Begin with the best-quality washer and dryer you can afford. Washing clothes is a necessary household duty, and using old machines without energy efficient features puts you at a disadvantage from the start.
For washing machines, most front-loaders perform better and are more water/gas/electric-efficient than top loaders, but they cost more initially. (Consumer Reports, June 2007 and July 2009) Top-loaders have shorter washing times, but they are usually not as good at washing, either.
Newer washers offer automatic dispensing of detergent, bleach, and fabric softeners at the right times. Most automatically give the correct water temperature for the fabric selection.
Front-loaders automatically correct water levels for the load weight or size. Some front-loaders allow mold to build up in leftover water in the door; leave the door open slightly to avoid this.
Dryers should have an automatic moisture sensor for degree of dryness so clothing is not over-dried. If the washer did a good spin out, the dryer works less hard to finish drying, and it should buzz you when it’s finished so you can unload before wrinkles set. (Don’t over-do; the extra spin cycle doesn’t add much to the process, according to Consumer Reports magazine.)
CR also recommends not matching washers and dryers if you wish to save money; buy the best of each. And CR rarely recommends buying extended warranties; they simply do not prove their worth.
Detergents: (CR, July 2009)
Using the right detergent gives another advantage to creating a clean wash. Front-loaders use less water and require a less sudsing detergent, called high-efficiency (HE) detergents. Some products are much better at preventing dye transfer.
There is not much cleaning difference between liquids and powders, but there are differences between brands. Also, the cutesy products like dissolving detergent balls and pre-measured packets of gel detergents did not perform well in laundry tests. Top-rated HE detergents include SA8 with Bioquest (from Quixtar.com, formerly Amway, only available online) at 68 cents per load; Gain HE, and Tide Free (HE). Costco’s product, at 12 cents per load, “Kirkland Signature,” is marked a Best Buy. (Consumer Reports, Jan. 2007)
For conventional detergents, the seven top-rated include four Tide products (24 to 35 cents per load), Wisk, Arm and Hammer, and a “best buy” with Wal-Mart’s “Great Value” at 12 cents per load.
CR also recommends not using optical brighteners on dark clothing because they can make them look faded.
Don’t allow damp or wet clothing to sit in hampers for days. They will create mold and mildew. String them out over a drying rack or hang out of sight until wash time.
Although some detergents prevent dye transfer, you still should not throw darks and lights in together.
Check garment labels for wash temp and whether the items must be air-dried flat, can be hung to dry, or should be dried on high or low heat.
Zip up zippers; check pockets for tissues, candy, coins, etc. Buttoning up some items also protects them and prevents them from tangling as much. Turn fine clothing inside out to prevent them from rubbing against the sides of the machines and one another. Your good clothing will last longer.
Use fine mesh bags for bras, nylons, gloves and other small items. The bags do protect the items, keep them from tangling, and keep pairs together.
Sort clothing: color, fabric, wash temp
No machine is smart enough to know whether you’ve put jeans in with silks or blacks in with yellows. Sort by colors, certainly, but also by requirements for wash and dry cycles.
Pre-treat for stains, but realize you can’t tell if the stain was removed while the item is wet. Such items should be line-dried to see if the stain was removed before the next wash time.
Don’t overload your washer. The newer front loaders may only use 10.5 to 15 gallons of water as opposed to the 30 or 40 of your old top-loader. Of course, it takes longer to clean in less water, too, so judge your loads accordingly.
Do small, quick loads first so they can be drying while a heavier, longer load is washing, and the dryer is already “pre-heated” for that next load. Otherwise, you have a wet load of light wash sitting and waiting its turn in the dryer, and you sometimes forget it’s there. If you leave it overnight, it can become mildewed and must be re-washed.
Newer machines take about an hour and a half for washing and another hour or more for drying. It helps if you do some math before beginning your washday strategy.
Try doing three big loads of towels, bedding, and heavy jeans in sequence so, as each load is done being washed, the dryer is hot and ready for the next load. If you have an end-cycle alarm, the finished smaller load will ring persistently while the other machine is still working. You can turn off the alarms, but you might forget to transfer the wet clothing to the dryer or remove the dryer clothing before it wrinkles.
Woolite is still one of the best detergents for gentle washing of fine fabrics. If you can find a similar detergent – without enzymes, phosphates or bleach – it could be just as good.
Bleach-for-colors works. Use this for lightly-stained dark colored items. Some bleaches are scented so make sure it doesn’t clash with your fabric softener.
Fabric softeners work, and do not make towels less absorbent, as some misinformation says. Some people are allergic to some scents, and some detergents are harsher than others are. You must experiment with what works for your household. Consumer Reports found that adding your own softener is usually better than the two-in-one detergent with softener products.
Adding Arm and Hammer baking soda also helps to clean, destroy mildew, and gives a fresh scent to clothes. You can buy this product fairly cheaply in large quantities and add it with your detergent at the beginning of the wash cycle. You can pay more for additives, but it’s really cheaper to do it yourself and control the amount per load. It seems to give extra cleaning power, and it seems to be a less allergenic alternative for some people.
Choose the lowest wash temperature for your load as possible. It saves money and is easier on your clothing. You might prefer to do cotton toweling on high temps to kill germs, but always do sweaters and silks in cold water.
Some items should not go into a dryer. The labels may recommend laying out flat to dry.
Using the no-heat cycle is great for tumbling items to remove lint or pet hair, which don’t really need to be dried. It’s also good for fluffing clean comforters.
If you have a more energy-efficient washer, your clothes should be spun almost dry. They won’t require as much drying time, but you still must decide whether you want a long, hot cycle or a shorter, less heated cycle.
Your dryer should have a heat sensor to turn off when the load is dry, and it should sound its end cycle alarm. You should remove the items quickly and hang up to avoid wrinkling. Also, if you misjudged the amount of drying time needed, you must re-set the timer to finish the load. You should also make it a habit to clean the dryer lint screen after every use. Lint can create a fire hazard if allowed to build up, and the dryer works less efficiently.
Once you’ve gotten the science and math of doing laundry down to a formula, you might write down basic loads, dial settings, and times for family members so anyone could do a load almost as efficiently as the main laundry person.
Consumer Reports magazine, June 2007 and July 2009, “Washing Machines.”
Consumer Reports magazine, July 2009, “Laundry Detergents.”
CR magazine is published by Consumers Union, “the world’s largest independent consumer-product-testing organization” located in Yonkers, NY.