If you’re in the market for a new washer or dryer, be prepared to be overwhelmed by the choices. In the washing machine category, you can choose from almost 100 front-loading models and up to 60 top-loading machines. It doesn’t get better with the number of options you can choose from when it comes to dryers, with 135 gas models and up to 160 electric models.
Washing machines styles have changed the most over the past few years. Manufacturers have added high-efficiency top loaders that wash larger loads and use less water than conventional top-loading machines, and stackable front-loading machines have been released that use even less water while still offering exceptional cleaning performance. Some of the more high-end washers include cool and nifty features like temperature boost and steam to kill bacteria and odor as well as the ability to clean your clothes without any detergent.
Dryers have evolved as well, with the addition of steam features to freshen clothes and eliminate wrinkles on the spot, and intermittent tumbling cycles to keep your dried clothes in motion and wrinkle-free until you remove them. With so many choices and overwhelming features, some solid buying advice to pick the right machines for your home might come in handy.
You’ll find many buying guides for washers and dryers online, and even though they provide solid factual information, they don’t help you decide which style is best for your particular laundry needs or which extra features are actually worthwhile. For example, most guides recommend choosing a top or front-loading style as your first step and then moving on to pick capacity, cycles and other features. But there are many important factors to consider before you can even make that decision. We like to take a different approach by encouraging you to evaluate your laundry needs first; followed by evaluating your laundry space to determine whether a different style machine will even fit your layout. Then you can make the style decision with confidence and move on to choosing the right capacity, drum construction, number of wash cycles, and extra features.
To put it simply, there’s no such thing as the best washer or the best dryer – it all depends on how you’re planning to do your laundry. But before we jump into the specifics of the machines themselves, let’s take a quick look at the different characteristics so that you can make an informed decision.
A quick overview of the different washer styles
Washers come in three basic styles; conventional top loader, high-efficiency top loader and the newer front-loading machines. Conventional top-loading washers look outdated because, well, they are. They get the job done using use time-tested old technology—period. High-efficiency top-loading machines have a slightly updated look, with a glass lid and a streamlined control panel. They operate differently and offer some significant water and energy saving advantages over their older cousins. However, you’ll notice the biggest changes in front-loading machines. If you’re into outward appearances, you’ll find them dressed in the latest color palates with a futuristic look and control panel options that do everything but wash your dishes. Some would even say that washing machines are the new smartphones with all the extra features that are being added. If your laundry area is in a living space or appliance appearance is at the top of your list, then you’ll ideally want a matched set.
There ’s a huge selection of front-loading models on display at the local appliance dealer, but that doesn’t mean they’re the biggest sellers—top-loading washers still outsell front-loading machines simply because they cost less.
Top-loading versus front-loading washers, what is the best choice for me?
Here are the main features of each style:
Conventional top-loading agitator washers are easiest to load and unload compared to larger capacity high-efficiency top and front-loading machines. They’re the least expensive because they’re manufactured in large quantities and have fewer exciting features. Conventional top-loading machines break down the least of the three styles and cost less to repair. But the agitating action is harder on your clothes, causing them to wear out faster. Conventional top-loading washers also use the most water, energy, and detergent. If you’re looking for a durable machine that can somewhat “future proof” your laundry, these conventional washers aren’t the best way to go.
High-efficiency top-loading washers don’t have a traditional agitator and they don’t fill the entire basket with water, even with a full load. Instead, they have a low profile ribbed “wash plate” located at the bottom of the basket that moves the clothes around. The machine starts by weighing the load so it can calculate how much water to add. After a short soak in soapy water, the washing plate rotates back and forth, forcing the items against one another in a rubbing action that cleans your clothes. The machine progresses through multiple fills, drain, spin and wash plate cycles before conducting a final rinse and spin dry cycle. The wash cycles tend to be longer than conventional top-loading machines, but are usually shorter than most front-loading machines. Since the cleaning action relies on moving the clothes against each other with less water, high-efficiency top-loading washers require a special high-efficiency (he) low abrasive detergent. These products might be a little bit more expensive than your average detergent, but the efficiency of the machines more than makes up for it.
High-efficiency top-loading machines cost a bit more than conventional top-loading machines, but use far less water and detergent and are more energy efficient. The largest capacity machines are still easier to load and unload compared to a front-loading machine, but you may need a small step stool to reach down to the bottom of a really large basket. Because these machines have a built-in computer, sensors and special load balancing features, they’re more susceptible to breakdown than conventional machines and the repairs tend to cost more. Luckily, if you purchase a washer with a decent warranty, that wouldn’t be much of an issue. The higher priced models include temperature boost and steam to clean deep-seated stains, but they have fewer features than high-end front-loading machines.
Front-loading washers clean the best and use less water, “he” detergent and energy. The tumbling action is much easier on clothes, so your threads last longer. The high spin speed removes more water so your clothes dry faster. Their low height allows you to stack two units to save floor space or even mount them under a countertop. They’re easy to load, but the low door height makes them much harder to unload. You’ll do more bending, stooping and lifting because of the lower door height. You can’t drag clothes, especially zippered items, over the door seal. In fact, dragging clothes across the door seal is the No. 1 cause of water leaks on front loaders. Seal replacement can run almost $300 on some machines, so caution is advised.
If you have back or knee issues and can’t bend over, reach in, grab an armful of clothes and lift each batch up and out, then a front-loading machine isn’t right for you. Even if you’re in good shape, the bending, stooping, lifting can get old mighty fast. You can raise the machine height about 14” by adding an optional pedestal base, but that boosts the already high price by another $225. Front-loading washers cost more require the most maintenance and have the longest wash cycle times. Because they’re also operated by a computer and multiple sensors, they break down more often and cost more to repair.
Overview of different dryers
All dryers (with just a few exceptions) are front-loading, with either a drop down or side swing door. They’re available in three versions: natural gas, propane, and electric. Electric dryers are about $100 cheaper than gas models, but you’ll spend the difference in just a few years because of longer dry times and higher electric rates in some aspects. Electric dryers make the most sense for homes without access to natural gas or in areas where electric rates are low.
If you usually wash full loads, you’ll want a dryer with twice the capacity of your washer. A larger drum takes longer to heat up but also allows wet clothes to tumble more freely and be exposed to more airflow which will allow it to dry much faster. If the dryer is the same size as your washer and you wash full loads, the wet laundry tumbles like a large ball, drying on the outside, while staying wet on the inside. However, if you regularly wash smaller loads, your dryer capacity should closely match your washer’s capacity. In other words, it’s not always the best option to match your washer and dryer capacity: size matters!
First up: Start by evaluating you laundry schedule and laundry area space and layout
Some people prefer washing clothes on a single day, while others wash smaller loads throughout the week. Wash frequency, load size, and laundry area space and layout are the most important factors to consider when deciding between a top or front-loading machine. Here’s why: Front-loading washers take longer to complete a wash cycle than a comparably sized top-loading machine. With a full load, the wash time for a front-loading machine can be two or more hours, versus around 40 minutes for a conventional top-loading machine. The time difference isn’t an issue if you throw in a load before bed or before leaving for work, but the extra wash time can be a deal-breaker if you do all your laundry on a single day. Some front-loading machine manufacturers advertise shorter wash times, but tests show those shorter wash cycles don’t clean clothes as well. That’s because front-loading machines rely on extended tumbling action to remove dirt and stains—shorten the tumbling time and you reduce cleaning performance.
Next, there can be a wash/dry cycle time mismatch issue with front-loading washers. Front-loading machines extract more water from your clothes, so they dry faster and save energy. Sounds great. But a shorter drying cycle means your clothes will be dry well before your front loader is ready for the next load. Bottom line? That front-loading washer/dryer cycle mismatch means double the number of trips to your laundry area—one trip to remove clothes from the dryer before they wrinkle, and a second trip to refill the washer. That might not be a big a deal if your laundry area is on the same level as your living space, but if your laundry area is on a different floor and hoofing it up and down stairs twice as often isn’t your idea of fun, you might be better off buying a top-loading washer that more closely matches your dryer’s cycle time. Alternatively, you could also buy a dryer with an intermittent tumble feature or a steam wrinkle remover cycle – but that bumps up the price a bit more.
Finally, there’s the issue of laundry room layout and space. If your laundry area is inside a closet that has bi-fold or accordion style doors, make sure you have enough clearance between the closet doors and the washer to accommodate the side swing door on a front-loading machine. If you can’t open the door all the way, you’ll have limited access to the washer basket, making loading and unloading even more difficult and just plain not fun.
In addition to closet door clearance issues, all washers and dryers require at least 1-in. to 3-in. side clearance. Dryers require at least 6-in. clearance behind the machine to allow for ducting.
Next, consider the location of your current washer hookups. Hookup location doesn’t matter if you’re considering a top-loading machine, but it makes a big difference if you want a front-loading model. That’s because most front-loading washers come with a left-hand door swing. If your washer hookup is located to the left of your dryer, you’re good-to-go. But if your washer hookup is to the right of your dryer, you’ll have to buy a model with a reversible hinge door. Manufacturers don’t offer as many reversible models so that automatically limits your options. If you buy a left-hand swing door and install it to the right of the dryer, trust me, you’ll regret it.
How much capacity do you need?
Obviously, the largest capacity machines do more laundry in a single cycle. But they cost the most and take the longest to complete a full load cycle. On the flip side, high-efficiency top and front-loading machines are smart enough to detect load size and adjust cycle times accordingly. Aside from the fact that oversizing your load wastes a bit more water when washing small loads, there’s a very little downside to buying the largest washer you can afford.
The importance of basket and drum construction
Washer baskets can be made from plastic, porcelain coated steel or stainless steel. You’ll find plastic washer baskets on many on economy models. They wash the same as the other basket types until they get scratched from zippers, clasps, hooks and metal buttons. Then, plastic baskets turn into a clothing destroyer, wearing out your duds in record time. If you’re on a limited budget and have to buy an economy model, check the basket regularly for scratches and sand down any you can find.
Porcelain baskets and dryer drums are more resistant to scratching, but the porcelain coating can chip, exposing raw steel that can eventually rust and stain your clothing. You can patch the chips with a porcelain repair kit, but you’ll have to re-patch every few years. Even with the best care, clothing movement, powdered detergents, bleach and metal objects can reduce the glossy finish, leaving you with a rougher basket surface that wears out your clothing.
The best washer baskets and dryer drums are made from stainless steel because they provide the most scratch resistance, maintain their smooth surface, protect against clothing wear and don’t require any maintenance. You’ll pay more for stainless steel, but it’s usually worth the extra cost, especially if you own expensive or more delicate garments.
Belt or direct drive?
The moving parts in a washer and dryer can be driven by a belt or directly by the motor (called Direct Drive). Both drive systems have pros and cons. For example, belt driven machines typically require at least one belt change during their service life. Depending on the labor rates in your area, belt service can run $150 to $250. Belt drive systems have a simpler design with fewer electronic controls. Direct drive motors don’t require any periodic service and are fairly robust which makes them very no-nonsense purchase. However, the drive’s electronic controls are slightly less reliable and far more sensitive to power surge damage. In fact, since most of the newer washers and dryers have computerized circuitry, it’s best to install a whole house surge protector at your main panel and replace your current washer/dryer receptacles with surge protection receptacles. Leviton #7380-W 20-amp surge protection receptacles are available at most home centers or online for around $35 each.
Choosing cycles and features
The most expensive washers and dryers offer the greatest selection of cycles and features, most of which you’ll never use. However, if your laundry regularly includes items with dirt, grease or stains, it pays to buy a washer with an “extra heavy” soil cycle, water temperature boost, and steam. They may sound gimmicky and useless, but those extra features really work. Do keep in mind that those features can increase your overall operating costs.
When it comes to dryer features, the steam cycle and intermittent tumble are the most useful. Intermittent tumble is especially helpful if you have a washer/dryer cycle time mismatch. Instead of allowing your dry clothes to sit and wrinkle, intermittent tumble (called Wrinkle Care or Wrinkle Guard by some manufacturers) tosses them occasionally. Those features are especially attractive if you buy a front-loading washer and wind up with a washer/dryer cycle mismatch.
Factoring in price and operational costs
The cheapest front-loading washers cost more than the lowest priced conventional top-loading machines. However, as you move to large capacity front-loading machines and add more features, the prices skyrocket. Plan to spend between around $700 for a front-loading 4.3-cubic/ft. washer and up to $1,800 for the larger 5.8-cubic/ft. models with more features. Add another $225 for a pedestal.
Front-loading washers lead the pack in energy efficiency and lowest water usage, so factor in the costs savings when comparing them to top-loading machines. But the higher and cost of repairs may very well wipe out those energy and water savings unless you get a decent warranty with your purchase. Plus, front-loading washers require regular cleaning to avoid mold and mildew issues.
High-efficiency top-loading machines cost between $500 for 4.3-cubic/ft. models and $1,200 for larger 6.2-cubic/ft. models with all the features. High-efficiency washers use more water than most front-loading machines, but significantly less than conventional top loaders. They don’t require maintenance but cost more to repair than conventional top-loading machines.
Conventional top-loading machines range from $350 for a 3.7-cubic/ft. machine to around $500 for 4.2-cubic/ft. model. They use the most water and energy and because the agitator takes up so much space, even the largest models can’t hold as much as a high-efficiency top-loading machine. If you buy a product from a reliable brand, you can expect a useful life of around 12-years with no major repairs, aside from periodic drive belt replacement. Washers are a long-term purchase, so it’s important to get it right from the get-go.
Which style to go for?
Buy a front-loading washer if you:
- Care about design, have your appliances located in a living area and you want the sharpest looking styles with the widest color selections
- Want the cleanest clothes with the least amount of wear
- Have enough space in your laundry area to accommodate the door swing
- Want to save space by stacking the dryer on top of the washer (NOTE: In order to stack, you must buy a matching washer and dryer from the same manufacturer, along with that manufacturers’ stacking kit. It’s not safe to mix and match different brands when stacking.)
- Do laundry in single batches where wash/dry cycle time mismatch isn’t an issue
- Don’t do all your family’s laundry in a single day
- Don’t add items after the start of the wash cycle or are willing to pay more for a machine that allows you to add items to a locked door
- Want more wash cycles and higher wash temperatures
- Wash bulky items often like comforters and pullovers
- Are willing to spend more upfront on the machine in order to save on water, detergent, and energy over the life expectancy of the washer
- Don’t mind making extra trips to your laundry area to empty the dryer, even though the wash cycle isn’t complete
- Want the fastest drying time in spite of the longer wash times
- Have a solid laundry room floor to prevent high spin cycles from causing whole-house vibration noise
- Don’t mind a high-speed and quite high-pitched spin noise radiating from the laundry area
- Don’t have back problems and can handle bending, stooping and lifting wet clothes across the door gasket, or are willing to pay $225 more to add a 14” pedestal.
- Are willing to accept some amount of leftover detergent residue in your clothes due to the lower water usage during the rinse cycle.
Buy a high-efficiency top-loading washer if you:
- Do all your laundry on a single day in large loads and need shorter wash times than a front-loading machine
- Want a closer match between wash and dry cycle times for easier coordination
- Want the ability to add clothes after you start the cycle (useful for that one sock you just happened to forget to put in, for example)
- Wash bulky items like comforters and pullovers
- Want more capacity but want to save money over a comparably sized front-loading machine
- Want the best rinsing performance
- Want to use less water, detergent, and energy than a conventional washer does
Buy a conventional top-loading washer if you:
- Are on a tight budget and just need a basic washer
- Do all your laundry on a single day in large loads and want the shortest wash times
- Want the wash cycle to finish before the dryer
- Want the ability to add clothes after you start the cycle
- Don’t live in a water-restricted area and water conservation is not at the top of your priority list
- Are willing to spend more on water, detergent and energy costs over the life of the machine in order to save money on the purchase price
- Are willing to put up with more rapid clothing wear and occasional clothing damage from the agitator
- Want the best rinsing performance
- Can’t handle bending and stooping
- Want fewest repair bills
Sidebar: Floor considerations
Washers and dryers must be level to operate properly. All machines have leveling mechanisms, but those mechanisms can’t compensate for floors that slope more than 1-in. overall. If your laundry area floor isn’t sound or doesn’t meet the level requirement, fix it before you install a high-efficiency or front-loading washers. If you don’t, your new machine will “walk,” rumble and bang around as soon as it enters the spin cycle.
Conclusion Ultimate Washer and Dryer Buying Guide
Three different styles for three different purposes and all of them can be a great choice depending on your laundry situation. Here’s a quick recap:
The more expensive front-loading washers can look really great, have a ton of interesting and exciting features built-in and just perform excellently. They’ll generally wash your clothes over the years with the least amount of wear, so longevity-wise front-loading washers are a very decent option. Keep in mind that while the design may be attractive, it isn’t always as user-friendly due to the way you put your clothes into the machine.
High-efficiency top loading washers try to combine the best of both worlds with above average cleaning performance whilst being very friendly to your energy bill. You’ll also save some detergent and their added efficiency certainly isn’t a joke. If you want a higher-end washer but don’t like the idea of having a front-loading washer with a bunch of features you don’t really need, it’s definitely worth taking a look at the high-efficiency washers.
Finally, the conventional top-loading washers are certainly popular as well and for all the right reasons. The maintenance is simpler because this type of washers has been around for a very long time, and they simply do what they’re expected to do. Yes, you’ll likely end up paying more for your water, power consumption and your detergent, but the machines themselves carry a much lighter price tag.