Front loading washing machines, as the name would suggest, are loaded and unloaded from the front rather than the top, but the differences go deeper than that. Understanding the difference in operation, performance, price and characteristics is key to choosing the right washer for you.
We've broken the differences down to help you figure out if there's a front loader in your future.
Front loaders work by tumbling your washing – repeatedly picking up your clothes and dropping them into soapy water. They don't have agitators or impellers like a conventional top loader, and instead use gravity and this tumbling action to wash.
While it sounds harsh, this action is actually quite gentle on clothes. It also means less water is needed than in an equivalent top loader as clothes don't need to be fully submerged. A front loader is a very water and energy efficient option for your laundry.
The advantages of a front loading washing machine
- better washing performance
- gentler on clothes
- more energy and water efficient
- cheaper to run
- more temperature options
- higher spin speeds, for shorter drying time
- better fit in small spaces
- top surface can be used as a workbench.
What are the disadvantages?
- you may not be able to add or remove items mid-cycle
- take a long time to wash a load
- typically more expensive
- more prone to vibration
- often don't have a hot water inlet
- tend to leave clothes more creased
- tend to be noisier
- poorer rinse performance.
Is a front loader kinder on clothes?
Yes. Front loading washing machines tumble your clothes using gravity, rather than an agitator or impeller. Therefore they're quite gentle on clothes, so score higher for gentleness in our tests.
Higher spin speeds do make your clothes more prone to creasing, but you can usually dial the spin speed down if creases are a concern for you. Front loaders are also more adept at handling unbalanced loads, as the tumbling action helps to evenly redistribute your laundry.
Temperature wash options
Front loaders generally offer more temperature options than top loaders because they use an internal heater rather than hot water from the tap (which is a maximum of 65 degrees).
So while most front loaders don't have a hot water inlet, they can comfortably wash at up to 90 degrees (which is partly why you can't open the door mid-cycle). While heating water this way is more expensive than using off peak electricity or solar, the low volume of water used means top loaders are still cost effective to run, even on hot cycles.
Do front loaders need hot and cold water connections?
The majority of front loaders only have a cold water intake, and have an internal heater instead of a hot water inlet. This gives you more precise temperature control and location options as you only need a cold tap. It also means you can't hook up your new front loader to a solar hot water service if you have one.
There are still quite a few front loaders with both hot and cold water intakes available though, so if you have solar hot water and regularly wash in warm water then one of these may be more cost effective, as your hot water is essentially free.
Average program wash time
Front loaders take longer than top loaders to complete a full wash cycle – a bit over two hours on average from our washing machine tests, which is twice as long as the average top loader. Some even take up to three hours.
Our tests show longer wash times don't necessarily correlate to cleaner clothes though, and you should consider how the length of a wash cycle will impact your lifestyle before you buy. Many front loaders do have a fast wash program, which is great for day-to-day washing, but it may not be suitable for large or heavily soiled loads.
Are front loading washing machines noisy?
Front loaders are a little noisier than top loaders, averaging around 61dBA, or about as loud as a normal conversation, and higher spin speeds also mean they tend to have a higher pitch. In comparison, top loaders average 58dBA, which isn't a huge difference, but one that's noticeable to the human ear.
These are hardly rock concert volumes, but if your laundry is close to living areas then you may want to opt for a washer with a diminutive decibel output.
Front loaders have higher spin speeds than top loaders, with 1,600 rpm spin cycles increasingly common. This is good because the higher the spin speed, the more water extracted from your clothes, reducing drying time (and energy if you use a clothes dryer).
The flipside is increased creasing, and it can crush the pile on your towels, making them scratchy. Most washers offer a range of speeds to suit different laundry types, so you can easily adjust this for the load you're doing at the time. A high maximum speed gives you the most options.
With prices ranging from around $650 to more than $3000, there's a wide range between a basic and premium front loader. Aside from differences in performance and capacity, higher prices translate to more features, ranging from a wider range of programs, time delay and sensor wash, through to full home network integration.
While a Wi-Fi enabled washer sounds seductive, you should take a step back and think about whether you need all the advanced features, because there's no point paying for something you'll never use.
What's the difference between front loader and top loader detergents?
Because front loaders use less water and a tumbling action they don't need as many suds as a top loader. As a result, front loader detergents contain a suds inhibitor so your machine doesn't overflow and flood your laundry.
So don't use a laundry detergent designed for a top loader in your front loader or you may be left with a foamy mess to clean up and possibly even a damaged appliance. Though you can use a front loading detergent in a top loader because they don't generate as many suds (though you may need to add a little more detergent than you normally would).
These days there's a growing number of laundry detergents that have been developed for use in both front and top loaders.
As you'd expect, the larger the washer the more water it will use, but front loaders can use up to 70% less water than the equivalent size top loader (36,000 litres per year in a typical household). This is good news if you're on tank water, because front loaders don't need clothes to float around for effective washing – instead your clothes are washed by repeatedly picking them up and dropping them into the wash water.
Many modern washing machines are also able to vary their water consumption based on the size of your laundry load, so look for a machine with a sensor if water wastage worries you. This also explains why our test results and the figures quoted on the water label are different – our tests use a 3.5kg load, but the star ratings are measured at full capacity.
It's also worth remembering that many machines try to compensate for unbalanced loads by adding additional water, so it's doubly important to load your washing machine carefully.
How much power do they use?
Front-loaders are more energy efficient than top loaders, in part because front loaders take advantage of gravity for their wash action, rather than using an agitator or impeller. They also use less water, which means less mass to move about, so the motors don't have to work as hard.
As front loaders don't have agitators taking up space in the drum, you can also fit more clothes in the same sized appliance, so you can wash more with fewer runs, and fewer runs means less water and electricity used.
If you use a clothes dryer, then front loaders also offer knock-on efficiencies – their higher spin speeds extract more water from your clothes, so your dryer doesn't have to work as hard.
What's the range?
Most front loaders are a standard size – 85 x 60 x 60cm – so they can be installed under your kitchen or laundry bench-top, which is handy for smaller households.
However, we're starting to see high-capacity (up to 16kg) front loaders which are built to a larger US standard dimension. While they won't fit under a bench-top, they're no bigger than a typical top loader.
There are also some smaller capacity front loaders that are significantly smaller than the standard, making them suitable for granny flats or smaller apartments. Regardless of size, all front loaders have the advantage of a flat top surface that can be used as a workbench. And being front loading means you can mount a clothes dryer above your washer, making them a good choice for smaller laundries.
One drawback of front loading washing machines is that they're heavy, as they use ballast to help keep them stable. While this doesn't impact day to day operation, you'll notice the weight if you move house frequently, or need to manoeuvre your new washer up several flights of stairs.
Average capacity for load
With an average capacity of over 8kg (for the models we've tested), front loaders offer more capacity in a smaller package than a typical top loader (just over 7.5kg), partly because they don't have an agitator, which takes up a lot of space.
Front loaders are also increasing in capacity, and we're starting to see 16kg models appearing on the market – great news for large families – as well as a new style of laundry appliance combining both a front and top loader into one.
Can you put them in a cupboard or cabinet?
Yes. The majority of front loaders are built to fit in a standard 60cm kitchen alcove, so you can easily install them under your kitchen counter or in a laundry niche. Front loading washing machines are also suitable for installation under a shelf, cupboard, dryer or enclosure as you don't need to access the entire top of the appliance.
Average cost for a front loader
Front loaders cost a little more than top loaders due to their complexity. The models we've tested range from about $600 to over $3000, and you can generally expect to pay a couple of hundred dollars more than you would for the equivalent top loader.
Remember though the prices we quote in our tests are recommended retail, and at the end of the day the only price that matters is the one you can negotiate.
What about a front loader washer with a dryer included?
Combining a washer and a dryer into the one appliance makes sense, particularly if you don't have a lot of laundry space, and there's a growing number of washer dryer combos that do just that.
While their clothes cleaning performance is comparable to a standalone washing machine, we've found their drying is more than a little lackluster and they can take a long time and use a lot of water (up to 6 hours and 210 litres) to dry a load of clothes.
Their added complexity can also cause headaches in reliability terms. So while the technology is improving, we've found you're better off with stand-alone washers and dryers.
How to clean a front loader
Over time, detergent residue – or scrud – can build up in your washing machine, particularly if you wash in cold water. Regardless of the type of washing machine you choose, scrud build-up can cause detergent deposits on your clothes and can even cause your washing machine to lock up entirely.
Remove scrud by running your washing machine's cleaning cycle (if available) or give it an occasional run on its hottest cycle with a good-quality detergent. If you wash in cold then running the occasional hot water wash will also help keep scrud at bay and should become part of your washing machine cleaning routine.
A washing machine is a considerable investment and we expect our washers to last at least 10 years. While long term durability is beyond the scope of our tests, we regularly survey our members to learn more about their experiences with their own washing machines.
Check out our washing machine reliability survey to see how the different brands stack up in terms of reliability, owner satisfaction and service support.
Front loaders are heavy, and this may be a factor if you need to maneuver your washer up several flights of stairs, or you move house fairly regularly.
Front loaders can be susceptible to vibration on some timber floors. If you've got questionable flooring then you may need to move your washer to a stable corner, or even mount it on a plate or board to keep it stable.
If you've got a clothes dryer, then a front loading washer means you can mount the dryer above it, saving you space. While vented dryers can be wall mounted, condenser and heat pump dryers must be stacked on the washer itself. Some dryers can only be stacked on the same brand washing machine, so check with your manufacturer or retailer first. The flat top of front loader also gives you an extra work surface, which can be handy.
Unlike top loaders, front loaders are shipped with transfer bolts installed to prevent damage. It's a good idea to keep these bolts handy for if you need to move house.
Almost certainly. While everyone's requirements are different and there may be genuine reasons why a top loader is better for you (see our guide to top loaders), on the whole we've found front loaders perform better, are gentler on clothes, take up less space and are more energy and water efficient.
Yes, they cost a little more to buy and take longer to complete a cycle, but the trade-off is cleaner clothes, and cheaper running costs for the life of the machine, which helps to offset the purchase price. So if you want better washing then your future is likely to be front loading.