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Using Regular Detergent in a High-Efficiency Washer is Risky Business

If you’ve ever wondered what’s the difference between regular laundry detergents and those designated as “High Efficiency” or HE, if they’re interchangeable and if you could possibly make your own to cut the cost, you are not the only one! Those are questions that frequently show up in my mailbox.

Washing machine and 3 bottles laundry detergent

Dear Mary:  First, thank you for your column, I love it! I just inherited several bottles of regular laundry detergent. I have a HE front-loader washer. Is there a way to use or modify regular laundry detergent for HE use? Christin

Dear Christin: Standard washing machines that use traditional laundry detergent (the type of detergent you’ve inherited) use up to 35 gallons of water per load. Full-sized energy efficient top-loaders like my beloved LG High-Efficiency Top Load Washer (which I loved and gifted it to my son when we moved and our new laundry room configuration could not accommodate it), use about 13 gallons of water per load—a savings of more than 3,000 gallons of water per year—operate much differently than a standard machine. This is one of the reasons that HE detergent is quite different than the standard type of detergent.

So, can you use standard detergent in your HE machine? I must advise you that your owner manual is not likely to support such an idea, potentially putting your warranty at risk. That being said, I will admit that I did use standard detergent from time to time in my LG top-loader that required HE detergent. But I used MUCH less per load because it uses so much less water.

Too much detergent will clog up the machine because the amount of water it uses is not sufficient to rinse it out. That build up can cause the machine to malfunction and to eventually create an offensive odor.

When I say “less” I mean a lot less. Like one-fourth the amount you might normally use. I measured it in tablespoons, not capfuls. And I diluted it in a large container of water before pouring it into the machine.

Would I do that again? Yes, but not on a regular basis. I want you and all of my readers to know that to do so would be, according to the manufacturer’s guidelines, taking a potential risk should the machine require service under its warranty.

Given the potential harm you could do to your machine, you might want to consider re-gifting the detergent to friends, family or a shelter in your area that uses traditional washers. Then make a big batch of my new and improved liquid homemade HE detergent (read on to learn more about that). That way others win and you win, too. Hope that helps. And thanks for loving EC.

Dear Mary: I made up the laundry soap recipe that you published back in 2012. It seems like there is way too much Fels-Naptha soap for the recipe. I bought a similar jar of laundry soap mixture at the local Farmer’s Market and the vender did not have nearly as much soap in it. It did quite well in my HE washer. I just want to make sure there wasn’t a misprint in your article.

I look forward to your articles each time they are in my local newspaper. Thank you for your diligence and pithy advice. Cheryle

Dear Cheryle: The recipe for powdered laundry detergent you refer to (1 cup grated Fels-Naptha soap, 1/2 cup Arm and Hammer Super Washing Soda and 1/2 cup 20 Mule Team Borax) is correct. It may seem like a lot of Fels-Naptha but keep in mind, you use only 2 tablespoons of the final product per washer load.

This recipe is suitable to be used in any clothes washer including those designated “high efficiency” or HE, as this detergent does not create suds. You would want to use a bit more in a standard washing machine, however.

Since that column ran more than three years ago, I’ve discovered what I believe is a much improved  recipe for homemade liquid laundry detergent; one that does not require Fels-Naptha soap (somewhat difficult to find these days plus all that grating!) and is also HE compliant. I find it performs better, too.

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