Buyer's guide: Washing machines
WHILE we might purposely choose other products for specific features, we expect washing machines to just work without grabbing our attention - so we don't spend a lot of time thinking about things like spin speed, energy rating, or capacity.
This guide, then, will explain those things - and other things you might not have thought of.
Read on to find out what you should factor into your choice.
1. Size and loading options
- Front-loading machines come in standard size but have most features
- Top loading machines narrower, useful for limited space
- Door on front-loaders can be difficult in limited space
- Top loaders much less common and don't have as many features
This might sound obvious, but getting a washing machine that doesn't fit in the space allocated for it is not a good idea. Measure the space carefully, paying particular attention to the height and width.
Most washing machines are at least 59 cm wide, and 85 cm tall. Add in a centimetre or so for clearance on each side, or getting the machine in place could mean taking the rest of the kitchen to pieces.
The depth of the machine - how far out it sticks - is important too, but less crucial than the other two measurements.
For example, people with narrow galley kitchens or a corner space might find they can't open the washing machine door fully if the whole machine is already protruding into the available space.
So ideally, find one that fits as close to flush with counters and other fittings - as well as being able to open the door fully, it'll help prevent bashed hips and make cleaning a bit easier too.
There is another option to consider if space at ground level is limited but there are no vertical limitations like counters or shelves: Top-loading machines.
They're much less common than they used to be, but those available tend to be narrower - and of course, they don't have a front opening door to accidentally smack the kids in the face with, or trap people between the machine and the fridge.
- Large drums can take more washing per cycle
- Running a machine with less than a full load is far less efficient
Also referred to in terms of drum size, capacity is the next most important to consider.
In the UK they tend to range from 5 kg to 12 kg in capacity - which refers to the amount of dry clothing that will fit in the machine and be washed properly on a standard cottons setting.
Note the mention of the cottons programme there.
Different washing programmes are designed to deal with different size loads - for example, a good rule of thumb is that wool washes are meant to be half the maximum weight of the cotton wash.
The majority of UK washing machines have a capacity of 7 kg, designed for the average household. That means the wool wash would work best with a maximum load of 3.5 kg.
So what does 7 kg look like?
A typical 7 kg wash could include two pairs of jeans, two or three bath towels, a double sheet, numerous pairs of pants and socks, and several hand or tea towels.
Alternatively, follow the rule of thumb that a washing machine is approaching capacity when it looks comfortably full. That is: nothing's jammed in, and the dry items can shift about a little.
Some manufacturers will recommend a mixed washbag like that above to help balance the load - if all that's in a wash is four pairs of hulking wet jeans, they could end up clumped together in one part of the drum.
Mixing small with big makes calculating the ideal load more complicated, but it'll help keep the machine healthy for the times when the king-size winter duvet is the only thing to go in.
Anyone who still thinks they're going to struggle to fill the drum should bear in mind the biggest one-off washes they're going to need to do - like bedding or washable coats - then look for a machine with programmes designed to deal with smaller loads.
- Specialist programmes offer better care without needing supervision
- Possible to customise a wash using cycle, temperature and spin speed without paying extra for "special" programmes
Standard programmes include cotton, wool, some other delicate setting, synthetics, mixed fabrics, and a quick wash option.
There will almost always be a pre-wash button or setting; extra rinsing and separate spin cycles are common features.
Then there are "sports" cycles, baby clothes settings, and special colour programmes, among others.
Most modern machines also allow their users to choose the temperature they wash their clothes at, ranging from 90 °C with the cotton settings to "cold", which is broadly understood to mean around 15 °C.
People who struggle to fill their washing machines every time should look for machines that offer a half load option.
This might be labelled logically and simply as "half load" - or, sometimes the manufacturer will refer to an "auto" or "eco" feature, in which the machine senses how much washing is in the drum and adjusts the amount of water used automatically.
Also, because it's a trendy but vague word, watch out for what "eco" actually means, in terms of temperature, spin speed and other washing features.
For example, the "eco" setting on some machines offers no flexibility regarding temperature or spin speed. There's far more scope for being economical and ecological by using a different programme and selecting temperature and spin manually.
4. Spin speed
- Faster speeds should get clothes drier
- The faster the spin, the noisier the machine
On a related note, opinions on spin speeds vary considerably.
Some like them as fast as possible because they cut down on drying time; others would rather a slower speed and damper laundry rather than the wrinkles that super speeds tend to produce.
The faster the spin speed, the noisier the machine will tend to be - and who hasn't had that moment of fear when their full washing machine lurches into top speed, making a sound like it's about to stagger across the floor?
Standard spin speeds range from 800 to 1200 rpm - although 1800 rpm machines do exist and 1400 rpm is becoming more common. The faster the spin speed, the more water should be removed from the clothes.
Other factors, like the machine's design, or the way it's been installed, can affect how much water is driven off. For example: if the drum design or a kinked pipe means water can't drain away quickly, it doesn't matter how well the spin cycle works - as soon as the machine starts to slow some water will seep back in.
Also bear in mind that once above 1200 rpm, the prices start to increase considerably, and the machine is likely to be noticeably louder.
Some machines also come with a much slower spin option, which is useful for removing more water from more delicate fabrics than is possible using the drain setting.
5. Energy efficiency
- Higher rated machines use less energy and water
- Lower rated machines often clean better
- Capacity has more impact on overall efficiency
- Savings can be minuscule
Since December 2013, all washing machines have had to have an energy rating of A or higher, up to a maximum A+++.
The letter corresponds to a number called the Energy Efficiency Index (EEI). This is a measure of the amount of electricity used by the machine annually, including any energy used during power-off and standby modes.
The in-use figure is calculated based on 220 wash cycles, 42% of which are full 60 °C cotton cycles, 29% of which are partial load 60 °C cotton cycles, and the remaining 29% are partial load 40 °C cotton cycles.
All new machines should have an EEI of 68 or lower. A+++ machines have an EEI below 46.
The A+++ option should be the most energy efficient and use the least water, and therefore the cheapest to run - but that doesn't mean they're the best at washing clothes.
Consider the extra cost of the detergent, repeated washings and the wear on the clothes, and a "more efficient" machine could end up costing far more.
A washing machine will generally cost between £12 and £53 in terms of energy consumption, with the average being around £26 per year.
It's thought that replacing an old machine - pre 2010 - with one of the most efficient machines could shave up to £10 a year off the average energy bill - as long as they do a good job of washing the clothes in the first place.
Drum size has more impact on the machine's per-use running cost - and allows for more washing to be done per cycle - so consider that first.
The machine's energy label will also include information on:
- Water consumption per cycle in litres
- Spin drying performance
- The volume of the machine in both washing and spin cycles, in decibels
This is one for people with beautiful fitted kitchens; the majority of us won't have to consider it.
Integrated, or built in, washing machines are designed to fit inside cupboards in fully fitted kitchens - some have large door panels that attach to the main cupboard door while others are simply much flatter and neater than free-standing machines.
But there's nowhere near the range available compared to standard washing machines, so it's seriously worth considering which is more important - a sleek kitchen or the features available with a non-integrated appliance and losing that cupboard door.
Because of the second door, integrated machines tend to be a bit quieter than their standalone counterparts - but they can cost much more to be installed.
7. Installation and removal
- Far cheaper to book through retailer - prices start at £20, removal of old machines can cost as little as £10.
- Built in washing machines cost far more to install - at least £80
- Independent installation costs from £80 to £200
On that note, most retailers will offer some form of installation service, ranging from wiggling the machine into place, to plumbing it in, to also taking away any machine being replaced.
Costs vary, but most retailers charge from around £20 to £30 - although integrated appliances will cost at least £80 to fit.
Getting the machine fitted independently will cost anywhere from £80 to £200 depending on how much needs done - ranging from a simple install job to removing the old machine to replumbing the area where the machine's going to go.
- Peace of mind
- Expensive and often unnecessary. Consider longer manufacturer guarantees instead, some offer up to five years.
Most manufacturer guarantees last for a year from the date of sale, while paid for warranties last from one to five years. Both cover against the cost of repairs and replacements.
Guarantees are to be expected, and as they're free, they're very much worth it. Warranties, however, are more problematic.
Particularly with cheaper models, an extended warranty can cost as much as the machine itself.
Anyone in the unenviable position of having to buy multiple appliances at once might benefit from the peace of mind offered by a warranty designed for that purpose.
But for one-off purchases, bear in mind the consumer rights afforded by the Sale of Goods Act 1979.
This states that items must be of satisfactory quality, fit for the purpose intended, as described and designed to last a reasonable length of time.
"A reasonable length of time" is open to debate, but if the machine is found to be faulty within six months of purchase, and it's not because of accidental damage, the law states that it's up to the retailer to prove it wasn't faulty when sold.
In addition, consumer rights last for up to five years in Scotland, and six years in the rest of the UK.
Manufacturers and retailers will take into account the cost of the item, how it's been used and its surroundings when deciding how to honour their obligations.
So a £199 washing machine kept in a garage, in a household with a curious toddler, and used three times a day for a couple of years is more likely to be considered at the end of its useful life than a £900 machine kept in a kitchen or utility room and used only once or twice a week.
The owners of the expensive machine are therefore more likely to get help with the cost of repairs or a replacement.
But even so, owners stand a good chance of getting some help towards the cost of repairs or replacement for a good few years after buying the machine.
9. Life span
- More expensive machines can last ten years or more
- Needing to replace cheaper machines every few years
- Being stuck with an ageing machine as technology develops
The Whitegoods Trade Association (WTA) say it's wrong to think of household appliances as having a life in years. Instead, they explain, all products are designed with a Minimum Time to Failure, or MTF, in hours.
Cheaper goods will be designed with MTFs as low as 600 hours, while higher quality and more expensive goods will be designed to have an MTF of more than 10,000 hours.
But if we will insist on using years to define the working life of an appliance, the WTA admit the average life of a washing machine is about seven - a decrease of three years over the past decade.
More than 40% of washing machines on the market cost £300 or less, and even taking into account things like economies of scale and competition, they're not going to have the same build quality and life span as machines costing £600 or £900.
The WTA say the cheaper washing machine mentioned in the example above "can reasonably be expected to last perhaps two years at best", while one of the more expensive machines could be expected to cope with similar conditions for 10 years or longer.
In France, the law states that all manufacturers must publish the expected life span of their products on the label.
Elsewhere, until recently, only two companies did this - and in 2014 ISE ceased operations, leaving only Miele voluntarily telling their customers how long their goods could be expected to last.
- Can extend the life of a decent machine by years
- Not as expensive as might first be thought
- Slow compared to getting a new machine
- More difficult with older machines
- Cheaper machines may need more repairs - bills will add up over time
The WTA say that in 2008, the average cost of a repair carried out by an independent company, including parts and labour, was £65.
Inflation has no doubt caused that to increase somewhat, but the fact remains that, contrary to popular belief, it's still cheaper to get a machine repaired than replaced.
Also consider that of the top "faults" leading to owners asking for a replacement machine, around half are the result of installation issues, and half are the result of user error or simple problems.
For example, a machine failing to drain properly could be because the waste pipes are too kinked - an installation fault. Or leaks and flooding from the detergent drawer - which tends to be the result of washing tabs or lumps of powder getting trapped at the back of the drawer.
The WTA say that of the machines they see returned for replacement, some 30% needed no new parts, and between 25 and 30% of those that did required parts costing below £20.
Particularly with more expensive machines, where the feeling of betrayal a breakdown can cause is all the greater, it's very much worth getting an engineer to have a look before demanding a replacement.
If the machine is still under guarantee or warranty, the cost of anything that's not the result of accidental damage will be covered - and that includes call out and labour fees.
Outside guarantee, it's still often far more economical to get the machine looked at first than starting the replacement process.
There are some issues that are terminal - and unfortunately they tend to be the sort that aren't covered by any but the most generous guarantees and agreements.
Because of the way many machines are built, a coin or hair grip left in a pocket that breaks through the seal or punches a hole in the drum will require a major repair - and major expense. And as it counts as user error or accidental damage, it's likely to be up to the owner to foot the bill.
Even so, the kind of incident mentioned above counts as accidental damage, so it may well be covered by home contents insurance.
Having gone through the most important things to consider, it should now be easier to narrow down the options available according to what's most suitable.
While there are beautiful, sleek, colour coordinated machines available with all manner of bells and whistles (and other tunes) for upwards of £850, washing machines with all the essentials mentioned above can be found for around £250.
|Size and loading option||Front-loading machines come in standard size but have most features
Top loading machines narrower, useful for limited space
|Door on front-loaders can be difficult in limited space
Top loaders much less common and don't have as many features
|Capacity||Large drums can take more washing per cycle||Running a machine with less than a full load is far less efficient|
|Programmes||Specialist programmes offer better care without needing supervision||Possible to customise a wash using cycle, temperature and spin speed without paying extra for "special" programmes|
|Spin speed||Faster speeds should get clothes drier||The faster the spin, the noisier the machine|
|Energy efficiency||Higher rated machines use less energy and water||Lower rated machines often clean better
Capacity has more impact on overall efficiency
Savings can be minuscule
|Installation and removal||Far cheaper to book through retailer - prices start at £20, removal of old machines can cost as little as £10.||Built in washing machines cost far more to install - at least £80.
Independent installation costs from £80 to £200
|Warranties||Peace of mind||Expensive and often unnecessary|
|Life span||More expensive machines can last ten years or more||Needing to replace cheaper machines every few years
Being stuck with an ageing machine as technology develops
|Repairs||Can extend the life of a decent machine by years
Not as expensive as might first be thought
|Slow compared to getting a new machine
More difficult with older machines
Cheaper machines may need more repairs - bills will add up over time