Last updated on February 7th, 2017
Many people are having issues with new washing machines that refuse to spin just one item, or maybe just a few items. Sometimes it may have been a reasonably sized load in their old washing machine but they’ve now bought one with a large capacity drum so the load is still relatively small. They are frustrated because their previous washing machine would spin with just one item inside but their new one won’t, and they are convinced the washing machine is faulty.
Although faults can occur, it’s now normal for a washing machine not to spin just one or two items, or even some small loads, especially if one or more of the items gets heavy when wet such as a large woollen cardigan, a thick cotton garment or a heavy bath mat.
Why can’t modern washing machines just spin anything I put in the washing machine?
They did used to, but when washing machines were designed to just get on with spinning after a couple of minutes trying to balance the load there were consequences. Every so often a load would be a little out of balance (especially when mixing light and heavy items or if there wasn’t enough items to stick evenly all round the drum) but the washing machine would go into spin regardless. This often caused the washer to give a good thump several times as it ramped into spin before settling down often with a few more thumps occurring right at the end of the spin. It was disconcerting but usually just resulted in the sides of the washing machine being dinted.
More rarely sheets would tangle up, or a small load would be impossible to balance and contain one or more heavy items such as a few towels, a sheet or one heavy garment and the washing machine would go seriously crazy. As a repairman in these days it was very common to see washing machines destroyed by being left unattended with an unbalanced load which had spun out of control for the full spin cycle.
If you’ve ever been close to a washing machine leaping into spin with a badly balanced load it is quite frightening. Customers used to describe watching TV in the lounge and being terrified by the sound of someone apparently battering their back door down. I’ve seen hundreds of washing machines written off because the tub inside went out of control and smashed the control timer, yanked off hoses resulting in flooding all the motor or electrics, or simply broke the vitreous enamel tub suspension bracket with the sheer forces involved. I’ve seen floorboards splintered with holes punched right through as the suspension rod repeatedly pummelled the floor and I’ve seen washing machines walk across the kitchen, jump up and smash cupboard and worktops etc. This state of affairs was clearly unacceptable, and something needed to be done about it.
The Answer they came up with is out of balance protection
The out of balance protection is a modern idea to stop washing machines going into spin with unbalanced loads. Early versions were crude, and simply attached micro switches to the tub or suspension, which when triggered through violent tub swinging just cut the motor to limit the damage done. Modern out of balance protection is commonly achieved using software monitoring the strains on the motor through the power it uses. If a load is evenly distributed around the inner drum the motor should run fairly smoothly as it turns it round requiring a pretty even amount of power. If one side of the drum is heavier than the other, which would happen with only a few small items or one garment inside it would create imbalance. The motor would run unevenly as it encountered different physical resistance when it turned the heavy side of the drum up from the 6 O’clock position through past 12 O’clock compared to the lighter load (or no load at all) on the other side.
In the old days this could usually be observed by seeing flashes of stainless where no laundry had settled on a section of the drum, the sound of the motor changing up and down in tone, and the drum swaying from side to side during the few minutes prior to spin which ran at “distribution” speed. All these signs meant the imminent spin was likely to be out of balance.
What’s wrong with modern out of balance protection?
It’s an essential system, but they can sometimes be a bit too sensitive, with no override option. Allowing a customer to override the protection might be useful, I’m sure there are loads that refuse to spin that would actually be OK. However, I wouldn’t blame any manufacturer from shying away from giving customers the power to override their out of balance protection. The answer is to make them more sophisticated and better at recognising when a load might be unbalanced but not going to cause a violent spin. This sophistication costs money. Many washing machines may well have already got this protection just about right, but no one has compared these systems so far.
The more expensive washing machines such as Miele should have a more sophisticated system combined with higher quality suspension, which would cope better with unbalanced loads. It’s likely to be less paranoid about unbalanced spins but clearly still needs protection. Conversely, cheap budget brands of washing machine are likely to have less sophisticated out of balance systems and be more fearful of letting a bad load spin because they know their crude suspension may not cope well with it.
I would expect that mid priced machines would have decent systems that may be less sensitive than budget machines but ultimately they all potentially suffer from the same side effect of refusing to spin some small or single item loads. There is likely to be some variance in tolerance and sensitivity between different makes but there’s no chart available that I’m aware of highlighting any differences.
For most people the advantages of protection from seriously damaging out of balance loads should far outweigh the inconvenience of the odd load not spinning.
How can I spin a very small load or just one item?
If you have a particular item that you want to wash separately and your washing machine refuses to spin it the only thing you can do is to resort to washing it with some other items to balance out the drum, or to stop the washing machine after washing and add further items to the drum before the spin.
At the end of the day, any item other than extremely light items is likely to cause a modern washing machine to detect some imbalance. It’s the laws of physics, the motor will feel resistance while it takes the drum from the six o’clock position up to 12 o’clock and then as the drum revolves past the 12 o’clock position this resistance will disappear if the other side of the drum is empty (or much lighter). Not only does the motor meet less resistance on the empty side but is actually assisted by the heavier side passing from the 12 o’clock position down to the six o’clock position where the motor will meet resistance again to take the drum back round half a revolution.
If there are several items all plastered around the sides of the drum this would not occur unless one was very heavy and the others were quite light. Related: I have some general loading a washing machine advice here – Loading a washing machine. How do I avoid out of balanced loads?
Beware of large capacity washing machines
If you have a larger than normal drum such as 7 or 8 kg this problem may be worse because it takes more washing to make the drum nice and balanced than a smaller drum size. Don’t buy a washing machine with a large drum if you do lots of small loads and don’t intend to double up your washing by washing large loads to save on the amount of washes you do.
Here’s a quote from the article linked to above –
… For example, my 7Kg washing machine will not spin 3 large towels. Last week my wife was extremely frustrated with our 7Kg drum washing machine as she had just washed our son’s hoody-top and wanted to spin it in the washer. It simply would not spin, so I advised her that it needed something to balance it out. She put in a couple of towels but still no spin. Eventually 5 towels were needed to balance out the absorbent top and allow a spin. This is a minor inconvenience compared to the benefit of being able to fit more washing in (even our king sized quilt) but it highlights how if you have a very large drum it could be more prone to not spinning small loads
Washing machine won’t spin at all?
This topic is about washing machines not spinning small items or very small loads, or occasionally not spinning the odd load but otherwise working OK. If your washing machine just will not spin at all then it is likely to have developed a fault unrelated to this topic. See my article here – Washing machine won’t spin or drum won’t go round or find an engineer – Book appliance repairs
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