Front vs. top loading washing machines

First published October 2007, last updated June 2012

Wringers, twin tubs, front loader, top loading – even coppers and scrubbing boards and of course the old bucket; there’s not many washing devices I haven’t had the opportunity to try. 

While a scrubbing board is probably the most earth friendly option; it’s not one that is really suited to modern life and I’ve never had to wash more than a couple of items with one. I also have memories of nearly being pulled through a wringer :).

So what type of washing machine is the most “green”? The wringer system was pretty inefficient and is long gone and twin tub machines have very limited application (and tend to tie your clothes in knots); so it’s really between the top loading and front loading systems.

Assuming the quality of two brands/models of washers is equal; it really comes down to a couple of important factors:

a) The amount of energy consumed
b) The amount of water consumed

This is certainly where front loading washing machines win out on both counts.

1. Water Consumption

A front loading washing machine I recently acquired uses around 51 litres (13 gallons) of water per full load. Even a modern top loading washing machine of similar capacity will use around 80 litres, or 21 gallons – over 50% more. Over a year of even washing just once a week, the top loader will save around 1,500 litres of water. Thinking tap water, this is more than enough for provide one person’s drinking water requirements.

2. Electricity consumption

Approximately 85-90% of the energy used by a washing machine is consumed through heating the water. This is where water consumption comes in again; the more water needed, the more that needs to be heated. As mentioned in my article on earth friendly clothes washing, unless you are washing particularly greasy and filthy clothes, hot water is not needed; cold water works just fine. Even based on cold water alone, a front loading washing machine will often consumes less energy.

A few other advantages of front loading machines include

1. Less wear and tear on clothes  
Front loading washing machines tumble clothing through the water whereas top loaders pull clothes through the wash; so you’re likely to get longer life out of clothes you wear often using a front loader. This is another money and resource saver.

2. Faster drying times
Because of the horizontal axis and faster spin speeds, more water is removed and your clothes will dry faster. Another energy saver if you use a clothes dryer.

3. Quieter operation
Assuming you have the washing machine totally level (and that is really important), you’ll find front loaders to be quieter in operation.

4. Larger loads
Generally front loaders allow for bigger loads, so getting back to the points about water consumption and electricity; there’s savings for the environment and your wallet there too.

5. Less detergent
While front loaders require a special low-sudsing detergent, far less is required and the price is comparable with standard detergents. Less chemicals going into our waterways is always a good thing.

6. Rebates and tax breaks
Some states/countries offer rebates or tax credits on the purchase of front loading machines and we’ll likely see more governments providing these initiatives in the future.

A few disadvantages of front loaders

– Heavier
– More bending in loading and unloading
– No soaking capabilities
– Initial purchase price is higher
– Can wind up with a mildewy smell, but this can be rectified by leaving the washer door open
– Longer wash times

If you visit various forums and reviews sites, you’ll read opinions from fanatical front loader fans and die-hard top loader proponents. Because there are so many brands and models of washing machines around it can be hard to compare apples to apples – but if it’s the environment you have close to mind in your next purchase; then a front loading washing machine is probably the best way to go.

Regardless of whether you choose to go with a front loader or top loading machine for your next purchase, don’t skimp – buy the best quality you can afford. It’s a big purchase so research thoroughly as there are good and bad brands and models in both types. Even among front loaders, there may be major differences between various brands and models in terms of water and electricity consumption.

Focus on the core features and specifications rather than novelty-type options and additional gadgets. A washing machine is a workhorse, not a show pony.

A good machine will last you many years – and that’s another great way to lessen environmental impact as the fewer machines you buy over your life, the less you’ll need to dump once they’ve finally given up the ghost.