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Consumers vote with their wallets, and in recent years they’ve chosen top-loaders, both high-efficiency (HE) and agitator models, over front-loading washing machines. HE top-loaders are appealing, in part, because they save on water and energy.
These machines don’t have a center-post agitator like traditional top-load machines but instead use a rotating mechanism called an impeller at the bottom to get clothes clean. They’re generally more expensive than agitators, but you save money because they use less water and help save energy by getting clothing really dry at the end of a cycle.
“The HE top-loader’s drum spins faster than an agitator machine’s, extracting more water and shortening dryer time,” says CR tester Rich Handel, who oversees our laundry lab.
HE top-loaders also have some advantages over their energy-saving siblings, front-load washers. These top-loaders take 60 to 80 minutes to wash a load, instead of front-loaders’ 75 to 120 minutes. And they don’t vibrate.
Of course, what matters most is how clean your clothes come out. CR’s testers use a spectrocolorimeter to analyze fabric swatches stained with red wine, cocoa, and carbon (which is similar to soot), among other stains, before and after washing. The lighter the stain after laundering, the higher the machine scores in cleaning. This test is meant to challenge the washer so that we can detect real differences among the machines.
Think an HE top-loader might be right for you? Below are factors worth your consideration. CR members can read on for five impressive HE top-loaders from our tests. Our washing machine ratings offer details on more than 100 HE top-loaders, agitator top-loaders, and front-loaders.
1. Cleaning Is Good but Not Always Top-Notch
There are over three dozen HE top-loaders in our washer ratings, and only a handful earn an Excellent rating in our washing performance tests. Many earn a Very Good rating, however, meaning they’ll clean most loads just fine. That’s better than agitator top-loaders, most of which earn a middling Good rating in washing performance.
You can boost your washer’s performance by pretreating stains with a top-rated stain remover or using a dab of a laundry detergent that packs some punch. Consider using the washer’s heavy-soil or heavy-duty cycle, too, but keep in mind they’re tougher on fabrics.
2. They Can Be a Little Rough
Most of the HE top-loaders in our tests aren’t so gentle on fabrics, earning just a Good or even a Fair score in our gentleness tests. “That’s due to the combination of low water levels, longer wash times, and the laundry rubbing against each other,” Handel says. Many agitator washers aren’t gentle, either, because of the center post agitator churning clothes to get them clean.
Using the normal wash/normal-soil setting for most loads and the light-soil setting when possible can help. The delicate cycle goes even easier on your clothes, which is ideal for undergarments and delicate fabrics.
3. Tangles Happen
Combine low water levels, the fast rotating action of the impeller, and 60 to 80 minutes of wash time typical of HE top-loaders, and you have a perfect setting for tangled-up laundry.
To reduce tangling, wash similar items together—say, a load of sheets, then a load of towels. And rather than dumping a whole basket of dirty laundry into the washer, add a few items at a time to separate them more. Lowering the washer’s spin speed also reduces tangling.
4. Loads Can Become Unbalanced
A load of laundry can become unbalanced in any type of washer, but each machine handles it differently. When the clothes inside an HE top-loader get out of balance, as sometimes happens in our tests, the machine will attempt to rebalance the load by adding more water to improve the circulation and even things out. It’ll try this multiple times, but if it doesn’t work, you’ll get an error message alerting you to manually rebalance the load. The owner’s manual should tell you how to do this.
Manufacturers often warn not to wash waterproof items in an HE top-loader, because this increases the chance of the load becoming unbalanced. Others suggest using a lower spin speed. So if you frequently wash waterproof jackets or other items, check the washer manufacturer’s website before choosing a model.
5. Some Are Really Big
Many of the HE top-loaders in our washing machine ratings have claimed capacities of 5 cubic feet or more—enough to fit a king-size comforter—making them larger than most agitator machines and front-loaders. But that means some may be wider or taller than the machine you’re replacing, so be sure to check dimensions in our ratings. Measure the space you have for your washer, as well as the doors to your home and laundry room, to be certain your new machine can fit.
Larger capacities can also mean deeper tubs. When you’re shopping, reach into the machine and try to touch the bottom to be sure you can get all the laundry out. Some readers tell us they can’t, and wind up using tongs or a step stool to retrieve socks and other small items from the bottom of the drum—not something you’d want to add to your laundry routine.
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