Here's what all the settings on your old washing machine really mean

Make sense of all the dials on your old-school machines to wash your clothes better.

Along with LED screens and smarter detergent dispensers, most modern washers and dryers have intelligent and straightforward settings for washing your whites, darks, linens and delicates. But the older models that many of us grew up with and still use on laundry day have old-school dials and controls that haven't changed since the mid-20th century.

These ambiguous settings aren't the easiest to understand for both laundry novices and veterans. I've been doing my own washing for 10 years, and I still just pick whichever settings seem right and hope my clothes will turn out clean and unscathed.

It's time to clear up the confusion and uncover exactly what all of those settings mean, and how to use them to wash your clothes the best way possible.

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The other settings can help you wash clothes.

Jim Cochrane/First Light/Corbis

Wash cycles

Wash cycles are the types of programs your washer uses to do its job. They comprise a washing cycle in the beginning, a rest period, a rinse and then a spin to remove the water. Sometimes there are more than one rinse and spin cycle to get clothes extra clean.

Most washers have a regular (or normal, or cotton) cycle, a permanent press (also called colors) cycle and a delicate cycle. Some have a hand-wash cycle for ultra-delicate items and a bulky cycle for blankets or pillows.

Common wash cycles

Regular, normal or cotton Permanent press or colors Delicate or handwash
Purpose Removing stains and dirt, washing durable fabrics Washing every day clothes that wrinkle easily Gently cleaning delicate items
When to use it Whites, sheets, towels, underwear, socks and heavily soiled items Jeans, many polyester and non-cotton items Silk, gym clothing and anything that says gentle wash on the tag
How it cleans Fast agitation in wash cycle, fast spin cycle Fast agitation in wash cycle, slow spin cycle Slow agitation in wash cycle, slow rinse cycle
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Those numbers correspond to the number of minutes you can set a wash cycle for.

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Timer

Now you've picked the cycle, but what about those numbers you see around the dial? They are for the length of the wash cycle in minutes. Most washing machines have settings for between 15 and 4 minutes, with variations for different cycles.

On some machines, the numbers are replaced with super heavy, heavy, normal and light cycle choices. The heavier the load, the longer the load takes to wash. The longer the wash cycle, the better for getting heavily soiled garments clean. A good rule of thumb is to use a shorter cycle regularly and increase the time when you have a load that's dirtier than usual.

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Pick your water temperature with a dial like this.

Tom Collicott/Masterfile/Corbis

Temperature

Typically, your three temperature choices are hot, warm and cold. Some machines let you pick the wash and rinse temperatures separately, such as "warm, cold" or "cold, cold." Follow the washing instructions on the tags for whatever you're washing, but here are some general guidelines:

  • Cold: Use for anything that might shrink or bleed dye. Cold water is most gentle on clothing.
  • Warm: Use for sheets, towels and other linens.
  • Hot: Use for sanitizing items, such as baby clothes, cloth diapers, linens and athletic wear.

Cold is the most energy-saving option, since your washer doesn't need to use extra energy to heat up the water. Most machines don't pull from your home's hot water supply and instead heat up water on demand. Heating water uses around 90 percent of the energy needed to wash a load.

Consumer Reports also found that cold water cleans just as well as warm water. Once, you would need a special cold-water detergent to effectively clean your clothing, since the typical enzymes used in detergent don't activate well in cold water. Today's detergents use a mixture of surfactants and enzymes to work well with a lower water temperature.

Load size

As a general rule of thumb, here are the load sizes you should select based on how many items you've loaded into the washer.

If the washer is:

  • One-quarter full, use Small
  • One-half full, use Medium
  • More than one-half full, use Large
  • At full capacity, use Extra-large (if available)

Don't forget to balance your load evenly, especially if you have a top-loading washing machine. And never wrap items around the agitator, simply place everything around it. Now go and wash your clothes like a pro.

Editor's note: This story was previously published on December 8, 2015 and has since been updated.

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