Washing machines became a household fixture in the early 20th century, and ever since, consumers have searched for the newest and best models. "The front-load unit was invented in the 1930s and they hit the nail on the head," says Wayne Murrell, appliance specialist at Comeaux Furniture and Appliance. "The unit has only gone through little changes since then."
While the machine's standard design is relatively unchanged, the new generation of high-efficiency washers and dryers conserve energy, are gentle on clothes and offer a deeper clean. Brands like Bosch, Miele, Electrolux and Asko manufacture high-efficiency units. These machines are registered with the Environmental Protection Agency and many received the EPA's Energy Star designation.
"With a high-efficiency machine, you're going to be using less electricity," Murrell says. "And high-efficiency machines will use 20 to 60 percent less water."
These washers and dryers also use less detergent, which is good for both the environment and people with sensitive skin, who can develop rashes from the chemicals in laundry detergent.
"With a high-efficiency machine, you're using a tablespoon of detergent versus a cup," Shaw says. "With the Asko, a tablespoon can do an entire wash cycle."
"The first three washes that you do, do not put any detergent in the washing machine," says Randall Shaw, president of Nordic Kitchens & Baths. "When I first got my high-efficiency machine, I put the clothes in with no detergent and watched all the suds come out. It's crazy how much detergent is held up in your clothes."
High-efficiency machines also are gentler on clothes than standard washers, which use higher heat and don't spin water out of the clothes as thoroughly, requiring longer drying times, which breaks down fabric more quickly. The cycles take longer, but cause less damage to clothes in the long run.
"The high-efficiency washing machine, depending on the brand, can spin up to 1,200 rotations per minute," Shaw says. "The washing machine is extracting most of the water out of the clothes. Now we put it into the dryer. The dryer uses a warm cycle, so it's not breaking down the fabric as much."
"They use more of a gentle rotating and tumbling action," Murrell says. "These machines lengthen the lifespan of your clothes."
High-efficiency washers don't take up a lot of room. Because they are mostly loaded from the front, the machines can be stacked, which means a smaller space can accommodate them, Shaw says. The newest dryers also have condensation-style venting, so they don't require a vent to the outside, which makes it possible to put the washer and dryer in a modified closet or on a home's second floor.
There are some drawbacks, including price. An average front- or top-loading high-efficiency washer starts at around $750 and a dryer costs roughly as much. A standard washer and dryer cost about half that amount. Another negative is that front-loading washing machines can develop mold and mildew.
"Some people come in having heard horror stories about the front loaders, like they started smelling really musty and had to be cleaned," Murrell says.
Shaw says mildew is less of a problem in the newest generation of high-efficiency machines, which are top loading but without an agitator (plastic rotating piece in the standard washer). Other technological improvements include side doors that open during the cycle, so people can add a garment to the wash without pausing the machine, and ball bearings to help loads float better, Murrell says.
"We're seeing the big companies hire a lot of engineers to target consumers," Murrell says. "Overall, all the machines that are out now are very good units."