Front Load vs Top Load Washers

In looking for a new washing machine (whether new or used), it's likely that you've quickly noticed 2 different styles - front-loading, and top-loading. Which type is suited to you will probably depend on a few factors.

Obviously, both types wash your clothes, but they do so in a different manner.


Front Loaders

If you haven't ever looked inside a front-load washer, you might think it looks a little more like a clothes dryer than a typical washer. There's no center "agitator" forcing clothes around. Instead the basket simply tumbles. Unlike a top load washing machine, the tub isn't completely filled with water - in fact, once the machine's dumped in enough water to soak the the clothes, the machine generally adds only enough extra water to reach the bottom of the door. To keep you from opening the washer mid-process and spilling water all over the place, most (if not all) washers automatically lock the door until the cycle is complete (unless you cancel it).

The wash process is gentle, but it tends to take a while. 1-2 hours isn't uncommon depending on the load and the options chosen. Many who use a front-load washer for the first time and decide to watch it are perplexed by the process - it tends to tumble - pause - tumble - pause - reverse - pause..... you get the idea.

The spin cycle is what you'd expect (the basket spins fast), except that front-loaders can reach really high RPM's if you choose the high spin speed setting. 1000 RPM or so tends to be the norm, though there are front-load washers that will go even higher. Compare this to 600-700 RPM for a typical top-load washer, and as you might guess, the front-load has the advantage when it comes to getting as much water as possible out of the clothes.

The front-load washing machine has quite a few advantages:

  • Nearly all tend to be Energy Star qualified.
  • Because they gently "tumble" rather than aggressively "agitate", they're much easier on clothes.
  • It's generally accepted that they tend to get clothes cleaner too.
  • Because they don't completely fill the tub, they use less water.
  • They use less detergent.
  • They generally use much less energy than a top-loader. Even when compared to Energy Star qualified top-loaders, they still tend to come out ahead by a fair bit due to the reduced water usage (less energy used to heat less water).
  • Because they spin faster, they get clothes dryer when the wash is complete.
  • Large items tend to fare well (big blankets, pillows, etc) in a front-loader.
  • Generally have automatic dispensers that will add detergent, bleach, and/or fabric softener automatically at the proper times, pre-mixing (diluting) them with water. You simply add everything in the tray before you start the wash, and the machine takes care of the rest.
  • Most automatically adjust the water to meet the load, (so you don't have to worry about setting the water level).
  • Many have auto-balancing routines during the spin cycle - if the load is unbalanced, they'll stop spinning, re-mix the load, and try spinning again.

Despite the advantages, front loading washers do have their downfalls:

  • They're more expensive.
  • Front-load washers have higher repair rates than top-load washers.
  • Wash cycles take longer - can be frustrating if you're in a rush and you've selected a long cycle.
  • They're finicky about letting you add additional clothes mid-wash that you forgot to throw in. Some will give you a time window (for example, 5-10 minutes after the wash starts) in which you can pause and add clothing. However, if you miss the window, you'll generally either have to cancel the cycle and start over, or wait for the next batch of laundry unlike a top loader where you can just lift the lid and drop something else in.
  • Most require HE ("high efficiency") detergent. Regular detergent will foam up and can seep past the bearing seal and destroy the bearings, resulting in hundreds of dollars in repair. While HE detergent is usually a similar price to regular detergent (actually cheaper since you'll use less of it), it's critical that you don't accidentally put in the regular stuff unless your model states that regular detergent is allowed (even then, I'd advise against it).
  • The seal against the door is prone to damage - a sharp object in the wash can easily damage it, resulting in a costly repair. This means you need to be careful to ensure that you've pulled sharp objects out of pockets, and make sure you're not adding clothes with broken jagged zippers to the wash.
  • Care must be taken to ensure that you don't catch a piece of laundry in the door when closing it. If you do, it might end up in 2 pieces by the end of the cycle.
  • You'll need to pick up (and use) small mesh laundry bags for small items. Small items and objects can slip in the space between the door seal and the basket. This includes objects such as baby socks, coins, jewelry, some lingerie, etc. The problem here is 2-fold: First, obviously an item will be missing. Second, that item might either plug up the line to the drain pump, plug up the drain catch, or jam the pump itself. Assuming your precious item didn't end up in the sewer system, the best case scenario for retrieving your item involves pulling the front panel and opening the catch. Worst case scenario is probably the drain pump starting to burn up and then spitting your diamond ring into the sewer moments before it dies.
  • Moisture is often trapped in and around the seal which can lead to mold and musty smells. To avoid this, you have to leave the door wide open after loads (if that isn't sufficient to dry within a reasonable time, you'll need to wipe the inside with a towel as well). You may also need to run monthly cleaning cycles (bleach-only cycles). 
  • Since the vast majority of front-loaders are fully digital, anything that causes the washer to error-out or shut off before the cycle completes (everything from an error during the spin cycle to a simple 2-second power outage) usually means that you may have to restart the entire wash.


Top Loaders

Most of us are familiar with these. Our parents and/or grandparents usually had them, and for people on a budget, they tend to be the first washer purchased. In many cases, you start the machine, dump in the detergent & clothes as it fills (though some higher-priced models have automatic dispensers), then close the lid. Once the basket/tub has filled with water, both the basket and a center piece (known as the "agitator") turn in bursts, moving the clothes throughout the water.

The wash process is generally aggressive, but quick.

Spin cycle's pretty simple - the basket spins around at a high speed, often with a few bursts of water injected towards the beginning (to ensure that the soap's washed out).

It's worth noting that while most front-load washers have a pretty standard set of features (auto-dispensing, etc), the same does not hold true for top-load washers. The basic models are very similar to 20-year-old machines, whereas the medium-high priced models start to share a few similarities & niceties with front-load feature sets.


Despite often being considered the "old" style, these machines do have their advantages:

  • They're often significantly cheaper than front-loaders.
  • Wash cycles can be very quick.
  • Almost no potential for leaks near the lid/door, because gravity keeps the water in the tub.
  • If you forgot to add an item, you can usually open the lid and drop it in mid-wash.
  • They're generally more forgiving when it comes to mistakes. If you left your keys in your pants (or your kids decided to fill their pockets with gravel), rather than finding them lodged in the drain pump afterwards or having them tear up a seal, you'll simply find them in the bottom of the basket after you've pulled out your clothes most of the time. Aside from perhaps scratching the inside of the basket, little (if any) harm is usually done.
  • Little chance of losing small items. Similar to the above, gravity tends to ensure that money, wedding rings, tiny socks, etc stay inside the basket where they're found later.
  • If you use too much detergent, or the wrong kind of detergent, rather than killing the bearings, the worst that usually happens is that your clothes don't come out clean, or need an additional rinse.
  • Due to the largely mechanical (non-digital) nature of most models, if the power goes out, or you have to stop the load during the spin to manually rebalance your clothes, or anything else interrupts the cycle, as soon as you close the lid, the wash often picks up right where it left off.
  • They're usually more reliable. Part of the reason is because they've been around for ages and manufacturers have decades of experience making a lot of them. The other part has to do with the design - small items don't end up where they shouldn't, and there's very little stress on most of the mechanical components (shafts, seals, bearings) during operation except when the load's unbalanced.
  • Budget models (and older models) are fairly simple when it comes to sensors/electronics - very little complex circuitry to deal with if the thing breaks down.

Of course, they have disadvantages as well:

  • The aggressiveness of the agitator during the wash cycle is harder on clothes.
  • They use more detergent.
  • They use more water.
  • They use more energy. It can be difficult to find one in the budget price range that's Energy Star qualified.
  • Because they don't spin as fast as front-loaders, they don't get clothes as dry. This means extra energy used by your dryer as well (unless you use a clothesline).
  • It's up to you to balance the load. A top load washer has no way of redistributing the load if it's unbalanced during the spin cycle (to even attempt it, the washer would have to completely refill the tub, agitate, and hope that stuff moved around).
  • Large blankets tend to float to the top, making them a very difficult item to clean.
  • Pillows and small cushions generally have no hope of surviving a wash. If and when they stop floating, pillows will end up deformed, and small cushions will just float. Both will cause the machine to unbalance severely (usually with the tub slamming into the side) during the spin cycle.
  • Opting for additional features (auto-dispenser, digital display, etc) usually increases the price to that of a front-load washer anyway.

Summing it up - Pros and Cons

Front Load Top Load
  • Gets clothes cleaner and dryer, but takes longer.
  • Can wash larger items - small ones must be placed in mesh bags though.
  • Higher up-front cost, but cheaper operating costs (less energy, detergent, water). Might eventually pay for itself over a number of years.
  • Generally comes standard with a number of features (auto-dispensing, etc)
  • Requires more care to keep it in good shape (correct detergent & amount, care to make sure sharp objects don't damage seals, must make sure small items are in mesh bags, must be dried and periodically run through a cleaning cycle to avoid mould growth and musty smell)
  • Essentially more delicate.
  • Doesn't clean as well as a front-load machine, but has a shorter cycle.
  • Can't wash large bulky items, but small ones are usually no issue.
  • Low up-front cost. Can usually find used models dirt-cheap if you're in a bind. Higher operating costs.
  • Basic models have very basic features. If you want additional features you may be looking at a cost comparable to that of a front-loader.
  • Generally don't require extra care - it's a simple matter of dumping in whatever you're washing and taking it out when you're done.
  • Tend to be more durable and a little more forgiving when it comes to misuse.

So which should you buy?

If you don't mind treating the machine with extra care, a front load model will clean better, accept larger loads, and cost you less money to operate.

On the other hand, if wiping down the door seal, double-checking clothes pockets for items, and putting small articles in mesh bags doesn't appeal to you (or sound like something you're likely to do), a top load model's generally going to be a lot more forgiving. If possible, try to find an EnergyStar rated model though - it won't be quite as efficient as a front-loader, but will still be more efficient than one that doesn't meet the criteria.


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