The Great Washing Machine Debate

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Dear Home-Ec 101,

What washing machine is better top or side load?

Wishy-Washy in Waseca

Heather says:

Isn’t it fun when someone answers your question with “It depends?”

The front-load vs top loading washing machine debate has been going on for years, about ten in the US. High-efficiency front loading washing machines hit the mainstream back in 2004 or so. Some of the lower end models of front-loading washing machines had major problems that frustrated their owners. The good news is that there have been improvements, but Once Bitten Twice Shy and people were reluctant to give these washers another chance.

So let’s take a look at where things are today.

Should you buy a top-load or front-load washer

Front-load clothes washers are still more efficient than standard top loading machines but not that much more efficient than high-efficiency top-loading washers.

Efficiency isn’t everything or we would all be driving hybrid cars, right?

Some front loading washing machines are stackable, so if you’re super tight on space, this may be an option for you.

High-efficiency top loading washers are generally easier to load and unload, unless you’re of small stature. The ease of loading and unloading can be improved for a front-load machine by placing the appliance on a pedestal.

Front-loading washers tend to remove more water during the spin cycle than their top loading counterparts which reduces the amount of energy used to dry the load of clothing. This factor won’t matter at all, if you prefer to hang your clothing to dry.

Front-loading washers are still slightly better at stain removal than the top loading variety, but it’s pretty marginal and I am willing to bet that pre-treating makes a big difference.

Top loading machines still use more energy to agitate the clothing, use more water, and require more detergent for loads of comparable size, but the gap has been shrinking over the last few years.

And of course, the final comparison is cost.

Standard top loading machines are the cheapest, but least efficient appliances. High efficiency top loading washers come in second in both terms of cost and efficiency. Finally front-loading machines are the most expensive, but most efficient machines.

When you’re making your appliance choice, factor in the long term cost of electricity and water use. If your water is heated by natural gas or propane, you’ll find your clothes washer likely has less of an impact on your overall energy costs than if you’re stuck with an electric water heater like me.

Which of these factors matter most to you?

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Get Clothing Clutter Under Control

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Dear Home-Ec 101,
I have a dilemma. I find my bedroom becoming cluttered very quickly with clothes that are “too clean to wash” yet “not clean enough to put away”. I was a single mom for many years, going to school or working, sometimes more than one job, and as a result, I didn’t want to spend more time on laundry than I had to. I’d wear clothes until they were visibly dirty, overly wrinkled, or they became… umm… odiferous.

When I was a single parent, that didn’t take as long as it does now! Now, I’m married and have one teen at home (who is responsible for his own laundry). I work at home caring for my elderly parents, and the piles of “not clean, not dirty” clothes are overwhelming in our bedroom and my parents’! Sometimes, items in the pile have to be washed simply because they have been there so long, they’ve become wrinkled.

What do other people do with their clothes? Do they wash every item, every time they wear it? Do they wear the same thing until it needs to be washed? Do they hang up or fold and put away slacks and jeans and tops that have been worn but aren’t dirty?

Help me get out from under this heap! If you need something cleaned, I’m your girl. I’m not a very physically organized person, and “stuff” is my great foe.
Clothes Horse

get clothing clutter under control

Heather says:

I’ll let you in on a secret, I’m a bit disorganized, too. Ok I struggle a lot with organization, but I do try.  I tend to be a perfectionist control freak -no comments from the peanut gallery, thank you very much- about my own space, which in a weird cruel twist of fate means stuff often piles up as I wait for the “right” time to take care of something. It takes a huge amount of -wait for it, I’m about to say a dirty word- self-discipline for me to do the daily upkeep that organization requires.

When I read your dilemma my first thought is that perhaps you have too much clothing.

Generally speaking those of us who live in relatively affluent Western cultures have too much stuff and that stuff causes misery. If we aren’t careful we tend to enter a cycle where we work to buy things and then work to take care of our things and then work to buy more things to replace the things that fell apart due to neglect. I’m tired just thinking about it.  (You all know that this is where some people are going to tell me that they live with exactly 3 pieces of clothing not including their underwear and that they have no idea what I’m talking about, right?)

So outside of those people who claim to have 3 items of clothing, what are you to do?

Don’t pile your clothing. 

Piles are the enemy.

Hang everything you possibly can, ESPECIALLY the items that have been worn but aren’t ready for washing. If you can’t hang everything, then you must find storage for out of season clothing and I don’t mean a pile in the corner of your room. Space saver bags, a box under the bed, a box in the attic, anywhere except a pile that’s going to get knocked over and them trampled on.

Hanging allows clothing to dry thoroughly, preventing that musty now I have to wash it condition.

Go into your closet(s) right now and hang everything backwards on the bar.

As you wear items and wash them, hang them the normal way on the leftmost side of the bar. Just keep shoving the stuff hanging backwards toward the right. Over six months or a year (depending on your climate) you’re going to get a better idea of the clothing you actually wear. Donate or consign the rest and do not feel guilty about it.

Just let it go. Someone else needs that item much more than you.

Don’t hang onto items for “when I lose ten pounds” and certainly don’t hang onto items “in case I gain ten pounds.”

Just let it go.

bedroom and closet cleaning

Click the picture for more tips!

While you’re undergoing the great clothing weed out, do not buy more clothing. If there is an item you cannot pass up, something in your closet has to leave the house before that item can be introduced to your wardrobe.

This isn’t an overnight fix, but over time you will notice a significant reduction in the amount of laundry done in your home.

Good luck!

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Laundry and the Great Diaper Blowout

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Dear Home-Ec 101,

I’m a brand new mom and I need to know if it is okay to wash clothes that have suffered through a diaper leak with the rest of the baby clothes. How do I make sure that poop (sorry!) doesn’t get all over the washer and the rest of our stuff without resorting to throwing away the outfit?

Pooped in Pooler


Heather says:

Babies. Sometimes it’s a really good thing we are designed to find them cute, because they can cause us as caregivers to deal with things that we would normally cause us to lose our lunch over.

This won’t be the last poopy outfit you deal with.

I guarantee at some point during the next two years, you will throw at least one outfit away, maybe even something of yours, due to a diaper blowout.

One of my kids’  first real explosion was on the way to the photographer’s for baby pics. So I changed the baby, bagged everything up to deal with at home, and congratulated myself for being so prepared.

Guess who exploded again, but this time in the waiting room?


So guess who has first baby pics in a clean diaper and not much else? That kid. Guess who was a hot mess of I’m never going to get this right? This mom.

Airports, car seats, man oh man all the car seats, the crib, the carrier, the carpet… there isn’t really a baby safe surface that hasn’t had this contamination. You sort of become immune to it at some point.

Anyhow, enough story time.

Baby clothes are tiny and unless you overload your washer they can agitate freely in the wash tub. Rinse as much of the solid matter as possible out of the clothing. If you aren’t running the load immediately go ahead and soak the item with a tiny bit of mild dish detergent (or liquid laundry detergent) applied directly to the stain in cold water.  Give it a good swish, wash your hands and wash it with the next load of laundry.

Rules for running the load of laundry with the casualties of a diaper blowout:

  1. RINSE the items involved thoroughly
  2. SOAK the item if time allows in COLD water
  3. Do not overload your clothes washer
  4. Use the largest load possible for your machine
  5. Inspect the item after washing for residual stain. Spot treat with additional detergent and rewash if stain lingers.


1. This removes as much solid particulate matter as possible. Detergent works by surrounding particles and bringing them into solution (the water in your washing machine.) Pre-removing what can simply be rinsed away reduces the amount of particulates that have to be suspended in the water by a limited number of detergent molecules

2. This gives the detergent time to work into the stain and surround those remaining particles.  Cold water prevents any proteins from denaturing -changing into a structure that may be impossible or exceptionally difficult to remove.

3. The clothing articles needs to be able to move freely so the water and detergent molecules can move around and between the fabric’s fibers.

4. The more water the more movement opportunity for the clothing items AND the more particles that can be brought into solution and not left on the clothing. Think about stirring salt into water. There comes a point where the solution is saturated and no more salt can be dissolved. This is the same with detergent and the particles it is trying to bring into solution. The issue is trickier than the salt in water solubility as detergent molecules are sticky and will cling to your fabric and yes, the inside of your washer if there is not enough solvent to keep it in solution.

5. This circles back to item 2. and 4. You don’t want any leftover protein molecules to denature -change structure – in the heat of the dryer. There may not have been enough detergent available to completely remove the stain, it could have been so deeply embedded in the fibers that it needs another run through the wash.

Unless someone in the house is ill, the clothes washer and dryer are enough “disinfecting” for the average home. Obviously wash your hands well after handling soiled clothing.

Enjoy the new minion.

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The Hard Water Headache

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Dear Home-Ec 101,

I was visiting my MIL recently and she told me that they have hard water, so she had to put a lot of extra soap in the washer because otherwise she didn’t get any bubbles and it wouldn’t clean the laundry. This confuses me because I always thought you weren’t supposed to have a lot of foam in the washer. I’ve read articles recently saying that most people use way too much laundry detergent. Also, the man who installed our new septic system told me that I should use liquid soaps because they didn’t foam and foam would not build up in the septic system (which is apparently a bad thing).

I suspect that my MIL simply doesn’t know what she’s talking about, but I would never say so to her. If I’m wrong, please correct me- or at least just clear this up so I can think about something else!

Biting My Tongue

Heather says:

You are both partly right.

Laundry detergent isn’t just one thing, it is a blend of ingredients in either a solution or powdered form. Some of it is soap, some detergent, some surfactants, water conditioners, and then we get to the perfumes and dyes.

Hard water is water that has calcium and magnesium in solution and these dissolved minerals cause a lot of headaches in laundry. If they are not suspended in water when the wash water or rinse water is drained, the magnesium and calcium can cling to clothing causing fabrics to feel stiff and dulling the color. Think of it a bit like looking through a slightly dirty window, usually you can’t focus on the dirt, but your view of the outside world isn’t as bright and clear due to the slight film obscuring the view.

It is often necessary to use more laundry detergent in hard water.

When laundry detergent is added to hard water, a number of the detergent molecules -which I’ve been describing ad nauseum of late- get used up binding the calcium and magnesium. This simply means that all conditions being equal, there will be fewer detergent molecules able to trap dirt in hard water than in soft water. Soap molecules that come in contact with minerals form our nemesis soap scum which is difficult to remove from wherever it decides to cling.

[pullthis display=”outside” id=”disclaimer”]Please do not expect Home-Ec 101 to help you study for your physical chemistry final, I am only trying to get across basic concepts. [/pullthis] [pullshow id=”disclaimer”] In chemistry we often talk about something called the saturation point. When something is saturated, it can’t hold any more. In your laundry, this is the point at which no more detergent can be in the wash water. Whatever cannot be in the water falls out as precipitate. (Remember it like this, when it rains, it’s precipitating, the cloud cannot hold any more moisture so it falls out of the sky.)

Water can only hold so much soap, even if that detergent is busy holding minerals like calcium and magnesium in solution -the clusters of soap around oil or dirt are called micelles. So there is a point at which too much of anything is going to precipitate out of solution. Where that precipitate (dirt, oil, gunk micelles) goes depends on its density, it may sink or float on top of the water in a scummy layer.

As consumers we tend to associate soap suds with laundry detergent doing its job.

Foaming and bubbles occur when when air your washer agitates, splashing the water around and trapping air. Bubbles and foam are actually two layers of soap sandwiching a tiny film of water. Air gets trapped in this film creating bubbles, as more air is introduced through splashing, you create the foam and suds we are all familiar with.

For the most part, suds aren’t coming in contact with the clothing and when the water drains, the suds leave a sticky film of soap behind. If there isn’t enough rinse water to bring everything into solution, those deposits will stay on the fabric which pretty much defeats the entire purpose of doing laundry.

People who live in areas with hard water do have a few tools at their disposal.

Heat improves solubility.


Approximate Temperatures of Wash Water
Cold WaterWarm WaterHot Water
65°F – 75°F80°F – 105°F120°F – 140°F
18°C – 24°C27°C – 40°C49°C – 60°C

In general, higher temperatures allow more soap or detergent to be in the water at a given time.

Additionally, please note that most laundry detergents aren’t going to be very effective at temperatures below 60°F or 16°C. If this is the only option, try dissolving powdered detergent in a small amount of hot water before adding it to the washing machine. This will help prevent those white powdery streaks caused by undissolved detergents.

Water conditioning

Those looking to improve the effectiveness of their laundry detergent in hard water can give conditioning their water a try. Water conditioning is the process of getting the calcium and magnesium out of the water where it won’t use up the detergent. This is typically done by exchanging the calcium and magnesium ions with those in salt (sodium and chloride).  Now kep in mind that some laundry detergents already contain ingredients, known as zeolites that condition the water.

Point of Use Water Conditioning

If you are looking to soften your hard water only in the clothes washer, be absolutely sure to purchase a non-precipitating water softener. Non-precipitating water softeners work best when added to the water before the detergent, this prevents the detergent from beating the water softener to those pesky ions. Yes, this means you will have to be more attentive to your washing machine when doing laundry.

Precipitating water softeners will cause the minerals to fall out of solution where they will likely cling to clothing and the inside of your washing machine, completely defeating the purpose.

Whole House Water Softening

Water softeners are a fairly common solution that also works by switching out the calcium and magnesium with the ions in salt by passing the water through a chamber of resin beads. These beads have to be recharged with salt on a regular basis. There are some environmental concerns with choosing to use a water softening unit and you should do your research thoroughly before making the investment.

Do not waste your time with a magnetic water softener.

You are not going to get the results you desire slapping a couple of magnets around a pipe. It’s a scam.

So for the TL/DR crowd to answer your initial questions:

1. Yes, you need more laundry detergent in places with hard water.

2. Soap suds are not an indication of how well laundry detergent is working and they can leave dirt behind.

Regarding Septic Systems:

Everything you allow to go down the drain affects the chemistry and bacterial balance of your septic system. Your septic system is designed to handle some variations, but if you go too far, you’ll upset the natural balance and end up with big problems.

Use the least amount of low foaming soap possible. The low foaming is critical for septic systems with an aeration chamber. As stated above, suds form when air is introduced to that soap film. Suds will leave behind soap and eventually clog the system.

And those of you who have septic tanks should remember that it is better to spread laundry out over the course of a week than overloading your system and upsetting the chemical / biological balance with a marathon laundry day. If you’re that far behind and the mountain of laundry is threatening to avalanche, consider saving yourself expensive septic repairs with the relatively cheaper laundry mat option.

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Image is linked with an affiliate code to That image is used as an illustration of the system mentioned in the post, rather than a recommendation of a specific brand. . .

How to Clean a Bath Mat After a Toilet Overflow

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Dear Home Ec 101,

I found your article on How to Clean Up After a Toilet Overflow useful, but I was wondering if you could tell me how to clean my daughter’s colorful bath mat?

My Cup Overflows With Gratitude

Heather says

Isn’t adulthood fun?

The good news is that your bath mat is not a table cloth.

If you have a clothes washer, between it, 2 TBSP of household bleach, the dryer, and some sunlight, your bath mat will be more than clean enough to avoid spreading things like e. Coli to the entire house.

First take the bath mat outside and shake it out as much as thoroughly possible. If you can still see some -ahem- organic matter, grab the hose and rinse the bath mat until all visible particles are gone. Wring the bath mat out as thoroughly as possible, while you’re still outside.

Wash the bath mat on the largest load in warm water with regular detergent and then follow that up by adding 2TBSP of household bleach to the rinse cycle. 

The University of Kentucky’s County Cooperative Extension says:


Brightly colored fabrics that may fade when chlorine bleach is used at higher levels, generally can be successfully sanitized with 2 tablespoons of liquid chlorine bleach per washer load without significant color loss

Dry your bathmat thoroughly in the dryer, on tumble or low. The rubber backing of the mat will disintegrate if you dry it at higher temperatures. Once the bath mat is thoroughly dry allow it to sit in the sunlight for several hours.

At this point, it’s okay to stop worrying. Bath mats are intended for feet and really, when your child plops down on the bath mat with their bare bottom, they are probably adding more germs to the mat than they could possibly pick up.

Remember your home isn’t an operating room and a sterile environment isn’t necessary to maintain good health. Using proper hand washing techniques, getting adequate sleep, and a good diet will do far more for a family’s overall health than spending too much time and energy on trying to rid your home of all potential germs.

Have fun?

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Related Posts:

The differences: Organize, Clean, Sanitary, and Sterile

Cleaning Up After a Toilet Overflow

Bathroom Cleaning 101