According to Energy Star, the Whirlpool front-loader uses 2.7 gallons of water per cubic foot in each washing cycle. This is also the highest available efficiency. The Kenmore top-loader uses 3.9 gallons of water per cubic foot.
For a Department of Energy study, 204 families in a Kansas town replaced their old-fashioned washers with front-loading machines. They saved 38 percent on water usage, and 56 percent on energy for the washer and its hot water.
High-efficiency machines, both front- and top-loading, may not seem so efficient. They typically have much longer wash cycles (up to 115 minutes) than traditional washing machines (as short as 35 minutes). However, they operate differently and draw less power. They also use high-pressure rinses to get soap out of clothes rather than a tub full of rinse water, and sensors to customize water levels to the amount of clothes in the machines.
Of course, it would be hard to justify the additional cost of front-loaders, and the efficiencies would be meaningless if your clothes didn’t get clean. However, Consumer Reports and other groups give front-loading washing machines top marks for performance.
Out of 43 front-loading washers it reviewed in February 2010, Consumer Reports gave five excellent ratings to for washing performance. Whirlpool, Miele and Maytag machines all made the grade. On the other hand, a Maytag machine was the only top-rated top-loader out of 33 machines reviewed. Moreover, cheap top-loaders fray fabrics and are otherwise tough on clothes. The majority of front-loaders earned “very good” or “excellent” marks for gentleness. Most top-loaders were ranked as “fair” or poor.”
Despite all their drawbacks, top-loading washing machines earn points for convenience. They are easier to load and unload without kneeling down and reaching into the machine. Also, you can add clothes to traditional top-loading machines during the wash cycle. On front-loaders, the door locks to keep from spilling water on the floor.
The biggest complaints about front-loading washing machines concern vibration noise and mold. Some front-loaders have such a fast spin cycle that it shakes the floor, and the machine might vibrate across the floor. While this is inconvenient, the potential for mold buildup is dangerous.
Flexible rubber gaskets between the tub and the door help make the machine water-tight, but they may also collect lint, dirt and water, creating an ideal breeding ground for unhealthy mold, mildew and nasty smells.
Mold problems have prompted class-action lawsuits against several manufacturers. There are plenty of remedies, but they all require additional attention and maintenance that wasn’t required for old top-loading machines. For example, you can wipe out the gaskets with bleach solutions or run an occasional empty disinfecting bleach cycle.
To be sure, front-loading machines have a couple of convenience advantages. They are less likely to become unbalanced and interrupt the wash cycle. They also are ideal if space is at a premium because they can be stacked with dryers. Full-size models also have large, open tubs that will fit comforters and other large items that don’t fit around the bulky agitator.