There was a time when using a washing machine to clean a load of laundry involved little more than tossing the dirty clothes into the tub, adding some detergent, and pressing a button, but times have changed. Almost all modern washers give consumers multiple wash cycles and water temperatures to choose from, and pressing the wrong button or turning the wrong dial can leave clothes ruined. This post will explain what happens when you choose these settings, which could make laundry day just a bit less confusing and help you to get the most out of your washer.
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Washing Machine Temperature Guide
Before the advent of washing machines and laundry detergents, dirty clothes were cleaned in extremely hot water. This greatly increased the amount of energy that was needed to get the job done, but the effort was worth it because the basic soaps available needed heat to work effectively. This was also a time when most clothes were made out of natural fibers like cotton, which can shrink when they are exposed to high temperatures.
To account for this, people would buy garments that were a little too large so they would fit after being washed in hot water. Today’s consumers don’t worry about this problem because they have modern detergents that work extremely well, even in cold water, and washers with advanced cleaning features.
Research and Development
Appliance manufacturers operate in an extremely competitive market, and they allocate hundreds of millions of dollars each year to fund research and development projects. This money funds efforts to improve existing technology and develop new washing machine features and the impetus in recent years has been finding ways to clean clothes effectively using less water and at lower temperatures. Some new washing machine features like voice controls or touchscreen displays are little more than gimmicks, but others can really improve cleaning and protect clothes from shrinking and damage. Here are some of the most useful features that have been added to washing machines in recent years:
- Cold wash cycles: Hot and warm are no longer the only washing machine temperatures available, as just about all modern washers offer a cold water option. This setting uses lower temperatures and gentle wash actions, and it’s appropriate for garments with vivid colors that could bleed in hot water or fabrics that could be damaged by vigorous motion.
- Quick wash cycles: When laundry spends less time in the washer, clothes are less likely to shrink or be damaged, and colors are less likely to fade or run. Choosing a quick wash cycle to clean lightly soiled clothes reduces water and electricity consumption, and it could also make clothes last longer.
- Presoak options: Presoaking is a good idea when clothes are heavily soiled, or dirt is ground in, but this was something that was done outside the washer until fairly recently.
- Steam cleaning: When even hot water is not enough to remove tough stains, a steam cleaning option could save a cherished garment from the scrap heap. Washers use internal heaters to create steam and nozzles to inject the hot mist into the tub. The steam then penetrates deep into fabrics to provide additional heat and boost the power of the detergent.
High-Efficiency Washers and Detergents
Consumer preferences have shifted in recent years as energy costs have increased and protecting the environment has become more important. Appliance and household products manufacturers have responded by introducing washing machines that use a lot less water and laundry detergents that have been specially formulated for use in them. Most of the energy that a washing machine burns through is used to heat up water, so lowering the amount of water a washer uses will greatly reduce its electricity consumption.
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High-efficiency washing machines use between 13 and 17 gallons of water to clean a load of laundry, which is less than half of the amount that traditional machines use. This is obviously a great benefit as long as cleaning performance is not impacted, and that is where high-efficiency detergents come in. High-efficiency machines use a tumbling action instead of agitators to provide the motion that cleans clothes, but that creates a lot more suds. High-efficiency detergents are formulated to reduce suds and rinse away with less water, and they also include ingredients that can lift dirt and stains at lower temperatures.
The HE Symbol
Some appliance manufacturers will void the warranties of high-efficiency washers if regular detergents are used in them, so you should always look for products bearing the HE symbol when buying detergent for one of these machines. Using regular detergent in a high-efficiency machine will result in a terrible mess, and the soap residue that builds up on rubber components like gaskets and seals provides a perfect environment for mold to grow.
Do You Wash Colors in Hot or Cold Water?
There is no perfect water temperature for washing clothes as not all fabrics and dyes respond to heat in the same way. Hot water turbocharges cleaning and leaves clothes sanitized and fresh, but it could damage delicate garments and cause natural fibers to shrink. Cold water is gentle enough for even delicate garments, but it does not clean as well or kill bacteria. If you are confused about which water temperature setting to choose, here are some tips that could help you decide:
- Read laundry labels: The care labels inside your clothes should tell you what water temperature to use. These tags usually have both symbols and writing on them, but sometimes only symbols are provided. If you want to know what a laundry symbol means, check the tags on other garments you own that are made out of the same fabric. Sooner or later, you will come across the symbol with an accompanying explanation.
- Sort your laundry: Most people associate sorting laundry with separating whites and colors, but there is a little more to it than that. You should still avoid mixing whites and colors, but you should also separate laundry according to fabric type and cleaning temperature. If you do, you will notice that the care labels in each pile will have similar recommendations for what temperature to wash clothes at.
- Take no chances: If you can’t find a care label and don’t know what kind of fabric a garment is made out of, you should take no chances. Wash the garment in cold water first, and only use higher temperatures if you are unhappy with the results.
Cold Water vs Warm Water
Washing clothes in cold water is better for the environment and lowers electricity bills, but does it get clothes clean? Warm water cycles are the next level up, but do they provide enough extra cleaning power to really make a difference? To answer these questions, we checked to see what clothing and appliance manufacturers recommend.
Any garment can be washed in cold water as it will not cause fabrics to shrink or colors to run, but it is especially suitable for delicate items or very dark or bright colors. Household cold water supplies are usually 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, but temperatures can plummet during the winter months in colder parts of the country.
Cold water is excellent for treating protein-based stains like blood or dairy, but it is not as effective as warm or hot water for removing dirt and grime. This is why you should always choose a detergent that is formulated to work at temperatures as low as 60 degrees Fahrenheit when you wash your clothes in cold water. You should also presoak heavily soiled garments in detergent and water to break down dirt before washing.
Washing machines heat water to between 90 and 110 degrees Fahrenheit when the warm setting is selected, which is hot enough to dissolve powder detergents and remove most stains. Warm is usually the water temperature recommended for washing manmade fibers like polyester, rayon, nylon, and spandex, but it is also a good choice for knitwear and denim.
If you live in a part of the country where winters are harsh, the temperature of your household cold water supply probably falls below 60 degrees Fahrenheit on a regular basis. That’s not good because water that is too cold will not activate all of the cleaning ingredients in laundry detergent. If cold water washing leaves your clothes dirty in the winter months, you may want to switch to warm water for laundry chores until the outside temperatures improve. Check your owner’s manual before you do, as some washers add warm water automatically in these situations.
When you choose the hot setting on your washer, the machine’s internal heater will raise the temperature of your household water supply to 130 degrees Fahrenheit or above. If your machine has a steam cycle, your clothes will be exposed to even higher temperatures. High heat is great for oily stains and heavy grime, and it also sanitizes fabrics by killing fungus and bacteria.
If you want to know what temperature to wash white clothes at, hot is probably the answer unless the garments are made out of delicate fabrics. However, high heat does have some disadvantages. Hot water is great for lifting most dirt, but it can set protein stains and make them almost impossible to remove. Washing at high water temperatures can also fade colors and shrink some fabrics.
Washing Machine Cycles
Once you have decided how hot the water in your washing machine should be, your next task will be selecting the appropriate wash cycle from a list of options. This can be a bit baffling as some machines have a dozen or more wash cycles to choose from. Let’s clear up the confusion by looking at what washing machines do when the various options are selected:
- Normal: This cycle has a fast spin speed and uses hot water. It is a good choice for washing moderately soiled cottons and mixed fabrics.
- Colors: This setting uses colder water to prevent colors from bleeding, but it still spins clothes at high speeds. This is the setting most often selected to wash dark garments and activewear.
- Whites: This cycle uses hot water and high spin speeds to clean and sanitize heavily soiled laundry.
- Delicates: This setting reduces spin speeds to protect delicate fabrics like silk, wool, and chiffon. This option is sometimes called the gentle cycle.
- Bulky: The bulky items cycle uses more water to clean sheets, comforters, and sleeping bags, and many machines start the washing process with a long soak when this option is chosen.
- Heavy: The heavy cycle is used for washing items made out of fabrics that absorb a lot of water, like jeans and towels. More water is used during this cycle, and spin times are a bit longer.
- Sheets: This laundry cycle uses a wash action that is designed to prevent items like bedsheets and large towels from getting tangled around the agitator.
Getting the Most Out of Your Washing Machine
Choosing the appropriate water temperature and wash cycle can keep your clothes looking new for longer and reduce your energy bills, but you should make sure that the detergent you use is suitable for your machine. WashersDryers360 publishes posts like this one to help our visitors get the most out of their laundry appliances, and our washer and dryer reviews and product roundups save them money. You can also visit WashersDryers360 to find out about breaking industry news, product safety recalls, and the latest consumer rebates and incentives.
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