Agitator top-loaders still outsell other types of washers, but sales of high-efficiency (HE) top-loaders, the type without an agitator, have increased significantly over the past six years, and with good reason.

“HE top-loaders offer better water and energy efficiency than many agitator machines we tested," says Consumer Reports tester Rich Handel, who oversees our laundry lab. "And because HE top-loaders spin faster than agitator machines, they extract more water, shortening dryer time."

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Lab Tested for Your Home 
To find out how well each washer cleans, testers launder fabric swatches stained with red wine, cocoa, and carbon (which is similar to soot), among other stains. They're meant to challenge the washer so that we can see real differences among the machines.

We also test to find out how gentle the machine is on fabrics, record the amount of water and energy used, and note the energy needed to dry laundry (washers that extract more water shorten dryer time and score higher in our energy-efficiency tests). Our panelists judge each washer's noise levels during the fill, agitate/tumble, drain, and spin cycles.

If you’ve always used an agitator top-loader, an HE top-loader could take some getting used to. Here are five things you need to know about these washers. 

1. Wash Times Are Longer

The HE top-loaders we tested typically wash an average-sized load in 60 to 80 minutes using the normal wash/heavy-soil setting. That's longer than most agitator models, which typically take 35 to 70 minutes. 

You’ll trim time using the normal-soil setting; some models have other time-saving settings. For example, in our tests LG's TurboWash and Kenmore's Accela Wash got the job done faster with no impact on cleaning performance.

2. The Machine Might Be Bigger

Manufacturers have increased capacities so that you can do more laundry at once. Most of the HE top-loaders in our tests have claimed capacities of 4.5 cubic feet or more—enough to fit a king-size comforter—making them larger than most agitator machines. Many are bigger than front-loaders, too.

At 6.2 cubic feet, the Kenmore Elite 31632 and the Maytag MVWB955FW HE top-loaders—around $1,000 each—have the largest claimed capacity of the 100-plus models in our washing machine ratings

A larger capacity may sound good, but some washers are wider or taller than the machine you’re replacing, so be sure to check dimensions in the ratings.

Larger capacities can also mean deeper tubs. When you’re shopping, reach into the machine and try to touch the bottom. Some readers tell us they can’t, and they wind up using tongs or a step stool to retrieve socks and other small items from the bottom of the drum.

3. Gentleness Isn't a Given

“Most HE top-loaders aren’t so gentle on fabrics," Handel says. "That's because of the combination of low water levels, longer wash times, and the laundry rubbing against each other." Agitator washers, however, are typically worse due to the churning of the center post agitator.

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

4. Laundry Can Tangle

The low water levels and longer wash times, combined with the high-spin speed, can also cause laundry to become entangled. This can impede washing and drying.

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. Lowering the washer’s spin speed also reduces tangling.

Then, before you toss the laundry into the dryer, shake each item out one by one. Bunched-up items will take longer to dry.

5. Loads Can Become Unbalanced

A load of laundry can become very unbalanced in any type of washer, but each handles it differently. With a front-loader, you might not even realize the load is unbalanced because the machine is designed to correct the situation. A telltale sign is when the laundry comes out of the washer wetter than usual.

Agitator washers typically lack sensors that detect an unbalanced load, so the washer will bang and even move from its position, sometimes “walking” across the floor. 

HE top-loaders don’t usually move around. These machines will try to rebalance the load by adding more water to improve circulation, even multiple times. If it can’t rebalance the load, it will give up. An error message will alert you that the load is unbalanced. Your owner’s manual should tell you how to resolve the problem.

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

Shopping for a Washer? 
CR's Washer Buyer Guide is a good place to start. You'll find well over a 100 models in our washing machine ratings, with prices ranging from $275 to around $2,500. You'll see the dimensions for each model, brand reliability data, and a Features & Specs tab that offers useful information. Use the filters to help narrow your options.