Feelings about appliances run surprisingly deep, at least in some people. Ask around for washing machine recommendation and you'll frequently hear the phrase "Well, my mom always had a ____." Yes, it's baseball, apple pie, and brand loyalty to the washers of yesteryear.
But technology has made enormous changes to how you can and should be doing laundry. After all, the detergent has changed (Tide and other brands are tinkering with formulas all the time), your clothes have changed (made of cheaper and thinner fabrics than ever), and the cost of energy has changed. It just makes sense that your washing machine needs to change too.
So let's look at the top-loader versus front-loader debate with fresh eyes.
Top-load washers: the basics
A majority of Americans still want a washer like the one their parents and grandparents owned. These top-loading machines let clothes swim in deep, soapy water and push them around with a pole-agitator (the tall column in the middle) to thrash out dirt. This type of washer drenches the sudsy clothes in lots of rinse water, and spins it out.
An HE top-loader closely resembles an old-school top-loader, but it's engineered to use water and energy more efficiently. HE top-loaders also need to use low suds HE detergents. These washers spin faster, removing more water than traditional top-loaders, so the trip through the dryer can be shorter.
Front-load washers: the basics
Europeans and a growing number of Americans favor front-loading washers. These have a more gentle action, and use smaller amounts of water. The tub rotates a few degrees, gravity causes the clothes to fall, and vanes (fins) keep the laundry moving into the water.
Front-loaders also give dryers a break, because they spin faster, removing more water. So, it takes less time and energy to get clothes dry. That can make an impact on your wallet over time.
Washers have a standard width of 27 inches, and that goes for front- and top-loaders. Heights and depths are all over the map, however. Top-load washers and dryers are almost always placed side-by-side, while most front-loaders can be stacked or arranged side-by-side. Some pricier front-loaders can be paired with matching pedestals that can make them a more convenient height, while adding a storage space underneath. Sometimes, the pedestal even contains a tiny additional washing machine.
If space is at a premium in your home, there are also 24-inch-wide washers—a.k.a. compact washers—that can fit into closets and other small spaces where full-sized laundry could never go. These are quite common in Europe, where space and efficiency are top-of-mind. You'll usually pay a bit more, but in the U.S., compact washers are aimed at the premium market and tend to have excellent quality.
In our labs, we don't just eyeball stains to figure out how well a washer removes them. In our testing, we use a special device to scan standard strips of cloth stained with sweat, grease, cocoa, blood, and wine, both before and after washing. This lets us quantify the difference.
We've seen that regardless of price point, the vast majority of front-loaders beat top-loaders when it comes to stain removal. The front-loaders are good stain removers, exerting friction on clothes as gravity makes them fall around the tub and rub against one another.
We’ve found good washers at a variety of price points. Front-loaders are usually more expensive than top-loading washing machines, but you can amortize the cost over time with water and energy savings. Front-load washers use less than half the water than old school top-loaders use.
According to energystar.gov, an average American family washes about 300 loads a year. Energy Star certified models typically use about 14 gallons of water per load, as opposed to the 20 gallons a standard washer uses. Depending on your water and energy costs, that could be a substantial saving.
Wear and tear on clothing
It's a close race between top-loader and front-loader washers when it comes to wear and tear, but in our testing, top-loaders come out marginally better. This might seem anti-intuitive, but clothes floating in deep water in an agitator top-load machine can actually experience less friction than from tossing and rubbing they get in a front-loader.
Still, consider the whole laundry process—the wetter clothes that come out of an old school top-loader spend more time in the dryer, compared to clothes from a front-loader, which spins faster. Exposed to more dryer heat for longer periods of time, the top-loader washed clothes will wear more quickly. In the long term, that gives a front-loader the edge.
Let's call it a draw.
As we said earlier, water use by washing machines is a costly for Americans, and heating all that water is expensive. Not only do front loaders get the laundry done using less water, they’re more miserly with energy, too. Reviewed estimates that an efficient front-loader might cost about $30 a year to run. A pole-agitator model can cost twice that.
We did an in-depth study comparing top-loaders vs. front-loader efficiency a few years back based entirely on our lab data. Not much has changed since then.
Ergonomics comes first here. Are you okay with bending to pull out your laundry? Then, a front-loader could work well for you. If the front-loader you want has a pedestal available, it'll cost you, but it will eliminate the bending.
If you have physical challenges that preclude bending, then a top loader may suit you better. However, some have tubs so deep that a shorter person needs a step stool to be able to grab a stray sock.
Worried about dealing with a moldy gasket on a front-load washer? If you use high-efficiency detergent for every load, wipe the gasket after each cycle completes, and leave the door ajar so the machine can dry when it's not running, you’re far less likely to run into this issue.
Though the difference in operating costs between modern HE top-loaders and front-load washers is narrowing, our data shows that front loaders are still a superior choice. They are space-saving, more efficient in terms of water and energy, often better at stain removal, and, taking drying into account, can put less wear and tear on clothes.