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Top-load vs. front-load washer: Which is better?

There are pros and cons to owning top-load and front-load washers. They can both clean and wash clothes efficiently, but the most significant difference between the two is the way you load and empty a front-load vs. a top-load washing machine. As you might suspect, front-load washers are on the same height level as dryers, so it’s much easier to transfer clothes from one appliance to the other. On the other hand, a top-load washer doesn’t require as much bending over when you’re loading clothes into the machine. So which is better for your needs?

It’s going to depend on a number of factors, but we’ve thoroughly researched the key differences between front-load and top-load washers to help you figure out which type is best.

Ease of use

GE GTW460ASJWW 4-2 cu-ft Top Load Washer

Even with a pedestal, front-load washers require some bending, and, no matter what, we always end up dropping a sock (or four) when transferring clothes to the dryer. However, some (but not all) are stackable, making them more apartment-friendly and making the clothes transfer process a bit easier.

One thing to keep in mind is which way the door swings open: You don’t want your access to the interior obstructed by a door that can’t open all the way. Thankfully, some washer brands (like Electrolux) have reversible doors. Similarly, if you have a low shelf or want to put your machines under a counter, a top loader’s lid will be a problem. They do require less bending, but some people may have trouble reaching the last few items at the bottom of cavernous top-loaders. The placement of the control panel can also cause problems. Having them on the front of a top-loader might cause you to accidentally press buttons as you lean in to grab your items.

Some front-loaders have pause buttons, so you can throw in forgotten items mid-cycle, but others don’t. Samsung has its handy door that lets you pop in a stray sock, too.

How it cleans

There are two main types of top-loaders: Those with agitators and high-efficiency models without agitators, though some of these have impellers. The standard agitator models are the type you likely grew up with: The tubs have a post in the middle. This is the agitator.

Ready for further confusion? There are two types of agitators: Single-action and dual-action. The single-action variety usually has large fins or paddles on the bottom and smaller ones at the top. These spin and help circulate the laundry around the tub. Dual-action agitators also have bottom fins that work like the single-action’s, but the top is spiraled. The top spins independently to push clothes toward the bottom of the washer.

High-efficiency top-loaders may have no agitator and might have a smaller impeller. Impellers are a bit like shorter agitators. They take up less space but also spin, creating currents to churn clothes around the drum. These impellers might be cone-shaped or have fins as well. High-efficiency top-loaders with impellers might also have a drum that acts a bit more like a front-loader, spinning faster than those with agitators.

The problem with agitators is that they use mechanical action to clean clothes, which can be tough on fabrics. Impellers tend to be a bit gentler, but items like towels can still get tangled up (depending on their design).

Samsung FlexWash washing machine review washer interior
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Front-loading machines don’t have agitators at all, though the back of the drum may be molded to a low-profile, flattened cone. Around the drum, you’ll typically find vanes that help tumble the laundry around. Usually, the tub spins both ways, and as soiled items bang around, some of the dirt is knocked loose. The lack of an agitator means front-loaders treat clothes the gentlest, though using high heat and deep-clean options will obviously do more damage than a delicate cycle.

Cycle times vary greatly by machine for both types and will depend on load size, soil level, and other features you can customize. Normal cycles for front loaders can vary between half an hour to closer to 50 minutes.

Saving water with every load

When front-loaders first started appearing on the U.S. market, people were turned off by the amount of water they used — or didn’t use, we should say. Standard top-loaders with agitators would fill up the tub to help clothes float, so they could move around better and take advantage of the pole’s mechanical action. But front-loaders and high-efficiency top-loaders use far less water because the drum is moving them around, lifting them up, so they land in a shallower pool of water. How much less water? They tend to use around 13 gallons of water, while the top-loaders use up to 28. An older washing machine will use even more.

Maytag.com

If you look for an Energy Star label, you’ll know the machine is using at most 14 gallons per load, but the agency also employs an integrated water-factor number, because you need to take a machine’s capacity into account as well. A cycle might use only a few gallons of water but be less efficient than one that uses more water to clean more clothes. The lower the IWF, the better. To get an idea of the difference in water usage between top-loaders and front-loaders, all you have to do is look at the Energy Star requirements.

Energy Star

So, it’s obvious that front-loader washers save more water and are better for the environment — some may even come with local or state rebates for buying an efficient machine! Does the extra water actually make a difference in cleaning your clothes? Well, no. In fact, it’s the opposite: Front-loaders consistently out-perform top-loaders in cleaning tests.

One thing to keep in mind is that high-efficiency does not equal Energy Star. A machine can use less water and require a high-efficiency detergent, while still not meeting the money-saving program’s standards.

Saving on electricity

If you sort Energy Star’s list of certified washers by annual energy use, you’ll see there are more front-load washers than there are top-loads. They simply can’t compete with the efficiency of many front-loaders. That’s not to say top-loaders can’t be efficient.

The tables below shows a few washer models from the past few years. The tables indicate that the amount of kWh per year varies widely among machines, and the top-load Samsung WA50M7450AW does have the front-load GE GTW460ASJWW beat in terms of efficiency. Keep in mind that this is just the energy the machine itself is using. Using less water or cold water will further reduce energy costs.

You might look at the tables and wonder why we listed the machines’ maximum spin speed. This will actually affect the efficiency of your machine because a faster spin wrings out more water, leaving less work for the other laundry machine to do. Again, front-loaders have the edge here.

Top Loaders Capacity Energy Use MSRP  Agitator? Max Spin Speed?
Frigidaire FFTW4120SW 4.1 cubic feet 110 kWh/year $699 Single-action 680 rpm
GE GTW460ASJWW 4.2 cubic feet 284 kWh/year $657 Dual-action 700 rpm
LG WT7600HKA 5.2 cubic feet 130 kWh/year $1,250 Impeller 950 rpm
Maytag MVWB765FW 4.7 cubic feet 356 kWh/year $999 Dual-action 900 rpm
Samsung WA50M7450AW 5.0 cubic feet 120 kWh/year $899 Impeller 800 rpm
Whirlpool WTW5000DW 4.3 cubic feet 300 kWh/year $849 Single-action 660 rpm
Front Loaders Capacity Energy Use MSRP Max Spin Speed?
GE GFW490RPKDG 4.9 cubic feet 153 kWh/year $1,399 1,250 rpm
LG WM3770HWA 4.5 cubic feet 105 kWh/year $1,099 1,300 rpm
Maytag MHW3505FW 4.3 cubic feet 53 kWh/year $999 1,200 rpm
Samsung WF42H5000AW 4.2 cubic feet 95 kWh/year $799 1,200 rpm
Whirlpool WFW85HEFW 4.5 cubic feet 87 kWh/year $1,099 1,200 rpm

Capacity

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

If you look at the tables, you’ll see the capacities are a bit similar, with the top-loaders ranging from 4.1 to 5.2 cubic feet and the front-loaders landing between 4.2 and 4.9 cubic feet. As long as your washer has 4.5 cubic feet of space, you should be able to fit a king-size comforter in there, or between 15 and 20 pounds of laundry.

However, if capacity is particularly important for your needs, front-load washers are probably the way to go. For the same size washer externally, front-load washers can handle a lot more laundry inside. Part of the reason is their construction allows for a larger drum, and part is because there’s no agitator inside taking up space. Top-load washers, meanwhile, don’t use space as efficiently, but there are some extra-large top-load models available for particularly big washing projects that may be nearer the commercial level.

What about cleaning your washing machine?

One issue that cropped up in the early days of front-load machines was mold. The door closes tightly (to prevent leaks, obviously), and that meant the inside of machines could get funky — and not in a good way. Many manufacturers started including self-cleaning cycles in response, and many owners leave the door open in between washes to help water evaporate. There are ways to clean washers to keep the problem at bay, too.

About 10 years ago or so there was also a quick trend — notably led by Samsung — of including silver nanoparticle layers in a washing machine drum to help disinfect clothing and keep the washing machine clean. Silver does have antibacterial properties, but before long, scientists noted that there wasn’t a lot of proof a silver coating would do anything but release potential toxic particles into the environment, and the trend quickly died out.

Smart Features

For most smart features, there won’t be an appreciable difference between the two washer models. Features like app controls and sensors aren’t really affected but how the washing machine actually washes. However, there is one important exception — autofill for the water level.

Top-loading washers now frequently come with sensors that detect how large a load of laundry you have, and then autofill the washer to a specific level for that load (in addition to any other water efficiency modes that may be active). This helps top-loading washers save more water than they usually would, and it’s not an option that front-loaders need or have. It’s something to look for if you love top-loaders but aren’t crazy about how much water they use up. Interestingly, another common new feature on top-loaders does the exact opposite: It allows you to overload the washer with extra water if you really feel that’s necessary for a particular laundry problem.

The price

Electrolux Washer panel

Originally, front-loaders were much more expensive than top-loaders, but they’ve come down in price over the past few years. They do tend to skew closer to $1,000 than to $500, but you can find some large-capacity front-loaders with great features for between $600 and $700. High-efficiency top-loaders tend to be more expensive than old-school agitator models and can cost more than some front-loaders, depending on capacity and extras.

However, excluding major sales, it’s hard to find a good front-loader for under $600. Top-loaders look mighty tempting when you can find them on sale for under $400.

The verdict

If you still want a top-loader, you’re not alone. We’ve all become accustomed to top loaders (they way they look, the amount of water they use, and the way they wash clothes). However, front-loaders win in terms of cleaning power and efficiency, especially when it comes to water use.

The American Cleaning Institute (ACI) found that most people unhappy with their front-loader’s performance are actually misusing HE laundry detergent. When it comes to front-loaders, there can be some new quirks if you’ve used top-loaders your whole life, including learning to dial back the detergent. But if front-loaders fit your appliance-buying budget, they definitely have some major advantages over their water-loving counterparts.

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