See Update 2012 below.
If you're in the market to buy a new washer, one of the first decisions you'll want to make is whether to buy a top-loading or a front-loading washing machine.
Until a few years ago, front-loading washers were seen almost exclusively in laundromats, but these days, you can find them in more and more conservation-minded homes as manufacturers begin offering a broader array of choices.
The traditional top-loading washer does its job well, compared with the washing drums and rollers previous generations used. The washer's tub sits vertically in the machine and has an agitator in the middle that churns the water and clothes together, forcing water through the items. It drains, refills with clean water, agitates again, drains, rinses and spins. The front-loading machine follows the same basic method, but has many advantages over the standard top-loaders.
The front-loading machine's greatest advantage may well be its energy efficiency, no small advantage considering an increasingly environmentally aware marketplace. Nearly every model bears the US Department of Energy's "Energy Star" label, setting it apart as an appliance that meets or exceeds the stringent efficiency standards set out jointly by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy.
Here are some of the other differences between top- and front-loading washers:
While a top-loading machine requires enough water to cover all the clothes in its drum, a front-loading washer needs only a third of that amount because its drum is set horizontally in the machine. As the drum turns, it uses gravity to drop the clothes back into the water. And while a top-loading machine will empty the soapy water and refill for a rinse agitation cycle, a front-loading machine just sprays clean water on the load as the drum continues to turn, saving gallons. Since there's no agitator in a front-loading machine, there's a lot more room for dirty clothes - and larger loads means fewer loads.
Finally, the front-loading machine's spin mechanism can reach up to 1,000 rpm, as opposed to the standard top-loader's average 650 rpm. That means less water left in the laundry, which in turn gives you a shorter drying time, saving energy there, too.
Most front-loading washers can be stacked with a companion dryer, an impossible feat for standard top-loaders, except for a mere few models. If floor space is important to you, a front-loading washer is the better choice.
There's no question that agitators are tough on your clothes. Because only gravity is at work in a front-loading machine, you'll save a lot of wear and tear on your laundry, extending the life of your clothes and linens.
In this department, the front-loading washer is at a significant disadvantage. Typically, they cost a minimum of several hundred dollars more than their top-loading counterparts. This initial outlay will be recouped, of course, in energy costs over the long run, but if you can only budget $500 or less for a washer, you'll have to go with the traditional top-loading model.
If bending or kneeling is difficult for you, stay with a top-loading machine. You'll need to kneel or bend to load the clothes as well as remove the wet load from a front-loading washer. When the machines are stacked, the washer goes on the bottom, so there's no relief there, either.
We've all run back to the washing machine to toss in a just-found pair of socks or T-shirt after the machine has started. But with a front-loading machine, there's no turning back once you push the start button. The door locks until the cycle has ended. There are however, a few models that allow a few seconds to add a garment, but once that light or time has elapsed, your clothing has to wait for the next load.
Although you can use any kind of laundry detergent in a top-loader, your detergent selection may be a bit limited with a front-loading machine, depending on the manufacturer. Most manufacturers of front-loading washers recommend using an HE low-sudsing detergent; these are becoming more widely available all the time.
In the conservation department, the front-loading machine is a clear winner, saving water, energy and, of course, money over the life of the machine. The major detractor for most consumers is the larger initial cash outlay; front-loaders often cost $800 or more compared with around $350 for a good top-loader.
Update March 2012 by Mariette Mifflin, Housewares Guide
Since this article was written, there are notable changes when it comes to top-loading and front-loading washers. High efficiency (HE) washers are now available in both front-load and top-load design. Many models have advanced spin cycles of up to 1400 RPM's, which results in less drying time and more energy savings.
When front-loading washers were first introduced a few years ago, prices were high, making this style of washer unaffordable for many. With competition came more affordable choices with some models now being comparable or close to the price of top-load washers. While front-loaders have gained a steady audience, there are many who still prefer the familiar traditional top-load washer.
And for those who like to add to the load at the last minute, most front-load washers have pause settings that give the homemaker a chance to get all the laundry in. For those who prefer the top-load design, many of those now have a safety feature that locks the lid during operation.
Another thing you might want to consider is the care and maintenance, which differs considerably from top-load to front-load washers. Read About HE Front-Load Washers - What You Need to Know to get an idea of what's involved with this style of washer.
Still undecided about your washer choice? Keep in mind that top-load brand and model availability has already started to decline somewhat, as manufacturers and dealers opt for the more high-efficiency washers, rather than the conventional top-loading washing machine. You might also want to check out the following articles to help you with your buying decision.
Compare prices of top-load washers
Compare prices of front-loading washers
Read More About Washers & Laundry Appliances
Laundry Appliances Resources, Tips, Reviews
Read more about the differences between a top-load and front-loading washer
Front-Load Washers 101
Watch Video - Comparison of Top-Load and Front-Load Washers
7 Ways to Save Energy With a Top-Load Washer
Watch Video - How to Buy a Front-Load Washer
Watch Video - How to Buy a Top-Load Washer
Large Appliances Resources
What is HE Detergent?
Before You Buy a Washer - Washer Buying Tips
Before You Buy a Dryer - Dryer Buying Tips
Compact Laundry Units
Laundry & Fabric Care
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