Image: Kristin Belz
This ad from the 1950s promised "the truth about automatic washers." The "world's finest washers" have improved since then.

Before Daniel Day-Lewis was Lincoln, he worked in a Laundromat. It was 1986 London, and he was Johnny, young punk and co-manager of My Beautiful LaundretteOf course, Daniel has come a long way since that indie movie, and so has the laundry business. Lincoln likely never did his own laundry, and probably Daniel doesn't need to any more either. But nowadays, if they did, it would be easier than it's ever been. Choosing the right washing machine is the hard part now.

Uncelebrated as it may be, the washing machine was a revolutionary invention, maybe even up there on the level of cars, computers and cell phones. As measured by hours spent doing chores, it's probably a greater change than our treasured digital devices. The washer was a great liberator of women, since they were the ones doing the rinsing, scrubbing, and wringing of society's dirty laundry. No wonder there were no 24-Hour Fitness clubs back in the olden days.

All-in-one automatic washers didn’t become popular until the late 1930s. They were a step up from the first mechanical washers (in the 19th century), which required two steps: first, clothes swooshed around in a big barrel to get wet and sudsy, then they had to be transfered – by a person – into a wringer or "mangler" to squeeze out all that water. It wasn't an easy process – though it sure beat muscling clothes across a washboard in order to rub out the dirt into a bucket.  

Of course, dryers are a great invention too, but in eco-minded Portland circa 2013, hanging laundry out to dry on a clothesline might have a certain DIY appeal; there’s no corresponding return to using a washboard to clean our clothes. Instead, we’re embracing the energy and space-saving options afforded by the newest washers. Of course, the more you can afford to spend, the more extensive the options.  

Top loading machines have been around longer, and tend to cost less (often under $500), but use more energy – so they cost more in the long run. Front loaders tend to be more efficient (gravity does some of the work of swirling around those wet fabrics), but they're also more expensive. However, even a basic washer can do a lot more with less than it could a decade ago, but the decisions are more complex than simply top loader vs. front loader.

Buying a washer means balancing a number of factors in the features, price, durability and efficiency equation.

  • Capacity - 2.12 cu. ft. to 4.2 cu. ft. (3.6 cu. ft. will hold about 25 bath towels)
  • Cycle time - 35 to 75 minutes for top loaders, 65 to 105 minutes for front loaders
  • Spin speed - 700 r.p.m. to 1300 r.p.m. (speeds of about 1000 r.p.m. "reduce dry times by 30%)
  • Noise and vibration levels - important if the washer will not be hidden away in a little-used part of the home
  • Temperature - from cold to about 205 degrees; internal water heaters allow for the hottest, most "sanitizing" (99.9% bacteria–free) water 
  • Energy Star certification - can mean $100 rebate from Energy Trust of Oregon
  • Warranty - for example, "1 year parts and labor, 2 years control board, 3 years stainless steel drum, 10 years direct drive motor"
  • Steam cleaning feature - can mean no more trips to the dry cleaners
  • Compact size/stackability - important for small space and apartment living; front loaders can stack, top loaders can't
  • Controls - electronic/touch pad controls or old-fashioned knobs and dials
  • Color and finish options - usually, white is what you get, but some companies do color
  • Child lock features (no, not to lock the child in the washer, but keep the child safely out!) 
  • Delayed starting time 
  • Sensor controls for unbalanced loads (old-time washers used to have to be bolted to the floor or else they'd agitate themselves across the room)

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