How to fix your smelly washer

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Dear Home Ec 101:
OK, here is a gross one for you ladies. How do I fix my smelly washer? It smells so nasty that it’s embarrassing. I have tried wiping it with bleach and water, and it just comes back.

Should I air it out?

Is it mildew or something worse?

~Smelly in Smyrna

Well, Smelly, at least you aren’t having problems with bodily fluid stains like many other people who write in. Yes, the problem is mildew and maybe some bacteria, just for additional fun in your front-loading washing machine and, more specifically, the gasket.

I also used to own a front-loading washer and have previously dealt with the same mildew problem. Fighting mildew is a never-ending battle when you live in an area of high humidity.

The first thing to do is tackle the existing odor and change your habits just a little bit to prevent the problem from recurring. 

Front loading washing machines have a rubber gasket that prevents water from leaking and ruining your floor. (Its job is important, we aren’t questioning that). Unfortunately, the gasket also traps small amounts of water, lint, and hair. Then combine that with the dark, still interior, and you have the perfect mildew-growing environment. 

How to fix the mildew smell.

First, clean out any hair and lint that has become trapped anywhere in the seal. You may find tiny drain holes near the bottom that may be blocked. I found tweezers helpful to unclog these. You may also want to use gloves, and a rag as the scum that can grow here can be pretty foul.

Buy a refillable spray bottle from the laundry/cleaning aisle. Fill the bottle partway with a sodium percarbonate solution [plain Oxiclean], and spray the rubber gasket. Allow the solution to sit for 10-15 minutes before wiping. Run the washer on the sanitary cycle with additional sodium percarbonate in the soap dispenser and vinegar in the fabric softener dispenser.

When the cycle has finished, dry the gasket and open the door. Allow the machine to air out.

These steps should remove any existing mildew. If odors still linger, contact the manufacturer and order a new gaskene

If the smell still lingers, contact the manufacturer and order a new gasket. It may be covered if the machine is still under warranty. If it’s not under warranty, search Amazon by your washer’s model number. Double-check that you copied the model number correctly.

How to prevent the mildew smell in the future

Keep that gasket as dry as possible.

While it’s not necessary to wipe the gasket between each load, at the end of the day, wipe it dry and leave the door ajar.

Important note: If you have cats, always check the interior before loading so ole Fluffy doesn’t end up in the spin cycle.

Good luck!

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Front loading washing machines are notorious for their mildew smell
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11 thoughts on “How to fix your smelly washer”

  1. I agree. I never shut the door on my front loader, and never put the lid down when I had a top loader, unless the machines were in use. It makes a big difference.

  2. Mack, I live in a very humid climate, mold and mildew will appear anywhere water lingers. When we first purchased our front load washer, it did not occur to me that water might be pooling in the gasket.

    Steve, it would depend on the brand of the sodium percarbonate you purchase. Each brand has its own percentage of fillers, so you’ll need to follow the directions on the label. For the wash cycle itself I would use the same amount as if I were running a full load of laundry.

  3. I have a Maytag Neptune front loader (first year) and had a terrible time with mildew until my husband changed out the “bladder” that seals the door when it is full of water. This can be purchased online or at your local Maytag parts dealer. I do keep my door open and wipe out the residual water when I’m done washing for the day. But no mildew since. Yahoo!

  4. I did all of the typical Internet research before replacing my twelve year old Sears top loading washer and matching dryer. I was tired of a dryer that took twice as long as the washer to complete a cycle—laundry room backup. I had heard all sorts of rumors about the front loaders not getting clothes clean, bad smelling clothes, mold, mildew, repair issues and so on.

    After narrowing it down to LG, Whirlpool and Bosch, I went with the Whirlpool Duet ™ washer and dryer in the 9200 series. In that brand we are talking a level below the top price point. I am confident that Bosch and LG make fine machines. LG Electronics, a South Korean company has been making front loading washers for decades. Front loaders are typical in the rest of the world—only in America do we see so many top loaders. Remember: the very first automatic washers were front loaders.

    The more you pay, the more cycles and features you get. There is a point of diminishing returns not to mention the fact that more gadgets can mean more things to go wrong. One name manufacturer has a dispenser system which you fill with detergent and bleach and it dispenses the stuff through multiple loads. A technician who services that brand informed me that the feature is—from a repair call perspective—a weak link in an otherwise fine piece of equipment.

    After decades of doing so, we all think we know how to wash clothes. The most important thing I can recommend is to READ THE OPERATORS MANUAL! Secondly, do some research and if the sales person doesn’t seem to know what he is talking about, go somewhere else. Ask whoever you buy from if they actually set up the machines or just drop them off in your laundry room. If they don’t level the machines, hand them a level and make sure they do so, which leads me to vibration.

    These machines spin at a very high RPM; 1,000 RPM is very typical while the top of the line LG machines (Tromm) spin at 1,320 which is why the clothes come out nearly dry and dry so quickly in the dryer. Mounted on a concrete floor or modern trussed floor, leveled, spaced a couple of inches apart and without the pedestals, the vibration during the spin cycle will not be an issue—these machines are remarkably quiet. Each variable you add will increase vibration. On solid flooring even with the pedestals if all else is equal, the noise and vibration factor should still be less than typical top loaders. However, on wood flooring, on a upper story in an older structure with an unbalanced load, on pedestals, unleveled and too close together—the darn thing is going too shake the house. Several manufacturers make machines specifically for upper stories with lower spin speeds.

    HE detergent is not an option—it is a mandate! Simply using less regular detergent doesn’t work. In fact, if you read the HE detergent label it indicates that you should use barely a quarter to a third of a cap for normal loads. A friend who services appliances told me to use even less than the detergent maker recommends. More detergent will not get your clothes cleaner in a front loader. Suds from conventional detergents will ultimately screw up the machine, not get your clothes clean and drastically extend the wash cycle and your energy usage because the machine has to enter a SUD cycle to get rid of the excess suds. If you use the minimum recommended detergent for most loads the HE is not more expensive than convention detergent of the same brand—it may well end up being less expensive. Cheer™, Gain™ and Tide™ are all available in HE and more are being added.

    Many service techs recommend powdered HE detergent over the liquids and claim that powders don’t leave the film that most liquids do—which forms a basis for mold growth. I can’t personally attest to it but it seems to make some sense. If you use powder, you can add Borateam™ or Oxyclean™ to the dispenser with the powdered detergent. If you stick with the liquids, any powdered additives should be placed in the bottom of the drum before adding the clothes.

    Throw away your fabric softener! It gunks up machines worse than any other additive—it has wax in it for gosh sake! It makes towels less absorbent. It leaves a film on the outer drum that you can’ get to to clean. If you have hard water, consider buying Calgon™ Water Softener available in the supermarket and adding it to the rinse water. You might also consider adding some 20 Mule Team Borax™ or Borateam™ either with the detergent if you use a powder or in the bottom of the drum if you use a liquid detergent.

    Front loaders have to seal completely or the water will leak out—unlike top loaders. That means that the interior stays damp after you close the door. Leaving the door ajar for an hour or after you remove the load will help it dry out completely—leaving it cracked open all the time makes even more sense. Consider keeping a spray bottle of something like Sam’s Club’s OdoBan™ and a rag next to the washer and wipe off the seal periodically—to include underneath and the front lip which faces inward. If your machine has a machine cleaning cycle, run it as recommended. The newer machines tend to have this cycle and it specifically jets water around and under the seal to clean and sanitize it thoroughly.

    If you start getting excessively long wash cycles or fault codes, it is possible that someone didn’t empty their pockets and something is clogging the pump filter which also tend to preclude complete drainage and add to the potential mold and mildew issue. If you are going to spend two to three grand for a washer dryer pair, seriously consider a service contract—$120/unit for five years in my case but you can often negotiate these down with the salesman.

    The average service call to clean out that filter is $115. If you are handy and confident, you can unplug the machine, remove three torq or hex screws on a bottom panel and do this task in a couple of minutes. I would not buy any brand in which this pump filter is not “reasonably” accessible. If you have a service contract, then they will handle the task but you may have a deductible.

    Very cold water doesn’t wash clothes very well; at 60 degrees Fahrenheit and below, detergents just don’t emulsify as they should. Many front loaders have an internal water heater so that even if you select cold wash, it will heat the water just enough to make it work with detergent.

    The typical front loader uses a quarter of the water that a top loader does. If you are using cold water to save money, you’ve already save 75% of the cost of heating water for a load. Warm water will always wash better than cold.

    Mold and mildew: if you leave a wet load of clothes in a front loader overnight or all day while you are at work, you are asking for mildew problems. It’s a sealed container; unless the clothes have been sterilized or at least sanitized, the drum—and clothes—will grow mold and mildew. Use the delayed wash feature available on many machines—most will tell approximately how long the cycle will take—so that the wash cycle ends right before you leave the house or come home.

    Follow the recommendations in the manual for proper loading and mixing of items. Put your baby socks and thongs in mesh bags—they end up in the pump filter too easily. As with any washer, full loads are preferable but front loaders don’t typically handle very small loads as well as top loaders. If you need to do a small load, consider throwing in a couple of those designer towels that have been hanging in the bathroom for who knows how long. If your family insists on throwing their wet towels on the floor or shoving them in the bottom of a hamper, you are going to start with mold and mildew problems. Molds, yeasts and mildews are very hard to get rid of once they start to grow. Short of very hot water and chorine bleach, you are fighting a lost cause.

    Are front loaders “harder” on clothes than top loader/agitator machines? The opposite should be true. One measure of how much of a beating your laundry is taking is the amount of lint that collects in the dryer lint filter when you wash a relatively new, predominantly cotton item. Occasionally I buy 100% cotton rags (terry) to use around the house and in the garage. I always wash them thoroughly before I use them to get all of the starch and chemicals out. Two dozen of these relatively low end, imported rags used to throw of so much lint after a full cycle in my top loader that I had to clean the lint filter several times during the initial drying cycle. The first time I did a load of new rags in the front loader I was astounded at how little lint buildup there was.

    I used to be in the hospital bedding and apparel business and have visited numerous fabric mills—you don’t even want to know what it takes, chemical wise, to produce a sheet, towel or item of apparel. You really want to get that stuff out of the fabric before it touches your body.

    I digress—back to the smelly towels and such. You can try Oxyclean™, OdoBan ™ or Borateam™—or all three—but on fancy, designer towels you probably won’t be willing to risk either Chlorine bleach or super heated water. Drying them occasionally outside in the bright sun helps. Using soft water or a liquid softener (Calgon ™) may help. Getting all of the fabric softener residue out of the towels might help. Drying them completely is essential, particularly with heavy towels. If your towels are smelly indicating the existence of mold, yeast or mildew, you may not notice it when you take them out of the dryer but probably will the first time you use them and get them damp. It is easier to prevent the mold and such than it is to eliminate it. F you’ve already got it, it will probably take several cycles to get rid of it.

    Another approach might be to explain to family and guests that the designer towels are just for show. Go to Costco™ or Sam’s™ and buy pure white, hotel grade towels, bathmats and washcloths. They’re really not expensive—and they are made to be washed in institutional laundries at very high temperature with both peroxide and chlorine based bleaches a high concentrations. Run them through the washer on the highest temperature possible, often called a sanitize setting.

    Washer technology had improved dramatically in the last decade—dryer technology really hasn’t changed much. If you have gas, consider using it instead of electric; the dryers cost fifty to a hundred dollars more but in many—not all—parts of the country gas is cheaper than electricity so you will recoup the difference fairly quickly. You should be able to get information from your utility company, from a local appliance service or on line regarding the cost differential. If you live in an area where electricity is produced using coal, than electric may be break even or even cheaper. If you live in the southwest or Texas, natural gas is generally more cost effective.

    A couple of companies make hybrids—top loading without the agitator—but there seem to be issues with those machines either in design—or in the fact that people don’t know how to use them.

    In summary, assuming you can reeducate your family, the most important things you can do to prevent mold and mildew in a front loader and the resulting smelly clothes are:

    Read the manual.
    Leave the door ajar long enough for the drum to air out.
    Use HE detergent only.
    Stop using fabric softener.
    Run the machine cleaning cycle as recommended. If your machine doesn’t have one, run a regular cycle with hot water and bleach—no detergent—periodically, at least once a month or more often if you do a lot of laundry.
    Don’t leave wet clothes in the washer all day or all night.
    Follow the loading recommendations.
    If you have hard water and don’t want to/can’t install a water softener try using Calgon ™, Borateam™ or even baking soda in the wash water.
    Vinegar (white, pretty cheap by the gallon) can be an effective fungicide but it’s going to take more than a tablespoon; try it instead of softener in the rinse cycle.

    Haven’t tried the idea of using some powdered, enzyme based dishwashing detergent to clean the front loading washer but it makes sense. I called my friend who services all sorts of appliances and he indicated that he even recommends it even though the manual doesn’t. There is also a commercial product available on line at that many repair techs seem to endorse.

    By the way, if you prefer scent free HE detergent I know Tide has one—not sure who else does.

    We love our Whirlpool Duet™ front loader washer and dryer. Laundry room backup is a thing of the past. Comforters that used to take two hours to dry are dry in under thirty minutes. The clothes are really clean. Our electric bill has gone down. There is less lint in the dryer vent—because the clothes aren’t getting as beat up as they did by that center agitator on a conventional top loader. They are both remarkably quiet but making the switch requires some reeducation.

    When I read complaints from people who won’t read the manual, won’t allow the drum to dry after each use, refuse to use the right detergent and can’t be bothered to perform a few seconds of preventative cleaning and maintenance, I throw up my hands in frustration. If that is you—don’t buy a front loader!

  5. I do use HE liquid in my Front loader.Would a powdered HE detergent go in the dispenser or right in with th clothes? Thank you for all the great help.

  6. I bought a Neptune washer soon after they came out, I believe in 1997. It had that awful smell as well. After about a year, I got a letter from the manufacturer telling about a new part that would help. I did what they said in the letter. I can’t remember what they said to do, but a man from the store I bought the washer from came out and put in the part. Maybe it is the same part that Debbie mentioned above. Haven’t had any problems since.

  7. Since Debbie got me to change my “bladder” and leave the door open…I don’t go as much and “Blogarita” does the ‘podcast’ about the dryer….

  8. Might have to do with where you keep the washer as well. Is it in the house, or garage or basement. If the area is very humid, then you are bound to have more issues than if it’s in the AC.

  9. Some of these front load machines have aluminium (Al) spiders connecting the spin drum to the drive pulley. Aluminium is corroded by, amongst other things, sodium hypochlorite (NaOCl) otherwise known as ‘bleach’.
    Check the Internet for 'Corrosion of aluminium' and search for athe Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for any chemicals found in any of your laundry detergents and don't use any that are corrosive to aluminium (tough luck on bleach users), some may say that they are jus t corrosive to metals, but anything with a pH above about 8.0 is suspect.
    There is some evidence that, in washing machines, the products of aluminium corrosion can cause/contribute to offensive odours.
    Good Luck


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