People have been blaming the government for poor washer performance for quite a while now. In the ‘90s, top-loading washers reigned supreme as relatively mature technology until the Department of Energy’s efficiency standards took them to task. Though they were popular with consumers, the top-loaders guzzled water like Hummers and Suburbans went through gas. To meet these new standards, the washer industry began to focus on front-loaders, which generally use less water since they don’t need to fill up the entire cavity to clean. The golden age of top-loaders was over.
The new marriage between consumers and front-loaders hasn’t been so smooth, making people people loudly nostalgic for the ‘90s technology. If you forget to toss a few t-shirts in, you can’t exactly open up the door after the cavity has been filled with water, and small drainage issues can easily become smelly mold problems, especially if you don’t keep the door open to air out the cavity. But most of all, people like the Wall Street Journal’s Sam Kazman simply maintain that these new high-efficiency washers just don’t clean like the old ones. So we decided to analyze our data to find the real truth: is there a correlation between water use and performance?
Drawing from our data set of 53 full-size washers, we plotted water usage versus performance to see if there was a relationship. Since the efficiency standards only care about water usage—and not how the usage is curtailed—we observed front and top-loaders together.
Across the entire data set, the washers plotted showed absolutely no relationship between water usage and performance (R-squared=0.05499). Even when looking at the two types separately, we found a negligible correlation between water use and performance (R-squared=0.0005 for front-loaders; R-squared=0.17515 for top-loaders), indicating that more water does not mean a better wash. Of course, even if we did find a correlation, that's no guarantee that it's causal.
The Top-Loader vs. Front-Loader Debate
Ignoring the x-axis of the graph for a moment and paying attention to the y-axis only gives you another insight: into the front-loader vs. top-loader question. While it may seem that the front-loaders dominate the top-loaders, it’s important to take into account the front-loader’s market share. With this in mind, the two genres score very proportionally. About a third of the washers we test are top loaders, and about a third are in the top ten. So as of now, a good front-loader is just as good as a good top-loader.
While our data does provide insight into these questions, it's important to remember that the answers they provide may be temporary. Since there's a heavy focus on front-loading technology, the marginalized top-loader's quality may become inferior as the front-loaders innovate and improve. Likewise, as the mechanical technology changes and matures, there may very well come a time when more water does, in fact, result in better cleaning. These are questions that should always be revisited.