Sales of high-efficiency (HE) top-loading washing machines have increased significantly over the past five years, and with good reason.

More for Your Laundry Room

“The biggest reason to buy a high-efficiency top-loader is that it’s easier to load and unload than a front-loader, which requires a lot of bending,” says Consumer Reports’ test engineer Emilio Gonzalez, who oversees our laundry lab. “HE top-loaders also offer much better water and energy efficiency—almost as good as a front-loader.” (HE top-loaders spin faster than agitator machines, extracting more water. That shortens dryer time, which saves energy.)

If you’ve previously owned only a traditional agitator top-loading washing machine, an HE top-loader could take some getting used to. (For starters, you might wonder whether it’s using enough water to get your clothes clean.) Here are five things you need to know about these appliances:

1. Wash Times Are Longer

The Department of Energy phased in stricter standards for water and energy use over the past 15 years, requiring manufacturers to make more efficient washers. “When a washer uses less water, it will need more time to do its job,” Gonzalez says. “Most HE top-loaders take longer than agitator washers but are faster than front-loaders.” The HE top-loaders we tested typically wash an average-sized load in 60 to 80 minutes using the normal wash/heavy-soil setting.

You’ll trim time using the normal-soil setting; some models have other time-saving settings. In our tests, the LG TurboWash and Kenmore Elite 31552 with Accela-Wash get the job done faster with no impact on cleaning performance.

2. The Machine Might Be Bigger

Manufacturers keep increasing 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 130-plus washers in our washing machine ratings

Though a larger capacity may sound good, some washers might be wider or taller than the machine you’re replacing, so be sure to check a machine’s dimensions on its model page.

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 stepstool 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, because of the clothes rubbing against each other, the low water level, and long wash times,” Gonzalez says. “But agitator washers are sometimes worse due to the churning of the center post agitator.”

Front-loaders are typically the gentlest on fabrics, but adjusting the HE top-loader’s soil setting can help. 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 good 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, while 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.