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Which? guide to buying a washing machine

When you think of washing machines, they might seem all the same - big white boxes that get the laundry done. But there are different types of washing machine, different drum sizes to cater for anything from small families to small football teams, and running costs that vary from £12 to almost £50 a year.

This guide to buying a washing machine takes you through the choices available and includes a few handy hints on what to check when you’re in the shop or browsing online.

But regardless of what washing machine suits you, you need to make sure it’s not a model that leaves clothes dirty and traces of detergent on your laundry. You can’t tell in the shop which machines are better than others – instead, you need to check out our Best Buy washing machines.

What are the different types of washing machine?

Most washing machines in the UK are front-loading models. This is the conventional style of washing machine that has a door on the front and can be installed beneath a worktop.

The alternative is to buy a top-loading machine. These are narrower than front-loading models, but cannot be placed underneath a worktop as you add clothes via the top of the machine. They’re rare in the UK, so it’s unlikely you’ll have much choice between models.

If you buy a front-loading washing machine, you can choose between freestanding and integrated.

Freestanding washing machines are the most common type of washing machine. They come in a range of sizes, with drum capacities ranging from 5kg to 12kg. Some models are available in a variety of colours, too. See below for more information on what you can fit into different sized drums.

Integrated washing machines are also known as built-in washing machines. This is when the machine is built into your kitchen with a door fitted onto the front, so that it looks like a cupboard.

There are fewer integrated models on the market compared to freestanding, so choice is limited, and capacities tend to be restricted, too. An advantage of integrated is that the furniture panel on the front helps to muffle the noise slightly, making for a quieter wash.

Semi-integrated machines are like integrated models, but the cupboard door does not cover the control panel, so you don’t have to open it to change the settings or read any displays.

Before buying an integrated washing machine, see if the retailer is able to install integrated models and how much they charge. Having an integrated model installed is more costly than installing a freestanding one, so be sure to factor in that price when making your buying decision.

Drum size – is bigger better?

No, not always. Washing machines work best when you fill the drum to each program’s set limit. Most medium-sized households in the UK will be served well by a 7kg capacity machine.

The biggest capacity machines on the market can wash up to a massive 12kg of laundry at once. That’s enough for three pairs of adult's jeans, two pairs of children's jeans, six shirts, three bed sheets, six pillowcases, six tea towels and five small towels.

If that’s your typical wash, then a 12kg capacity machine is what you need. But if that sounds like far too much, check out our washing machine features explained for examples of how much you can fit in into different sized drums.

Spin speed – how fast is good?

The spin part of the wash cycle is responsible for removing the wash water and leaving your clothes as dry as possible. The drier your clothes come out, the less amount of time they’ll need hanging on the washing line or in the tumble dryer.

But a faster spin does not always mean drier clothes. Maximum spin speeds are typically 1200rpm or 1400rpm, but some machines offer speeds of up to 1800rpm. In our tests, we’ve seen lots of washing machines with 1200rpm and 1400rpm spins receiving top marks for removing wash water from the laundry.

You’re not going to be able to tell which spin cycles do their job or not by looking at the machine, but the Which? star rating for spin drying will separate the good from the bad.

Will it clean and rinse my clothes?

Just like spin cycles, you can’t actually tell which machines will clean your clothes and then rinse them free of detergent. That’s where our tests come in.

If you want to avoid dirt and detergent being left on your laundry, make sure you go to Which? washing machine reviews before you buy.

How do I know if it’s reliable?

Some brands of washing machine are more reliable than others. Every year, we survey thousands of Which? members to find out which brands of washing machine are the most reliable. A Best Buy washing machine must have a good reliability rating, or provide a free, non-promotional, five-year warranty as standard.

To find out which washing machines are the most reliable on the market, head for our washing machine reliability page.

What about running costs - should I buy an A+++ machine?

We’ve seen running costs of washing machines vary from £12 to £47 in our tests. The amount added to your bill depends not only on how efficient the machine is, but also the drum capacity. Generally, the bigger the drum, the higher the running costs.

Energy labels on washing machines go from A+++ to D. A+++ is the most energy efficient, but the EU Energy label is largely based on the 60°C cottons program. However, most Which? members we surveyed use the 40°C cotton program.

For every washing machine we test, we publish an energy-use star rating based on the 40°C cotton and synthetic programs, and an annual running cost based on the 40°C cotton program. You can find out what a machine will add to your bills over the years by going to the Which? Energy cost calculator.

What features and programs do I need?

Washing machines can come equipped with an array of programs and features. Here are some of the main ones explained:

Time-remaining display – some washing machines have a display that counts down until your washing is ready. More advanced washing machines will weigh what’s in the drum and then provide an estimate on how long it will take to clean.

Delay start – a delay start means you can choose for the washing machine to start washing your clothes at a later time. Some machines are fairly flexible and will let you delay the start by any number of hours, up to 24. Others are more limited and might make you choose from a three-, six- or nine-hour delay start. Alternatively, some machines allow you to choose when the program finishes, rather than when it starts.

If you use the delay start, it’s still best to be around when the washing is going on; if you’re going to run it while you’re asleep, you need to make sure you have a recommended smoke alarm nearby.

Child locks – there are two types of child locks on washing machines. The most common is the ability to lock the control panel, in the same way you would lock a mobile phone, so that programs and settings cannot be tampered with when your back is turned.

The second, less common child lock is a device that will stop the door from being closed. This prevents kids from trapping items in the drum that shouldn’t be in there and, as the door doesn’t close, stops the cycle from starting.

Sports programs are for washing microfibre sports clothing and designed to remove sweat marks and odours. Some machines also have a special program to allow you to wash your trainers.

Wool programs are typically low-temperature programs that have little drum rotation during the wash to keep the woollen garment from being damaged.

Quick wash programs are very popular. But the very quickest may only let you wash 1.5kg of clothes at once, which is equivalent to two pairs of jeans. Some washing machines have a full load quick-wash option, allowing you to fill the drum and clean lightly soiled clothes in less than an hour.

What can I check in the shop?

Open the door – a good door should open flat against the machine, or get very close. It also shouldn’t swing back by itself, as that would make loading the machine more fiddly.

Make a note of which way the door opens – most washing machine doors open to the left, but some open to the right. It could influence where you are able to install your washing machine.

Test the detergent drawer – you’re going to use the detergent drawer a lot, so check that it slides in and out easily and is comfortable to grip. Make sure you can also remove the drawer from the machine completely, as it will need to be cleaned from time to time.

Control panel – have a look and play with the control panel. Make sure you can read all the instructions without bending down, that everything is nice and clear, and that the buttons aren’t so close that you might accidentally press two at once.

Last bits of advice

Whether ordering online or in the shop, if you’re paying that bit extra to have your washing machine installed for you, make sure you check the installation conditions. Some retailers will only install a washing machine if it’s one metre or less from the drain where it’s being connected, and some will ask you to disconnect the old machine and pull it away from the area that the new model is going into.

Some washing machines come with a free promotional warranty. If you’ve bought a washing machine that comes with one, you must remember to send off your paperwork, as you may only have a short period of time after the purchase to qualify for the free warranty.

For more advice on buying a washing machine, head for the Which? guide to buying the best washing machine.