How does a high-efficiency (HE) washer differ from a traditional washer, and how do you know if a washer requires HE laundry detergent? To be touted as a high-efficiency (HE) laundry appliance, a washer must meet certain criteria and guidelines concerning water, electricity, and detergent use. In short, it must use less (than a traditional washer) water, energy, and detergent to be called a HE washer. If it falls short of the set guidelines, it cannot sport the HE symbol. While not all high-efficiency washers are front loaders, they do have some visible signs: The HE symbol proudly displayed and a missing agitator.
Our comprehensive guide covers everything from what is a high-efficiency washer to the available sizes, maintenance, cost, and more.
High-Efficiency vs Traditional Washing Machine: Major Differences
Load capacities are generally larger than with a traditional washer, partially because the agitator is gone (or much shorter), which means fewer washloads to process and less water, detergent, and energy to wash and dry.
A high-efficiency washer washes clothes with a rotating tub to tumble items in the wash cycle. A front-loading HE washer tumbles items back and forth in the water. A top-loading HE washer spins, rotates, and wobbles clothing to wash the clothes. Top-loading HE washers do not have an agitator, but instead, moves clothing using a small center post. A traditional washer uses an agitator to move clothing around the tub.
Click Play to Learn the Difference Between High-Efficiency and Traditional Washing Machines
This new generation of high-efficiency washers uses a different washing system than its traditional parent appliance, a gentle rotating tumbling action rather than a harsher agitation to get clothes clean. A high-efficiency top loader has a slightly different washing action, a re-designed shorter agitator that draws the load down into the low water and detergent to effect cleaning. HE top-loaders must meet the same stringent guidelines to be called HE washers and either style is efficient when it comes to cleaning performance.
A traditional washer will have a tall agitator in the middle of the tub. The agitator takes up some room and reduces the tub's washing capacity.
There are two types of HE washers. Though they are best known as front-loading appliances, there are also top-loading models.
Standard washing machines are top-loading only. There are no front-loading standard washers.
Best for Appearance: High-Efficiency Washer
You'll be able to choose from two styles if you buy a HE washer. Front-loading HE washers are considered to be more contemporary in style.
Both HE and traditional washers now come in all sizes and capacities. The only difference is that you may find some HE top-loaders are slightly taller and wider than a standard top-loader. That means deeper tubs that require reaching down into.
Repair and Maintenance
The biggest difference in using a high-efficiency washer is that it needs more care than a basic washer. Since water use is low, there's a tendency with some washers to not flush the soap and wash load residue properly, leaving damp accumulations within the washer, which can cause mildew to grow.
It's recommended that the door and dispenser drawer on a high-efficiency washer be left open in order for the door gasket and interior drum to dry properly. In addition, with a high-efficiency washer, you must run the machine-cleaning cycle as recommended by the manufacturer or more often, to reduce the risk of bacterial growth.
Some consumers have found that more maintenance or cleaning of other washer parts is necessary, while others have merely lowered their detergent use and/or have chosen to not use liquid softener in the washer, but rather fabric sheets in the dryer, to reduce residue build-up in the washer.
A standard washer doesn't require as much daily care as a HE washer. One issue you will need to watch for is the potential to overload a top-loading standard washer. Overloading will cause the drum to wobble or stop spinning. Another issue is the agitator that may stop working due to various factors.
Best for Repair and Maintenance: Traditional Washing Machine
A traditional washer won't have as much of a learning curve when it comes to usage, repair, or maintenance. A HE washer has a higher learning curve which includes daily maintenance.
Wear and Tear on Clothing
The tumbling action of a HE washer uses gentle, but efficient force to deep clean clothing. You'll need HE detergent to use with a high-efficiency washer. Most HE washers have sensors to adjust water temperature, level, and spin to match the load so there's no guesswork once you've chosen a wash cycle. Cycle times are much longer partly due to the low water use—it takes longer to get clothes clean.
The agitator used to rotate clothing clockwise and counterclockwise also cleans clothing well, but it can be rough on clothing.
Best for Wear and Tear on Clothing: High-Efficiency Washer
HE washers are gentler on clothing. That means even delicate pieces can last longer than they would if they were washed by agitation. In addition, high-speed spin cycles remove more water from the load, resulting in shorter drying times, which is another way to make clothing last longer.
Since a high-efficiency washer uses less water, low-sudsing HE detergent must be used in these washers in order for cycles including the rinsing action to work as designed. This applies regardless if the washer is top-loading or front-loading, as long as it has the HE seal.
Water and Energy Use
Lower washer water levels in a HE washing machine mean there's less water to heat which means less energy use.
High-efficiency washers are also Energy Star compliant. Since a HE washer already meets stringent energy guidelines which are higher for high-efficiency, it has already met the (lower than HE) targets to carry the Energy Star compliance seal. Accompanying dryers must also meet certain criteria for lower energy use to carry the HE symbol. The Energy Star program has not been extended to dryers.
Traditional washers are not Energy Star compliant. The certification is given to clothes washers without a central agitator because the newer technology cuts energy and water consumption.
Best for Water and Energy Use: High-Efficiency Washer
A HE washer uses less water per load. Though the HE washer's wash cycle is longer, the appliance uses less energy to heat hot water, which saves money over the long term. A traditional washer uses more water and energy in general per load than a HE washer.
The installation will be similar whether you are buying a front-loading or top-loading HE or traditional washer. If you have plumbing in place already, installation requires making the drain and water supply connections, leveling the appliance, and plugging it in.
Though high-efficiency washer and dryer prices have become more competitive, they still do cost more. But the range of laundry appliance sizes and capacities has increased, making it easier for the consumer to find the size of washer and dryer they need.
A regular top-loading washing machine will be less money than even a top-loading HE machine. But the two types of washers are now closer in price than ever before.
Best for Cost: Tie
A top-loading regular washer may cost a bit less to buy than any type of HE machine. Regular washers don't need slightly pricier HE detergent, either. But it may pay to spend a bit more on a HE washer to benefit from the long-term water and energy savings.
Any washer should last over 10 years. Whether it's a HE washer or traditional washer, you should expect to have it between 10 to 15 years. It can last longer as long as it's installed on a flat surface, isn't overloaded, and you use the correct detergent.
Overall, you'll find a large selection of both HE and traditional washers, and all at various price points and sizes. HE washers are becoming more commonplace. For efficiency, a HE washer will clean larger loads with less water and less energy. You will need to do a bit more daily maintenance to eliminate any mold and mildew build-up. You'll also need to pay a bit more for HE detergent that doesn't suds up as much as regular laundry detergent.
In addition, if you purchase a HE washer, you'll have to learn the ropes on using the appliance and HE detergent. Similar to high-tech top loaders, most HE washers have numerous wash cycles and settings—more than you would find on a basic washer, which may take more time to explore or understand. If you don't like long cycles, it may mean experimenting with wash cycles to find a shorter one that still gets your clothes clean.
Laundry Best Practices. Energy Star, United States Department of Energy.