What Are High Efficiency Washers?

High-efficiency white and metal washer machines

The Spruce / Nelly Cuanalo

After the wash tub and scrubbing board came the wringer washer. Next up was the standard top loading washing machine that remained the only type of washing machine available in the United States for several generations. In the mid-1990s, the United States Department of Energy produced new standards for energy consumption for most household appliances including washing machines. As the appliance that used the most water in every home, changes had to come for the automatic washer.

What Are High-Efficiency Clothes Washers?

High efficiency or HE washers have been the standard in Europe for many years. While they have been offered in the United States for more than two decades, they have become even more popular as consumers are drawn to their water and energy-saving capabilities.

The first thing you'll notice when you go appliance shopping is that are two types of high-efficiency washers. One has a door on the front, and the other has a lid on top like the old standard washer. The next thing you'll notice when you open the door of either type is that there is no central agitator. The washer drum looks nearly empty.

Water Usage and Conservation

These washers use 20 to 66 percent less water than traditional agitator washers. Nearly 80 percent of the operating cost of a washer goes to heating water. Lower water use means less water to heat and energy use can be 20 to 50 percent less offering long-term savings and environmental benefits. High-efficiency washers are more expensive than standard washers, and the purchase price should be weighed against the operating costs for your family. You can save money by choosing models that have fewer options like steam cycles.

How HE Washers Operate 

High-efficiency washers, both front loading, and top loading use a tumbling system rather than an agitator to move clothes through the water. In front-loading models, the tub rotates clockwise and then counterclockwise to achieve the tumbling motion. In top-loading machines, clothes are cleaned in a shallow pool of water, and the washer uses rotating plates or disks in the bottom of the tub to achieve the tumbling action. Due to their design without a center agitator, high-efficiency washers are more gentle on clothes. The cleaning action is more gentle and helps prevent stretching and pulling that can distort clothes.

Rather than refill the washer drum with water during the rinse cycle, both types of machines spray clothes with a high-pressure stream of recirculated water during the rinse cycle.

Clothes may seem dryer when removed from a high-efficiency machine because more water is removed during a high-speed spin cycle. This reduction of water will save energy if clothes are dried in an automatic dryer.

Most high-efficiency washers have a sensor system that detects the size of the load of laundry. This adjustment helps save natural resources and money. Since there is no center agitator taking up space, high-efficiency washers can accommodate extra large loads cutting down on the number of loads you need to do.


When finished with a load, be sure to leave the door and laundry detergent tray open, as the tray can get just as moldy and gross as the drum of the washer, especially if you use fabric softener.

Front loading high efficiency washing machine with door open

The Spruce / Nelly Cuanalo

High-Efficiency Detergents

One of the most critical steps to operating a high-efficiency washer successfully is to purchase detergents specially formulated for these washers. High-efficiency detergents are formulated to be low-sudsing and quick-dispersing. High-efficiency detergents hold soil in suspension, so it is not redeposited onto clean clothes even in the low volume of water.

Using a traditional detergent will result in too many suds and prevent the tumbling action needed for cleaning. The excessive suds can overflow the washer and actually cause permanent damage to electronic controls.

Many users complain about musty odors and mildew growth in high-efficiency washers. Excessive detergent residue or fabric softener residue is the culprit. This residue, which also traps laundry soil, is the perfect food for mildew growth. Using a cleaning cycle at least once per month, regulating how much detergent is used (never more than two teaspoons per load), and leaving the door ajar after each load is finished to allow moisture to evaporate will prevent this issue.

Always look for the "HE" symbol on the detergent box or bottle. Some pre-soak products may still be normal to high-sudsing, and their use should be limited in high-efficiency washers. However, this is changing as more homes convert to a high-efficiency washer. Read the labels.

High efficiency laundry detergent poured into bottle cap

The Spruce / Nelly Cuanalo

Article Sources
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. High Efficiency Washers and Detergents. American Cleaning Institute.

  2. Mold. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.