Ever wonder how a front-loading washing machine gets clothes clean, yet uses only about half the water as some top-loader agitator machines? Knowing how a front-loader works can help you decide if it’s for you. Consumer Reports’ engineers offer a look inside.

Inside the Washing Machine
A front-loader has a stainless steel drum that spins inside a tub. Stainless is used because it can withstand higher spin speeds than the plastic or ceramic found on agitator top-loaders. Water flows into the drum, filling the machine to a level below the door opening. As the drum spins, laundry gets caught in the protrusions, known as vanes, and is lifted to the top. Then the laundry drops back into the water. This tumbling provides the action that helps in cleaning.

In some front-loaders the drum turns in one direction, while in others the drum also reverses direction. All this movement, with the help of HE (high-efficiency) laundry detergent, removes dirt and tackles stains in laundry. This detergent is less sudsy so it’s recommended for front-loaders. Front-loaders lock at the beginning of a cycle, but can usually be opened by interrupting the cycle.

Most front-loading washing machines deliver excellent or very good cleaning and are gentle on fabrics. They have larger capacities and used 13 gallons of water or less in our tests to wash an 8-pound load. Agitator washers typically used about twice as much. Front-loaders spin faster than other washers, extracting more water and cutting dryer time. They tend to be quiet, and many can be stacked with a dryer to save space.

Front-loaders are often expensive and have longer wash times?70 to 105 minutes using the normal-wash, heavy-soil setting. You’ll save about 15 minutes using the normal-soil setting.

Their high spin speeds, combined with the way they spin, can cause them to vibrate too much (we show vibration and noise scores in our washing machine Ratings). Keep in mind that concrete floors can absorb vibrations well, unlike wood-framed floors.

Some consumers have complained that their front-loaders developed odors and mold along the front gasket material. Read "Preventing Funky Front-Loader Mold" for details and tips. Keeping the door ajar after every wash is one tip that helps, but if you have young children afoot you’ll want to lock the door to the laundry room.