How Does Your Washing Machine Work?

washing machine settingsHello again lovely readers. I know this is a cooking website, but I have a special place in my heart for appliances. My friend recently told me about her daughter’s joy at getting new school shirts, because the other children made fun of her over the state of her clothes.

I assure you that no one consults with me about removing stains or keeping whites white. But I know enough about machines to give my friend a lesson, and I want to share that with you too. After all, we use washing machines for dishtowels, tablecloths, and other cloth items found in the kitchen.

In my post on thermostats, I pointed out that ovens and air conditioners are pretty simple machines. They are either off or on, and what makes them smart is knowing how long to be on before things get too hot or cold. Washing machines can handle a few functions other than temperature. But each of these functions is also simple.

The key to understanding washing machine settings is that you are usually choosing between cleaner clothes, and wear and tear on your clothes. To get your clothes clean, the machines have to be harder on your clothes. Your machine will work hard too. The best choice is a gentle cycle that will still get your clothes reasonably clean. Gentler cycles, especially a slow spin cycle, means less ironing as well.

Fortunately for us, machines are getting better at cleaning clothes with less water and detergent. Gentler (and shorter) cycles are often good enough in the vast majority of cases. For example, the “pre-wash” option, essentially an additional wash and rinse, is usually not necessary, even for cloth diapers.

Here are the main functions of washing machines:

  1. Temperature. In the US, most machines that are fed from hot and cold water taps. So the options are cold, hot, and if both faucets are turned on, warm. But European machines connect only to a cold water tap, so the machine needs to heat the water, even as high as 90° C. High temperatures are hard on clothes, and if the machine heats the water, this adds a lot of extra time to the cycle. The benefit is questionable, as modern detergents work well in cold water.
  2. Length of washing cycle. This is the main operation of the machine. During the washing cycle, the machine agitates the clothes to loosen up the dirt. Usually this  runs for 5-20 minutes. The longer the cycle, the worse for your clothes. But if clothes are very dirty, a short cycle might not be enough.
  3. Strength of washing cycle. Usually there is one setting for “normal” and one for “delicate” clothes. With a “delicate” cycle the machine spins more slowly so the clothes are not moved around as much.
  4. Spins per minute. After the washing cycle, fresh water is added to rinse out the clothes. Then the machine spins quickly to remove the excess water from the machine, and wring it out from your clothes.
    Spin cycles are calculated according to the number of spins per minute, with a range from 400-1200 spins per minute. With faster spin cycles, there is less moisture in your clothes. So if you are using an electric or gas dryer, a faster spin setting saves time and money, because the dryer can operate for less time. It’s less important if you are hanging clothes on a line. Keep in mind that high spin cycles don’t make your clothes cleaner, but they are especially hard on clothes.
  5. Resting time. Delicate or gentle cycles, and energy-saving cycles, will add pauses for soaking time during the washing cycle. My kids have gotten concerned because the machine doesn’t seem to be doing anything. But soaking at regular intervals helps remove dirt, allowing a shorter, colder, or gentler washing cycle while getting the clothes just as clean, and causing minimal stress on your clothes. While a longer cycle generally means more wear and tear on clothes, if the cycle includes lots of soaking time, the opposite will be true.

To review, the following settings wear out clothes the fastest, but get them cleanest: Wash in the hottest water, in a “normal” or “cotton” cycle, for as long as possible, and spin at the highest number of rotations per minutes.

And these are the settings that are gentlest, but might not get your clothes as clean—although in many cases they are clean enough: Wash clothes in cold water, with the shortest, “delicate” cycle, at the lowest spin setting, and include more soaking time. If you like, read the manual to see how to stop the machine from executing the final spin. In this case, the machine will spin just enough to remove the excess water from the machine, leaving the clothes dripping wet. My friend has a garden, so she liked the idea of hanging clothes outside for the benefit of the plants.

In the machines of my parents’ time, you could choose hot/warm/cold, delicate or normal, and how many minutes you wanted the cycle to run, The multiple combinations of the above options make machines more complicated. Because most machines are computerized, the manufacturers can choose from all the variables, to recommend the best option for each type of load. Of course, we usually put a variety of types of clothes in a single load so it can be hard to choose. But that is for another day.

Another factor to take into consideration is speed. If it’s important for you to get your clothes drying quickly, choose a shorter cycle. But if you are not home anyway, it doesn’t matter. Some cycles use much more water than others. I found the information about cycle length in the manual that came with the machine. Many machines can automatically choose the correct amounts of water according to the weight of the clothes, but it still varies according to cycles.

My philosophy is to start with the coldest, most delicate cycle and see if that is effective for your clothes. With more delicate cycles, the machine shouldn’t be too full so that the clothes can move around easily. I also find that after a regular or “cottons” cycle for my clothes, especially towels, they start to get holes. Machines today has settings that are so delicate they are equivalent to hand-washing.

In the machine pictured above, for linens and most casual clothes, I choose the “Mix” cycle that takes about 45 minutes, including heating up the water to 40° C. If I like I can use the “Eco” feature that includes more soaking time. If some of the clothes are delicate or I want to avoid wrinkles, I set the spin cycle to a lower speed, or click on the “Easy iron” option.

One last tip: Use a minimal amount of detergent. Your clothes shouldn’t end up with a strong smell of fragrance. Excess detergent (and softener) can clog your machine after a while, and doesn’t help your clothes either. But don’t use laundry balls, that purport to clean clothes without detergent. They are no better than washing without detergent.

Was this post useful? Let me know in the comments.

You can also order my e-book:  Download Cook Smart! Learn the Secrets of Your Kitchen Appliances.

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  1. I never knew that delicates meant the machines spin slower than the normal settings. My wife and I have noticed that our washing machine is starting to damage some of our more fragile clothing. We will keep your article in mind as we look for repairs or possible replacement washing machines.

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