If a front-loading washer fits your home, we think it’s a better choice than a top-loader for most people. Front-loaders remove tough stains more easily, using less water and energy—even compared with newer high-efficiency top-loaders. They’ve earned a bit of a bad reputation in North America, but designs have really matured, and they’re easier to care for than they used to be.
But if front-loaders are so great, why do most Americans—76 percent and growing—still buy top-loaders? Top-loaders do require less maintenance than front-loaders. Ingrained habits, emotion, and tradition also figure in.
We’ve spent more than 100 hours of research to sort through the misinformation about modern washers, speaking with a dozen experts in the laundry industry, from repair technicians to detergent-company representatives. If you’re trying to decide between a top-loader and a front-loader, here’s what you should know.
What to consider with front-loaders
Most of what people hated about older front-load washers has been fixed (or was never actually true to begin with). Here are the benefits when compared with top-loaders and a few legitimate downsides.
They’re better at cleaning. Every controlled test shows that front-loaders remove more soils from fabric than top-loaders. Consumer Reports gives an Excellent mark for wash performance to more than 30 front-loaders. Only a single top-loader earns that same mark. At Reviewed.com, front-loaders dominate the rankings as well. At the time of writing, the best top-loader finally appears at number 34 on its list of the best washers.
“All things considered, in our tests, front-load washing machines tend to be better at stain removal and water removal and efficiency than their top-load counterparts,” said Keith Barry, the top appliance editor at Reviewed.com. The test results are indisputable. Reviewed.com and CNET both publish photos of their testing stain strips, and it’s obvious that the strips washed in front-loaders have fewer stains leftover. Most technicians, manufacturers, and retailers say the same thing. “The action of a top-loader just can’t match a front-loader,” said Ofer Hubara, a repair technician and owner of Aviv Service Today in Charleston, South Carolina.
Front-loaders clean better because the wash motion is more effective. Cleaning is a result of chemical action (detergents), thermal action (water temperature), and mechanical action (the movement of the washer), plus time. If you use the best detergent and the ideal water temperature, the washer with the most effective mechanical action will get clothes the cleanest. Front-loaders do it best, because the tumbling motion puts gravity to work, knocking clothes against each other, scrubbing themselves against the abrasive elements in detergent, and against features of the drum or wash tub, all with more energy than the twisting motion of a top-loader can muster.
Nobody can guarantee that you’ll be blown away by the cleaning power of a new front-loader. If your method is just to throw in a big, unsorted load, pour out an arbitrary amount of whatever detergent was on sale at Price Chopper, and pick the normal cycle, you might not notice a difference compared with other washers. But if you use the right amount of a great detergent, wash smaller loads, and pick the right cycles for each job, you’ll spot the difference. For some people, the most obvious difference will be that you won’t always need to pretreat stains.
They save a bunch of water: Front-loaders also use less water than top-loaders, especially compared with models with the old-school agitator design, but even compared with high-efficiency top-loading models, too.
Compared with a typical HE top-loader, front-loaders use about 5 fewer gallons of water per cycle, or around 2,000 gallons per year based on estimates for average use. (Your mileage may vary.) That’s 50 standard bathtubs, filled to the brim, or an entire midsize septic tank. Front-loaders can use less wash water because the rotation of the drum drags the clothes through the shallow pool of water-detergent solution, whereas top-loaders need to use a deeper pool to ensure that clothes get wet during the cycle. Energy Star even gives top-loaders a handicap in their specifications: They’re allowed to use about 15 percent more water than front-loaders and still earn the E-Star stamp of approval.
And save heaps of energy as well: The $10 energy-use estimate on just about every washing machine’s Energy Guide sticker includes only the energy for the machine itself.
Your personal energy savings will vary, depending on how often you wash clothes and your habits using warm- or hot-water cycles. But based on national averages, we estimate using a front-loader instead of an HE top-loader saves enough energy to power a 50-inch LED TV five hours a day for 81 days.
But the real difference a front-loader can make is in the cost of hot water and the cost of running your dryer. Because front-loaders use less wash water overall, they won’t draw as much water from your heater as they would for a warm- or hot-water cycle. And because of their faster spin cycles, front-loaders force more water out of your clothes, so they don’t have to spend as much time in the dryer (one of the most energy-intensive appliances in your home).
You can stack them: Front-loaders also give you the option to stack your dryer on top of your washer to save floor space. You’ll need to make sure they match, buy a bracket-mounting kit, and somehow lift the dryer onto the washer—but aside from that it’s easy. This can have downsides—the controls can be hard to reach if you’re about five feet tall, certain repairs may require you to unstack the machines, and if one machine breaks down before the other, you may end up having to replace both to match them up so they can stack again.
Bending over to load and unload them can be uncomfortable. For some people, “particularly the older crowd” as Steve Sheinkopf of Yale Appliance put it, top-loaders are often easier to load and unload, especially if back pain is an issue. That said, you could consider mounting a front-loader on a purpose-built pedestal to minimize the bending you’ll need to do. Every manufacturer makes pedestals for front-load washers and dryers, though they cost hundreds extra.
It’s harder to add clothes mid-cycle. The door locks to prevent leaks, so forget about tossing in a stray sock like you could with most top-loaders. Most people just get used to this limitation. But you actually can add items mid-wash if your front-loader has a pause button (many models, including our top pick, do), which aborts and restarts the wash cycle. (Samsung even makes washers with a hatch built into the door for this purpose, but it doesn’t work any different than the pause button on any other front-loader.)
Front-loaders can have mold/mildew problems. If you use the wrong detergent, too much detergent, or too much fabric softener, or let the drum and gaskets stay wet between uses, mildew and mold will grow in your washer and it’ll stink. Top-loaders, on the other hand, rarely end up reeking like mildew, because moisture can easily evaporate out of the unsealed top door.
Every repair technician we spoke with told us that odor is one of the most common problems they’re called in to fix—but it’s preventable. Wipe out the door and gasket between every use. Once a month, run an empty self-cleaning cycle with chlorine bleach or a specialty drum-cleaner like Affresh. (That fixed a persistent problem for a Wirecutter editor who owns an older version of our pick).
Overloading a front-loader can be risky. “Overloading is what really wears the machine out,” said Kevin Harner, a technician and owner of a repair service in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, area. “The extra weight is a strain on the rear bearing.” Bearings allow the drum to spin freely, but they sit at a stress point in the design—and oversized or unbalanced loads put even more pressure on them. And washers keep getting bigger, which could be putting the bearings under yet even more weight.
This is an easy-enough problem to avoid: Wash more small loads, instead of fewer big ones. You can get away with washing some lazy mega-loads here and there, just try to avoid making it a habit. Or, use a top-loader. They have bearings too, but they aren’t under as much pressure so they won’t wear out as easily, and they’re cheaper and easier to replace.
We have a lot more to say on how to deal with some of the problems that front-loaders may present in our guide on How to Care for Your Washer and Dryer.
What to consider with top-loaders
If you have your heart set on a top-loader, go ahead and get one. Newer top-loaders are totally adequate machines and lack some of the potential maintenance pitfalls of a front-loader. Here’s what you should think about before you buy one.
Think about your laundry habits and the layout of your home. If you find top-loaders more comfortable to load and unload, go for it. Maybe it fits your home’s layout better. For some floor plans, a top-opening washer just fits better. If you can’t swing a door open due to the size of the laundry closet or the traffic in the hallway, a top-loader might make more sense. And if you don’t want to worry about doing as much care and maintenance, top-loaders give you a wider margin for user error.
Just make sure to get a high-efficiency model. They clean better than agitator-style models, using much less water and energy, and are gentler on clothes. Two notes: Expect wash cycles to take longer than they did on older top-loading washers, and be aware the wash tubs are much deeper than they used to be, so some people may struggle to reach all the way to the bottom. Agitator-style washers can cost hundreds less than HE models—but they don’t clean very well, and they use so much more water and energy that they’re likely to cost more over the life of the machine than if you’d just bought an HE model in the first place. The Internet is stuffed with folk legends about the superiority of old-school top-loaders, but they just aren’t true.
The cleaning performance is good enough for most people. Front-loaders always outperform top-loaders in stain-removal tests. A top-loader’s twisting wash motion (with or without an agitator) isn’t as effective as a front-loader’s tumbling wash motion. But if you don’t mind pretreating stains, or most of your loads are just moderately dirty, top-loaders clean just fine.
Newer top-loaders are not necessarily sturdier than front-loaders. Based on its reader survey, Consumer Reports estimates that top-loaders are just as likely to need repairs as front-loaders. Almost all newer washers, regardless of design, are stuffed with electronics to help them run more efficiently. One of the side effects is that there are more parts that can fail, though they generally don’t cost too much to replace. Also, modern appliances of all types use more plastic parts than their predecessors did. Here’s one place the general assumptions are true: Most modern machines don’t last as long as they used to.
(Top photo by Michael Hession.)