October 2, 2014

Washers Get a Musty Odor

According to Katherine Salant of the Southwest Florida Herald Tribune, if your remodeling or home-building budget is so tight you can only afford to splurge on one appliance, make it a high-efficiency, front-loading washing machine. 

For starters, laundry chores will take less time. With a spin speed of 1,200 RPMs, my high-efficiency front-loader wrings out so much water that the drying time is shortened by as much as 50 percent. The washer holds more clothes than my old top loader, so I have fewer loads, and this shortens up the whole operation.

But, alas, these high-tech wonders are not perfect. After several months of use, front loaders can acquire a vexing, musty odor.

In a recent interview with Anthony Hardaway, a detergent chemist and washing-machine designer for the Whirlpool Corp., I learned that the musty odor problem occurs with every type of washer, though it can be worse with the front-loaders. Hardaway also explained the science behind the odor, which will surprise most consumers and likely change their laundry habits.

The source of the odor is a residue of water, detergent, and dirt that collects in the cavity that holds the washing drum.

The residue accumulates faster when all the laundry is washed in cold water, a practice followed in many households to save energy and because garment washing instructions frequently state “cold-water wash.” Unfortunately, Hardaway said, laundry detergents do not perform well in cold water. They only remove about 60 percent of the dirt on soiled laundry. The other 40 percent is redeposited on your clothes and in your washer, where it eventually turns into the odor-causing residue.

Sensing my reaction to this unnerving news, Hardaway hastened to add that most people are satisfied with the results of their cold-water washing because the dirt that remains on their laundered clothing is not obvious. Only a detergent chemist will know that the colored shirt you are wearing looks a bit faded because it is covered with layers of microscopic dirt particles deposited with each laundering. The dirt is only noticeable on white garments, where the dirt particles make them appear to be yellowing or graying.

When the household laundry is washed in warm water, the results improve dramatically because detergents perform significantly better in higher water temperatures, Hardaway said. Only 10 to 15 percent of the dirt remains on the laundered items or in the machine. The odor-causing residue accumulates much more slowly and laundered clothes are much cleaner. Colored garments will not look faded, and white ones will be only slightly discolored, or not at all.

With high-efficiency front-loaders, the type of detergent used will also affect washing results. When regular detergent is used, laundered items will be much more noticeably faded or yellowed and the odor-causing residue will accumulate quickly because this type of front loader requires a special detergent formulation that produces minimal suds (look for “he”, which stands for high-efficiency, on the detergent label). Continued use of the regular detergent will permanently damage the machine.

Using warm water and the correct detergent solves the dirt-on-laundered clothing problem, but not the odor-producing residue one, which is more pronounced in a front loader because the door seal that keeps water from sloshing out during the washing process creates a nearly air tight chamber — a set-up for mold and mildew to take hold.

Hardaway emphasized, however, that the mold and its odor are not health risks; they’re an aesthetic issue. This conclusion, he said, was reached after the testing of hundreds of washing machines in third-party laboratories confirmed that “it’s normal household mold, it’s not alarming, and it’s whatever is already in your house.”

The prevalence of the mold and odor problem depends on the climate where you live, Hardaway said. In hot and humid regions, such as Texas and the Southeast, the smell is a year-round issue that can be worse in the summer. In the North, the problem often starts in the humid summer months, as mine did, but once started, “you’ll see it all through the year,” Hardaway said.

In the dry Southwest, mold and mildew is far less likely, but the residue will still form and eventually produce odors.

Hardaway’s solution for the odor and residue problem is surprisingly low tech.

The musty odor will dissipate if you leave the door open when the machine is not in use. This works for some households, but Hardaway said many people object to this untidy look, or they have small kids and safety issues, or there is some other practical reason they can’t leave the door open.

You can eliminate both the musty odor and the residue by washing with hot water every four or five loads. In hot water, the detergent “optimally performs,” removing all the dirt from both your clothing and the machine. The only problem here is that most consumers are loathe to use hot water because they think it will cause their clothes to shrink or fade. Acknowledging their apprehension, Hardaway suggested designating bath towels as the “hot-water load.” If they are adversely affected, which he stressed was unlikely, their utility will not be compromised.

If the low-tech approach doesn’t appeal, you can resolve the odor and residue problem with chemistry. Whirlpool’s “Affresh,” a white tablet about the size of a small ice hockey puck, was developed for just this purpose and is quite effective when used once a month.

Did Hardaway’s tutorial change my own routine? I switched to washing with warm water; I wash bath towels in hot water; and I tried the Affresh treatment, which did eliminate the odor.

Thank you to the Southwest Florida Herald Tribune

Comments

  1. I follow your blog for a long time and should tell you that your articles are always valuable to readers.