More in Appliances

The Latest Spin on Washers

What to look for as you shop around.

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Washing machines don't change much from one generation to the next. Although revamped models with some refinements and an added convenience or two arrive every few years, the basic top-load design has remained the same. This fall, however, showroom floors will be stocked with a less familiar choice: washers that load from the front instead of from the top. But even these "new" machines are refinements of decades-old engineering that's still used in high-priced European washers and those at your local coin-op. Whether they're called horizontal axis, high-efficiency, tumble-action, energy-efficient or agitatorless, they work the same way: The tub spins on a horizontal axis, as a dryer does, dunking clothes in and out of a small pool of concentrated soapy water up to 50 times per minute. Because front-loading washers don't have an agitator, they hold more clothes than comparably sized top-loaders and wash them more gently. They also spin faster and extract more water for quicker drying, saving significant amounts of water and energy in the process. And, the newest American-made front-loaders are priced less than European models. However, front-loaders cost more - $800 to $1,000 compared with $500 to $600 for a similarly equipped top-loader. They also require more stooping and bending - and special detergents. But rather than taking sides in the great debate, begin your search for a new washer by focusing on the features that make the most sense for the way you do laundry.
Washing machines don't change much from one generation to the next. Although revamped models with some refinements and an added convenience or two arrive every few years, the basic top-load design has remained the same. This fall, however, showroom floors will be stocked with a less familiar choice: washers that load from the front instead of from the top. But even these "new" machines are refinements of decades-old engineering that's still used in high-priced European washers and those at your local coin-op. Whether they're called horizontal axis, high-efficiency, tumble-action, energy-efficient or agitatorless, they work the same way: The tub spins on a horizontal axis, as a dryer does, dunking clothes in and out of a small pool of concentrated soapy water up to 50 times per minute. Because front-loading washers don't have an agitator, they hold more clothes than comparably sized top-loaders and wash them more gently. They also spin faster and extract more water for quicker drying, saving significant amounts of water and energy in the process. And, the newest American-made front-loaders are priced less than European models. However, front-loaders cost more - $800 to $1,000 compared with $500 to $600 for a similarly equipped top-loader. They also require more stooping and bending - and special detergents. But rather than taking sides in the great debate, begin your search for a new washer by focusing on the features that make the most sense for the way you do laundry.
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Photo by Ian Worpole
The New Front Loaders The pros and cons for buyers.
Also called horizontal-axis washers, front-loaders offer many advantages over top-loaders:
  • Front-loaders, unlike top-loaders, don't have an agitator. That reduces the wear clothes are subjected to during washing. It also allows them to hold as much clothing as larger top-loaders because all the space in the tub is usable. And, large items, such as sleeping bags and comforters, are easier to load.
  • Front-loaders spin at up to 1,000 rpm on American-made models and up to 1,600 rpm on some European makes, compared with 600 to 700 rpm for most top-loaders. Faster speeds extract more water from clothes and shorten drying time, saving you approximately $100 per year on utility bills, according to manufacturers.
  • At 20 gal. per wash, front-loaders use about half the water top-loaders use. That amounts to roughly 8,000 gal. of water saved per year for a family of four. And because they use less water, front-loaders also use less energy to heat that water -- saving even more money.
  • Controls mounted on the front face above the door allow undercounter installation for many front-loaders. Just remember that the typical countertop is 24 in. deep. Expect the washer to bump out about 3 in. into the room, or plan to use custom-depth counters. However, there are some downsides to these front-loading machines:
  • Front-loaders require more stooping and bending to load and unload. Some manufacturers are looking into developing top-loading, horizontal-axis designs. And, some existing front-loaders, such as the Frigidaire Gallery, can be stacked with a dryer.
  • Because of the way they agitate, front-loaders require a different, lower-sudsing detergent. Both washer and detergent manufacturers recommend a detergent specially formulated for front-loaders. According to the New York-based Soap and Detergent Association, simply using less regular detergent can eventually lead to dingy, stained clothes. Unfortunately, these new-tech detergents aren't widely available in stores. Nor are they expected to be until front-load washers make an impact on the market. For now, the new detergents are available with the new machines and through mail order.
  • Despite the impressive annual savings in energy and water they offer, front-loaders cost at least $300 to $400 more than comparably featured top-loading washers. Part of the reason is the drive system: Because it moves in two directions, it requires costlier controls and motor. Door locks are also more expensive, though they do allow the newest front-loaders to be opened after a cycle starts. Finally, the suspension system is sturdier and therefore more expensive. Three major American companies are offering front-loaders. Amana's washer ($999), also available with a dryer in a stacked unit ($1,500), is scheduled to arrive this fall; it comes in white only. Frigidaire offers a washer that installs stacked, side-by-side or under the counter ($799). Also sold under the Gibson name, it's available in white. The Maytag Neptune ($1,000) is due to arrive soon as a side-by-side unit in white or almond. A stacked model is due from the manufacturer next year. Higher sales volume should eventually bring down prices on these machines. But don't expect front-loaders to meet top-loader prices any time soon.
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    Don't Get Soaked When Buying

     

    Don't Get Soaked When Buying

    A top-sheet kit allows the Frigidaire FWT445GES ($799) front-loader to be installed under a standard 36-in. counter.
  • A good salesperson will match the washer to your needs, not just to your budget. Consider what you wash, how much and how often before you shop.
  • If you liked your old washer, start with the same brand and size. Then see how similarly sized models compare in features, price and warranty.
  • You get what you pay for when it comes to features. Entry-level, low-end models wash everything the same way. But instead of jumping to a premium model immediately, check the features on the next model up; the extra $100 or so can make a big difference in features.
  • It pays to shop around. Large stores display a wide selection of models. Smaller stores show less, though they often have less overhead and lower prices. But you might have to shop from a catalog.
  • Get the best deal, even if you're short on cash. Suppose your old washer suddenly breaks, and you aren't prepared to buy a new one. Some retailers offer no-interest financing for anywhere from three months to one year.
  • Hedge your bets. Ask if the retailer will meet a lower price or give you a rebate if the model goes on sale within the first 30 days after you buy.
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    How Much it Holds

     

    How Much it Holds

    ONE-PIECE washer/dryers are available from several manufacturers. The Whirlpool LTE6234D/LTG6234D ($1,000) boasts a 27-in. footprint and a 2.5-cu.-ft. tub.
    All manufacturers base the size of washers on tub capacity. The larger the tub, the more it holds and the less time you spend on laundry. A larger tub also allows the same amount of clothing to tumble more freely for better cleaning and fabric protection. Manufacturers describe tub size differently. So ignore pounds or pieces and focus on tub volume. The smallest domestic unit is 1.7 cu. ft. (Whirlpool Thin Twin stackables), the largest 3.3 cu. ft. (Amana Super Capacity Plus top-loaders). For front-loaders, volume runs from 2.7 cu. ft. (Frigidaire Gallery) to 2.9 cu. ft. (Maytag Neptune). If tub volume isn't shown, check product literature or ask a salesperson. Then choose a washer large enough to handle your average load without packing it too tightly. Here are some other size considerations:
  • If you're replacing only your washer, match the capacity to your dryer to keep wet laundry from piling up.
  • How often do you do laundry? Any household where all the laundry is done at once or includes heavy overalls, oversize bath towels or king-size sheets can benefit from a large-capacity model. But if you wash a load or two every day, you can probably get by with less capacity.
  • Today's washers can be expected to last about 12 years. So include any planned increase in family size in your decision. SPEEDS AND CYCLES
    Motor speed determines how quickly the tub or agitator moves and how gently or vigorously the machine washes. Cycles refer to the amount of time the clothes spend agitating. Having more cycles means more flexibility for following washing directions to the letter - a wise idea considering the average load of clothes today is worth $450. Two-speed washers generally provide a permanent-press and a delicate cycle; one-speed models don't. Three-speed machines feature a hand-wash simulation for delicate items. If your wardrobe includes lots of hand-washables, this cycle is probably worthwhile. A few high-end models offer four speeds. All additional cycle selections are variations of regular, gentle and permanent press. For example, the 10-cycle Maytag Performa features 14-, 10-, 6- and 2-minute regular cycles, 10-, 6- and 2-minute permanent-press cycles and 10-, 6- and 2-minute knit/delicate cycles. How many speeds and cycles do you really need? That depends on what you wash. The wider the variety - from delicate silk blouses to heavily soiled jeans, for instance - the more you'll probably want. Families with kids usually require strong scrubbing action for grass and mud stains, while two business-suited professionals require a permanent-press cycle that washes in warm water and rinses in cold water so fibers cool and contract for fewer wrinkles.
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    Level and Temperature

     

    Level and Temperature


    Different water levels also add flexibility by letting you tailor water use to load size. Entry-level washers typically have just one water level, while more expensive machines offer up to four. Temperature settings generally range from two to four that handle a variety of fabrics and stains. You can also opt for in-line heaters that heat water up to 140°F for more thorough cleaning, especially for whites. The more you pay, the more variation you get. For example, the Roper RAB112IEW0 ($229) offers one cycle, one speed, two temperature settings and one water level. The Maytag LAT9806-AAEWW - a top-loader that's priced at $729 - features 14 cycles, four speeds, four temperatures and an infinitely variable water level. Choose these features based on the washing you do. If loads vary by type and size, the added flexibility will come in handy. If you never change temperature or water level, a unit with fewer options will suffice. WHAT IT'S MADE OF
    All washers have steel bodies; the difference lies in how they're finished. Entry-level washers are painted, while step-up models feature tougher epoxy coatings. Some higher-end units offer rust-resistant porcelain exteriors, and the costliest use stainless steel. Consider these finishes if you live in a damp or seaside environment. Washer tubs come in different styles, too. Low-end models are equipped with tubs made of speckle-painted steel. Midpriced machines offer plastic tubs, which several manufacturers warranty for life. High-end washers come with porcelain-coated steel and stainless-steel tubs. Here, too, tougher environments or hard use are where premium materials pay off. Some washers also include noise insulation - a feature that's important if the machine is near the kitchen, a bedroom or a phone. Examples include the GE Profile series and some mid- to high-end Whirlpool models, which use rubber bases and dense mastic or foam pads to cut noise. CONTROL ISSUES
    High-tech touch pads are one feature manufacturers have all but backed away from. Although the flat electronic pads look sleek and make cleaning easier, they're more delicate than traditional controls, and cost several times more to fix. The controls you'll see most often on washers are dials. Make sure you can easily read the graphics on the control panel. Most are embossed on the panel, but some are less readable than others. Hardest to read are those on stackable units with both washer and dryer directions and dials on a single face plate. Other options do some of the controlling for you. Common ones on midpriced washers are dispensers for automatic detergent, fabric softener and bleach that add premeasured amounts. And if you have a habit of leaving permanent-press clothes in the washer too long, an end-of-cycle signal like those on the GE Profile series and certain Whirlpool models can save you some wrinkles. And a timer or lights showing remaining cycle time can help you plan errands and chores while washing.
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    What your Money Buys
    A basic one-speed, top-loading washer costs $250. Add automatic dispensers, variable water levels and a two-speed motor and you'll pay $400 to $500. Spend $600 to $750 or so, and you can get a premium top-loader that includes the above plus a self-cleaning lint filter, a stainless-steel tub, insulation and a three-speed motor. The latest U.S. front-loaders with the same features come in at $800 to $1,000. A top-of-the-line European front-loader with a stainless-steel body, front service panels and an in-line heater costs up to $2,400. Before choosing any washer, answer these three questions: How much space does it take? Most full-size American-made washers are 27 in. wide x 27 in. deep. Height varies depending on where the controls are. You might need a smaller unit, particularly if you put the washer in a small laundry room. GE, Whirlpool and others offer 22 1/4-in.-wide x 24-in.-deep compacts. For $1,000, you'll find many stackable washers and dryers, and one-piece combination units that occupy only 24 to 27 1/2 sq. in. of floor space. For example, with a 24-in.-sq. footprint and about 72 in. tall, the Whirlpool LTG6234DQWW can squeeze into a bath, hall or linen closet. It offers 2.5 cu ft. of tub space. And, stackable units generally are heavier and more costly to install. Besides measuring your laundry space, carefully measure the doorways, corners and halls on the way to be sure the appliance fits - especially when buying stackable units. Under-counter installation is another option for tight spots. As on many front-loaders, front-mounted controls on Miele's Novotronic units ($2,000 to $2,500) make that possible. How much energy does it use? Often, a higher price tag is offset by lower energy costs over the life of the washer. Figure out roughly how much you'll save by checking the yellow energy-efficiency labels on display models. They show the estimated kilowatt-hour per year and compare the electricity that model uses to similar models. They also include operating costs per year with both an electric and gas water heater. How long is the warranty? The typical warranty covers the entire appliance for manufacturing defects for one to two years, and includes parts and service. Some makers offer a five- or 10-year transmission warranty and a lifetime tub warranty. Retailers also offer warranty extensions from two to 10 years; they cost up to $250. Most appliances that are going to fail do so in the first year, while under warranty. Unless a repair bill will break your budget, warranty extensions aren't worth it.
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    Where to Find It:

     

    Where to Find It:

    Amana
    Dept. 800/TH997, Amana, IA, 52204
    800/ 843-0304
    www.amana.com Asko Inc.
    1161 Executive Dr. West., Dept. TH997, Richardson, TX 75081
    800/367-2444
    e-mail: [email protected] Frigidaire Home Products
    6000 Perimeter Dr., Dept. TH997, Dublin, OH 43017
    Brands include: Frigidaire (800/374-4432), Gibson, (800/458-1445), Kelvinator (800/323-7773) and White Westinghouse (800/245-0600).
    www.frigidaire.com GE Appliances
    Appliance Park, Dept. TH997 Louisville, KY 40225
    800/626-2000 Brands include GE, GE Profile, Hotpoint and RCA.
    www.ge.com Maytag
    Customer Service, 240 Edwards St. SE, Dept. TH997 Cleveland, TN 37311
    800/688-9900 Brands include Maytag, Jenn-Air (800/688-1100) and Magic Chef.
    www.maytag.com www.jennair.com Miele Appliances Inc.
    22D Worlds Fair Drive, Dept. TH997, Somerset, NJ 08873
    800/2879-6435 The Soap and Detergent Association
    475 Park Ave. S., Dept. TH997, New York, NY 10016
    212/725-1262 Whirlpool Home Appliances
    Dept.TH997, Benton Harbor, MI 49022
    800/253-1301 Brands include Whirlpool and KitchenAid.
    www.whirlpool.com
     
     

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