High Efficiency Detergents, Front-Loading Washers, and the Great Unwashed

If your front-loading washer sounds like the washer below during high speed spin, well, they’s big trouble in little China, Budrow.

The machine above happens to be an 8-year old Whirlpool Duet washer. Why would such a (pending) catastrophic failure happen after less than 10 years of moderate use? The first reason most of us think of is that the bearing was either poorly designed or was made out of inferior materials. But the truth is that the ichiban killer of drum bearings in any front-loading washer is non-HE detergent. HE: High Efficiency. And no, using a smaller quantity of conventional detergent is not the same as using HE detergent, as explained below.

Y’see, HE detergent is not simply a concentrated formulation of the regular stuff. Since front loaders use much less water than top loaders (about 12 gallons per wash load vs. about 56 gallons in a conventional top-loader), front-loaders require a detergent with a whole different chemistry. So let’s answer some common questions and dispel common myths about front-loaders and HE detergents.

Q. I like to see lots of suds in my washer because then I know my clothes are getting clean!

A. Uhh, that wasn’t a question but, hey, let’s not pick nits. You have to start with the understanding that the tumble action of high-efficiency washers (i.e., front loaders) produce more suds than the agitator action in top loaders. Now most of people think, “Oooo, sudsy, that’s good!” No, not good. Suds do nothing to clean your clothes and are actually an undesirable by-product of the detergent’s chemical interaction with the water.

Q. OK, Mr. Monk, if suds aren’t the star of the show in a washer, how are detergents supposed to get the ca-ca off my clothes?

A. The main job of detergents is to remove soils and stains. They do this by breaking down the surface tension of water, in effect, making water “wetter.” The water is what actually does the cleaning by slipping in between the ca-ca and the fabric, separating them and suspending the ca-ca in solution.

Detergents are designed to freshen, remove odors, and brighten fabrics as they clean. Another key detergent function is to hold ca-ca, and any dyes from colored fabrics, suspended in the wash water so they aren’t re-deposited back onto the cleaned clothes. Traditional detergents are designed to do this in high water volumes used by conventional, top-loading water hog washers.

If you think about it, using HE detergent in your front loader is really common sense. Because of the low-water wash and rinse cycles in HE washers, HE detergents must work differently from traditional laundry detergents in order to be effective.

So, a bunch of them pointy-headed scientist types with all kinds of fancy degrees hung on their walls got together to design detergents that would be low-sudsing and quick-dispersing to get the best cleaning performance in front-loading washers.

Q. I still don’t get it: why is low-sudsing important in a washing machine?

A. Because excessive sudsing can cause problems in HE washers by “cushioning” — or even preventing — the tumbling action. HE detergents also hold soils and dyes in suspension in low water volumes, so they don’t re-deposit onto cleaned clothes. This means that if you’re using non-HE detergents in your front-loading washer, you’re wearing poopy germs and other ca-ca on your clothes right now and you are one of the Great Unwashed.

Q. I’ve just been buying the 100 lb. box of Super Saver detergent from Sam’s Club. So what if my clothes don’t get as clean?

A. It’s not just about your clothes getting clean, Homer. You’re also causing damage to your expensive front-loading washer. Excess suds can cause the washer’s pump to overheat causing premature failure of the pump. These excess suds also cause residue to build up inside the drum and hoses. After a while, your washer will start giving off a moldy funk and infecting your clothes with its faint, musky stink. Nothin’ says class like a whiff of Ode de Mildew!

It always amazes me when I talk to people who buy a front-loading washer that costs two to three times more than a top-loading water hog, and then they want to pinch pennies using cheap, conventional detergent; penny-wise, plain-stupid!

Q. If suds are the problem, can I just use a smaller amount of regular laundry detergent?

A. No. Using a lesser amount of regular detergent will not alleviate the sudsing problem — and in addition, will compromise cleaning performance. That’s why you need to use HE detergents. How many times do I have to say it? HE detergents have a totally different formulation in order to get the skid marks outta your skivvies in low-water conditions.

Q. My new front-loader uses considerably less water than my agitator washer. Should I just use less conventional detergent to compensate?

A. What’d you do, jump into the middle of this article and start reading? No — you should not use conventional, non-HE detergent in your front-loading washer. Ever. Scroll up and start reading from the beginning.

Q. What can I do to keep my front loader from becoming another casualty like the washer in that cool movie you posted above?

A. Low wash temperatures and/or use of regular detergent (which causes excess suds) may prevent some ca-ca from completely rinsing out of the front-loading washing machines. Oily soils and some dirt-type soils are especially sensitive to lower wash temperatures and medium to high suds levels. Over time, ca-ca will accumulate in the washer and lead to the growth of bacteria and mold, which we professional appliantologists refer to as bio-gookus. This bio-gookus will start stinking and may even impart odors to your clothes. Worse yet, you’re wearing all the crud next to your body and private parts! To avoid all this unpleasantness, you should periodically run a maintenance cycle on your front-loader.

Q. OK, I’ll bite: How do I run a “Maintenance Cycle” on my front-loader?

1. Select the hot water setting. If there is no hot water setting, then select a “white” or a “stain” cycle setting. (Note: do not put laundry in the washer.)

2. Select the “extra rinse” option, if offered.

3. Add liquid chlorine bleach to the bleach dispenser. Fill to its maximum level.

4. Run the cycle through its completion.

5. If the washer does not have a second rinse option, manually select an additional rinse cycle to ensure that no chlorine bleach remains in your washer.

6. If your washer still has a funk, repeat steps 1 through 5 as necessary.

BTW, this is good to do periodically on top-loaders, too.

Q. Where’s the best place to buy HE detergents?

A. Good question, thanks for asking! Here are the best HE detergents on the market today.

TIPS for Using Washing Machine Dispensers:

• Use the designated dispenser compartment for each laundry product – detergent, bleach, and fabric softener.

• Do not mix liquid and powder products in the same dispenser at the same time. This can cause “caking.”

• Do not mix detergent and fabric softener in the same dispenser compartment, as this will add the fabric softener at the wrong time.

• Do not overfill dispenser compartments. Overfilling may cause products to be dispensed too early.

• Follow the washer manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning the dispensers.

• If you have questions, come start a new topic in the Laundry Appliance Repair Forum at the Samurai School of Appliantology.


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