Updated for December 2014
“I get the point of steam in a dryer but what does it do in a washer?”
This is a question I’ve been posed numerous times in the past. Is there some actual function of this function? Let's look at the features and decide the value.
LG introduced the first steam washer to the consumer market in 1997 after two years of development. They claimed of an increased washing performance of 21% and decreased use of water and energy. The steam powers out the tough stains, they claimed. All the other major brands followed suit shortly thereafter with their own models.
Science of Steam Washers
So there’s the history, now where’s the science behind it? When you wash your heavily soiled clothes you’re supposed to use the hot water setting which is usually 130 degrees. But what if that’s not hot enough to lift the stain? That’s the first benefit of steam. These machines have a steam generator which heats the water to 212 degrees and releases the steam into the washer drum. The steam then penetrates the fibers and helps the detergent break down the tougher stains. (Parents, think about grass stains)
Benefits of Steam Washers
There are other added benefits of the steam function as well, sanitation and sterilization. As a person that suffers from allergies, this caught my eye immediately.
Sanitation occurs when water temperature reaches 171 degrees, which a normal washer doesn’t achieve. At this temperature allergens such as dust mites and pollen break down.
Sterilization occurs at 175 degrees. I have 3 nieces and nephews under the age of 2. From this I’ve learned, to my dismay, that diapers are not leak proof. When the clothes go into the wash with a steam cycle, the clothes will be sterilized and clean.
One other function of the steam is to help soften the fabric during the wash cycle. Today’s front loading washers spin at speeds in excess of 1,000 rpms. This high speed is more efficient, because there is less drying time.
However, the clothes are more wrinkled. By introducing steam into the cycle, it helps soften up the fabric thus releasing the wrinkles. If you’re like me and probably most of the modern world as well, you hate ironing.
Prices (vary $100-200 per machine)
Electrolux EIFLS60JIW - $999
EIFLW50LIW (no steam) - $749 (after rebates)
Frigidaire FFFS5115PW - $699 (after rebates)
FFFW5000QW (no steam) - $599 (after rebates)
Maytag MHW7100DW - $1,049 (after rebates)
MHW3000BW (no steam) - $979 (after rebates)
So there it is, what steam actually does in a washing machine. For sanitation, sterilization and the ability to power out tough stains and if you hate ironing (you know you do), steam is a great option to consider.
For more information about washers, read the Yale Washer Buyers Guide for features, tips and brands to consider before you buy your next set of laundry.