A mother’s curse: the horror of the toploader


American washing machines are terrible. Let me count the ways.

1) They are enormous. This means they are invariably located in the basement. If you live in an apartment, standard practice is that there is a laundry room for the whole building (ours is pictured above). Therefore you have to trek up and down from your apartment every time you want to check that they’re free; load them up with washing; move the washing into the dryer; empty the dryer.

Hence, I can never do any washing while A is awake, because repeatedly going up and down two flights of stairs and 50 metres round the back of the building is not a very toddler friendly experience.

2) The water never gets very hot. How hot, I can’t say, because the settings on American washing machines are a vague ‘cold’, ‘warm’, and ‘hot’. Which seems a bit pre-industrial to me, frankly, accustomed as I am to European clothing labels specifying the temperature you should wash an item in degrees celsius. And, of course, to a washing machine dial full of symbols you neither recognise nor understand, and just three cycles that you ever actually use. 

The key point is that the water here is not heated by the machine, but comes off the building water supply, so at its maximum temperature it’s the same temperature as your hot tap. I would guess ours is around 40 celsius. 

Hence, the water is barely hot enough to get food – or worse – out of clothes.

3) Because the voltage is a puny 110 volts (around half the standard voltage in the UK), the spin function is feeble, and clothes come out of the machine much wetter than they would from a British machine. 

Hence, unless you use a dryer the clothes take forever to get dry. And I hate using the dryer for everything. But then I also hate lugging wet clothes back to the apartment, hanging them out next to one of our three radiators (American apartments seem to have fewer, bigger, but less handily clothes drying adapted radiators) and waiting for A to pull them all off the airer onto the floor.

4) Apartment communal machines require an endless supply of quarters to operate, which feels expensive – though it may be no worse than paying your own electricity bill – and is definitely inconvenient.

Hence, we can normally only muster up enough coins for a couple of washes a week.

5) Toploading machines shred your clothes. There’s a pole that comes up the middle, and that stirs the clothes around, kind of (look, I’m not an engineer, there’s a proper explanation on Wikipedia here), amusingly called an ‘agitator’, and it is much tougher on fabric than the tumbling drum on a frontloading machine. As well as less effective at getting them clean. There is a ‘delicates’ setting, as well as a ‘normal’ one and a ‘permanent press’ one. But my impression is that that just shudders politely and briefly in the general direction of the clothes. That’s why it’s over in 10 minutes. Whereas permanent press… permanently locks in creases you didn’t want in the first place?

Hence, A’s clothes start to look terribly shabby even before she outgrows them.

6) Seems they are far less efficient in terms of electricity and water usage too. 

There is a lot of ranting on the internet about how bad American washing machines are. I don’t quite understand why they persist with toploaders that look like they were built in the 50s and have a similar level of performance, but my guess is ignorance that there’s something better out there. After all: who but an out of work expat mother spends much time investigating global washing machine comparisons?


About scepticalexpat

British 30something wannabe academic, moving to Chicago for three years in August 2010.
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7 Responses to A mother’s curse: the horror of the toploader

  1. emmhub says:

    See, I am totally going to have to disagree with this one! I could never understand why you would have a washing machine in your kitchen – especially in a small flat. We could hear the machine (which ran for about 4 hours to wash one load) everywhere in the flat, and it smelled like washing detergent (not appealing while eating dinner) and it was also a dryer as well and it burnt our clothing to a crisp (I once got a physical burn from a metal button on my jeans) and shrank it all. The end result – we had to put a drying rack in our hall and then scoot around it for 3 days while everything dried (because it was so damp in our flat). I hated everything about laundry in the UK! I hated it so much that I don’t mind having to walk downstairs to use the large, quiet, efficient (laundry done in 35 minutes!) machines we have now! And the dryers have a medium heat setting which means that I can actually put my clothes in and not have them come out 3 sizes smaller – and it dries it all within 40 minutes, no problems! I also like that I can do cold/warm water washes as well – but then we don’t have baby messes, so I may concede on that point.

  2. Hearing the other side is really interesting. I can accept that actually it makes more sense for a building to share washing machines, even though it’s a massive pain for me right now. But come on, your British machine did not take 4 hours to wash a load! British machines *can* do cold and warm washes, but proper hot washes too. And while American machines are faster there is no other sense in which they’re more efficient.

    I agree washer/ dryers are rubbish. But my impression is that most people who have them only use the dryer once in a blue moon – and surely on environmental grounds that has to be the best way. The real problem, I reckon, is that British flats are often so tiny that there’s barely room for a proper drying rack.

    • emmhub says:

      We still do dry a lot of our stuff on a rack, but here we have a spare room and it doesn’t affect how we move around the flat. Plus, the flat here has better circulation, so everything dries over night. Our machine did take at least 2 hours for a regular load. We got to the point that we just did a “quick wash” or “light wash” unless we were doing gym clothes. But even that took 45 minutes. We have a front loading machine here in the US which is great – and it is so much larger than the UK one. So we can do a weeks worth of laundry in 2 loads instead of 4. And we then put 1 load in the drying and 1 dries on the rack. We are also fortunate enough that our machines are energy efficient (which is more common now) so it is actually water and electrically efficient. You could not pay me to use a UK machine in my kitchen ever again. I was secretly really happy when our UK machine broke and for 3 weeks I had to go to a laundrette to do laundry! Everything was done within 1.5 hours and our house was free of drying rack! Maybe our machine was particularly bad, or our flat too small (it was!) but I loathed laundry and everything about it in the UK!

  3. cathy says:

    I fear you have opened a can of worms…

    I, too, hated top-loading washing machines in America with a burning passion. I resorted to washing almost all my clothes in mesh laundry bags in a vain attempt to prevent the machine from eating them. I’m sure the front-loading American ones are ok though. I actually bought a washing machine for the first time a few months ago. It made me feel like a proper grown up.

    • 1) I’m sure you are right about front-loading machines, but I’ve never actually seen one here.
      2) Get you! We have promised one another that we’re going to buy a Dyson when we get back to Britain (I know, who said having children killed romance?). But I think a washing machine would feel even more grown up.

  4. AHLondon says:

    I’m on the opposite side of this one too, mostly anyway. Top loaders do eat clothes and communal basement washrooms stink, literally and figuratively. That said, I loathe UK washers. The time. The mold. The absolutely confusing dials and procedures. The only thing I liked a bit was the dryer was a steam dryer so–after deciphering the time settings–my clothes could come out with uniform dampness. I could fluff and hang them to avoid ironing. I try that here and only the seams and pockets come out damp.

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