How do different washing machine cycles compare for cleaning?
Standard wash cycles on front loaders can take a long time – our current worst offender takes over 4 hours! Is it worth waiting for the extra cleaning performance? Or would a shorter cycle do just as well?
We compared a front loader’s standard Cotton cycle to two of the machine’s shorter cycles – Quick and Everyday.
We used a Fisher & Paykel WH1160F2 for our test. Then, we repeated the test for a top-loader – the Samsung WA12A8376GV – comparing the machine’s Cotton and Quick cycles. But we didn’t stop there – we also tested both machine’s Delicates cycles to see how they compared to Cotton, then we put 2 different front loaders through warm wash cycles at 40°C (to see if they removed more dirt). Some of the results were surprising!
How we test
For this comparison, we used the same test we use when we’re comparing washing machine models.
For each machine and cycle, we washed a 3.5kg load of cotton items, made up of bed sheets, small towels and pillowcases. (This is the same load they use for international standards tests). Then we calculated how the different cycles on each machine performed in four areas.
- Dirt removal – swatches of cloth embedded with a specific amount of dirt were included in the load. After the wash, we used a spectrophotometer to measure how much light was reflected from the stain. From this, we could calculate how much dirt had been removed.
- Gentleness – swatches of easily frayed fabric were measured before and after the wash.
- Rinsing performance – a marker chemical was added to the wash. At the end of the wash, a water sample was taken to determine the amount of chemical left.
- Spin efficiency – the load was weighed before and after the wash to see how much water was removed.
We also measured the energy and water used during the various cycles.
How the cycles compared
Front loader | Cotton vs Quick + Cotton vs Everyday – cold 20°C wash
For our front loader we tested a Quick cycle, as well as an Everyday cycle.
- The Quick cycle removed 25% less dirt than the Cotton cycle.
- It took just one-fifth of the time.
- It used only 14% of the energy that the Cotton cycle did.
- The cycle was gentler on the clothes.
- It used half the amount of water.
- Overall, the Quick cycle’s performance score was 22% lower than the
Cotton (55% vs 77%). This score includes dirt removal, gentleness,
spin and rinsing performance.
- The Everyday cycle removed 7% less dirt than the Cotton cycle.
- It was 38% quicker.
- It used half the amount of energy.
- It consumed 22% less water.
- Its overall performance score was only 4% lower than Cotton (73% vs 77%).
The performance hit for the Quick cycle was significant (25% less dirt removed). But it is a very short cycle at only 22 minutes – around an hour and a half shorter than the Cotton cycle. And you’ll save 181 watt-hours of energy (equivalent to $16.51 a year) if you do a Quick wash every day.
We’d only recommend using this cycle if time is short, you aren’t doing a full load and your clothes aren’t too dirty.
As an alternative, the Everyday cycle on this machine is well worth considering for standard washdays. You only lose 7% dirt removal performance, but save 42 minutes and 106 watt-hours (that’s $9.67 a year if you do one wash a day).
Top loader | Cotton vs Quick – cold 20°C wash
The top loader we tested didn’t have an Everyday cycle option, so we stuck to testing the Quick cycle.
- The Quick cycle removed 15% less dirt than the Cotton cycle.
- It took just over half the time (35 minutes).
- Half the amount of energy was used.
- The cycle was gentler on clothes.
- It only used 10% less water than the cotton cycle – but still used 121 litres, more than a bathtub full!
- The Quick cycle’s overall performance score was 6% lower than the Cotton cycle (59% vs 65%). This score included dirt removal, gentleness, spin and rinsing performance.
The Quick wash cycle on this machine will save you 24 minutes and 36 watt-hours of energy (saving you $3.29 a year if you do a wash every day), but you’ll use nearly the same amount of water and remove 15% less dirt (bearing in mind that the Cotton cycle dirt removal score for this machine isn’t great to start with).
As the Cotton cycle on a top loader is relatively short, we wouldn’t recommend using the Quick wash cycle unless your clothes aren’t particularly dirty and time is short.
Is the Delicates cycle effective?
We ran the same tests for the Delicates cycles on both these machines.
Delicates cycles work by tumbling and spinning less in order to be gentler on your clothes. We test a machine’s gentleness in our lab and give it a score - the higher the number, the gentler the cycle is on your garments.
We wanted to know how performance, energy and water use were affected when washing garments using Delicates. Do you even need to use the Delicates cycle to wash your delicate items?
Front loader – Fisher & Paykel WH1160F2
- The Delicates cycle removed 21% less dirt than the Cotton cycle.
- Gentleness was up by 15%.
- It used one-fifth of the electricity of the Cotton cycle, but the same amount of water.
- It took less than half the time.
However, we’d suggest using the Quick cycle on this machine for delicate garments, as it’s actually gentler on clothes (2% gentler) than the Delicate cycle and only 4% worse at dirt removal (54% vs 58%). You’ll use half the amount of water, save 27 minutes (less than half the time), and end up with dryer clothes too, due to a better spin efficiency score.
If you have dirtier delicate garments, you could also consider using the Everyday cycle, as it’s still reasonably gentle (8% less than the Delicates cycle) but removes 14% more dirt.
Top loader – Samsung WA12A8376GV
- The Delicates cycle removed 36% less dirt than the Cotton cycle.
- The gentleness score rose by 21%, though.
- It used a humungous 242 litres of water (over two bathtubs full), nearly twice as much as the other cycles tested.
- It used 57% of the electricity and took around the same amount of time.
If you have delicate garments to wash, we’d suggest using the Quick cycle on this top loader. It’s much better at dirt removal than the Delicates cycle (21% better) and nearly as gentle (64% vs 72%). You’ll also use half the amount of water and enjoy a quicker cycle time – Delicates takes nearly twice as long as Quick.
Does a warm wash remove more dirt?
Modern laundry detergents are formulated to be effective in cold water (20°C or less). That’s why we use this temperature as our test cycle temperature. However, many machines default to 40°C for standard cycles, and a fair number of us probably still think warm washes are better at dirt removal (including yours truly!).
So, is there any benefit to washing in warmer temperatures?
We tested a front loader at 20°C and 40°C, keeping all other settings the same. Then we repeated the test on a different front loader model.
- In both machines, the warm wash removed only 1% more dirt than the cold wash.
- One machine used over twice the amount of energy washing at 40°C, as it did at 20°C. The other machine used 20% more energy.
It’s clear that for front loaders, a warm wash really isn’t worth the extra energy consumption for the 1% gain in washing performance. Stick to 20°C washes unless you have towels or sports gear that need a hygienic wash, in which case you will need to wash at least 60°C to kill off bacteria. Alternatively, you can use an antibacterial or antiseptic detergent or pre-treater. You should also run a hot wash once a month to clean your drum.
We don’t currently have comparative warm and cold performance scores for top loaders, but we do know that top loaders consume way more energy for warm washes than front loaders do. Our Samsung test model used over four times the electricity for a 40°C wash than it did for a 20°C wash. We doubt its performance will have increased by the same amount!