What's Really Happening Inside Your Washer and Dryer?
You move mountains of laundry each week, but do you really know what happens to your clothes once they're left in the hands of your washer and dryer? Mary Zeitler, a consumer scientist with the Whirlpool Institute of Fabric Science, uncovers the mystery with tips on how to load, operate, and care for your appliances, so your wardrobe stays (almost) as good as new.
Make the Most of the Washer
Tip 1 Pile clothes high up inside a front-loader, but don’t cram them in past where the last row of holes is near the door; with a conventional top-loader, don’t go above the central column, known as the “agitator.” Garments packed too tightly don’t move freely and can end up worn, wrinkled, and only partially clean.
Tip 2 Extra detergent doesn't get things extra-clean. Instead, the superfluous suds carry soils, odors, and bacteria higher than where the water inside the tub can reach and leave a stinky residue that can transfer to clothing. The detergent can also build up in clothes, giving them a dingy look, so follow the fill lines on the cap carefully.
Tip 3 Do a lot of cold water washing? Because cool water isn’t as adept as warm or hot at removing body oils, detergent and smells from clothes, it’s smart to run things through a warm cycle (care labels permitting) every third or fourth load. A cold-water detergent also helps.
Tip 4 Leave the washer door open after each load to allow moisture to evaporate and discourage mildew and bacteria.
Make the Most of the Dryer
Tip 1 Sort wet clothes into slow-drying (jeans, sweatshirts) and quick-drying (khakis, dress shirts) loads. Otherwise, the lightweight items will tumble longer than they need to and end up “over-dried,” which will cause garments to prematurely wear, fray and lose elasticity.
Tip 2 Untangle clothes and add each item to the dryer separately, filling up the drum no more than three-quarters of the way for normal loads and halfway for permanent press ones. Trying to dry a boulder-size wad of wet material, or overcrowding the machine, slows down the process and causes things to wrinkle.
Tip 3 Don’t use dryer sheets (or liquid fabric softener) in every load. These deposit a waxy coating on the lint screen which, when it builds up, prevents air from circulating properly and slows drying. Use a half- or quarter-sheet per load (follow the same ratios when measuring liquid) and periodically wash the screen with dish detergent and a scrub brush to remove film. You’ll know it’s time when lint no longer sticks to the screen, but peels off in one big piece.
Tip 4 Clean out the exhaust duct, which runs from the back of the machine to a vent outside, every two years. A buildup of lint inside the duct restricts airflow, leading to longer drying times and wrinkling—it’s also a pretty serious fire hazard.
What Goes On Inside the Washer
1. When you turn on the washing machine, hot and/or cold water (depending on the temperature selected) flows into the drum through a pair of valves. With a high-efficiency appliance, the water usually passes through the detergent dispenser, flushing out the soap.
2. The high-efficiency machine stops and starts for a few minutes while sensors detect the size of the load, calculating the cycle time and how much water to bring in.
3. A thermostat measures the incoming water to ensure it reaches the target temperature. In newer machines, this is between 95 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit for “hot,” 70 and 95 degrees for “warm” and 60 and 70 degrees for “cold.” Some washers have heating elements that come on during the cycle to help maintain the temperature.
4. The front-loader’s drum rotates back and forth, lifting clothes up and dropping them into a pool of water. With a conventional top-loader, the agitator swishes the clothes around in the water.
5. A pump drains the dirty water out of the machine. The drum spins as fast as 1,200 revolutions per minute in a normal cycle, wringing out the clothes, and the pump extracts the water.
6. Clean water (usually cold) enters the drum to rinse the clothes, which get stirred around, as in step 4. The pump drains the water. This process may repeat several times to get rid of all the soap.
7. The clothes spin again and the pump removes the remaining water.
What Goes On Inside the Dryer
1. When you turn on the dryer, the drum starts rotating, tumbling your clothes. Paddles located around the inside rim help to lift and separate items as they move.
2. While the drum is spinning, a fan sucks in air through a vent and propels it over a heating element, which brings the temperature to about 150 degrees Fahrenheit in a normal cycle.
3. The air blows into the drum through large holes at the back, heating the clothes and drawing out the moisture.
4. A thermostat turns the heating element on and off periodically throughout the cycle to regulate the temperature and prevent the clothes from overheating.
5. Moist air flows through the lint screen, which catches any dust and fluff that comes off the clothes, and continues out the exhaust duct and the vent outside.
6. Unless you choose a manual dry setting, sensors monitor the moisture in the clothes and determine when the cycle is complete.
Washer Settings to Try
Snap out of your “normal” routine and give one of these options a spin.
A speedy cycle for a few lightly soiled items, like the blouse and pants you want to wear to dinner tonight. A faster spin means clothes will dry quicker, too.
Stained or extra-dirty garments? Use this to add a soak to the beginning of a cycle. Divide detergent among the pre-wash and detergent dispensers.
Choose this to minimize wrinkling in dress shirts and pants, and preserve the finish on wrinkle-free items. Warm or hot wash water relaxes creases and a slow spin helps prevent new ones from forming.
Muddy play clothes and other sturdy, heavily soiled items do well in this cycle, which features a long, warm or hot wash and high-speed tumbling to scrub out filth.
A short, cold wash with slow tumbling and spinning. Use it for sweaters, lingerie, and other items that require a light touch.
Designed to mimic the way clothes are washed in the sink, with periods of gentle tumbling and soaking in cold water, this is for garments labeled “hand-wash.”
Tacks an additional rinse onto the end of a cycle to ensure dirt, dust and detergent are thoroughly flushed out. A good option if a family member has allergies or sensitive skin.
Rinse and Spin
Quickly rinses and removes moisture from things like bathing suits and beach towels with no detergent.
Sets the machine to turn on at a later time so wet clothes don’t sit around when you’re not home to transfer them to the dryer.
Dryer Settings to Try
Snap out of your “normal” routine and give one of these options a spin.
About half the length of a normal cycle, this setting uses high heat to dry a few items, like the uniform needed for today’s game, fast.
Slow drying with low heat helps wrinkle-free garments live up to their name and keeps the hard creases out of things you typically iron. A cool-down period at the end cuts down on the wrinkles that form when clothes sit in the machine.
Choose this for sturdy items that take a long time to dry (towels, sweats, jeans)—they’ll tumble for an extended period with high heat.
A short, low-heat cycle for—you guessed it—delicates and other items labeled “tumble dry low,” such as Spandex workout gear, which loses its stretch when too much heat is used.
A cool-air setting for items that can’t take any heat, such as plastic tablecloths and rubber-backed rugs.
Periodically tumbles clothes, without heat, for a preset amount of time after they’re dry to prevent wrinkles. Ideal for when the beeper goes off in the middle of dinner.
Lets you choose how dry you want your clothes to be—from “damp” to “very dry.” Leaving things a little damp makes them easier to iron and ensures they don’t get fried.
Say you have a pair of jeans that fits perfectly when dried for 20 minutes on “medium.” This setting allows you to customize the drying time and temperature.
Sets the machine to turn on at a later time so clothes don’t sit around when you’re not home to fold them.