GE Takes on Moldy Front-Loaders With UltraFresh Washing Machines
CR lab-tests the new vent feature to see if it does what it promises
GE has introduced a new line of front-load washers that it says have been specifically designed to guard against mold and odor-causing bacteria, thus allowing you to skip the steps of wiping down the gasket and leaving the door open.
The launch of the UltraFresh line is a rare public acknowledgement from a manufacturer that front-loaders have issues with odors and mold.
“Residual moisture left behind after the wash cycle is the biggest contributor to odor-causing bacteria in front loaders," says Ken Rudolph, senior director of product management for clothes care at GE. “The front-loader is a closed system—the gasket seals it and the water and moisture stay in, unlike top-loaders.”
Consumer Reports bought and tested two of GE's UltraFresh models soon after they debuted in December. We also conducted a claim check in our labs to determine whether the UltraFresh vent does what's promised.
The first UltraFresh model, the GE GFW850SPNRS, starting at $1,100, has a large capacity of 5 cubic feet. There's also a slightly smaller model, the GE GFW650SSNWW, for about $100 less. CR members can see detailed lab test results for these two washers in the ratings cards below. You can also check out test results for more than 50 other front-loaders in our complete washing machine ratings.
Front-Loaders and Mold
As a category, front-loaders have their advantages but have declined in market share, from a peak of 38 percent in 2009 to 27 percent in 2019, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers. That compares with 31 percent for high-efficiency top-loaders. Simpler, less expensive agitator top-loaders maintain the largest market share.
Electrolux, LG, and Whirlpool have settled class-action lawsuits involving allegations of odors and mold in this type of washing machine while denying any wrongdoing. A judge dismissed a class-action lawsuit concerning claims of funky GE front-loaders in 2014, saying that plaintiffs failed to offer sufficient facts to support their case.
"The lawsuits and media attention could have impacted consumers buying habits," says Ashley Levy, an analyst covering laundry appliances for Gap Intelligence, a retail market research company. But there may be other reasons beyond price that explain why consumers prefer top-loaders.
Levy points out that top-loading washers now have larger capacities. And while front-loaders often come with many features, top-loaders now have features that boost convenience and allow consumers to multitask while doing laundry, such as an integrated faucet for pretreating stains, and WiFi-connectivity.
GE's Ken Rudolph says that the company's own lab tests show 99 percent humidity in the gasket area of front-loaders after washing one load, removing the laundry, and immediately shutting the door. So GE set out to dry it out.
Here are the key features of UltraFresh machines:
• A damper on the front opens at the end of the cycle, after you've removed your laundry and closed the door, and the drum spins slowly, pulling in air to circulate and promote evaporation. With this vent setting turned on, the drum cycles on for 15 minutes, then off for 15 minutes over an 8-hour period. Sound like an energy hog? Rudolph says it costs 5 cents every time you use this feature, based on GE's research and the average electricity rate. The UltraFresh machines are Energy Star certified.
• The rubber gasket that creates a watertight seal around the door is angled, with more holes and contours to fully drain water at the end of a cycle.
• The gasket, pump, and detergent dispenser are made with an antimicrobial material that Microban developed for GE. Lance Fox, a senior director at Microban, says that Microban has been approached by other appliance manufacturers, and only agreed to work with GE on this ground-up project after being convinced that it planned to address the issue of residual moisture. “Just adding an off-the-shelf Microban technology was not going to solve the problem,” says Fox.
CR Claim Check
GE emphasizes that all these features are designed to work together. But given the important role of residual moisture in the mold equation, CR decided to test the claims about the vent drying out the drum.
Our testers installed the UltraFresh washer inside an environmental chamber set to 70° F and 50 percent relative humidity. After washing an 8-pound cotton load, they removed the damp laundry, placed a humidity sensor inside, closed the door, and monitored conditions for six days. They ran one trial with the vent on and one with it off.
Findings show that the vent lowered the humidity inside the washer to match the room. With the vent off, internal humidity stayed above 90 percent during the trial. “The UltraFresh vent does reduce humidity levels in the drum,” says CR test engineer Richard Handel. “We don’t know how this will impact mold growth.”
For that, only time will tell.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include CR's test results for two GE UltraFresh washers and revised to clarify the quotation from GE's Ken Rudolph. He says that moisture is the biggest contributor to odor-causing bacteria in front-loading washing machines. The article was originally published on Dec. 3, 2019.