How to Buy a Washer

Today’s clothes washers have more options and features than ever. Here’s what you need — and what you don’t — when it comes to buying a new washer.

Image: Sears

Granted, all washing machines clean dirty laundry, but today’s whiz-bang models aren’t one-size-fits-all appliances. Picking the best one for your home depends on your household’s particular laundry needs. Being up to speed on the latest washing technologies helps.

We take the wrinkles out of the buying process by sorting out what you need to know.

First Things First: Washing Machine Types and Costs

Traditional top-loading washers: They use a pole in the center of the tub, called a center post agitator, to whoosh laundry. They’re currently the top-selling machines in the U.S.

Pros:

  • They’re the least expensive; typically $300 to $650.
  • They work fast. They can knock out a load in 30 to 35 minutes.
  • Contemporary models clean better than ever.

Cons:

  • The center post agitator is rough on laundry, which can shorten fabric lifespan.
  • They’re not water-efficient. On average, they gulp 45 gallons of water per load, much more than front loaders.
  • They spin slower, so they leave laundry wetter than high-efficiency machines.
  • When compared with today’s front-loaders, they’re about 5% less efficient at cleaning.

High-efficiency top-loading washers: These machines are more energy-efficient than traditional top-loaders because they use sensors to manage water usage. Also, instead of a center post agitator, HE washers use a wash plate and a drum that rotates back and forth to toss and lift laundry around the tub. 

Pros:

  • They can wash larger loads since they don’t have a center post agitator hogging tub space.
  • On average they consume 22 gallons of water per load — that’s 50% less water than traditional top-loaders.
  • You’ll get a break on your utility bills. High-efficiency machines use up to 50% less electricity than a traditional machine. They also give your water heater a break since they slash hot water use.
  • Less water also means less detergent. They only require a couple of teaspoons of low-suds, high-efficiency laundry detergent per load.
  • They spin faster than traditional top-loaders so they wring out laundry better, reducing drying time.

Cons:

  • They’re pricey; typically $600 to $1,000.
  • Although a fast spin speed shortens drying time, it also causes more wrinkling and tangling.
  • The more water-efficient a machine is, the longer it takes to clean. An average wash cycle takes 60 to 90 minutes.

Front-loading washers: These machines are all high efficiency, and the best at cleaning. To get the job done, these washers rotate laundry back and forth while gravity pulls water through the laundry.

Pros:

  • They can wash larger loads than traditional top-loaders.
  • They use an average of 22 gallons of water per load — that’s 50% less water than traditional top-loaders.
  • You’ll get a break on your utility bills. Front-loaders use up to 50% less electricity than a traditional machine. They also give your water heater a break since they slash hot water use.
  • They spin super fast. Front-washed loads are up to 10% drier than traditional top-loaders.
  • They’re relatively gentle on laundry.

Cons:

  • They’re expensive; typically $700 to $1,300.
  • A single wash takes 75 to 100 minutes.
  • They can vibrate during the spin cycle. This can make them too annoying to place near a main living area.
  • A front-loading machine can require lots of bending to load and unload laundry.

Energy Efficiency

You can save $60 annually with an Energy Star-certified machine compared with a machine that meets Department of Energy standards. Machines that carry Energy Star’s “most-efficient” seal can slash your yearly power bills by up to $106. 

Want to Color Your World?

Many big-box stores sell both top- and front-loaders in fashion-forward shades. Popular options include chrome, wild cherry red, and onyx. However, colorful machines cost $100 to $200 more than their plain white counterparts.

FYI: The tops of porcelain machines resist scratching better than the tops of painted metal ones.

Tip: You can give your washer or any other large appliance in your home a stainless steel makeover.

Size Does Matter

A clothes washer’s capacity should be in sync with the amount of laundry you need to wash.

  • Most high efficiency top-loaders and front-loaders can handle 24-pound loads. Large capacity front-loaders can knock out 28-pound loads. Machines like these are ideal for families.
  • Traditional top-loaders wash 12- to 16-pound loads. Well-suited for a couple or single adult.

FYI: Overloading a washing machine can shorten its lifespan.

Tip: A larger capacity washer can whittle down the number of loads of laundry you do each week.

Pinched for laundry room floor space? You’ll need to keep machine dimensions in mind:

  • Average dimensions for a top-loader: width: 27 inches; depth: 25.5 inches; height: up to 42 inches 
  • Average dimensions for a front-loader: width: 27 inches; depth: 27 inches; height: 36 inches

Tip: Going with a front-loader? Make sure you have enough room for the door to open fully.

Tip: A stackable washer and dryer set is an option if you don’t have a lot of square footage. 

Features and Functions You Should Have

An NSF-certified washer: An average washer may clean laundry, but bedding and underwear in particular may not be hygienically clean unless you wash them at between 140 and 150 degrees. A machine certified by the NSF (formerly the National Sanitation Foundation) has a sanitizing wash cycle that reduces 99.9% of microorganisms.

A front-loader pedestal: Although this will increase your out-of-pocket costs, it’ll eliminate some of the crouching and bending needed to load and unload laundry. Need extra laundry room storage? Look for a pedestal with built-in drawers ($150 to $250).

Stainless steel drums: Unlike porcelain or plastic tubs, stainless steel drums can take a beating from metal zippers, buttons, and rivets without getting nicked or scratched. 

Time-saving wash: It’s a feature that can trim up to 20 minutes off a normal wash cycle on a high-efficiency machine without skimping on performance. 

A brightly lit control panel: This can be a handy feature if your new machine is being placed in a poorly lit basement or corner.

Noise-reducing technologies: Planning on keeping your new machine by a bedroom or a main living area? Look for washers equipped with sensors that reduce machine noise by keeping loads balanced.

Automatic dispenser: This feature eliminates detergent and clothes softener waste by taking the guesswork out of how much each load of laundry needs. Most machines can hold enough detergent and softener for one or two months; others can store up to six months’ worth. 

Features You Should Think Twice About

Although some of these features seem like they pack a lot of a value, they don’t boost a machine’s efficiency.

Extra rinse cycle: Not only does this extend washing time, it wastes water and electricity.

Touch pads: This smart feature may save your washer preferences, but it doesn’t enhance washing performance.

Wi-Fi enabled: Being able to control your machine remotely through an app on your computer or personal device can burn you. The National Fire Protection Association says you should never operate your washer or dryer when you’re sleeping or out of the house. That’s because one out of every 22 home structure fires between 2006 and 2010 involved a washing machine or dryer.

Steam settings: Although this feature seems like it can enhance a machine’s cleaning power, according to “Consumer Reports” it only slightly boosts stain removal.

Tip: Got an old washer you need to unload?

  • You may be able to trade it for a rebate on your new machine. Just check with your retailer before buying.
  • If it’s in good working condition, donate it to a local charity. Doing good may score you a tax deduction.
  • If it’s kaput, check with your local municipality on how to recycle.

Now May Not Be the Best Time to Buy

If energy savings is something you strongly value, you should know that in the near future washing machines will be even more efficient. Here’s why you may want to purchase your new machine later rather than sooner:

Traditional top-loaders will be no more. By 2018, all new top-loading washers will be high-efficiency machines that use 35% less energy and water than the current standard set by the Department of Energy (DOE). These new washers will save consumers about $40 per year compared with the traditional top-loaders sold today. 

New standards for front-loaders. By 2015 all new washers will be required to use at least 18% less energy and a whopping 40% less water than the DOE standards set for today’s basic front-loaders.

FYI: Although older machines have been known to last on average 14 years, the average for contemporary washers is 8 to 10 years.  What gives? They don’t make them like they used to: Today’s machines incorporate more plastics and electronics, and less of more durable materials like copper and porcelain.

Tip: Knowing the best time of year to buy a washing machine can save you a bundle. 

Related: How to Care for Your Washer and Dryer