The front-loading washing machine was meant to be the panacea of laundry. Launched with a big push in the late ’90s, the machines were supposed to use less water than the old top loaders and be easier on clothing, because they simply spin clothing in a basket instead of poking and prodding at it with a mechanical arm.
But consumers are falling out of love with front-loading machines. They tend to be more expensive, shake more, and worst of all, require watertight seals that are prone to mold. They also require you to bend down to get your laundry. And a lot of people will tell you that they simply get clothes less clean.
No wonder front loader sales have declined from 38% of all washers sold in 2009 to only 27% in 2019, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers.
Now, after years of development, Whirlpool has created an innovative new washing machine, priced for the premium market, that combines some of the best parts of front loaders and top loaders into one machine.
Whirlpool’s latest washer is a “2 in 1” top loader that features the industry’s first removable agitator. The agitator is that spindle in the middle of a traditional washing machine, which rotates the clothing back and forth underwater to wash it. (Front loaders, on the other hand, rely on a basket tumbling clothing in a circle, dropping clothing into a small pool of water again and again to clean it.)
As the name suggests, you can use the washer two ways. The first is a totally traditional wash, with the agitator in. But with a simple grab of the agitator, you can remove it and set it aside. This opens the washer’s cavity, making it larger.
[Photo: courtesy Whirlpool]
“It’s like a twist,” explains Nelly Martinez, senior manager of the Whirlpool brand. “Basically on the top, there’s a handle. You pull it up, twist, and it comes out. We wanted to make sure the feeling of how we were building [the agitator] was durable . . . and people felt a confidence when they were pulling it out or in that it was going to stay there.”
The removable agitator is a nice UX touch. But what happens when you pull that agitator out? Will your clothes just be stuck in place during the laundry cycle and not get clean? No! Because once you remove the agitator, the system features what’s called an impeller at the bottom of the machine—a flat disc that sprays water upward from the bottom of the machine and uses fins to coax clothing to constantly rotate toward the middle of the machine.
Consumers like machines with agitators for heavily soiled loads. Machines with impellers use less overall motion to wash clothing, which means they are theoretically gentler on clothing. Whirlpool doesn’t go so far as to make either claim (though Whirlpool’s own comparison between agitators and impellers certainly implies this line of thinking). Consumer Reports claims agitators don’t get clothing any cleaner when compared to a front loader, which typically has a longer wash cycle, or an agitator-free top loader.
“Both give deep cleaning and good washing. It really doesn’t matter. The cleanness is the same,” says Martinez of washing with an agitator or impeller. “But . . . there’s a lot of consumer perception—if there’s an impeller, will that be more gentle?”
In any case, the 2-in-1 machine rolls together some of the most tantalizing options in laundry. It has an agitator for when you want the most aggressive wash, and an impeller for loads that are bigger or more delicate. Maybe any meaningful improvements are just in our consumer imagination, but count me among the people who see this new option and will never buy another front loader again.
The new Whirlpool 2-in-1 washer is on sale now at Lowe’s for $1,250, which makes it the most expensive washer, period, available on Lowe’s website.