High-efficiency washing machines, especially front-loaders, can be great if you use them properly—but without the right care they’re prone to problems like odors, greasy buildups, and premature mechanical damage. Plus, if you overload it, sort your loads improperly, or misuse detergent, the results can make your clothes uncomfortable. The good news is that most of these problems are easy to avoid. As Ofer Hubara of Aviv Sales and Service in Charleston, South Carolina, put it to us, they’re mostly due to user error.
Making a few small corrections will prevent a lot of those problems. Here’s what you need to do:
Use high-efficiency (HE) detergent. Using the wrong detergent can lead to odors in the machine, greasy buildups that leave your clothes feeling gross, and even malfunctions. Look for the little “HE” symbol on your bottle or box of detergent.
Non-HE detergents get sudsy, and modern washers don’t use enough water (let alone warm water) to fully dissolve those suds. So that leads to a few problems. The most obvious downside is that your washer might need to run multiple rinses to get all the detergent out of your clothes. That drinks up a few extra gallons of water, and can add as much as 20 minutes to the total cycle time. Even then, some detergent may still get left behind in your clothes, so they won’t feel as comfortable to wear.
Over weeks and months, partially dissolved suds can leave behind a buildup of oily film on the door and drum of the washer. That film can then smear onto your clothes, and can also act as a breeding ground for mildew and mold. A rep from LG also told us that residue and excess suds “can affect various sensors” in a washer. (Why did detergents ever use suds if they were such a problem? Well, bubbles are useful for “suspending” soils removed from clothes, preventing them from redepositing. Modern detergents use different compounds to achieve a similar effect. Also, older washers floated clothes in a giant pool of 20 to 30 gallons of hot water. Detergent could dissolve more easily in that environment. It was a different time.)
You might already be using HE detergent, even if you’re using an older washer—just make sure to check. Need some buying advice? Here’s our pick for the best all-around laundry detergent.
Start with a couple tablespoons of detergent per load. It’s complicated, but using too much detergent can cause many of the same problems as using too little detergent—odors, greasy buildups, malfunctions. So we think that for most people, less is more.
Several experts from multiple corners of the industry recommended a maximum dose of 2 tablespoons for a large load of clothes. The 2-tablespoon mark is almost always less than the minimum mark inside the cap on your detergent bottle. HE detergents are highly concentrated, and HE washers dilute the detergent into only about three gallons of water. If you’re using a detergent with an even higher concentration (they’re available in 2X, which is the standard, as well as 3X and 4X, usually marked on the bottle), use even less.
Detergent makers insist that you should use more detergent. The guidance to use 2 tablespoons dates back to the time when HE washers were new in America, and detergents hadn’t been formulated for those water-light environments, according to Tracey Long, communications manager for P&G. “So the appliance manufacturers’ recommendation was titrate back, use less detergent, so you don’t face that over-sudsing. We now have technologies that are outstanding at addressing the sudsing and managing down the sudsing profile of the detergent while delivering an outstanding clean. So it’s not necessary to titrate back to that 2 tablespoon level.”
Also, because washers can hold much, much more clothing that they did when that 2-tablespoon recommendation came into effect, you should expect to scale up the amount of detergent you’d use for those mega-loads of laundry. “We want to respect the manufacturers’ guidance,” said Penny Dirr, principal researcher in laundry R&D at P&G, “but we have to tell you that you’re not going to get the same level of clean if you don’t have the right chemistry in the machine.”
That all sounds reasonable, but we still hear from readers who struggle with leftover detergent in their clothes, or have greasy films and problems with mildew in their washers. Hubara said that so many of the problems he sees in washers result from overuse of detergent. And manufacturers all recommend using less detergent than what the detergent makers suggest. As a rep from LG told us, “Perhaps the disconnect exists because detergent makers want consumers to use more detergent so they buy more often.” (This is not the first time that washer and detergent makers have called each other out in public.)
Leave the door open after a front-loader’s wash cycle. This step, recommended by manufacturers and every expert we interviewed, lets the machine dry out between uses, which helps prevent mildew and mold from growing in the dark, damp crevices. That growth is what makes front-loaders smell.
This step isn’t totally mandatory, and sometimes you really should keep the door shut. If you have pets or small children that you’re afraid might crawl into the drum, or the door is interfering with foot traffic in a hallway, close it up. That just means you need to be diligent with wipe downs and cleaning cycles, both of which we’ll cover shortly.
Some models (like our favorite front-loader) actually have a little magnet that props the door open ever so slightly, even when it’s shut, to allow some airflow. This is a great compromise, and we think more front-loaders should have this feature.
Wipe the door gasket on a front-loader at the end of each wash. Those dark, wet little folds in the rubber are prime real estate for mildew and mold. When you wipe them down with a dry rag, it’s harder for the gross stuff to grow, and less likely your washer will start to smell. Manufacturers and other experts always recommend this step, and it’s especially important if you decide to keep the door shut between uses. Here’s a tip: Put one of those stick-on plastic hooks (featured in our guide to the best gear for small apartments) on the side of the washer and hang your wiping rag on it.
Run a cleaning cycle once a month. Even if you let your washer dry out between each use, and use the appropriate amount of the right detergent, some bio-residue is still going to build up inside the machine, which can rub off on your clothes, lead to odors, and may interfere with the washer’s sensors. A monthly self-cleaning cycle can flush it out: No clothes, very hot water, and a cleaning agent like Affresh or even just chlorine bleach.
Most modern HE washers have a dedicated, built-in cleaning-cycle option, which most user manuals suggest running every 30 to 40 loads, and some even have a little indicator on the control panel that tells you when it’s time for a cleaning. Personally, I find it easier to just stick to the same date every month.
You should do this even if you own an HE top-loader. Yes, they’re easier to keep dry between uses, and have fewer dark crevices for mildew to grow in and for odors to run out of control. But they can still get a little mucky in ways that old-school agitator washers didn’t. In part, that’s because typical wash temperatures are much colder than they used to be. Today’s warm-water cycle is around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, but used to be more like 90 degrees. Oils and other residues don’t dissolve as easily in cold water, so they don’t get flushed out of washers as easily.
If your front-load washer has already developed an odor, do your best to wipe away any growth and moisture in the folds of the door gasket, then run one or two cleaning cycles. This should knock out the problem.
Sort your laundry into smaller loads. For starters, this helps your clothes get cleaner because they can move more freely inside the washer. And if you sort them with similar colors and fabrics, they’ll look better and fit more comfortably for longer, too.
Smaller loads can also prevent a lot of wear on your washer. “Overloading is what really wears the machine out,” said Kevin Harner, a technician and owner of an eponymous appliance repair service in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, area. “Try not to load it more than halfway.” This advice applies to HE top-loaders, but is particularly important for front-loaders because “the extra weight is a strain on the rear bearing,” Harner said.
There is no “magic number” for load size that will keep your washer safe from breakdowns, and you’ll be totally fine if you wash an enormous, unsorted mega-load every now and then. (Sort of like eating an occasional donut as part of an otherwise healthy, balanced diet.) But if you make a habit out of proper sorting, you’re likely to reap the rewards of cleaner, more comfortable clothes and a longer-lasting washer.
Clean your dryer exhaust every year. Lint buildup in a dryer’s exhaust hose is a tremendous fire hazard, and causes 2,900 house fires per year. Pick one day each year to clean your vent—the day in the fall when you turn the clocks back makes sense. To do it, detach the exhaust hose, and get the lint out of there with a wire brush (a leaf blower can help you clear it out, too). If possible, it’s best to go about this from the exterior as this Today’s Homeowner how-to demonstrates. There’s more to say about this topic, and we won’t repeat all you’ll find in those how-to stories. But one additional note: If you still have that white plastic flex duct at the dryer end, you should swap it out for metal flex ducting.
Anticipate some routine maintenance. Like any appliance, your washer and dryer will need service at some point. RepairClinic has an excellent series of videos about what can go wrong and how you—a regular person with a simple set of tools—can fix many of the most common problems, including broken inlet valves, cracked hoses, and popped drive belts. But once you start running into issues like fried logic boards, busted filter housings, and dead direct-drive systems, don’t be afraid to pay for professional help.
It’s an open secret in the industry that modern appliances simply do not last as long as they used to. So yeah, that Maytag top-loader you bought in the early 1990s may have just finally broken down. But unless you go out of your way to pay extra for a machine that’s built to last for ages, you should expect your new washer to last only something like eight to 12 years, give or take a couple years depending on factors like how often you use it, how fully you stuff the washer, water hardness, detergent use, and even just luck.