Silver Maytag® top load washer with see through door

How Does a Washing Machine Work? A Simple Explanation

Washing machines clean clothes by combining the correct wash action, amount of water, water temperature and detergent to tackle everyday soils. Front and top load washers use lifters, agitators or impellers to move the load in the washer tub while detergent and water at the ideal temperature help remove and lift soils from clothes.

Discover how a washer works by understanding how wash action differs in impeller and agitator models, as well as top-load and front-load washers. Also learn about the impact that water temperature has on different types of stains and how detergent, including HE, can help get clothes clean.

Silver Maytag® front load washer and dryer pair on pedestals in laundry room Silver Maytag® front load washer and dryer pair on pedestals in laundry room

3 Key Elements of a Washing Machine Cycle

Every cycle your washing machine takes on needs the right combination of wash action, water temperature and detergent to remove soils and leave clothes looking refreshed. Preset cycles can determine the ideal combination of factors for a thorough clean, or you can manually adjust options for the best fit. Read on to learn more about the three key elements of every washing machine cycle, and discover the role that parts of a washing machine play in cleaning.

Side-by-side comparison of agitator and impeller in washing machine with clothes Side-by-side comparison of agitator and impeller in washing machine with clothes

1. Wash Action

Wash action is the movement of clothes provided by the washer during a cycle, and this can be different in front load vs. top load machines, as well as top load agitator vs. impeller models. All washers are designed to circulate clothing for thorough cleaning. When clothes rub against each other—or an agitator—during the wash cycle, it helps create the friction necessary for an effective clean.

Gray Maytag® front load washer
Front Load Wash Action

Front load washers use lifters, rather than an impeller or agitator, to tumble clothes. As the washer drum spins, lifters help move clothes through the water to remove soils. 


Though wash cycles tend to be longer than a top load washer, front load washers often use less water. These washers also feature faster spin speeds than top load models, so you can likely count on shorter drying times as more water is expelled prior to drying.

Gray Maytag® top load washer
Top Load Wash Action

Unlike front load washers, top load washers typically utilize either an agitator or impeller to create effective wash action. Agitators are tall, vertical and finned posts located in the center of the washer. They twist back and forth during the wash cycle to rub against clothing and remove soils and stains. 


Impellers are low-profile discs, cones, wheels or fins that rotate during the wash cycle and are located on the bottom of the washer tub. Washers with impellers rely on the friction caused by clothes rubbing against each other, rather than the impeller, to thoroughly remove dirt and stains. Most top load washers let you choose your water level—like Maytag® top load washers with the Deep Water Wash Option—or can do it for you with automatic, load-sensing technology.

Close-up of person selecting washer settings on control panel
How Do Washer Cycles Work?

Each cycle and option on your washer is designed for different load types and soil levels. These cycles optimize the amount of water, the water temperature and the wash action for each cycle type, tailoring the washer environment for an ideal clean. Some washers allow you to control cycle details like water or soil level, while others may include sensors that automatically adjust the cycle for you.


Every pre-set cycle is unique, but there are some common themes that dictate how cycles work. Cycles designed for more delicate items—like the Permanent Press and Delicate cycles available on select Maytag® washers—use slower spin speeds and gentle wash actions to avoid damaging clothing fibers. However, cycles designed for bulky or heavily soiled items, like bedding and other sturdy fabrics, typically fill the drum with higher water levels and use a more robust wash action to tackle stains and dirt.

Close-up of water pouring into washer above agitator Close-up of water pouring into washer above agitator

2. Water Temperature

Selecting the right water temperature for soiled laundry can mean the difference between removing stains and setting them into clothing. Though stain removal techniques vary by fabric type and kind of stain, most stains resolve best when soaked or rinsed in cold water, then washed in a warm or hot cycle. Keep in mind that:

  • Cold water is best for stains like blood and toothpaste. Exposing cold water stains to heat will essentially “cook” them into your clothes. 

  • Stains like grass require warmer water temperatures to give detergent a boost.

  • Loads that contain multiple stain types or stains like red wine, mud and chocolate should be pretreated in cold water and washed in hot.

  • Cold water is also best for dark colors or any fabric prone to shrinkage. Warmer water is ideal for light colors and hotter for whites.

Learn more about choosing hot or cold water for stains with this guide. The Extra Power button by Maytag brand boosts stain fighting on any wash cycle with a dual-temperature wash.

Where Does Water in a Washing Machine Go?

Both top and front load washers have a drain pump located at the bottom of the unit, often towards the back on a top load model and at the front on front load models. The drain pump removes water from the washer tub after the main wash, then again after each rinse and during the final spin.

Close-up of bottle pouring detergent into detergent dispenser on Maytag® front load washer Close-up of bottle pouring detergent into detergent dispenser on Maytag® front load washer

3. The Right Detergent

Laundry detergent breaks apart stains, releases soils and freshens clothes thanks to one essential component: molecules called surfactants. Surfactants pull dirt out of clothes and into the wash water. These molecules surround dirt that’s been pulled from soiled clothing, preventing it from readhereing to clothing as it circulates through the wash water and, eventually, down and out through the drain pump. When preparing your washer with detergent and additives, remember that:

  • Concentrated, HE detergent like Swash® Laundry Detergent1 should be used in high efficiency washers to provide a powerful clean with lower water levels. 

  • Bleach can be used for loads with tough stains. Check the owner's manual for info on how your washer works with bleach. 

  • Bulk detergent dispensers can handle some of the manual labor for you. The Optimal Dose Dispenser from Maytag brand adds the right amount when it's needed, holding enough for up to 8 loads of laundry.

  • You should always follow the manufacturer’s recommendations found on detergent packaging.

Close-up of blue clothes spinning inside washing machine Close-up of blue clothes spinning inside washing machine

Washer Upgrades For Next-Level Cleaning

  • Steam cycles on select front and top load washers permeate deep into fibers for potent cleaning action. 

  • Some washers include a built-in water faucet to wash away loose soils as clothes go in or fill the tub for a soak before the cycle begins.

  • Select Maytag® front load washers include the Fresh Hold® option that keeps clean clothes smelling fresh for up to 24 hours.

Shop Maytag® Washers

Washers from Maytag brand offer performance you can count on. On select models, features like the Optimal Dose Dispenser make sure you get the right amount of detergent each time while the Extra Power button boosts stain-fighting on any wash cycle in select top load washers and front load washers.

GET MORE WITH A MAYTAG ACCOUNT

Sign in to unlock special savings

Get More Washer Guides

Was this article helpful? Pass it on

1. Swash and the recommending brands are owned and distributed by Whirlpool Corporation.