What are low-water washing machines?

front-loading washing machine
Most low-water washers are front loaders.

Let's do a little math. An average person uses between 80 and 100 gallons of water per day. Taking into consideration some shared usage, that's about 300 gallons of water per family of four each day. Multiply that by 365 days and what do you get? A whole lot of water (try 109,500 gallons). Those same households do approximately 400 loads of laundry each year or use approximately 15 percent of that water on washing clothes for about 16,000 gallons. Now, what if you could cut that consumption by up to 40 percent? For one, you'd save some serious coin. Believe it or not, with a low-water washing machine, you can reduce the amount of water you consume.

Once upon a time, the standard washing machine consisted of large porcelain or plastic basket inside a sealed drum that would fill almost completely with water. A 3.0 cubic foot drum can hold 22.4 gallons of water. With a wash and rinse cycle, washing machines can use up to 50 gallons of water per load in larger machines. In recent years, low-water washing machines also known as high efficiency (HE) machines have changed the game, using on average, 40 percent less water. One such machine, built by British company Xeros, uses special pellets for cleaning and is touted as virtually waterless. Think dry cleaning for the home.


Have you ever seen an Energy Star label on an appliance? Energy Star products must meet certain energy-saving criteria to earn that label. For washing machines, one of those criteria is low water usage known as the machine's water factor (WF). Water factor is derived by taking the total weighted per-cycle water consumption (the quotient or Q) and dividing it by the washer's capacity (C). As of July 1, 2009, washing machines seeking an Energy Star label must have a WF less than or equal to 7.5. In 2011, that number drops to 6.0 (the lower the number, the less water used).

Low-water HE machines pull this off because of the technological advancements made over the past decade or so. Unlike a conventional washer, where you choose a water setting based on load size, with an HE machine, the clothes soak up the water and sensors detect how much water is needed based on weight and moisture level. The machine uses only sufficient water to get the clothes wet enough to wash.

Front load machines (which resemble the ones you see in Laundromats with round glass doors in front) aren't the only option. Turn the page to learn more about top loaders and check out the benefits of each.



Are all low-water washing machines front loaders?

When you think of low-water washing machines, you may think of front load machines only. But that's not the case. Though there are more front load washers in the HE category, top loaders are also available.

Each type of machine has its advantages. And each has its drawbacks. Front loaders tend to use less water overall and because the drum tumbles to clean, are typically gentler on clothes. But some HE top loaders, such as the Maytag Bravos, have a specially designed agitator and a stainless steel basket that are also easy on clothes. Door seals on front loaders are something you must consider as a possible point of failure. The seals also can smell musty after continuously getting wet. Top loaders tend to be cheaper than front loaders, but expect to pay as much for a high-end top loader as you would for a high-end front loader. For example, the Maytag Bravos costs around $900 whereas a conventional top loader can be found for less than $300. The Consumer Search top-rated front loaders run about the same price as HE top-loaders but in general are more energy efficient.


Low-water HE washing machines use special detergents. If you shop around a little, you'll find them comparable in price to standard detergents. You can distinguish them by the HE logo and the fact that they're always liquid. Powder detergents don't work in HE machines.

You will spend more money initially on a low-water or HE washing machine but it's worth it in the long run. A low-water, Energy Star washing machine can save a family up to $30 a year in water costs. Over a 10-year life span, that's $300. And if you take into account the average monthly savings on your energy bill, roughly $25 per month, that's a total of $55 per month of savings. Even if it wasn't just about money, HE machines make sense because you'll conserve natural resources along the way. That alone is worth it.


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More Great Links

  • California Energy Commission. "Clothes washers." (Sept. 9, 2010) http://www.consumerenergycenter.org/home/appliances/washers.html
  • Consumer Search. "Washing machines full report: Front-loading machines." (Sept. 9, 2010) http://www.consumersearch.com/washing-machine-reviews/front-loading-washers
  • Consumer Search. "Washing machines full report: Top-loading machines." (Sept. 9, 2010) http://www.consumersearch.com/washing-machine-reviews/top-loading-washers
  • Consumer Search. "Washing machines types: Top-loading vs. front-loading machines." (Sept. 9, 2010) http://www.consumersearch.com/washing-machine-reviews/washing-machine-types
  • Consumer Search. "Washing Machines: Full report." (Sept. 9, 2010) http://www.consumersearch.com/washing-machine-reviews/review
  • Energy Star. "Clothes washers for consumers." (Sept. 9, 2010) http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?fuseaction=find_a_product.showProductGroup&pgw_code=CW
  • Jha, Alok. The Guardian. "The 'waterless washing machine that could save you money." March 9, 2010. (Sept. 12, 2010) http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/mar/09/xeros-washing-machine-bills
  • Koester, A. Oregon State University. "Conserving water in the home: Washing clothes." July 1992. (Sept. 10, 2010) http://extension.oregonstate.edu/catalog/html/em/em8358-e/
  • Spot Shopping Guide. "Washing machines." (Sept. 9, 2010) http://www.spotshoppingguide.com/shopping-guides/best-washing-machines/
  • USGS. "Water Q&A: Water use at home." (Sept. 10, 2010) http://ga.water.usgs.gov/edu/qahome.html
  • WiseGeek. "What is a high efficiency washing machine?" (Sept. 9, 2010) http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-an-high-efficiency-washing-machine.htm