My sister Meg has a growing brood and an overflowing laundry room. "I can never seem to get on top of the laundry scene," she complained, "even after doing ten loads on Monday." She was considering buying a new machine and was curious about the differences between front-loader washers and top-loader washers. So I saved my weary sis some steps and did the research. My info hunt started with sales associate Harold Knotts of Appliance Alley (619-291-8452). "Water savings on the front-loader compared to an average top-loader are about 50 percent," explained Knotts. "And if you have a gas dryer, it saves on electricity as well. Since the washer uses 50 percent less water, when it goes through the RPMs [revolutions per minute] -- the wringing out of the water from the clothes -- it spins so quickly, 1000 to 1100 RPMs, that when it is finished the clothes are [less] damp, so in the dryer, they dry more quickly."
Knotts noted more differences between the types of washers. "A front-loader is more gentle on your clothes because the clothes agitate themselves instead of with an agitator in the middle of the machine. The top-loaders with agitators kind of beat the clothes, so it wears the clothes out quicker."
It all sounds great, but front-loaders cost so much more than top-loaders. For example, at Best Buy, the top-loading Whirlpool 3.2-cubic-foot five-cycle Super Capacity Washer runs $349.99 . The front-loading Whirlpool Duet Sport 3.4-cubic-foot seven-cycle Ultra Capacity Washer on sale costs $629.99 . Seems like it would take a long time for the energy and water savings to make up that difference. But Knotts says that's not the case. "They will pay for themselves in a year's time. And most front-loaders are larger capacity, so they can handle a comforter, a blanket, or even a rug that you usually would have to take to the Laundromat."
Back at Appliance Alley, Knotts did offer a large-capacity top-loader for customers wanting to stick with a top-loader. "For those people not comfortable with the front-load washer, Whirlpool has made the Cabrio, which is a top-loader and energy efficient [Cabrio 4.5-cubic-foot ten-cycle Super Capacity Washer, $899.99 at Best Buy]. You can put four loads of clothing in the tub. It's a top loader, but it doesn't have the agitator in the middle, and it is also energy efficient."
Knotts also likes the LG Steam Wash Washing Machine (LG 4.0-cubic-foot capacity front-load washer with steam wash, $1424.99 at Sears). "LG is the only one on the market that has a steam wash and a steam clean," he said. "If you do a lot of dry cleaning, you can put the clothes in the machine instead. Put the clothing in for 20 minutes on a steam clean, and it gets it clean and fresh and ready to go. Anything that needs to be dry-cleaned can go through that steam clean, and it takes out stains much easier than beating it up in an agitation cleaner."
Keith, manager of Santee Appliance (619-449-2910), was hesitant to recommend the Cabrio. "I can't speak to the new models," he answered, "because the ones that came out this year are still under their one-year warranty with the factory. It really takes more than a year to see if machines work well and hold up without need of repair. That is the problem with buying an appliance that is new on the market; you can't see how well they work yet."
Keith offered another warning with machine buying. "I personally tend to stay away from machines with electronic boards. If one thing breaks on it, you have to replace the whole board, and that repair can run you a couple of hundred dollars. With a machine that has knobs, it is a much cheaper repair. And some brands, like Kenmore and Whirlpool, have interchangeable parts."
What brands do you recommend?
"I always recommend the Kenmore brand and the Whirlpool brand." On the flip side, "I see a lot of problems with the Maytag and the GE models."
The sales lady at Pacific Sales (858-207-5000) offered more info. "Front-load washers use what is called a self-leveling system. The machine senses the amount of water that needs to be filled in the machine according to how much fabric is inside the washing machine. And the front-loaders tumble the clothes without any agitator."
Why do front-loaders cost so much more?
"It's a different design and a different way of washing," she replied, and it is still pretty new to the market. And front-loaders typically have more features, more cycles, more speeds. You get more high-end features when you go with a front-load machine."
What about the different detergent?
"The front-loaders [and the Cabrio top-loader] use a high-efficiency detergent. The machine uses less water, so you need to use a high-efficiency detergent that is a less sudsing formula, so that you don't have soap left in the clothes."
Are most people turning to the front-loader machines?
"Most people are going with front-loader machines," she answered. "And the front-loaders come in smaller capacity size for smaller families. "The front-loaders typically range between 3.3 and 3.8 cubic feet. The 3.3 is the size of the typical old top-loaders."