The type of automatic washing machine that most people in this country have in their homes is a top-loading machine that “agitates,” or churns or jerks the clothes back and forth by means of a post in the center of the tub in order to wash and rinse them. As it drains the wash and rinse waters, it spins the clothes at ever-increasing speeds until the great “centrifugal” force of the spinning presses out so much water that the clothes do not drip, i.e., are “damp dried” when they are finally removed.
Other types of machines, those that tumble rather than agitate clothes, are growing in popularity. These have no agitator post and clean clothes by tumbling them in a turning barrel while causing sudsy water to be sloshed and, sometimes, sprayed through them. Different versions of tumbling, sloshing, and spraying are used by the various tumbling machines. Like agitators, tumblers spin the clothes to squeeze the water out of them until they are damp dried. Although most tumblers have a door on the front instead of a lid on the top and thus are called “front-loaders,” there are several “hybrids” that use a variety of nonagitating washing mechanisms but have a lid on top like agitators. Both front-loading and hybrid tumblers are called “high-efficiency” (HE) washing machines, for reasons explained below. Both types of machines are referred to here as “tumblers” or “high-efficiency machines.”
Which Machine for You?
The increasing variety of types of washing machines available and features offered means that it is now more difficult to decide which machine is right for your household. Although front-loaders have been around almost as long as top-loaders, most people in this country have lived only with top-loading washers and are not familiar with many of the advantages and disadvantages of tumblers. (In Europe, the opposite is true.) For the average person, top-loaders offer two strong advantages: you can load top-loaders without bending and straining your back, and, more importantly, until recently, top-loaders were bigger and could wash far larger loads far more quickly than front-loaders. For most people, these factors were decisive. But things have begun to change.
In recent years, tumbling machines have become increasingly popular on account of their outstanding energy- and water-saving features. They offer faster spinning speeds, too, and faster spins mean that clothes come out of the washer far more dry and thus dry faster in the dryer, creating further energy savings and convenience. Tumblers often cost more up front, but depending on your laundry volume and your habits, you make up a good portion or even all of the excess cost in reduced operating costs over the life of the machine. For these reasons, they are called “high-efficiency” or HE machines.
American front-loading and hybrid models are no longer smaller than agitators; the different models have a range of capacities comparable to that of top-loaders. (European front-loaders continue to be smaller and slower than new American front-loaders.) And despite the ample capacity of new-model tumblers, they still use much less water and energy than old-fashioned agitating machines. Today’s more stringent regulations on laundry appliance efficiencies, therefore, have tipped the balance in favor of tumbling machines for many home laundries.
Claims of superior laundry effectiveness are also made for tumbling machines—both by their manufacturers and by many users. Tumblers, they say, not only clean more thoroughly but they clean more gently, causing less wear and tear on clothes. Tumblers generally use more rinses than top-loaders, too, and repeated rinses are more effective at removing residues of dirt and detergent than one deep rinse. More thorough rinsing is also better for sensitive skin and helps clothes last longer and stay cleaner longer. Because of their more effective washing and rinsing, some say that tumbling machines help decrease reliance on laundry chemicals such as detergent and bleach.
But new-model tumblers, unfortunately, are still slightly less convenient to use than top-loaders. They still tend to take longer to wash the clothes than top-loaders, although they offer various quick-wash options. You still have to bend down to fill front-loaders. You still cannot open some tumblers to add a forgotten item after the first couple of minutes of the cycle; nor do you have the same ability to fiddle with the length of washes or rinses as you have with agitators. Because tumbling causes more suds and uses less water than agitating, tumblers need low-sudsing HE detergents that at present cost more, although the prediction is that their price will come down. The new hybrids offer the convenience of top-loading but otherwise tend to have many of the advantages and disadvantages of front-loaders.