How Does a Front Load Washer Work?

Mature woman loading clothes in washing machine
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While home front load washers - or horizontal axis washers - have long been the standard in Europe, they are a relatively new addition to the United States consumer market. Commercial front load washers are common in the United States. Since top load washers with a central agitator have served the U.S. for so many years, front load washer systems are somewhat of a mystery. Can they really clean clothes without using much detergent, no agitator and very little water?

How a Front Load Washer Works

There are certainly similarities between top loading and front loading washers. Both use a stainless steel inner drum as well as an outer wash tub, a motor, control system, drain pump and rotational spinning to remove water from the clothes; and there the similarities end.

Front load washers work by filling the bottom of the inner tub with a small amount of water and using the rotation of the tub and gravity to move the clothes through the water. The rotation action is similar to the tumbling action found in a clothes dryer. The side paddles on the inside drum lift the clothes and move them in and out of the water. This provides the mechanical action (scrubbing) needed to remove soil from fabric.

This type of mechanical wash action does not require that the clothes be surrounded by water at all times, which is why front load washers use so much less water than a standard top loader.  And, of course, with less water you should use less detergent and one without lots of bubbles to prevent over-sudsing and residue left in clothes.

Front Load Washers and Water Usage

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, front load washers cut water use by nearly 40 percent. An average top loading washer uses about 40 gallons of water for each full load. A full-size front load washer uses only 20 to 25 gallons. For the average household, having a front load washer will save as much as 7,000 gallons of water per year. That also translates into energy savings and reduced expenses for operation.

Front load washers always fill the the same low water level during the wash cycle no matter how many clothes are loaded into the washer. If the load is larger and absorbs much of the wash water - causing the level to drop - more water is added to maintain the set water level. The water on most models is added to the drum during the tumbling action of the clothes to rapidly saturate the clothes so that less additional water must be added.

Front Load Washer Components

The internal components of a front load washer are actually more simple than a top load washer. The motor is most often connected to the drum by a pulley belt and wheel. There is are no gears or a clutch like a top load washer. There is a flexible bellows system (usually rubber) to keep the clothes - and the water - inside the drum during the cycles. It is essential to keep this system in top working order or small items can slip between the inner basket and tub causing clogs in the drainage system or jamming the rotational motion of the inner basket. Because it is flexible and usually has many folds that flex while the washer is in use, it can trap water and cause odors from mildew or mold to form. Regular cleaning and maintenance of a front load washer is a must.

While some models will allow you to open the door during a cycle to add extra clothes, it is essential that the door latch/lock system perform flawlessly.

While the mechanical internal components are more simple, the electronic control system is not. Today's front loaders do not offer a simple dial control to select the cycles according to load size and soil level. The electronics are controlled by mini computer components and are built so that the entire unit must be replaced if one component fails. If you are handy, repairs can be done yourself. If you need a user or repair manual for a front load washer, most are available online.