How Do Washers Work?

If you have to do any kind of repair or maintenance on this unit, make sure to unplug it from the power supply.

Washers work by completing three major cycles: the fill, wash or agitate, and drain cycles. First, you load your washer with the clothes you want cleaned. Make sure you don’t pack the clothes in too tightly; you want the wash water to be able to circulate amongst the clothes to get them as clean as possible. The next step is to choose if it’s a large, medium, or small load.

The controls are different for each washer. The controls let you adjust wash settings, such as the water temperatures, spin speeds, timer cycles, etc. When operating properly the washing machine completes the cycle selected on the timer.

Your washer may have more than one selector switch. One switch allows you to select your desired settings for load size and another will allow you to choose whether you want to use cold, warm, or hot water. The start switch is usually integrated with the timer assembly. When you set the timer to the desired cycle, you either pull out or push in the timer knob to begin the cycle.

What happens next is that a solenoid operated water mixing valve opens and lets the washer fill up with cold water, hot water, or a mix of both, according to what you have selected using the selector switch. The water-inlet valve consists of three main parts which include: the cold water solenoid, the hot water solenoid, and the valve mixing body. Two hoses are clamped to the valve intakes from the house, one hot, one cold. A third hose connects at the valve mixing body to the washer tub. Its purpose is to fill the washer. The water then mixes with the detergent and clothes. The selector switch and timer interact with a pressure switch which measures the depth of water in the tub. When the desired level of water is reached, the switch sends a signal to the solenoid that closes the water-inlet valve.

Now that the washer tub is full, it’s time for the agitator to begin its work. The agitator is the plastic upside down cone with arms or fins on it, located in the center of the tub. It is driven by a clutch and transmission system attached to the motor. This system then rotates the agitator arms back and forth. This motion pulls the clothes down and through the wash water and detergent mixture repeatedly, loosening the dirt from the clothes. The pump re-circulates the wash water from the bottom to the top during the wash cycle. When the timer tells it to, the washer then pumps the water out of the tub, while the tub is also spinning between 400 to 800 rpm. This spinning provides a centrifugal force that pushes the water to the outside of the tub where the pump can pull all the wash water out of the tub.

For top load washers, the agitator is in the center of the tub; there is no agitator itself for front load washers, although the wash principle is very similar. The washer tub tumbles, moving the clothes through the wash water and sloshing the wash water over and through the clothes.

The selector switch and timer work together to complete the cycle you have chosen. The timer switch is usually mechanical, and is motor driven with cams to open and close switches. Newer models may use an electronic control circuit board. The timer tells the washing machine what to do next by sending the instructions and power to the washer’s parts at the right time.

After the agitation or tumbling is completed, the timer advances, and the dirty water is pumped out. More water is brought in to rinse the clothes while the washer agitates or tumbles some more to make sure the clothes are rinsed well. The machine spins the clothes again, using centrifugal force to get as much water out of them as it can while pumping out the rinse water, and that’s it.

There are three basic ways that washers pump water: direct drive, belt drive, and a separate pump and motor assembly.

There are certain safety features that are integrated into washing machines. What happens if you lift the lid on your washer? It stops spinning or agitating immediately because the lid switch activates the brake. This is to prevent injury to your arms and hands. There is a brake system built into washers by law because many people have been injured in the past by putting their hands and arms into a spinning wash tub. The brake system operates in much the same way as car and motorcycle brakes. With the lid open, your washer may still fill, but it will not spin or agitate. There are times the lid switch can fail, and your washer won’t work until you replace it. Going by this, if your washer fills, but won’t agitate or spin, you can infer that this switch may be defective.

Have you ever noticed that when your washer begins to spin, you can actually hear it pick up speed? Electric motors can reach full speed in under a second, however, under a load of clothes and water, trying to get up to this speed immediately is not good for certain components. The clutch and transmission assembly comes in handy here, allowing the tub to gradually increase its spin speed, without damaging any internal parts. The clutch basically lets the belt slip a bit and gradually tightens it until full speed is reached.

The electric motor powers the agitator during wash cycles and spins the inner tub during the damp dry or spin cycle; the motor also drives the pump on many models. After washing or rinsing, the pump removes the water from the tub through the drain hose, and lifts it out to the drain.

Many washers have a reversible motor, it can turn clockwise and counterclockwise. In one direction the motor uses the transmission or clutch system to spin the inner tub; while in the other direction, it uses the same transmission or clutch system to work the agitator. For washers that don’t have a reversible motor, a solenoid automatically shifts the transmission from agitate settings to spin settings.

Some washers use plastic and rubber coupler assemblies that connect the motor directly to the transmission. It makes the connection without the need for a belt. This part breaks fairly often. 

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2 responses to “How Do Washers Work?

  1. My washer spins very slowing on that cycle. I diagnosed it to the be break via much internet research. Put in new break assembly. Condition remains th same. It spins pretty fast while empty but with wet clothes it spins slowly….clothes still wet. Pump does work. On another site there is some discussion on a series of washers under the pully which effects the spinning. My Maytag has only one funny looking thick washer and a phillps screw holding it in. That washer is shaped with some sort of cam as a part of it which is adjustable and it is notched so as to be able to fit on the shaft in around 180- degrees of position. The outside of the shaft (vertical axes) is notched so as to accept that washer.

    I’ve spent too much money on it to give up now.

    thanks, Two Bears

  2. Hi TwoBears,

    You probably already checked this, but it is an easy mistake to make — make sure you have selected the proper spin cycle for your load. If you had a delicate cycle selected, but a heavy load, this could be the easy-to-fix cause to your problems.

    If you are sure you have to right cycle selected for your loads, let me know your model number and I will look into the possible problems further. Just post the model number in response to this comment. Thanks!

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