We don’t know yet what caused some Samsung high-efficiency top-load washers to violently break apart while operating, a phenomenon some consumers describe as the machine “exploding.” What we do know, from the company’s own statement, is that washing bulky or water-resistant items on a high-rpm cycle can cause “abnormal vibrations that could pose a risk of personal injury or property damage.” 

While the behavior of these Samsung washers, which were recalled, is unique, any load of laundry in a top-loading washer can become unbalanced.

Consumer Reports lab tests aren't designed to predict how washing machines hold up over time. Instead, we get that information by surveying thousands of consumers annually about their experience with washer brands.

But we do test new top-loaders on their ability to handle an unbalanced load. We’ve been doing this for over 20 years with center-post agitator washers.

Those that fare poorly in our tests are more easily prone to loud banging of the drum against the inside walls of the machine and “walking”—when the banging becomes so pronounced that it causes the machine to rock back and forth and move from its original spot. This type of instability can potentially cause damage to the walls and the washer, and the result factors into a model’s overall score.

High-efficiency (HE) top-loading washers are a more recent design. They lack a center-post agitator, and tend to spin much faster to remove more water and cut drying times. When we put them to the test, we found that most have sensors that stop the machine if the drum becomes unbalanced. In fact, all of the HE top loaders we’ve tested so far—including the affected Samsung washers—successfully shut down to save themselves in our test.

So why do we bother if every machine we see these days tends to pass? We continue to perform the test because if a model does poorly when it’s brand-new, then we need to let consumers know to avoid it. 

How We Test HE Top-Loaders
We place cotton towels in a mesh bag, soak it, load it in the machine, and set the washer on the highest spin setting. Restricting the towels so they can’t spread evenly around the drum causes it to intentionally spin out of balance, and we observe how well the machine reacts. We check whether the washer ultimately stops itself and displays an error code or issues an alert to rebalance the load. As long as it does, it gets a satisfactory score.

We’ve never had a machine break during the test, but it does reveal other issues, explains Emilio Gonzalez, the engineer in charge of testing laundry machines.

“What some of these HE top loaders will do when they sense an unbalanced load is call for more water to help redistribute the clothes,” says Gonzalez. "The mesh bag prevents that, and we've seen machines incrementally add as much as 100 gallons of water before giving up."

Not exactly efficient—the most water-efficient in our tests use 13 gallons or less for our 8-pound load. 

Of course, if we find any HE model that walks significantly or doesn’t shut itself off, we will call it out in our washing machine ratings. As always, we continue to test and explore washing machine performance to help consumers. In the meantime, here are tips to keep your washer in balance.

What You Can Do

Along with the advice in your owner’s manual, regardless of the brand, consider these tips from our experts on ways to reduce the chance of loads becoming unbalanced in a top-loader. It starts with proper installation—make sure the machine is leveled, with feet firmly on the ground. 

  • Sort. Mixing sheets with towels, for example, can cause clothes to tangle and loads to become unbalanced. So divide laundry piles into like items: a load of sheets, then a load of towels, and so on.
  • Load handfuls at a time. Reduce tangling and clumping by adding a few items at a time, rather than dumping a basket’s worth of dirty clothing into the washer at once.
  • Speed check. Higher spin speeds exacerbate the machine’s reaction to an unbalanced load. If loads easily become unbalanced in your washing machine, lower the spin speed. HE top-loaders spin faster than agitator machines. With some HE washers you’ll need to use the lowest spin speed or even no-spin when washing waterproof or water-resistant items, as Samsung advised owners of its affected machines. These items can hold or trap water on one side of the drum, increasing the chance of loads becoming unbalanced.

Shopping for a Washer?
Then see our washing machine ratings. We've tested front-loaders, top-loaders, and even compact washing machines. The ratings help you narrow your choices, and the washing machine buying guide is a great place to start.