Front loader or top loader?

Top-loading washing machines are easier to load and unload than front-loading machines (since you don't have to stoop over to open them), and they cost about $300 less on average. Traditional top-loaders, which use an internal agitator that spins on a vertical axis to churn the water and clean the laundry, are the least expensive type. However, they cost more to run because they use more water and electricity than high-efficiency models. They also hold less laundry, make more noise and get lower scores (often sharply lower) in professional tests.

High-efficiency top loaders use less water and energy than conventional top loaders, but they get higher marks for washing performance in independent tests. While some of these washers still have a traditional agitator design, most use different cleaning mechanisms. One common alternative to an agitator is an impeller -- a fan-shaped ridge at the bottom of the washer drum that spins to create turbulence and somersault laundry through the water. However, these mechanisms can also tangle clothes more easily than a traditional agitator. High-efficiency top loaders are also more expensive than conventional washers, with prices that rival those of front loaders.

Front-loading washing machines are the best washing machines in general, and they're the most efficient, too. Their horizontal tubs tumble clothes into and out of the water, making it possible to wash a full load with relatively little water. On average, front loaders tend to be gentler on clothes than top-loading machines, as well as more efficient. Front-loading washers can be stacked with a matching dryer to save space, and their higher spin speeds wring out more water, so laundry requires less time in the dryer.

However, front loaders have their own set of some drawbacks. They can trap water, dirt and detergent in the tub, creating an ideal environment for mold and odors. However, this problem can be avoided by wiping down the rubber seal after each wash and leaving the washer door open when not in use. Another common problem is lengthy wash times -- anywhere from 50 to 100 minutes for a standard wash cycle, compared to 35 to 60 minutes in a top loader. The high spin speeds of front-loading machines may cause excessive vibration, especially on wooden floors. They also require high-efficiency (HE) detergent, which produces fewer suds. You can read more about laundry detergent in a separate ConsumerSearch report.

How to choose a washing machine

Experts say the following about choosing a washer:

  • Consider capacity. Washers with a large capacity can do more laundry in a single load, saving time, energy and water. However, this doesn't mean you should always buy the largest machine you can afford. Martha Psiroukis of Choice magazine notes that many users don't fill their machines to capacity, so all that extra space just adds up to wasted water and energy. For most users, a typical load is only 7 to 9 pounds of laundry.
  • Seek out high spin speeds. Washing machines with high spin speeds extract more water from your laundry, which cuts down on drying time. A typical new washer spins clothes at around 800 rpm, while some advanced models can reach speeds up to 1,400 rpm.
  • Weigh the value of a steam cycle. Independent tests show that steam cycles, included on some high-end front loaders, can remove tough stains better than water washing alone. However, they can also add a few hundred dollars to a washer's price. This cost may be worth it if you often wash heavily soiled items, but the top-rated front loaders without steam also have very good washing performance.
  • Stick with basic white if you want to save money. Many modern washing machines come in a base model with a white exterior, as well as additional trendy colors. However, these designer colors cost more -- typically about a $100 premium for a machine that's otherwise identical to the basic white model.
  • Evaluate features. Experts praise the value of an automatic temperature control feature, which selects the right water temperature for each cycle. Automatic dispensers for bleach, detergent and fabric softener are also handy. By contrast, the many customized programs available on most machines aren't particularly useful. For most people, the basic cycles and three standard water levels will work fine.
  • Skip the extended warranty. Most experts say extended warranties usually aren't a good deal.
  • Look into rebates. The federal government does not offer tax credits for energy-efficient washers at this time. However, rebates may be available from the manufacturer or from your utility company.

Watch the video

To learn more, watch this About.com video on how to hook up a washing machine.

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