How does a washing machine work?

Bosch WAU28P89GB

Looking around your home, have you ever wondered about how exactly your appliances work? Because I’m not ashamed to admit I have.

‘How does a washing machine work?’ was, admittedly, never the highest question on my priority list. I thought it was pretty self-explanatory. If you have a few delicate things that need hand washing, you’ll probably be familiar with the basic principle.

The magic is, of course, friction. But that feels too simple, right?

Let’s take a closer look – and take a guess at what the future holds, too.

How does a washing machine work?

As I mentioned, friction plays a crucial role. It’s the same reason why we started out with washboards and a piece of soap. You’d soap up the board, soak your clothes in hot soapy water, and then rub them over the surface.

Miele washing machine
WEG365 washing machine, £1199, Miele.

This forces the soap through the cloth, allowing it to carry away any dirt. Then you rinse your clothes to finish.

A washing machine works by basically mimicking this process. There are three pillars to the process: water, mechanical action, and detergent.

Water is pretty self explanatory. People call it the universal solvent for a reason – because it solves more substances than any other liquid, and that applies to stains on your laundry, too. Plus, adding liquid makes it easier for the clothes to move around inside the appliance.

Mechanical action (which is also called agitation) allows the detergent to work efficiently.

The final pillar, detergent, is where the magic happens. Or, well, science. Long story short, one part of a detergent molecule – the head – is water loving, the other one (the tail) is attracted to grease and dirt. The tail attaches to the grease molecule, but as the force drawing the head to water is stronger, stains are lifted off.

Your clothes being moved around the washing machine helps the detergent work more effectively.

But what actually happens inside the drum?

With the basic principle of how your washing machine works out of the way, you might still wonder what actually happens once you switch it on.

Siemens washing machine
iQ500 WM14UP89GB washing machine with Home Connect, £1069, Siemens.

First of all, there are three main types of washing machine: your classic front loader drum washing machine, as well as toploaders which either feature an impeller or agitator.

An impeller is located at the bottom of your appliance – usually as a flat disc or cone. The machine turns around a central axis, and the impeller itself also moves which moves your clothes and makes them rub against each other.

The more commonly seen agitator is a central column that moves your clothes around the drum. This also helps mix detergent with water, as well as encouraging fabric to rub against each other.

How does a washing machine cycle work?

Once you’ve hit start, what actually happens?

If you have a toploader, the very first thing you need to do is add detergent. Yes, before you put in any laundry. That’s because the water source is at the bottom, and you want to get your detergent as close to it as possible.

Then you put in your laundry, switch it on, and the agitator or impeller will do their job together with water and detergent.

For a front loader, as washing machines work similarly, the process is similar too. However, you might need to place detergent in the little drawer at the top, rather than directly into the drum. And if you use fabric softener, make sure you don’t overfill the relevant compartment. If you do, some machines won’t dispense it into the drum at all.

The cycle starts with the tub spinning to balance and sense the load inside. Then, water begins to fill the tub. It runs over the detergent, to immediately bring it into the mix.

Then the main cycle starts. The drum begins to spin, moving the clothes and making them scrub against each other to get everything clean.

Gaggenau laundry centre
200 series WM260164 washing machine Home Connect, shown with the 200 series WT260110 heat pump tumble dryer, price on application, Gaggenau.

After this, the machine pumps dirty water from the drum. A quick spin cycle gets rid of even more, before the machine pumps in clean water to rinse your clothes.

Finally, after draining again, a longer spin cycle gets rid of as much water as possible.

Let’s look towards the future…

That’s how washing machines work today – but what’s coming up?

We’ve seen a lot of technical advances, not only in the step from washboard to a dedicated machine that does the hard work for us. These days, washing machines work with all sorts of clever features.

Auto dosing, for example, ensures you always use the exact right amount of detergent. And smart home functionality allows you to switch your appliance on and off from almost anywhere – no matter if you want to get a head start on your laundry before you leave the office or are sitting on the sofa and just don’t want to move.

In the future, we’re likely to see this expand. Some washing machines can already communicate with the dryer, so their programmes are perfectly aligned.

Also expect to see even more specialised washing cycles, from lower temperatures to solutions for specific materials, such as sports gear or very, very delicate fabric.

Featured image: Serie 6 WAU28P89GB washing machine, with Home Connect, £1359, Bosch.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy these laundry tips.

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