How to clean your washing machine

You wouldn’t know it to look at my house (or, indeed, me) but having spent an inordinate amount of time editing Kim and Aggie’s cleaning tips, I’ve actually picked up a bit of cleaning know how. So a couple of weeks ago, when I realised that all of our clothes were smelling a bit musty – despite being regularly machine-washed and air-dried – I knew what I had to do. And, more importantly, for once I got off my arse and did it.

So here’s the lowdown.

Why does my washing machine smell?

There are two main reasons your washing machine (and therefore your clothes) may smell:

1) Plumbing woes: backwash from your sink

If your machine is next to your kitchen sink, have a look under the sink to see if the waste pipes are connected. On lots of machines (mine included) the machine’s waste pipe – where the water drains out during a wash – is attached to the waste pipe of the sink, just above the u-bend. If it’s been connected badly, there’s a possibility that sink waste could be sloshing back up into the washing machine’s waste pipe – and potentially back into the machine. As you can imagine, dirty water with food waste in it isn’t meant to go into your washing machine and it’s going to start smelling rotten after a while.

Usually this problem is caused by the washing machine pipe being connected at the wrong angle. Fixing it is a question of simple physics: you will need to make sure that the washing machine’s waste pipe comes out of the machine at a high level and attaches to the sink pipe at a much lower level. You need to know that water can drain out (downwards) but cannot go back in (upwards).

If you can’t see an obvious way to make sure that waste water is going to flow in the right direction, you may need a plumber to come and make some adjustments.

Urgh, right? Luckily, this problem is nowhere near as common as…

2) Blockages: mould, limescale and general gunge

Lack of general maintenance is the most likely reason that your clothes might begin to smell despite being “freshly” washed. After all, washing on low temperatures all the time is all very well for the environment but not so great for your washing machine. Your machine needs a high temperature wash at least once a month to get rid of residues and to kill off any nasties – especially if, like me, you use a non-biological powder (biological kills enzymes and proteins; non-bio doesn’t).

Particular blackspots – excuse the pun – for mould to grow include inside the drawer, around the door seal, and in the filters and waste pipes. But it’s easy to remove and even easier to prevent.

If you can see black mould in your machine, remove it first by scrubbing with a brush and a small amount of household bleach. Wear gloves, and be careful on the door seal; the mould may already have weakened the rubber. (If it just won’t go from the door seal, you can buy a replacement seal for under £30. I’m told they’re very easy to fit.)

Blockages can also be caused by limescale; luckily that’s not something that affects us here in Birmingham, so I don’t know a great deal about fixing it, although I’ve heard that you can use an electronic water softener. I’ve also had problems with those “liquitab” style pouches of washing liquid; sometimes the pouches don’t quite dissolve fully and a residue can collect and clog up the holes in your drawer and door seal.

Remove the drawer completely to make sure you clean all around and underneath. Carefully poke something – I used a wooden skewer! – into the softener hole in the drawer and the drainage hole in the door seal to make sure they’re not blocked and everything comes out. Make sure you rinse any bleach off afterwards, then do a maintenance wash.

The maintenance wash

Even if you’re plumbed in correctly and don’t have any signs of mould, it’s good practice to give your machine a maintenance wash every month or so.

First make sure that the drawer and drainage holes are free from blockages, as above. Make sure you clean the filter, by opening the little door (usually at the bottom right corner of the machine), unscrewing the filter and letting the water drain out into an old towel, then picking any gunge out of it and screwing it back into place. Clean any residue from around the inside of the door.

Chuck half a bag of soda crystals[1] directly into the drum – and spray or pour a little white vinegar[2] around the door seal and into the drawer. Then put the machine onto the hottest wash it will do – usually 90 degrees – and, if you have the choice, get it to do lots of rinses but no spins.

This should leave your machine really sparkly and ready to face your next load.

The soda crystals and vinegar don’t have any fragrance, but if you’re feeling fancy, you could put a drop (just a drop, mind!) of your favourite essential oil onto a hankie, and send that round in the otherwise empty cycle.

[1] Soda crystals: also known as washing crystals. I got a kilo for 90p in Sainsbury’s – the laundry section
[2] White vinegar: also known as distilled malt vinegar. The clear, 5% stuff. I got 568ml of Sarson’s for £1.20 in the Co-op, but you can probably find non-brand stuff a lot cheaper.

So there you have it. Not the most exciting way to return to blogging after a four month break, but hey – it’s what my fans demanded…!

3 Comments »

  1. theaardvark said,

    October 6, 2011 @ 9:41 pm

    Note to self: Do a maintenance wash. (Not a hope in hell that I’ll remember, but I have good intentions).

  2. Nami@cleaning tips said,

    November 7, 2011 @ 6:41 am

    Good article, I do also like how you seem to prefer using organic materials such as vinegar for your cleaning as they don’t harm the environment like bleach or some other cleaners..

  3. Zolaharris said,

    October 9, 2013 @ 12:25 pm

    So glad I found this, been having problems with smelly washing machines for years. I’ve only had my new one for 4 months and it’s starting to smell already. Unfortunately for me it seems I have the plumbing issues so looks like I need to get the plumber in!

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