Maxwell: Front-load Washing Unit Passes Test

What makes more sense, to keep your old appliances going, or replace them with new and supposedly more efficient ones?

The correct answer depends on many things. The most important of these is the truth behind efficiency claims offered by manufacturers. Front-loading washers come immediately to mind. Do they really use so much less water than top loaders? Do the accompanying dryers actually consume less electricity? And what about those disturbing reports describing front loading washers that vibrate across the floor during spin cycles, or take forever and ever to complete a wash?

To answer these questions, I analyzed a Whirlpool Duet washer and dryer, comparing them side by side with the good old Maytag top loader and Hot Point dryer we've been using for almost 20 years. I applied the same kind of measured testing procedures I might use to assess power tools and the results proved surprising in several ways.

When it comes to home appliance use, I'm of two minds. On the one hand, I love to keep appliances going as long as possible. And with a little care, that can be a very long time indeed. My wife laments the fact that I'm handy enough at appliance repair that we never get new equipment just because the old ones break.

Our washer has completed an estimated 12,000 loads of laundry since we bought it in September 1990, all for just $300 in parts. But on the other hand, I can't ignore the resource savings promised for the new breed of front loaders. As long as the claims are true, that is.

To check out the facts, I used two pieces of test equipment, a water flow meter plumbed into the water supply lines on both washers, and an ammeter to measure electricity flow to the dryers. We completed dozens of identical, reproducible loads in each pair of machines, measuring water consumption, electricity use and cycle times for both.

The first thing that struck me about the front loading washer as I watched it work was that it couldn't possibly do a good job given the meager amount of water involved. Clothes look barely more than damp as they tumble around along with no more than a few tablespoons of detergent. But work it did. Clothes came out of the Whirlpool exceptionally clean and the numbers on the water meter definitely verify frugal water use. Stunningly frugal.

One kind of reproducible load we ran during our tests involved all household bath towels. To accommodate this much laundry in our old Maytag, you need to run the washer at the extra large setting.

And by the time all washing, rinsing and spinning was done, a whopping 140 litres of water were dirty and down the drain after the 70 minute cycle was over. That's way more than I would've guessed given the size of the top loader's wash tub, but multiple readings from the professional grade water meter told the same story.

All front loading washers I looked at during my research decide on their own how much water to use. This means you don't set a load size in the traditional sense, though water usage does go up and down depending on how much cloth you put into the drum. Washing the same load of bath towels in the Whirlpool consistently used only 40 litres in total, or a whopping 70 per cent less during the speedier 50 minute cycle. If we'd used a front loader for all the time we've used our top loader, it would have saved almost 1 million litres of water, or 40 per cent of what's required to fill an olympic size swimming pool.

Front loading washers wring clothes exceptionally dry by spinning them quickly - about 1,300 revolutions per minute (rpm) in the case of the Whirlpool, compared with about 500 rpm for most top loaders.

But despite these high spinning speeds, vibration of the washer wasn't an issue for us, even on the wood floor where we had the machine parked.

And once they got to the dryer, clothes dried much faster, too, though part of that increase in speed comes from a greater electricity draw by the new dryer.

Where the old Hotpoint uses 3,100 watts of energy, the Whirlpool consumes it at a rate of 5,500 watts on the medium heat setting, according to my measurements with an ammeter.

That said, total electricity use is still about 20 per cent lower for the new dryer - less than I would have guessed, though this number doesn't explain everything. Depending on how careless you are setting dry times on a conventional, timer-controlled dryer, modern dryers with moisture sensors can save a lot of energy.

By automatically shutting off the machine when clothes are actually dry (instead of your best guess about how long they might take to get dry), potentially lots of electricity is saved.

Seeing the numbers leaves me convinced that washers and dryers really have improved a lot over the last 20 years. And if I'd seen those numbers earlier, I probably wouldn't have scrounged that used motor I put into our old laundry equipment the last time it stopped working.

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Maxwell: Front-load Washing Unit Passes Test 1

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