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Top loading washing machines

Are top loaders a top choice?

Adding clothes to to a top loading washing machine
Last updated: 13 March 2020

While top loading washers are a laundry stalwart, times and technologies change, and Australians are increasingly opting for front loaders.

There must be something to the traditional top loader though, because we still buy a lot of them. We take a look at top-loading washing machine features to see if it's a top choice for your laundry.

How do top loaders work?

The heart of a top loading washing machine is a vertically aligned drum. As the name suggests, clothes are loaded and unloaded via a door on the top. During the wash cycle, water is added to float your clothes, which are then moved about by an agitator or impeller. This is a very different washing action to front loaders which use gravity and a tumbling action to wash.

Top loaders tend to use more water than front loaders because your laundry needs to float freely, and they tend to be harsher on your clothes – particularly models with an agitator. 

Speaking of agitators – they take up a lot of room, so you'll get less capacity from a larger top loader than you would with a front loader. The extra water usage does produce a better rinse performance, though.

After washing, clothes are rinsed and spun to remove as much water as possible prior to drying.

Advantages of a top loader

  • Simpler engineering – so they should be easier to repair if something goes wrong.
  • You can add or remove items mid-cycle – you can easily add that errant sock or extract your keys after the cycle has started.
  • No need to bend down – so it's easier to load and unload, particularly if you have mobility or accessibility issues.
  • Less vibration-prone – so they're more stable on dodgy floors.
  • Quieter – not by much, but this may be a factor if your laundry is near your living areas.
  • Child safe(r) – With access and controls on the top, it's harder for little explorers to climb inside, or to turn it on accidentally.
  • Faster wash cycles – so it's easier to do multiple loads back-to-back, or for washing on the run.
  • Door seals not required – so less maintenance required.
  • Hot and cold intakes – so you can use your solar or off-peak hot water and save on electricity.
  • Lightweight – which you'll notice if you move house a lot or need to get one up lots of stairs.
  • Cheaper to buy – both on average and in absolute terms.

Disadvantages of a top loader

  • Don't wash as well – top loaders tend to score lower for soil removal in our tests.
  • Harsher on clothes – so your shirts may wear out sooner.
  • Large form factor – Top loaders tend to offer less capacity than front loaders, but take up more space, especially for agitator models.
  • Less capacity – Of the washing machines in our tests, top loaders average ½ kg less capacity than the front loaders, and the largest capacity top loader available also has less capacity than the largest capacity front loader available.
  • No standard dimension – top loaders come in all different shapes and sizes, so it's harder to plan your laundry layout.
  • No top work surface – reducing amenity in your laundry, as you can't fold clothes, stack a dryer on top or even mount a top loader under a benchtop.

Top loader washing performance

Do top loaders need hot and cold water connections?

Yes. The majority of top loaders have both hot and cold water connections and use your domestic hot water supply for warm or hot wash cycles. While

you don't 'need' to connect them to hot water if you don't want to, you'll require access to a hot tap if you want to wash in warm water.

Having a hot water intake does mean you can take advantage of cheap off-peak or free solar hot water for your washing, which if you're a hot-wash fan, can save you on your energy bills. Because they a have hot water intake, top loaders don't need internal heaters, helping keep their price and complexity down.

How long do top loaders take to wash?

A typical top loader takes about an hour for a full wash cycle. While it's not exactly instant cleaning, it's around half the average cycle time for a front loader. This makes top loaders more conducive to washing multiple loads, or for getting your gear washed and on the line before you leave for work. 

And if you just don't want to wait, teaming a fast top loader up with an equally quick clothes dryer means you could get a load of laundry washed and dried in about two and a half hours, which is a pretty impressive turnaround.

Are top loading washing machines noisy?

There's not much difference between the average noise levels of top and front loading washing machines, but top loaders are slightly quieter (58dBA, or about the equivalent of a slightly softer than normal conversation) than their front-loading contemporaries (61dBA).

Top loaders are also less prone to excessive vibration on dodgy floors, which will see a big change in noise levels. So if your floorboards are, well, flawed, then opting for a top loader may be a better option. And if your washing machine will be close to your living areas, then operational noise may be a big factor in your decision making. 

Remember, though, that even though it may be quieter, a top loader may still be more conspicuous than a front loader due to its larger size, which can't be hidden away as easily.

Top loader spin capability

There's no two ways about it – with a top spin speed of 1,100rpm, top loaders just don't spin as fast as front loaders, which can reach a dizzying 1,800 rpm. Is this a bad thing? Yes. Faster spin speeds means more water's extracted from your clothes, which reduces drying time and, if you use a clothes dryer, your household energy consumption. 

Faster spinning does make a washer louder and more high pitched, and increases creasing and crush the pile in your towels, so you may want to dial this down for delicate fabrics. A high maximum speed gives you the most options.

What's the difference between basic, good and premium top loaders?

With prices ranging from around $400 to over $2,000, there's a broad spectrum of top loading washing machines available, ranging from small and simple to large and luxurious.

Top loaders tend not to be as mechanically complex as front loaders, so they'll be cheaper on average. The biggest price difference will be due to capacity, with larger machines wearing a larger price tag.

A higher pricetag usually also means more advanced features and modes, as well as better build quality. For a basic top loader you can expect a mechanical timer with one or two different programs and manual water settings. Part with a little more cash and you'll start to get digital controls, with a wider range of programs and automatic load sensing, which can help you reduce your water consumption.

Importantly though, we didn't find much of a correlation between price and overall performance, so paying more doesn't necessarily result in cleaner clothes. This is good news for budget-conscious consumers because if your requirements are fairly basic, and you don't have a lot of laundry to wash, it's possible to pick up a top-performing washing machine for relatively cheap. 

As with any appliance, consider how you'll use it, and don't pay for features you don't need.

What's the difference between front loader and top loader detergents?

Because top loaders use more water than front loaders so your clothes can float freely, and because they use a side-to-side motion rather than a tumbling action, they tend to require more suds. As a result, laundry detergents designed for top loaders will foam up much more than the front-loader equivalent.

Using a detergent designed for a top loader in a front loading washer is potentially a recipe for disaster, but with a top loader the risk of a foamy surprise is negated, and you can comfortably use leftover front loader detergents in your washer (you may need to add a little more though). 

These days there's also a growing number of laundry detergents which have been developed for use in both front and top loaders.

Are top loaders water efficient?

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 figure stated on the energy and water star ratings are measured when washing at a machine's full capacity, which may be more than double that.

It's also worth remembering that many machines try to compensate for unbalanced loads by adding additional water. Top loaders aren't as adept at redistributing uneven loads so it's doubly important to load your washing machine carefully.

Are top loaders energy efficient?

Yes. In our testing, top loaders use around half the energy, on average, than front loaders do. That's because of their shorter cycle times, and because your clothes stay on the same vertical plane while washing, so their motors don't need to fight against gravity to wash.

However, according to their energy labels, top loaders use twice as much energy (and have roughly half the star ratings) as front loaders. Why is that? Well, it comes down to water temperature, how energy ratings are calculated, and how we test washing machines. 

Testing on a cold wash

We test on a cold wash, so heating water doesn't factor into our results. But energy ratings are calculated using a warm wash, and heating water takes energy. But shouldn't this mean front loaders, with an internal heater, use more energy than top loaders, which don't heat and instead use your domestic hot water supply? 

You'd think so, but the energy ratings are calculated to factor in the energy used to heat the hot water in your home as well as the energy directly used by the washing machine. This tells you your total energy cost for conducting a wash cycle for that machine, and you're using this energy, even if it's not used directly by the machine itself. 

To put it another way, this is what it's actually going to cost you to run a wash cycle. That is, unless you have solar hot water – in which case your energy efficiency with a top loader will be much better than what's on the sticker because your hot water is essentially free.

So what does this mean for you? Well if you wash in cold water, a top loader will be more energy efficient, because of the gravity thing and shorter cycle time. But if you wash in warm water, because top loaders need more hot water overall, and it's delivered in a less efficient manner, then you're better off with a front loader. Unless you have solar hot water.

Something else to think about is if you use a dryer: a top loader, with its lower spin speed, means there's more work for your dryer to do – so what you save in washing you may pay back again in drying.

How big is a top loader?

Unlike front loaders, which are designed to fit in a standard 60cm kitchen cut-out, top loaders come in all different shapes and sizes, ranging from a diminutive 94 x 55 x 56cm to a portly 120 x 70 x 73cm. Of course, you also get less capacity for your cubic centimeter with a top loader than you do with a front loader, so it may well take up more space – a 10kg capacity top loader can be physically as large as a 16kg capacity front loader.

Perhaps a bigger drawback than overall size though is the lack of utility afforded by a typical top loader. Because they are top loading, you can't mount them under a bench top, or stack a dryer on top of them. 

You also can't use the top surface as a workspace as you can with front loader (even temporarily, as many modern top loaders have curved lids and top surfaces), so they're not so great if you're pushed for space in a smaller laundry. 

Also, while loading from the top means you don't need to bend down to load and unload your washing, once you start getting into the larger capacity top loaders you may need to be able to reach right to the bottom of the washer to get that last sock or shirt out. 

If you're shorter of stature and not overly limber then this could be a deal breaker, so check if you can easily reach the bottom of the drum in store before you buy.

What's the capacity of a top loader?

With an average capacity of just over 7.5kg, the top loaders in our test now trail the front loaders by just over half a kilogram in capacity stakes. It may not sound like much, but it's the equivalent of an extra bath towel or jumper, four t-shirts, or a dozen pairs of socks. For big families this quickly adds up, and those extra wash cycles will cost you time and money.

So for big families, wouldn't you just buy a bigger washer? Yes, but you lose out in absolute terms as well as top loaders max out at around 14kg whereas front loaders will now go to 16. The good news is for smaller households, as there's more small capacity top loaders to choose from. However, energy and water efficiency aside, a 5.5kg top loader will take up about the same space as a 7.5kg front loader, without the useful top surface workspace.

Can you put a top loader in a cupboard or cabinet?

Yes, provided you have easy access above the machine. As top loaders require easy access to the top of the appliance, even the smallest one just isn't going to work in a laundry alcove with low shelves or a dryer that's been wall-mounted a little on the low side. 

And do away with any thoughts of stacking a dryer on your top loader or installing it under a bench, as that's simply not possible. So while you may be able to get away with a top loader in a washing nook, they're better suited to households with more spacious laundries.

How much do top loaders cost?

Top loaders are generally less complex than a front loader and this is reflected in a recommended retail price that's on average around $350 cheaper, so if you're on a budget and not worried about water consumption then a top loader will be the way to go.

The top loaders we've tested range from around $400 to over $2000, but remember that this reflects the recommended retail price; the only price that matters is the one you can negotiate.

How to clean a top loader

Many top loaders incorporate a lint filter, designed to capture fluff and particles that are dislodged from your clothes during washing, preventing it from being redistributed onto your laundry. Unfortunately these lint filters are nowhere near fine enough to trap micro-particles and keep them out of our waterways. 

However, they still fill up with fuzz, so just like the lint filter on your dryer, you should clean it regularly by giving it a good shake out and removing any stubborn particles by hand.

A bigger problem than lint, and one which is common to both top and front loaders, is detergent residue – or scrud. Scrud can build up inside your washing machine, particularly if you wash in cold water, and can result in detergent deposits on your clothes. It can even cause your washing machine to lock up entirely.

Say sayonara to 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 follow our tips for keeping your washing machine running its best.

A washing machine is a considerable investment and we expect our washers to last at least ten years. While long-term durability is beyond the scope of our tests, we regularly survey our members in our washing machine reliability survey, to see how the different brands stack up in terms of reliability, owner satisfaction and service support.

What to consider when installing a top loader

  • Hot and cold tap placement – as the majority of top loaders have both hot and cold water intakes rather than internal heaters, if you wash in warm water then obviously you'll need both hot and cold water taps in your laundry. While most laundries do, it pays to check before you shop, and it also means you may not be able to set your washing machine up in other parts of the house, like a garage or backyard.
  • Laundry layout – As you need to be able to access the top of the appliance, a top loader isn't suitable for use under low shelves or bench tops – make sure you've got plenty of clearance over your chosen location before you buy. Also, as you can't really use the top of your washer as a workbench the way you can with a front loader, you may find your laundry feels a little less practical.
  • Clothes dryer configuration – As you can't stack anything on top of a top loader, if you've got (or are considering) a condenser or heat pump dryer you'll need enough space to have both appliances side by side. Vented driers can be wall mounted over a washing machine so you don't need to stack them, but you'll need to make sure you've got ample clearance to get your clothes into and out of the washer, and with a larger top loader this may not be possible.
  • Weight and stability – as top loaders tend to be both lighter and more stable than front loaders, they're a good choice if you move a lot, have to lug your washer up several flights of stairs, or your floorboards are dodgy. And if you do move house a lot then top loaders don't require transfer bolts that can get lost or thrown away.
  • Short term vs. long term savings – Top loaders are cheaper to buy than front loaders, but they tend to use more water and are less energy efficient. If you do a lot of laundry then they may cost you more over the life of your washer. We list purchase price plus 10-year running costs in our test results to help you make the best comparison.
  • Check out our washing machine buying guide for more comprehensive tips for getting the best appliance for your needs.

Should I buy a top loader?

That depends. If the reason you're considering a top loader is just because that's what you grew up with, then you're excluding half the washing machine market – a range of machines that potentially offer better performance and efficiency in a more practical form factor. By broadening your options, you'll stand to buy a much-improved appliance. 

However, there are several advantages to top loaders which may make them the best choice for you. You should consider a top loader if:

  • You have mobility issues which make it difficult to bend down to load and unload a front loading washing machine.
  • You find yourself regularly needing to add stray socks and other items, or retrieve keys and coins from pockets after the wash cycle has started.
  • You have solar hot water and like to wash on hot, which a top loader's hot and cold water intake allows you to take full advantage of.
  • You've got rickety timber floors – top loaders are less prone to vibration on poor-condition flooring.
  • You move house frequently, or your washer is at the top of a tall flight of stairs, as a top loader is much lighter than a front loader.
  • You need to get your washing done quickly, and fast wash cycles are a priority for you.
  • You're looking for the cheapest appliance you can buy.
We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.