Buyer's guide: Tumble dryers

justin schamotta
By Justin Schamotta

washing machine laundry room©iStock.com/gerenme

GAS or electric? Venting or condensing? Small or large drum? There's a lot to think about when buying a tumble dryer.

They get a fair amount of use - figures [pdf] from the Department for Energy and Climate Change suggest that people use them three times a week on average during the winter - and the Energy Saving Trust say 54% of people use them during the summer.

With this in mind, it's worth investing a little time to find the right machine for your tumbling needs. This guide will help you.

1. Type of dryer

What to consider
  • Venting machines need to be near a window or window vent
  • Gas tumble dryers are cheap to run, but uncommon in the UK
  • Washer dryers are only worth considering if space is a real issue

There are five types of tumble dryer available to people in the UK:

Electric venting

These are generally the cheapest, most basic machines. They take the warm damp air away from the clothes and pump it outside via a hose, which is normally about 2m long.

For this reason, they need to be near a window or a window vent. This restricts where they can be kept - an important consideration if space is at a premium.

Be aware that not all machines come with a venting kit - check before pouncing on what might seem like a bargain.

Electric condensing

Electric condensing dryers are more efficient than electric venting machines, and this is reflected in their relatively higher price.

The machines extract the warm damp air surrounding the wet clothes and condense it into a removable container.

This container must be emptied manually, but some come with a hose to drain it for you; a full container can weigh up to 6kg.

Because an electric condensing dryer doesn't need an exhaust hose, it can be located anywhere that there's an electricity supply.

Heat pump electric condensing

The addition of a heat pump to a normal condenser dryer produces a machine that is far more energy efficient, though costs more to buy initially.

The heat pump helps recirculate warm air used in the dryer rather than removing it. This uses approximately 50% less energy than a normal electric condenser dryer.

In all other respects, the heat pump dryer is the same as the electric condenser dryer.

Gas

A gas tumble dryer uses mains gas to heat the air inside. The damp air is then vented via a hose.

Although electricity is needed to power the control panel and turn the drum, this is minimal - less than 10% of the total electricity that an electric dryer uses.

These machines are relatively rare, despite being very energy efficient. At the time of writing, there is only one manufacturer making them for the UK market.

Washer dryers

Washer dryers are, as the name suggest, washing machine and tumble dryer combined. They have all the normal washing machine functions, with the dryer function thrown in for good measure.

They're good for those with limited space, and because the drying cycle makes use of the machine's outlet hose, they don't need to be vented or be drained manually.

Be warned however that a full washing load is more than the machine can take when it comes to drying: the maximum load on the drying cycle is about two thirds of the machine's washing capacity.

2. Cost

What to consider
  • Venting tumble dryers are the cheapest machines to buy
  • Gas dryers have lower running costs, but need to be installed by a qualified gas engineer

As with other white goods, the cost of machines varies quite drastically - even for those in the same category. Electric venting machines can be bought for as little as £130, but can cost in excess of £700.

As washer dryers combine two machines in one, they're a little pricier than a basic venting dryer, ranging from £300 to £1,000. Most manufacturers have machines in the £400 to £600 bracket.

Mid-range condensing dryers tend to cost around £250; heat pump electric condensing machines cost between £400 and £1,200, but £600 is standard.

As we've mentioned, choice in the gas dryer market is severely limited in the UK; the machines available cost in the region of £300, plus installation.

3. Size

What to consider
  • Larger drums make for faster drying and are more energy efficient
  • Most machines are between 80 and 85cm tall, and 60cm wide. Their depth varies
  • Compact machines are shorter and narrower
  • Small machines have a capacity of up to 5kg, large machines can handle 8kg or more

It's all about the drum size with tumble dryers. Larger drums allow for more air circulation around the clothes, which means faster drying times and less creasing. They tend to be more efficient than smaller models - but only if they're fully loaded.

Anyone who struggles to get together a full load is likely to benefit from getting a smaller machine.

To help visualise what the sizes mean, imagine that each kilogram (kg) of drum capacity is equal to one outfit. An "outfit" is loosely classed as trousers, socks, underwear and top.

Compact dryers have drums suitable for loads of 3-5kg. They typically measure at least 67cm tall, 48cm wide and 47cm deep.

Small dryers are only really suitable for those who don't need to do much washing or who have limited space.

Most people opt for a medium sized machine with a capacity of 6-7kg, standing at 80cm to 85cm high, 60cm wide and between 53cm and 63cm deep. The most variation between machines is in the depth - which could make a difference to where they can be put.

Large dryers can cope with loads of 8kg and more, and are better suited for larger households. The bigger drum dries clothes better, but you'll be using more energy than you need if you consistently under fill it.

As with medium capacity machines, they tend to be up to 85cm tall and 60cm wide. But the larger drum means they're a bit deeper, measuring between 58cm and 65cm.

4. Drying features

What to consider
  • Lower priced machines may only have two settings: one for cotton and one for synthetics
  • More expensive machines offer a range of drying options

Many of the cheaper machines are fairly rudimentary, offering just two heat settings: one for cotton and one for synthetics.

As the price goes up, so does the number of available drying features. Whether you need them generally depends on what sort of fabrics you wash, and how often you wash them.

Most machines will have "cupboard dry" and "iron dry" programmes. As the name suggests, the "cupboard dry" programme should allow you to move your clothes straight from the dryer to the cupboard. "Iron dry" programmes leave clothes slightly damp so they're easy to iron.

Many will also have a synthetics setting. These require you fill the drum to around half its total capacity, as synthetics need more freedom to move around than their cotton counterparts.

Also look out for wool or delicates settings, which allow for quick drying of fabrics that would otherwise be ruined by excessive heat or tumbling.

A "cool" setting is useful for refreshing unwashed clothes; the cool air helps to remove odours. But its main function is to make clothes safer to handle at the end of a long tumble - hot denim is uncomfortable on the hands, but hot zips and buttons can be downright dangerous.

Also look out for anti-crease and reverse tumble features - the latter helps prevent clothes tangling together and ensures that they dry more evenly.

5. Other features

What to consider
  • Child locks, delay starts and fluff filter indicators are all useful
  • Machines with sensors are more expensive, but can be cheaper to run
  • Which side would you like the door to open on?

Some machines also offer time saving and safety features that may be particularly useful to those with families or busy lives. For example, some have a child lock to prevent small hands being able to mess about with the control panel.

Others offer a delayed start function - useful for taking advantage of cheaper electricity rates, or having freshly tumbled, crease free clothes waiting when you get in from work.

While they're more expensive, machines with a sensor can estimate how long clothes will take to dry, or detect when they are and stop the drying programme. This cuts down on energy use, so could well save money in the long run.

On that note, dryers don't work properly when the fluff filter becomes clogged - so some come with an indicator to warn you when the filter needs clearing.

And like many fridges these days, some dryers come with doors that can be reversed, so they can be opened from the other side - which can really increase flexibility regarding where the machine can be put.

6. Efficiency

What to consider
  • Tumble dryers add between £50 and £100 to the average annual energy bill
  • Gas dryers are the most energy efficient, washer dryers the least
  • Price can be a guide: cheaper machines are generally less efficient

Tumble dryers are notorious for being energy hungry, and they can add from £50 to £100 a year to energy bills. But there's a great deal of variation between machines.

Gas dryers and heat pump condensing machines tend to be the most energy efficient of the lot, and normally have an energy rating of between A and A+++. This makes them cheap to run, as well as kinder on the environment.

Venting and condensing machines fall into either the B or C categories. As a very rough guide, those costing below £200 tend to be rated C, while those above £200 tend to have a B rating.

7. Lifespan and disposal

What to consider
  • Washer dryers are more likely to break than other tumble dryers
  • Shops must help you dispose of your old tumble dryer

Approximately 10% of tumble dryers needs to be repaired within their first six years. For washer dryers, that increases to 20%.

Like other white goods, tumble dryers tend to come with a one year guarantee. Shops may encourage you to take out an extended warranty but, as we've mentioned before, these can offer poor value for money.

If you're replacing an old tumble dryer, bear in mind that shops are obliged to help. Under the waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) directive, retailers are required to help customers recycle their old machines.

Summary

Buying a tumble dryer is a big step - it's often said that there's no going back once you've become accustomed to using one.

The particular features we want from a machine are a matter of personal preference. Something we all share, however, is the desire to pay less for our energy use - so it can be worth paying a little more upfront for a more efficient machine.

Here's a quick recap of that, and the other factors we've covered above:

Quick considerations
Type of dryerVenting machines need to be near a window or window vent
Gas tumble dryers are cheap to run, but uncommon in the UK
Washer dryers are only worth considering if space is a real issue
Cost Venting tumble dryers are the cheapest machines to buy
Gas dryers have lower running costs, but need to be installed by a qualified gas engineer
SizeLarger drums make for faster drying and are more energy efficient
Most machines are between 80 and 85cm tall, and 60cm wide, but their depth will vary
Compact machines are shorter and narrower
Small machines have a capacity of up to 5kg, large machines can handle 8kg or more
FeaturesMore expensive machines offer a range of drying options
Child locks, delay starts and fluff filter indicators are all useful
Machines with sensors are more expensive, but can be cheaper to run
Which side would you like the door to open on?
EfficiencyTumble dryers add between £50 and £100 to the average annual energy bill
Gas dryers are the most energy efficient, washer dryers the least
Price can be a guide: cheaper machines are generally less efficient
Lifespan and disposalWasher dryers are more likely to break than other tumble dryers
Shops must help you dispose of your old tumble dryer
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