5 Things to Know About High-Efficiency Top-Loaders

One of these washing machines can cut your utility bills, but cycle times are longer than they are for an agitator washer

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he top load washer Consumer Reports

Front-load washers can be pricey and water-guzzling agitator models can get tight on space. High-efficiency top-load washing machines are a good compromise if price, water efficiency, and load size matter most to you.

HE washers are jack-of-all-trade machines. And they’ve gained popularity in recent years. Twenty-eight percent of washers shipped in 2020 were HE top-loaders, equaling that of front-loaders, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers.

They may not clean as well as front-loaders but they’re typically less expensive while offering similar large load capacity, between 5.5 cubic feet and 6.2 cubic feet (more than enough room to wash six pairs of jeans or a large comforter). Plus, they use only about 13 gallons of water per load, much less than top-load agitators.

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HE top-loaders don’t have a center-post agitator like traditional top-load machines but instead use a rotating mechanism called an impeller at the bottom to get clothes clean. They’re generally more expensive than agitators, but you save money long-term because they use less water and help save energy by spinning clothes really dry at the end of a cycle.

“The HE top-loader’s drum spins faster than an agitator machine’s, extracting more water and shortening dryer time,” says CR tester Rich Handel, who oversees our laundry lab.

HE top-loaders also have some advantages over their energy-saving siblings, front-load washers. These top-loaders take 60 to 80 minutes to wash a load, instead of a front-loader’s 75 to 120 minutes. They don’t vibrate, and according to a survey of CR members, just 3 percent of HE top-loader owners say it developed mold or mildew, compared with 17 percent of people who own a front-loader.

Of course, what matters most is how clean your clothes come out. CR’s testers use a spectrocolorimeter to analyze fabric swatches stained with red wine, cocoa, and carbon (which is similar to soot), among other stains, before and after washing. The lighter the stain after laundering, the higher the machine scores in cleaning. This test is meant to challenge the washer so that we can detect real differences among the machines.

Think an HE top-loader might be right for you? Here are the key factors to consider. And CR members can read on, below, for five impressive HE top-loaders from our tests. Consult our washing machine buying guide as you shop. Plus, our washing machine ratings offer details on more than 100 HE top-loaders, agitator top-loaders, and front-loaders, including compacts.

Do you own a Samsung high-efficiency top-loader bought between March 2011 and November 2016?

Millions of Samsung washers were recalled due to a safety issue. Read about the related class-action lawsuit to see if you can file a settlement claim.

1. Cleaning Is Good but Not Always Top-Notch

There are more than two dozen HE top-loaders in our washer ratings, and only a handful earn an Excellent rating in our washing performance tests. Many earn a Very Good rating, however, meaning they’ll clean most loads just fine. That’s better than agitator top-loaders, most of which earn a middling Good rating in washing performance.

You can boost your washer’s performance by pre-treating stains with a top-rated stain remover or using a dab of a laundry detergent that packs some punch (just like Grandma did it). Consider using the washer’s heavy-soil or heavy-duty cycle, too, but keep in mind they’re tougher on fabrics.

2. They Can Be a Little Rough

Most of the HE top-loaders in our tests aren’t so gentle on fabrics, earning just a Good or even a Fair score in our gentleness tests. “That’s due to the combination of low water levels, longer wash times, and the laundry rubbing against each other,” Handel says. Many agitator washers aren’t gentle, either, because of the center post agitator churning clothes to get them clean.

Using the normal wash/normal-soil setting for most loads and the light-soil setting when possible can help. The delicate cycle goes even easier on your clothes, which is ideal for undergarments and delicate fabrics.

3. Tangles Happen

Combine low water levels, fast rotating impeller action, and 60 to 80 minutes of wash time typical of HE top-loaders and you have the potential for tangled laundry.

To reduce tangling, wash similar items together—say, a load of sheets, then a load of towels. And rather than dumping a whole basket of dirty laundry into the washer, add a few items at a time to separate them more. Lowering the washer’s spin speed also reduces tangling.

4. Loads Can Become Unbalanced

A load of laundry can become unbalanced in any type of washer, but each one handles it differently. When the clothes inside an HE top-loader get out of balance, as sometimes happens in our tests, the machine will attempt to rebalance the load by adding more water to improve the circulation and even things out. It’ll try this multiple times, but if it doesn’t work, you’ll get an error message alerting you to manually rebalance the load. The owner’s manual should tell you how to do this.

Manufacturers often warn not to wash waterproof items in an HE top-loader, because this increases the chance of the load becoming unbalanced. Others suggest using a lower spin speed. So if you frequently wash waterproof jackets or other items, check the washer manufacturer’s website before choosing a model.

Some Washers Save Money, Others Waste It
There’s a big difference in the water use
of the most and least efficient washers in our tests

5. Some Are Really Big

Many HE top-loaders in our washing machine ratings have claimed capacities of 5 cubic feet or more, making them larger than most agitator machines and front-loaders.

But that means some may be wider or taller than the machine you’re replacing, so double check dimensions in our ratings. Measure your laundry space and entry doors to ensure your new machine can fit.

Larger capacities can also mean deeper tubs. When you’re shopping, reach into the machine to try to touch the bottom to be sure you can get all the laundry out. Some readers tell us they can’t, and wind up using tongs or a step stool to retrieve socks and other small items from the bottom of the drum—gadgets not designed for your laundry routine.

5 Impressive HE Top-Loaders From CR's Tests


BW Headshot of Consumer Reports author Keith Flamer

Keith Flamer

As a kid in Delaware, I lived a few blocks from Bob Marley, who once said, "It is better to live on the house top than to live in a house full of confusion." At CR, I'm psyched to help readers navigate this cluttered, hyper-commercialized world we live in. I've covered luxury real estate, interior design, and culture—reporting on everything from smart home technology to racial hypocrisy at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate. Since the pandemic started, I cherish simplicity, covering accessible topics like decorating, cooking, and cleaning. Give me a smoothie blender over a mansion any day. Blenders are slightly easier to clean.