How do washing machines work? Experts explain

How do washing machines work?
(Image credit: Amana via Home Depot)

Find out exactly how washing machines work in this article as we cover everything you may be wondering about these handy machines we use all the time. Doing laundry might be your least favorite chore, but it’s one that is essential, and having your own washing machine makes the process far simpler and easier. 

Whether or not you have one of the best washing machines, it’s likely that your washing machine is one of the most useful appliances in your home, but do you know how it actually works? 

We recently compared the agitator vs. impeller, but here, we’ll be finding out exactly how washing machines clean your clothes, where the water goes after it has washed around your garments, and how top-load and front-load washing machines work differently.

For more handy tips and tricks surrounding washing machines, take a look at tips for cleaning your top load washer, or if you’ve got a front-loading washer, you can find advice in our more general article on how to clean your washing machine.  

Best top-load washing machines 2020: Budget, large-load and efficient machines for your laundry

(Image credit: GE)

How do top load washers work?

How do the best top load washers wash clothes? There are actually two types of top load washing machines, these are impeller and agitator designs. 

The top load agitator designs are traditional and date back over sixty years. When the machine door is opened, you can see the long agitator column in the middle of the drum. How it works is that when a cycle is on, the agitator moves against the clothes to clean them. 

On the other hand, a top load impeller washing machine is a newer form of top loader - these washing machines don’t feature an agitator. Instead, they have an impeller at the bottom of the machine to move the clothes back and forth, cleaning them.

Usually, a top loader washing machine has two drums: an outer drum that has holes in it to drain the water and an inner drum. It also has an electric motor and a rubber belt. 

When the washer is turned on, water is added to the vertically aligned drum via pipes at the top of the machine before washing through the detergent tray and flushing out the detergent into the drum. 

When it comes to the washing process, top loader washing machines require access to both hot and cold taps. These machines don’t tend to heat their own water, so access to a hot water supply is crucial if you plan on doing hot washes. In order to wash clothing effectively, top loader machines with an agitator use a large amount of water, as in order to clean the clothes, each item needs to submerge in water. 

The agitator or impeller moves around, washing the clothes, while the drum remains stationary. 

How it works is that the agitator or impeller is powered by the motor, which is attached to the rubber belt. When the washer is on, the motor is used to turn the drum. Then, once the wash has finished, a pump drains the water from the drum. 

How to clean your washing machine

(Image credit: Getty)

How do front load washers work?

The best front load washers offer a great alternative to top-load machines; they use around one-quarter of the water and energy that top-load washers tend to use, and they’re designed to handle larger items, such as bedding and blankets, for instance. Front-load machines are also gentle on clothing, and they tend to be quieter than top-load models. However, one of the downsides of these machines is the fact that the cycles often run for longer time periods. 

Front load washers have an outer drum that’s fixed and remains stationary and an inner drum that rotates when in use; the inner drum has small holes around the edge for drainage. Both drums are fitted to a horizontal axis. Strong springs are used to hold the outer drum in place against the frame - when the clothes spin in the inner drum, they make the outer drum shake, and the springs absorb the vibrations to prevent damage. 

When in use, hot and cold water enters the machine via the detergent tray, washing the detergent into the drum. The inner drum moves back and forth, with the paddles inside the drum helping to move the clothes through the water. The inner drum is powered by a motor and a rubber belt that’s attached to it. 

Front-load washing machines have a heating element that heats the water, so a connection to a hot water supply is not needed. 

Once a wash cycle is complete, a pump removes the water, with the water emptying down the tube and into the drain. 

Washer dryer

(Image credit: Lowe's)

How does a washer dryer work?

The best washer dryer combos can be a great way to save space by combining a washing machine and a tumble dryer together. 

There are two types of washer-dryers to choose from - vented and ventless designs. Ventless washer-dryer designs are ideal for use in utility rooms where there’s no window to place the vent near. A vented washer dryer tends to work like a regular front loader washer and a regular dryer combined. How it works is that the machine spins the clothes to wash them, then continues to spin to remove excess water and aid the drying process. This is then followed by the drying system, which heats up, taking air from the room it's in and using that air to dry the clothing. 

The only difference between a vented and a ventless drying system is how the drying process works - on a ventless machine, a condensing drying system is used, which works similarly to a dehumidifier, drying the clothes with the system pulling moisture out of the clothes as the chamber is heated. 

A washer-dryer usually has a drum - which works like a normal front loader washer, a filter, and a condenser.

The filter is in place to catch fluff that comes off of clothing while they’re being dried. The filter of a washer-dryer must be cleaned regularly to avoid blockages. 

The condenser cools the moist, warm air inside the machine, creating water that is poured away down the drain. 

Washer dryers are usually sealed systems and are a form of condenser dryers. Normal tumble dryers pump hot, wet air into the laundry, creating a drum full of steam, drying the clothes. Whereas washer dryers are condenser dryers - they capture the moisture from clothing, pushing hot, dry air through the washing, removing moisture, followed by cooling the air in a heat exchanger to condense any moisture. This moisture is then either stored in a tank or drained away. 

Dan Fauzi
Features Editor

Dan Fauzi is the former Features Editor of Top Ten Reviews, with experience in digital product writing across all sorts - including tech, outdoor living, sports, and homes & gardens. Outside of work you'll find them at gigs, exploring creative spaces, or cooking up something good in the kitchen.