Dear Umbra,

I have a top-loading washing machine that’s nine years old. I’ve heard that front-loading machines are a lot more efficient and use less detergent, so I’m thinking about taking the plunge, even though my old machine works fine.

How much less water do the front-loading machines use, and why? And is it true that they use less detergent? (I just switched to an environmentally friendly detergent, but boy, is it expensive — so less would be good.) Do they hold as many clothes as a top-loader? And can you recommend a website or other source where I can compare brands, models, price, reliability, and water usage? I’m clueless.

Lisa Meacham
Austin, Tex.

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Dearest Lisa,

Your money may be better spent elsewhere.

First, to your mechanical questions. Top-loading, vertical-axis washers are basically an automated washtub, filling with water to wet all the clothing and swishing it about in detergent. Front-loading, horizontal-axis types partially fill with water and whip the clothes through, like a mill wheel in a stream. They’re actually gentler on fabrics, quieter, and, from my experience, do use far less detergent. (And yes, they can hold just as many clothes as your old standby.)

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Wish your washer were wiser?

An older top-loading washer probably uses about 40 gallons of water per load. New, efficient machines — mainly front-loading, but some top-loading — use 16 to 25 gallons per load. Less water means less energy to heat the water, and that’s the main drain with washers; up to 90 percent of the energy they use goes toward heating. Fronties can also spin faster and extract extra moisture, shortening time in the energy-sucking dryer (or, better, on the benign clothesline).

All of which would seem to suggest that you should replace your washer yesterday, right? Not necessarily. These babies are expensive — anywhere from $700 to $1,200. And simply using cold water in your current machine can go quite far toward reducing your energy costs. I mean very far — remember that 90 percent? So step one is wash in cold water, and see how the savings add up.

If you decide to move beyond this bit of Wiskdom, I do have some purchasing tips for you. But first, you must pledge to pass your still-good washer on to someone who needs it, rather than send it to the landfill.

Good. Now, do a little research on the government’s Energy Star site and check out washer stats from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. The rating system for washers is a measure of tub capacity and energy use. It is called modified energy factor, or MEF. The higher the MEF, the better for our friend the environment.

It’s generally estimated by Energy Star and public utilities that you’ll save more than $100 a year with a new washer, and your utility may also offer a rebate. Keeping the long-term payback in mind as you shop will help with sticker shock.

And Lisa, if you do take the plunge: keep washing in cold.


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