By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/19/2009 3:08:27 PM ET 2009-11-19T20:08:27

When you buy a new washing machine, you don’t expect it to stink up your house. But that seems to be a common problem for people who own high-efficiency front-loading washers.

Rae Lembersky of Seattle likes her front-loader. It saves water and electricity and gets the family’s clothes clean. But she hated the smell.

"Imagine that you're in one of those movies where there's a swamp monster and it's that kind of swampy, musty, sort of yucky smell."

Lembersky could see what was causing the stink. She found “black, gooey, slimy stuff” growing inside the rubber gasket which goes around the glass window on the washer door. That was quite a surprise because she regularly cleans the machine and runs loads with bleach and hot water.

“It just gives me the willies,” she says. “I don't like the thought of mold in my washer.”

Desperate for relief, she hired technician Scott Wiseman to remove and replace the disgusting rubber gasket. Once he took the washer apart, Wiseman found mold inside the machine, too. The job cost $300.

“It’s a very common problem,” Wiseman tells me. “I get calls about this all the time.”

What’s going on here?
After a while, all washing machines can have some odor caused by mold, mildew or bacteria.  But the problem seems to be worse with front-loaders because they are designed differently from top-loaders.

Front-loaders are tightly sealed. Close the door after removing the laundry and any moisture inside the machine will be trapped inside. With a top-loader the water is more likely to evaporate.

Having the tub on its side, rather than up-and-down, can also create problems.

“Even after it spins everything out, there's still going to be some water that ends up landing on the gasket. And water sitting on rubber is not a particularly good situation,” explains Consumer Reports deputy home editor Celia Kuperschmid Lehrman.

Consumer Reports subscribers from across the country have complained about smelly front-loaders. In fact, the editors have received so many complaints, they now warn about the problem when they review washers.

I contacted the appliance industry to find out what manufacturers think is causing the odor problem. In a statement, the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers suggested one more contributing factor:

“Over time, changes have occurred in consumer laundry habits including the use of less bleach, more fabric softener, and more frequent cold water wash cycles. These habits may impact the accumulation of bio-film and other residues, increasing the potential odor, mold and mildew.”

Solving the problem isn’t always easy
Seattle homeowner Dennis Hanson has a Kenmore front-loader. He did everything his owner’s manual recommends for proper maintenance and the washer still gave off a “putrid” odor.

Hanson describes it as “a combination of rotten eggs and just really bad stagnant water.” When I was at the Hanson house, the smell filled the laundry room.

Hanson bought a Sears service contract with his washer. Technicians serviced the machine four times and never solved the problem, so I arranged for an independent examination.

Larry Schmidt from Mr. Appliance Service did what the Sears techs didn't. He took off the front panel and removed the lint filter. It was clogged with lint, coins and other debris which trapped dirty water inside the washer. And that water was nasty.

Once Schmidt cleaned the filter and reinstalled it, the smell went away.

The Kenmore owner’s manual makes no mention of this potential problem. I contacted Sears to find out why. I also wanted to know why their service people had not checked the filter. The company did not respond to my calls and e-mails.

Preventing the problem
Manufacturers recommend doing a number of things to reduce or eliminate mold, mildew and odor problems:

  • Only use high efficiency (HE) detergent and never use more than the recommended amount.
  • Remove wet wash right away.
  • Then, keep the door open a bit to let the washer dry out. (Consumer Reports warns this can be a safety problem if you have young children in the house).
  • Follow the manufacturer’s "washer care" instructions in your owner’s manual. If there are no specific cleaning instructions run a "cleaning cycle" once a month – no clothes just hot water and a cup of bleach.

This may work, but after speaking to lots of people with smelly washers, I can tell you there is no guaranteed cure.

My two cents
There’s no question front-loaders are a better way to do laundry. They use significantly less water, do a superior job of cleaning and are gentler on your clothing. Because they remove so much water in the spin cycle, less drying is needed, which reduces electricity usage. But then there’s that odor problem.

Manufacturers are well aware of the potential for mold growth. I think they should come clean with their customers by specifically and prominently alerting them to the problem and how to prevent it.

A marketing person would call that crazy. But the current approach of ignoring the odor problem only results in unhappy customers who complain about their washer to friends and on the Internet.

If you buy a front-loader, do yourself a favor and take extra care – from day one – to prevent the growth of mold and bacteria.

More about topic: Washing machine

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