What's Your Style?
There are two basic styles of clothes washer — top loading and front loading. Conventional top loaders clean clothes with a central agitator. They cost less than front loaders and are easier to fill (no bending over), but not nearly as energy efficient. The front loaders have no agitator, so they are gentler on clothes. This design also leaves about 30 percent more space in the drum, so you can do bigger loads. Front loaders use about half the amount of water and energy as conventional, top-loading models. Also, the drum spins at higher speeds, extracting more water from clothes, which means less drying time. The downside is that they have longer cycles, tend to vibrate more (all that superfast spinning) and have higher price tags. Front loaders are more flexible — they can be installed side-by-side, stacked or raised on pedestal drawers, which provide additional storage.
Does Size Matter?
To figure out what capacity washer and dryer you need, determine the largest wash load your family generates and how often you do laundry. Washers range from 1.5 cubic feet for a small, stackable unit to 4.7 cubic feet, and dryers range from 3.5 to 8 cubic feet. A couple can get by with a small to medium-size pair, whereas families should opt for the jumbo size because doing fewer, larger loads saves time and energy.
Clean & Green
Washers and dryers are often the home's biggest water and energy hogs. A standard top loader uses about 30,000 gallons per year, as opposed to about 15,000 for a front-loading style. Be sure to check for the Energy Star label, a government certification proving that the unit meets the standard for energy and water savings. Energy Star-qualified washers use up to 50 percent less energy than standard washers. But most of today's high-end front loaders far exceed Energy Star criteria. "Our eco-friendly washers use up to 83 percent less energy and 56 percent less water than the minimum federal Department of Energy standard," says Frank Downing, director of products and design for Electrolux.
The Heat Is On
The hottest thing in laundry news, literally, is steam. All of the major manufacturers have added steam cycles to their dryers; some have done so with the washers as well. In the dryer (which, if it has a steam feature, needs a plumbing hookup), this cycle helps remove wrinkles (minimizing ironing time) and freshens clothes so you can get out the door faster. When steam is pumped into the washer, the machine uses slightly less water to wash, and because front loaders don't fill up all the way, it keeps clothes above the water line moist. Kenmore claims that its Steam Treat option helps get out tough stains. Steam is also the key agent in the popular sanitizing cycles. "Our steam sanitary cycle dryers have a rack, so you can clean things like backpacks or decorative pillows without harming them," says Tim Kavanaugh, channel marketing manager at LG. If asthma and allergies are a problem, several companies, including LG and Maytag, have new cycles which superheat wash water to 130 degrees F, hot enough to kill most allergens.
For Your Convenience
Whether you need seven or 17 different washing cycles really depends on your lifestyle. "Features like customizable cycles, stain settings and steam make the necessity of doing laundry less of a chore," says Downing. A busy family that does a couple of loads of laundry per day, with a wide variety of stains and materials, may utilize several different fabric-care settings. For on-the-go couples, saving time may be a priority. "Our new premium laundry collection boasts the fastest wash-to-dry time — just 36 minutes to wash and dry a load," Downing says.
If you can't be bothered to measure out all of the cleaning products, opt for a machine with an automatic dispenser for detergent, bleach and fabric softener. GE Profile's SmartDispense stores six months' worth of detergent in the pedestal base and doles it out automatically, according to soil level, load size and fabric setting.
Also consider the location of the laundry room. Because their drums spin so fast, front loaders tend to vibrate quite a bit, especially if they aren't grounded on a concrete floor. Since many new homes are designed with second-floor laundry hookups, some manufacturers, including LG and Electrolux, have designed machines with balance systems that control vibration for smoother, quieter operation.
For those worried that an upstairs laundry space may flood, Bosch's latest feature provides peace of mind. Once only available on the company's dishwashers, the Nexxt 800 series washing machines now have the patented AquaStop leak detection system. If the sensor detects a leak, it will shut down operation and automatically pump out the water before it can escape and damage floors.
"The laundry room is in a much more prominent place in the home these days," says Kavanaugh. "In a lot of homes it's adjacent to the kitchen, so everyone sees it. That's why we're making sharper-looking machines." Front-load machines come in a variety of door styles, from Kenmore's classic porthole window, to LG's large square, to a shield shape from GE. But the biggest news in the style department is color. Second only to white, red is the most popular choice. "Thirty percent of what we sell is color," says Kavanaugh, "and 20 percent of that is Wild Cherry." You can get a washer/dryer to match your cabinetry or your eyes. The current collection at Electrolux includes vibrant shades such as Turquoise Sky and Mediterranean Blue, and Kenmore has just introduced a hue that's curiously close to avocado green, updated with the Zen-evoking label of Chai.
Standard top-loading washers in basic black or white go for about $300 to $600. A high-efficiency top loader ranges from $700 to $1,200; front loaders start at around $700 and go up to $1,600. Dryers cost a bit less in each range. Manufacturers introduce new models in the fall, so that's a good time to get a deal on last year's model. Comparison shop online to get the best deal, and remember that you'll pay twice the price for all the extra conveniences. Pick and choose the ones you'll really use and forgo the rest.