Explore the features you'll need and those that will save you time and money. Review these washer basics to help you make the right choice for your laundry room.

Updated February 17, 2017

Along with a clothes dryer, a well-chosen washing machine will help you keep your wardrobe looking sharp and linens fresh and ready to use.

Basic budget-friendly washers come with white exteriors, mechanical controls, and a limited number of agitation and spin speeds.

As the machine's price increases, it might gain touch pad or touch screen controls and more sophisticated settings. Some high-end  machines even remember your favorite options. More-expensive washers are also more likely to come in fashion colors with matching dryers -- a boon for laundry spaces that sit in or near living spaces such as the kitchen, family room, or bathroom.

Here are some basic features to evaluate as you pick your new washing machine.

Types of Washing Machines

New washing machines are available in three basic types: regular top-loading machines with center-post agitators, top loaders without center post agitators (also known as high efficiency top loaders), and front loaders. 

Regular top loaders: Once these washers fill their tubs with water, an agitator swirls the laundry to remove grime, stains, odors, and other dirt. Loading and unloading these washers is easy because you can reach the drum from the top. Water temperature options usually include hot (to kill bacteria and keep whites bright), warm (to keep colors bright while protecting fabric), and cold (to protect dark colors and delicate fabrics and for the final rinse cycle for all fabrics). Although regular top loaders are the least expensive machines, they use the most energy overall.

High-efficiency top loaders: These machines use a variety of directional movements such as lifting and tumbling to get laundry clean. This action causes less wear and tear on the laundry than agitators do. High-efficiency washers fill the tub only partway, which means they use less water than top loaders. They also spin faster, which reduces drying time and, therefore, energy consumption. High-efficiency top loaders cost more than regular top loaders.

Front loaders: These machines clean laundry by lifting it to the top of the tub, then dropping it back down into the water. The result is cleaner clothes using less energy than high-efficiency top-load washers. Even faster spin speeds than high-efficiency top loaders means reduced drying time and energy use. These models can be installed under countertops or can be stacked with a dryer to save space -- something that can't be done with a top loader.

Editor's Tip: Shop for a washing machine that bears the U.S. Department of Energy's yellow Energy Star label. This label means the machine uses approximately 50 percent less water than standard washers, as well as 30 percent less energy. Get more information about this program at energystar.gov.

Washing Machine Capacity

When selecting a washer, review both the capacity and loading type before selecting a model. Capacity depends upon the size of the wash basket, or tub.

Households that wash several loads daily might like the convenience of a large-capacity washer. Smaller-capacity models, which use less water and energy, can be economical for singles and couples. In general, you can choose from the following sizes:

  • Compact washers (usually 24 inches wide) make it convenient to do laundry at home, even if you're short on floor space. They can handle up to 8 pounds of laundry in a load, enough for a small household. Some models can be installed in a permanent place. Portable models can be rolled to a sink to connect to a water supply. Stackable front-loaders can fit in a space the size of a small closet -- a great choice for including laundry facilities in a bathroom.
  • Conventional full-size models are usually 27 inches wide and 27 inches deep. Most can hold up to 10 pounds of laundry, although some models might handle a little more or less. This makes them a practical choice for a family of four. Choose half-load or quick-wash settings for smaller loads of laundry.
  • Large-capacity washers handle 10-12 pounds of laundry, great for large families or someone with a large wardrobe. They take up more space than conventional washers and can be more difficult to move. But the payoff comes in the opportunity to do laundry less often and the ability to wash bulky items such as blankets and comforters.
  • Combination washer-dryers come in both 24- and 27-inch widths, with gas or electric dryers. You can choose a unit with a front-loading washer and a stacked dryer, or a single unit with a single built-in washer and dryer. The latter works well in locations where a separate full-size washer and dryer would not fit.

Washing Machine Settings

Basic washing machines include cycles for delicates, permanent-press fabrics, and regular fabrics.

  • Use the delicate wash cycle for washing lingerie, loose-woven fabrics, silks, wool, embroidered and embellished fabrics, lace curtains, and baby items. This cycle protects delicate items by using low agitation and a slower spin cycle to avoid deteriorating the fabric.
  • Use the permanent-press wash cycle if you want to combine a basic wash with a delicate spin cycle. This choice works well for knits and heavy fabrics, such as polyester and flannel, providing a basic wash to clean the fabric and a slow spin cycle to release excess moisture.
  • Use the regular wash cycle for cottons, T-shirts, jeans, sweat suits, towels, and other soiled items that require a strong cleaning routine. Fabrics will be thoroughly cleansed by strong agitation mixed with a strong spin cycle.
Higher-end machines include a greater variety of cycles to zero in on the needs of specific fabrics and garment types. They might include these specialty settings:

  • A quick-, rapid-, or speed-wash setting is perfect for when you need to wash a garment in about 30 minutes.
  • An extra rinse cycle helps remove detergent residue that can irritate delicate skin.
  • A warm rinse cycle speeds up the drying cycle by leaving clothes warm after washing.
  • A steam cycle works on tough stains, freeing you from pretreating laundry. Steam also can be used to freshen clothes and remove allergens without going through the entire wash cycle.
  • Antiallergy cycles target dust mites, pet dander, and other common household allergens.
  • Sanitary cycles remove stains and kill germs by boosting water temperature.
  • Antimicrobial technologies sanitize fabrics without hot water or bleach.
  • A darks/colors cycle cleans dark-color fabrics without fading them.
  • Heavy-duty cycles are meant for sturdy items, such as jeans and towels, or really dirty laundry.
  • A bulky setting, which soaks items first to maintain the load balance, is meant for cumbersome items such as blankets, comforters, and sleeping bags.
  • The hand-wash setting, with its slower speed, is meant for items marked as "hand wash only."
  • A washable wool setting is used for wool garments, such as sweaters and hats, not marked "dry clean only." It is designed to keep wool items from stretching.
  • The rinse and spin setting should be reserved for loads that don't require detergent.

Washing Machine Features

Today's washing machines offer a wide variety of features that save time and improve how your clothes are washed. Think through which features you will actually use before adding their cost onto the final purchase price of your new washer.

  • Touch pad and touch screen settings are more versatile than dials. They often include customized programs such as dedicated cycles for specific fabrics, four or more water-level settings, and memory settings to remember your favorite cycles.
  • A time-delay feature lets you load the washer and program it to take advantage of lower utility rates or start at a more convenient time (much like you can with a dishwasher).
  • A child safety lock (part of the touch pad controls) keeps children from opening the washer during a spin cycle.
  • Automatic dispensers for bleach, detergent, and fabric softener release their respective products at just the right time during the washing cycle.
  • An automatic temperature control mixes hot and cold water to the appropriate temperature based on the cycle you've chosen.
  • A built-in USB port lets you upgrade your washer's software without buying a new system. First download the new software from the manufacturer's website, then connect the USB device to your washing machine using the built-in port.
  • Noise-reduction features reduce vibration and sound, which is especially important if your laundry area is near a bedroom or living room.
  • A porcelain lid resists chips and scratching better than painted metal.
  • A high-quality tub (such as stainless-steel or plastic) won't rust if it's chipped. Stainless-steel tubs also withstand high spin speeds.
  • An optional pedestal makes loading and unloading clothes easier on your back while providing handy storage beneath the washing machine.

Shopping Tips

  • Review your household's laundry habits and cleaning challenges. Use that knowledge to establish your priorities for the features and style of your new washer. Decide whether a matching washer and dryer, which are designed to work together, are appropriate for your needs.
  • Before going out and shopping, read reviews and compare prices of appropriate washer models.
  • Measure before you buy. Make sure the model you want will fit the allocated space. Measure doorways and stairwells as necessary to make sure your desired model can move through them. Take the tape measure with you to the store.
  • Read up on the manufacturer's customer service record and warranties.
  • If saving money is a priority, buy a basic white model with mechanical controls and a limited number of cycles, settings, and features.

Shop: Washing Machine Buying Guide

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