HE washers save gallons of water

Jim Mallery | Improvement Center Columnist | March 19, 2013

You can save water a drip at a time by replacing leaking washers in faucets -- a good idea. Or your can save water by the bucketful by replacing your worn out washing machine with a new, high-efficiency machine. A great idea!

High-efficiency (HE) washers have been around about 15 years and use a third less water than conventional washing machines. They can also save from 20 to 50 percent on energy use because they require much less hot water, according to Energy Star, a joint program between the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy to develop energy-efficient products.

Energy Star also says HE washers can save an average family 27,000 gallons of water over the life of the machine. Another way to put it, if all the top-loading, agitator-style washers built before 1998 were replaced with HE washers, consumers would save some $2.8 billion a year in energy and water.

How do HE washers work?

Top-loading and front-loading styles work a little differently.

  • Top-loading: A top-loading HE washer doesn't have the traditional agitator sticking up in the middle of the tub. Instead, it has an impeller or disks that gently tumble the clothing; at the same time, the tub moves in the opposite direction, facilitating the motion of the clothing.
  • Front-Loading: A front-loading washer spins the tub in one direction for a few seconds, then stops and spins for a few seconds in the other direction.
  • Both: The water depth may not cover the wash in either style, but it doesn't diminish their efficiency compared to conventional washers. And HE washers spin much faster than the old-style washers, so they remove more water from the clothes; thus, they require less time in the dryer.

Manufacturers claim, and Consumer Reports whole-heartedly agrees, HE washers can clean as much in a load as conventional washers -- some models, they say, do more.

If you're looking for a front-loading washer, pretty much all are HE nowadays -- and prices start at around $700. Conventional top load washers start at $400; HE models cost about $550 and up, but if you add the bells and whistles and buy a larger-capacity washer, the cost may be more than $1,000.

But can the clothes get clean?

Manufacturers and some consumer advocates point to three reasons new HE owners are sometimes dissatisfied with the results of their washers, all of which involve lack of familiarity with the new washer or operator error:

1. Use the right detergent. For those who ignore the washer manufacturer's instructions to use only specially formulated HE detergent, their clothes can come out sudsy, filmy and still dirty. Old formula detergents are too high-sudsing. Too many bubbles slow down the cleaning action of these washers, and the detergent won't rinse out. According to the American Cleaning Institute, not only do HE detergents need less bubbles; they hold soils and dyes in the water so that they don't redeposit onto the clothing. HE-formulated detergents don't cost more than the old detergents, so there's no excuse not to use them.

The Cleaning Institute also cautions not to buy detergent labeled "HE-compatible" as many of these are still too high-sudsing.

2. Avoid overloading. Don't exceed the manufacturer's load size as it can greatly reduce the washer's cleaning ability. That extra sweatshirt you toss onto the already-full load could be the difference between clean and not.

3. Where's the water? Lots of new HE-washer owners, accustomed to the large tub of water sloshing around in their old top loaders, think the clothes won't get clean if they're not fully immersed. But the HE owner's manual explains there may not be water showing above the clothes during the wash. Trust it.

What's that smell?

HE washers, especially front-loaders sometimes smell funny for a couple of reasons.

  1. The doors seal tightly; they never dry out between washings, so mildew and mold can grow, especially under the seal around the door.
  2. Using too much or the wrong kind of detergent causes over-sudsing and scum buildup -- another source of mildew growth.

To avoid most odor problems, experts recommend you run your front-loading HE machine through the hot-wash cycle with a washing machine cleaning solution or a cup of bleach once in awhile. It's safer than leaving the door unlatched to dry out the interior between loads, especially if you have young children or small pets around.

Now that you're wiser about the new high-efficiency washers, there's no need to be wishy-washy about conserving water. Consider replacing your old water-waster with an HE.

About the Author

Jim Mallery, a semi-retired journalist and onetime registered contractor, has extensive experience remodeling, repairing and rebuilding homes.