Front-loading Vs. Top-loading Laundry Machines

The dizzying array of washing machines (and the accessories and matching dryers for them) can leave anyone feeling overwhelmed. Not very long ago, if someone needed a washing machine, they could head over to the appliance store, look over their favorite brand and make their purchase, knowing they made the right choice. Now? Not so fast.

People who need a washing machine face one decision right off: Front-loading or top-loading? How can shoppers sort out the differences and discover which type of machine will be best for their needs?

A top-loading washer, once the basic type of home machine available, has a tub that sits vertically with an agitator in the middle that moves the clothes, soap and water together. It drains, fills up, the agitator does its job again. The machine drains again, fills with rinse water and spins much of the water out of the clothing. A front-loading machines works clothes and suds through a partly full tub and doesn't have a central agitator. The greatest advantage a front-loading washer might have over a top-loader is energy efficiency. Almost every model has earned the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Star label. That alone could be enough to sway some consumers.

But there are other comparisons to make. The machine types differ in efficiency, the space they require, water usage, performance and even how their use affects the lifetime of clothing.

A top-loading machine will average about $300, without frills, and for another $50 or so, consumers can get a high-efficiency top-loader. The least-expensive front-loading washers are going to run at least $200 more. But once they are set up at home, the front-loader is cheaper to use because it uses about one-third of the water and less energy than the top-loader. Also, because its tub can spin faster, it removes more moisture from the wash load, which means less energy is needed for a dryer's cycle. Some estimates put the savings at $100 per year in utility costs.

Front-loading washing machines consistently earn high grades for performance when rated by testers such as Consumer Reports. Top-loading machines can be tough on clothing, leaving the fabrics frayed. Front-loaders earn top marks because their washing actions are much gentler on clothes, while still getting them clean.

When it comes to convenience, top-loading washers no long rule. While a person can load and unload a top-loader without kneeling to reach into the tub, a front-loading machine can be just as easy to unload if it is on a pedestal, but that means an additional cost. It is easy to add to the load during a top-loader's cycle, and now manufacturers have added a pause button so that front-loader users can do the same.

Front-loading machines have caused complaints about vibration noise and mold. Some have a very fast spin cycle that causes the machine to shake the floor or vibrate enough that it "walks" across the floor. The machines have flexible rubber gaskets fitted between the door and tub to keep water from spilling or leaking out. The gaskets can collect dirt and water, which is ideal for the development of mold and mildew and can create bad odors.

However, front-loading washing machines offer flexibility in where and how they will fit in a laundry room. They can be stacked with dryers, which is ideal if space is at a premium. Their loads are less likely to become unbalanced, and full-size models have tubs that are large enough for comforters and other large, bulky items that might not fit in a top-loading machine.

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