The New Year will usher in new rules for most top-loading washers to use less energy. But some of these machines have murky labeling, and you could get soaked along with your clothing, because there's no easy way to tell whether the washer in the store is the latest model.
Washing-machine energy-efficiency standards - both minimum and stricter Energy Star ones - are rising 21 percent with the arrival of 2007. That should mean better energy savings across the board.
But those familiar yellow EnergyGuide labels won't be of much help: They won't tell you whether a washer meets the old standard or the new. Neither will they tell you much about the annual energy cost - how much you'll pay to wash and dry a load.
On top of all that, the changes being made to improve energy efficiency apparently aren't helping washing efficiency: Two washers we tested that meet the new standards were among the poorest performers.
Some make a splash
Though some newer top-loading machines that meet 2007's energy standards are nearly as expensive as front-loaders, many are not as energy efficient. Nor can most top-loaders match a front-loader for performance and gentleness. About the only drawback to a front-loader - in addition to price - is the inconvenience of having to stoop to load and unload the machine.
We tested nearly two-dozen front-loading models and most proved better overall than even the highest-scoring top-loaders. Three stood out from the rest: The Bosch Nexxt 500 Series WFMC3301UC ($1,100), the LG WM0642H ($1,000) and the Whirlpool Duet GHW9150P ($1,000) all did a very good job of washing and were reasonably quiet. (That's important if your laundry room is near a living space.) The Bosch is the most energy efficient of the trio. It also conserved water well but has a smaller capacity than the LG or Whirlpool.
Among top-loading machines, we liked the Whirlpool WTW5540S ($400) and the Admiral AAV7000 ($300, from Home Depot). Such prices won't get you Energy Star certification or, generally, as much energy efficiency as you might want, but both were judged good or better across most of our tests. The Admiral was noisier and less roomy than the Whirlpool.
Features that shine
Neither the Admiral nor Whirlpool top-loaders we liked provide auto temperature control, a feature that varies the proportion of hot and cold water - depending on the temperature of incoming water - so that wash water is truly warm when you choose warm. (A comparably performing, comparatively inexpensive top-loader that does have auto temperature control, the $500 Amana NAV8805, isn't as water efficient as the Admiral or the Whirlpool.)
Another feature you might consider is a sanitizing cycle. This raises water temperature to 130 degrees - potentially useful if you have dust-mite allergies.
Dryer a la carte
Buying a washer and dryer together? Choose the washer first because there's more variation in washing performance.
While selecting units a la carte can save money, our tests show that manufacturer pairings of washers and dryers may improve dryer performance. And even an old dryer will work better if a new washer extracts more water than its predecessor.
Perks and pitfalls of paying online
By the Editors of Consumer Reports If you use a credit card for online purchases through payment services such as PayPal or Bill Me Later, you get the same protections as if you paid with your card directly. Federal law entitles you to a credit for returns, damaged goods and missing shipments bought with a credit card. It also limits your liability for fraudulent charges to $50. But those protections don't apply if you pay from a bank or cash account - options also offered by PayPal and others. You'll have to haggle with the bank or payment service for redress if the deal turns sour. How they work Online payment services are convenient. You register just once with each. Then, whenever you buy something from a participating merchant, you merely click on the service's icon and the transaction speeds through. The service pays the merchant by billing your credit card or by dipping into your bank account. For buyers, all the services are free. Beyond that, each one works a little differently. ¢ Auction payment services. To pay for auction winnings or to deal with a small retailer, most likely you'll use PayPal, BidPay or a similar payment service. PayPal bills your credit card or withdraws the money from your bank or out of your PayPal cash account. ¢ Checkout services. Google Checkout is the newest, but individual retailers like Amazon have long offered express checkout. When you click on an icon, your purchase is billed to your credit card. Google search results now show a shopping cart under a company's name if the retailer participates. ¢ Credit accounts. Bill Me Later instantly checks your creditworthiness after requesting the last four digits of your Social Security number, your address and birth date. The service sends the first bill by mail, but you can pay subsequent bills electronically. As with credit cards, you're subject to late fees and interest charges. Subject to change Online payment services promise some protections for bank or cash accounts, but they're not required by law and could change. Bill Me Later says customers aren't responsible for any fraudulent charge. If there's a dispute, PayPal will cover a buyer up to $1,000 if buyer and seller can't reach agreement through its resolution program. (You're out of luck if you bought more than $1,000 worth of stuff.) In a change of policy, the service must now conspicuously disclose to customers with credit card and bank accounts that the latter will be tapped first for purchases. Such disclosure had not been made prior to PayPal's proposed settlement to a class-action lawsuit. Safety on the net Bill Me Later (bill-me-later.com), Google Checkout (checkout.google.com) and PayPal (paypal.com) are three of the larger players in the online-paying business. All have been vetted for credibility by ConsumerWebWatch, a project of Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine. Before signing up for these or any other service, however, heed this advice: ¢ Use a credit card to make payments to the services. You'll have more protection. ¢ Never click on links in e-mail that appear to be from payment services - especially if it asks for confidential information. And don't reply. If you do, you might become a victim of phishing, a scam designed to cull sensitive data. ¢ Look for a lock icon at the bottom of a company's Web-site page. This indicates the site has been encrypted. ¢ Or, if you're uneasy about sharing your credit-card number with these services, try the Verified by Visa or MasterCard SecureCode programs. With these, you can skip the payment services and use your credit card online with an added password protection. For details, see the companies' Web sites at a www.visa.com or www.mastercard.com. - Visit the Consumer Reports Web site at www.consumerreports.org.