Some product wars are legendary. VHS vs. Betamax, Blu-ray vs. HD DVD, iOS vs. Android—debates over tech have divided shoppers, retailers, and even friendships.
Well, the fight has moved on to the laundry room, with Americans holding surprisingly strong opinions on whether front-loading or top-loading washing machines are better at cleaning clothes.
Yes, you read that correctly. Just browse the comment sections of online washer reviews or ask a retailer, and you’ll uncover a great deal of unexpected animosity.
The Great Debate
Top-loaders, you’ll hear, are ineffective, water-guzzling relics. Front-loaders, meanwhile, are allegedly overpriced underperformers forced upon the public by naïve do-gooders.
This division is apparent on the sales floor: Five years ago, Americans were in love with front-loaders, which first reappeared in the U.S. after a long absence in 1997. The new, modern machines promised to be more efficient and more effective, and customers clamored for the Maytag Neptune, LG Tromm, and Whirlpool Duet throughout the early 2000s.
Then, it all changed. According to sales tracking firm Traqline, as recently as the fourth quarter of 2009, about 45 percent of washers sold in the U.S. were front-loaders. Today, that figure is just 29.5 percent. What happened?
It turns out that the first generation of machines weren’t as reliable or user-friendly as the machines they replaced, even though they often cost three times as much. Some vibrated so badly that they would “walk” across the laundry room floor. Others developed foul odors—a complaint that would take manufacturers all the way to the Supreme Court.
First Impressions & Misconceptions
Additionally, consumers didn’t like that they had to bend over to load and unload the machines, hated that they had to pause a cycle to add a garment, and couldn’t understand why they didn’t fill up all the way with water.
Most of the problems were fixed in successive generations—vibration control systems have gotten better, gaskets aren’t developing mildew, and many machines cost under $700.
But scorned early adopters aren’t big on second chances. Consumers who have been living with problematic first-generation front-loaders are just now replacing them, and many are opting for high-efficiency top-loaders.
“The features [of top-loaders] relative to front-loaders got better, and they're still lower priced, so it’s a better value in the consumer’s mind,” said Dave Stevenson, president of Traqline’s parent company, The Stevenson Group.
Examining the Data
Should consumers give front-loaders a second chance? At Reviewed.com, we’re in a unique position to find out. We’ve lab tested nearly every top-selling washing machine sold since 2011.
To determine which type of washer really performs better, we averaged data from our top five top-load and top five front-load washers, pitting the two categories against one another in four metrics: cleaning performance, energy efficiency, water usage, and water retention.
(Keep in mind that the rankings below reflect overall score—not individual metric scores.)
First and foremost, a washing machine has to remove stains. While top-loaders have gotten much better at cleaning, we find that, on average they’re still about five percent less effective at their job. But the gap widens significantly when it comes to energy efficiency.
Contrary to popular belief, using more water doesn’t necessarily get clothes any cleaner. Our data shows that, on average, front-loaders clean better than top-loaders while also using about five gallons less water per cycle.
On top of that, we’ve found front-loaders can also cut electricity use by up to 50 percent if you’re using an electric hot water heater. On the whole, they're simply far more efficient machines than their top-load competitors.
It all has to do with design. Washing machines remove stains by moving clothes through detergent and water, then rinsing out any excess soap.
Traditional top-loaders “float” clothes in water, moving them around with a pole-style agitator. Modern, high-efficiency top-loaders use a wash plate at the bottom of the drum that tosses clothes around like pizza dough, but they still require lots of water for rinse cycles.
On the other hand, front-loaders merely have to rotate the drum a few degrees to agitate clothes, and can more easily keep loads moving around while draining or rinsing.
Front-loaders also give your dryer a boost. Since they can spin faster, we’ve found they leave your clothes 10 percent drier, on average. That means your dryer doesn’t have to run as long, and you save time and energy.
Yeah, But How Much Does It Cost?
Performance and efficiency aren’t the only concerns. Some users prefer the ergonomics of a top-loader, and the largest front-loading machines won’t fit in all laundry rooms.
But price is probably the biggest sticking point. Data from Traqline shows front-loading machines typically cost about $200 more than comparable top-loaders. On a tight budget, that can be a deal-breaker. But if you can afford the up-front cost, front-loaders may offer significant savings down the road.
Some complain that the more complex front-loading machines require more expensive (and potentially more frequent) repairs. But for the most part, that's only true in comparison to old, low-efficiency top-loaders. High-efficiency top-loaders are just as complex as front-loaders, and will usually incur comparable maintenance and repair costs.
Despite the overwhelming data supporting the technical superiority of front-loaders, we’re not surprised that top-loaders are gaining ground in sales.
The front-load advantage simply isn’t as big as it used to be; high-efficiency top-loaders like the Samsung WA50F9A8DSP have impressed us in our tests with substantial improvements in both cleaning performance and efficiency.
As customers vote for top-loading washers with their wallets, we expect manufacturers to wring even more performance out of traditionally styled machines. For Stevenson, that’s no surprise.
“If you look at what’s happened in the past 10 years, with [sales] going first in the direction of front-loaders and then back towards top-loaders, it’s all driven by technology,” he said.