Impeller vs. Agitator: Key Features to Know Before Buying a Top-Load Washer

Stuck deciding between a top-loading washing machine with an agitator or an impeller? Here's what experts say you need to know about each type of washer.

top-loading washing machine in white laundry room


Both an agitator and an impeller can be found in top-load washing machines. While both work inside the washing machine to effectively clean your clothes, the main difference is in how they do it. Agitators are more common, but impellers recently gained popularity due to their modern design and water-saving features. Here, experts explain the difference between an impeller vs. agitator, the pros and cons of each, and what features to look out for when buying a top-load washing machine.  

washing machine agitator

Getty Images / darak77

What is a washing machine agitator?

A washing machine agitator is a device used in top-load washing machines that helps to clean clothes. Lauren Doss, owner of Nashville Maids, explains that an agitator works by spinning clothing items around as they are being washed inside the machine.

An agitator is a large spindle located in the center of the machine’s wash drum. It has extended fins or blades to move the clothes around. Doss says the agitator creates a lifting action that moves items through the wash more effectively, distributing the detergent and water evenly. “This agitation assists in loosening dirt and soil particles from fabrics, making them easier to remove during the wash cycle,” she says. The agitator’s motion creates friction between the clothes for an effective clean. 

Agitators are the standard washer feature many consumers are familiar with, as they were once common in top-load washing machines. But many new washing machine models are designed with an alternative mechanism called an impeller. 

washing machine impeller

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What is an impeller?

An impeller is a device found in top-load washing machines. It moves water and detergent around while clothes are being washed. Unlike a traditional agitator, which uses a pole-like device to spin and move clothes, an impeller uses a small cone or disc that rotates and generates currents to move the clothes. Doss explains that an impeller uses centrifugal force and gravity to push the water outwards, creating a current, which helps ensure an even distribution of clothing items and detergent throughout the machine. This even distribution ensures all areas of each clothing item are adequately exposed to the water and detergent during the cleaning process, she says. 

Impellers are designed to be gentler on clothes. With an impeller, you can forget opening the wash to find fragile apparel or intimates wrapped around an agitator. An impeller also takes up less space in the washing machine, allowing for larger loads to be washed. The impeller also reduces water waste, Doss says, as it uses less water over a shorter time compared to a washing machine without an impeller.

Impeller vs. Agitator Washers: How Do They Work?

Both an agitator and an impeller make top-load washing machines more efficient. They work to get rid of dirt and soil particles from fabrics by moving the clothes around during the wash cycle. 

Agitators have a central post with fins that move back and forth, spinning. Clothes get thoroughly cleaned over a regular cycle. Impellers, on the other hand, have a rotating cone or disc-shaped design that pushes the water out, distributing water, detergent, and clothing evenly throughout the wash.

While both top-load washing machine mechanisms are designed to clean clothes, they have different advantages and drawbacks.

laundry room with blue and white striped floors
Lauren Rubinstein

Pros and Cons of Agitator and Impeller Washers

Top-loading washing machines are an inexpensive and practical washing machine option, says Matt Kerr, CEO and founder of Appliance Geeked. He says top-load washing machine models may have a variety of features, including a built-in sink for pre-treating stains, a steam function for deeper cleaning, or a capacity for large loads. Deciding between cleaning mechanisms for a top-load washer comes down to personal preferences around cleaning performance, fabric care, and energy efficiency.

Top-Load Washer with Agitator

Pros of an Agitator

  • The main advantage of a washing machine agitator is that they are frequently less expensive. 
  • A washing machine agitator is known for delivering a more powerful cleaning than machines without one. 
  • Doss says the cost associated with maintaining them is less than washers without agitators.

Cons of an Agitator

  • A washing machine agitator generally uses more water, Kerr says. 
  • Agitators are also tougher on fabrics, as the agitation can be too vigorous, Doss says.
  • Agitators can damage delicate items and lead to tangled clothes.
  • An agitator has a limited capacity for larger loads because of the central post. 

Top-Load Washer with Impeller

Pros of an Impeller

  • The main advantage is that they are usually more energy-efficient. They use less water over a shorter period of time.  
  • An impeller is gentler on clothes.
  • A washing machine with an impeller has a large capacity and can easily accommodate bulky items. 

Cons of an Impellor

  • Washing machines with impellers are generally more expensive. 
  • While an impeller is gentle on your clothes, it is not as known for powerful stain removal, compared to agitators. 
  • Some impeller models can be hard to keep clean. They may be more prone to trapping dirt, lint, and debris.

The ideal washing machine will ultimately be determined by the user’s specific needs and preferences. Consider capacity, energy efficiency, price, and deep clean features before choosing a top-load washer for your home.

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