darkness, residues from food stains and laundry chemicals...perfect habitat for mildew. Leaving the door ajar, even a crack, allows air to travel and lets the moisture escape, creating a dry environment that does not allow mildew to flourish. 

"But, if I'm paying this much for a washer, why should I have to do this?" If you pay whatever unholy sum it costs to purchase a Maserati, why should you have to change the oil? Price doesn't affect reality. People in Europe have been doing it this way for decades, and you won't hear them whimpering about it. It's just a habit you'll have to break. Just because we're not used to it doesn't mean it's not necessary. Oh, and if you choose to close the door anyway and you develop mildew, that's your fault and your responsibility to clean up; it's not a defect, just like driving 30,000 miles without changing the oil in your Maserati and having the engine seize isn't a defect. There will be no sympathy if you choose to disregard this fact of life.

"But, what if my cat gets in there?" I assume you're going to be putting clothes in the washer before you run it. Fluffy will let you know she's there. And, if you're running a bleach cycle, wouldn't you check anyway, to make sure you didn't leave your nice black shirt in there? 

"But, my kids might climb in!" 1: It's extremely difficult to close from inside; 2: it's extremely easy to open from inside; 3: it's impossible to start from inside; 4: the weight of a child large enough to get in but small enough to fit is between 25 and 50 lbs, which is generally beyond the weight limit for the machine, and the machine shouldn't be able to start with such excessive weight inside; 5: if your children can't be trusted not to wash each other in the washing machine, WHY AREN'T YOU WATCHING THEM? I'm just sayin'.

RECOMMENDATIONS

For front-loaders, I recommend Whirlpool-manufactured models, specifically Whirlpool models higher than Duet Sport, Kenmore models higher than HE2t/HE2 Plus, and Maytag (the models I leave out have been prone to service issues). I also recommend Samsung (any model), Electrolux (any model), and Frigidaire (Affinity or Gallery). There are also models under the GE and Kenmore brands manufactured by Frigidaire that will greatly resemble the Frigidaire Gallery series. These are essentially the same machines, and will give the same performance. 

Frigidaire is for the customer most concerned with price; Samsung (2nd floor acceptable) is best for people who want large capacity with sanitizing that won't use more energy or cause irritation; Electrolux (2nd floor acceptable) is best for people who need a washer and dryer with maximum options for arrangement (Electrolux has the industry's only reversible washer door, along with an industry standard reversible dryer door), want modern/European styling, and the largest capacity in the industry (4.7 cu ft in the washer, 8.0 cu ft in the dryer); Whirlpool-made is best for the customer seeking the most variety of machines and price points, straight-forward styling and controls, and the best cleaning performance.

HIGH-EFFICIENCY TOP-LOADERS

If you want all the capacity, cleaning power, and efficiency of a front-loader but you have a need or desire to maintain the look or set-up of a top-loader, the answer for you is a high-efficiency top-loader.

These machines will look much like a traditional top-loader, with a striking difference: they don't have an agitator. How does it work, then? Well, the drum and the washplate at the bottom work in conjunction to cause the clothes to agitate themselves, and they scrub each other clean while seemingly defying gravity as they travel through the washtub.

HE top-loaders use about 14 gallons of water, use 50-70% less energy, and have capacities of around 4.5-4.8 cu ft in the washer. This is large enough for a king-size comforter! You will need a dryer large enough to accommodate the largest load you will run, and usually the matching dryer is the best choice, as it's designed to work in concert with the washer.

Now, just because it is a top-loader, that doesn't mean we use traditional detergent. We're still using HE detergent. The reduced water and increased turbulence means suds would be out of control and would ultimately cause damage to the machine.

Also, don't expect to see water rising above the level of the clothes. In fact, it never should. The clothes will be soaking wet, with about another gallon for suspending dirt. Making the machine use more water will not increase cleaning power, and, in most cases, will actually cause it to clean worse. Trying to make these washers behave like a traditional washer is like trying to make a CD behave like an LP record.

As before, you want to clean the machine every now and then. Use Washer Magic for best results. Your machine and your nose will thank you for it.

Because these machines have washtubs on the Y axis instead of the X axis, the vibration caused by the high spin cycle speeds is not translated down to the floor, but mostly out to the sides. As there is just air between the tub and the walls of the machine, noise from the spin cycle is almost eliminated, and vibration is greatly reduced, making HE top-loaders appropriate for all floors of the house.

The list of features is a bit shorter, as the layout of the machine restricts its ability to perform some of the functions that front-loaders can. You can find models with internal water heaters, matching dryers with steam, and all models of top-loaders are direct-drive (even conventional top-loaders). Some of the models will have windows, so you can watch your laundry.

You don't have to leave these washers open if you don't want to, though it wouldn't hurt to air them out anyway.

RECOMMENDATIONS

I recommend any of the Whirlpool-made HE top-loaders (Kenmore Oasis HE / HT, Whirlpool Cabrio HE, Maytag Bravos).

OTHER SUGGESTIONS

I always recommend doing your research online and in magazines like Consumer Reports before making an investment in large appliances. However, I also recommend talking to friends and family about their experiences, and a well-trained salesperson can help make your decision easier by explaining features and differences between models. Often they communicate directly with product vendors, which gives them insights that most people don't get. They also may have contact with service technicians, which gives them an idea of what machines are having issues and what kind of issues they're having.

If you're purchasing any washer with high spin speeds, I recommend a service plan. If you are purchasing through Sears, this is called a Master Protection Agreement. High spin speeds can, in some cases, result in some damage over time to the motor. 

These machines also have load sensors which, if working improperly, will negate any savings and cause the machine to work poorly. They also have sophisticated electronic hardware inside, and it isn't anything one should try tinkering with. 

Repairs for these machines average between $200 and $500 when they occur. Am I saying they will occur to you? Certainly not, and I hope they don't. I am saying, though, that if they were to happen, you'd be far happier having everything covered 100% than having to pay for parts and labor and trip charges. 

Besides, if the machine ended up having to be replaced out of the manufacturer's warranty period of 1 year (in the off chance that it did), imagine how ticked you'd be at the prospect of losing that investment AND having to buy a new machine, too! Best to be on the safe side with these machines. The annual maintenance also helps catch problems before they become problems, saving you headaches, time, and money.

And, yes, I purchase them, too. I would never recommend someone do something I don't do myself. That just wouldn't be honest. 

If anyone wants information on how various service plans by various companies work, and the kind of pricing structure they can expect, I'd be willing to provide that information if asked. While I do work for Sears, and I do think our Master Protection Agreement is the best and worth every penny, I do not engage in competition bashing. An informed customer is every salesperson's favorite customer, and I want everyone to know as much as possible before making a decision.

Likewise, if you have any questions about particular brands or models, please let me know. I'm happy to offer my professional advice and opinions.

I hope this has been helpful for you, and if you have any questions or feedback, please leave a comment. Thanks!

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About the Author

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Location: Massachusetts
Reviews written: 12
About Me: Appliance salesman for America's largest appliance retailer. Previously sold Sleep Number beds at Select Comfort.