Having a washing machine to call your own makes life so much simpler. That is, until your washer develops a mind of its own and throws a mechanical tantrum. At times like these, it’s easy to feel frustrated and overwhelmed, unsure how to fix the problem and dreading the repair bill likely to follow. Don’t start with the Yellow Pages in your quest for solutions. The most common washing machine repairs are often simple to perform. Armed with a few basic tools and a little knowledge, you can probably even do it yourself.
Anatomy of a Washing Machine
A washing machine is little more than a large tub that fills with water, swishes around, drains and spins to complete the wash. These four cycles – fill, wash, drain and spin – depend on hidden parts to make everything happen. When your washer fails, you must take a closer look at the part responsible for the action involved. Although every washing machine is slightly different, each operates on the same general principles.
Water supply hoses, both hot and cold, deliver water to a solenoid-operated water inlet valve inside the washer housing. The water mixes, according to the temperature indicated with the temperature and cycle settings on the washer’s control panel, and flows into the tub interior. Inside the control panel, the water-level control unit houses a pressure switch that determines when the tub is full, according to the size setting selected, closes the water inlet and signals the start of the wash cycle.
In a top-loading machine, the agitator starts, while in a side-loading machine the entire inner tub moves instead. A motor, attached to a clutch and transmission in many machines but a solenoid in a direct-drive machine, powers the movement and shifts cycles. A large belt drives the movement, much like the drive belt on a car.
Finally, a timer inside the washer control signals the washer to drain. A pump, at the bottom of the housing near the motor, sucks water from the inner tub, through the outer tub and into a drain line while the tub itself spins at a high speed. Fresh water floods the washer, the agitator or tub moves to rinse the clothes, and the water drains again.
DIY Washing Machine Repair Preparation
Knowing that your washing machine isn’t working properly – if at all – isn’t enough. Blindly guessing at the cause and wildly changing parts is costly and wastes time. Instead, follow a plan of action:
- Observe the washing machine’s symptoms. Look closely to gather all the necessary information.
- Troubleshoot your washer. Use the basics of how the machine works to pinpoint the possible cause. For instance, if you’re not getting water, look at the inlet hoses or the inlet valve. If the tub fails to spin, on the other hand, the problem is likely underneath the washer, involving the clutch, transmission, motor, or most likely, the belt. If it simply won’t drain, look at the drain pump as well as the drainpipe. Make a list of possibilities.
- Tear the washing machine apart to access the components likely involved, if necessary. Some repairs may be outside the machine.
- Inspect or test the parts you suspect are failing. Start with the simplest first. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, or to obtain a professional’s assistance. (If you must call a technician, it bears mentioning to watch him or her at work. Knowledge is power, and you will have a better idea of what to do in the future by watching and asking lots of questions.)
- Adjust or repair as appropriate. Some repairs may not require new parts, and some parts may need to be ordered. Use the model and serial number, along with any production codes, from the rating plate on the washer’s rear. Meanwhile, prepare an alternate method of washing clothes while your machine is down.
- Test the new part or repair. You may need to completely reassemble the washing machine before you find out whether it works. If you can test it before putting the machine back together, that’s best.
- Put the machine back together, using all the screws previously removed. (Of course, some people never do. You know who you are.)
Before you even think of tearing your washing machine apart, disconnect the power and unhook the water supply hoses. Don’t settle for flipping the breaker; unplug the appliance instead. Lay blankets, towels or other floor protection around the base to avoid scrapes and floor damage or to catch any water you spill. A bucket or pail, some clean rags, and a few basic tools such as screwdrivers, a pipe wrench or a pair of channel-lock pliers will likely come in handy as well. If you need to test electrical parts, a volt-ohm meter is indispensable.
Wobbling, Filling, Draining and Leaks
Some fixes are amazingly simple, requiring little time and nothing more than pulling the washing machine out from the wall to allow access to the rear or adjusting how the washer is positioned. Keep a flashlight handy to help you see in cramped, dark areas.
Wobbling washers, which act like they’re trying to walk away, are the easiest repair of all. One of two things is wrong – either the current load is unbalanced, causing the inner tub to bounce around inside the outer tub, or the machine isn’t level. An unbalanced load is temporary and will return to normal with the next load provided you distribute the weight of the clothes evenly and avoid over-filling the machine, which also stresses the motor and transmission. If the machine itself is not level, ensure all the water is drained before proceeding.
Underneath your washer are leveling feet, one to a corner. Often, the rear legs are “self-leveling” and adjust on their own. Tilt your washer forward enough that the back feet lift 3 or 4 inches from the floor, then settle it back in place. If the legs self-level, they will be accurate. Next, lift the front of the washer enough to slide a sturdy two-by-four board under the front, preventing the front legs from touching the floor. Turn the legs, using a wrench, to raise or lower. Clockwise will lower the machine and counter-clockwise extends the leg, lifting the washer instead. Use a level, running it side-to-side as well as front-to-back and even diagonally across the top, to determine when the machine is level. Be patient – you will likely have to adjust, check, lift the machine back up and adjust again a few times before achieving a perfect reading.
Leaks on the floor around your washer are generally due to one thing – a leaking hose. On the back of your washer are three hoses: two supply hoses, both hot and cold, near the top and a drain hose that attaches near the bottom. Check the connections, where the hoses attach to the back of the washer as well as to the supply lines emerging from the wall and to the sewer drainpipe. If the hoses fit snugly and securely, look for holes in the lines themselves. It’s always possible the hole will be too small to find without water flowing through it, but even a pinhole can lead to a rotting floor or mold. Replace visibly old, cracked, suspect-looking hoses. The hoses and clamps are self-explanatory to remove and replace and are very affordable. Turn the water off at the wall before performing the work, and test the results before putting the washer back in place.
Problems filling the machine often result from malfunctions of the water control unit or the inlet valve, both of which require some amount of machine disassembly. However, it bears mentioning that the simplest fix – and the first thing to check – is the water supply hoses and supply knobs. Above the hoses, emerging from the wall, are typically dial-like knobs that shut the water off and turn it on. Check that each is turned fully open to allow water to flow. Even a pinched hose can prevent water from reaching the washer. Especially if the machine previously “walked” in place or the washer was shoved or moved, the inlet hoses may become cramped enough to prevent filling. Move the washer to allow free water flow.
If the washer has a hard time draining or refuses to drain, the problem may lie with the pump inside the washer’s housing. Another possibility, however, is a blockage within the house drain or the washer’s drain hose. First, detach the drain hose from the washer, where it connects to the pump inside. Then free it from the drainpipe; it either secures to the drainpipe or, commonly, slides down into the drain. In the latter case, the end of the drain hose shouldn’t be farther than 4 to 6 inches inside the drainpipe to prevent a siphon-like action which works against proper drainage. Look inside the drain hose to spot blockages, especially at the beginning or end of the hose. Usually the hose isn’t very long so cleaning out an obstruction is fairly simple.
If you notice water standing in the drainpipe itself, there’s likely a clog inside the wall drain. Try running a plumbing snake down the pipe or use a straightened coat hanger to reach close obstructions. Consult a plumber for difficult blockages within the house framing.
Older washing machines used a drain filter to catch lint and debris before it reached the drain. While newer machines – with the exception of front-loading machines – don’t usually include a filter, aftermarket filters and homemade filters are used by owners concerned about filtration, especially with septic tank systems that may struggle with the load. Check a filter if your machine has one: either inside the end of the drain hose, attached to the drain hose and perhaps mounted to the wall, or behind an access panel at the front of the washer on side-loading machines. Clean to restore water flow.
Looking Under the Hood – Tearing the Washer Apart
Think of the washing machine’s exterior as a car exterior, the tub its seats and the mechanical parts – the motor, water pump, transmission, drive belt and such – as the engine components under the hood. It makes sense as, with some differences, many of the parts have corresponding parts on a car. Like a vehicle, you also have to get under the hood to fix most of the things that can go wrong. A washer generally has more than one point of entry:
- Remove the washing machine’s control panel cover. Typically, the control knobs pull off with a firm hand, although some may have setscrews holding them in place. The timer and cycle knob, the largest knob on the controls, hooks to the timer control on the opposite side and generally attaches with screws. Some screws may be hidden under trim.
- To enter the washer from the bottom, tip it over on the front or side. Remove any service panels by loosening and removing retaining screws. Service panels may be along the front, back, and rarely the bottom.
- Remove the top of the washer for easy access from the top. Pry up the top with a screwdriver or putty knife to force the spring clips holding it in place to release. With the control panel removed it should be fairly easy to free this piece, revealing the entire inner cabinet.
Repairs Involving the Controls
Once you have the controls revealed, most are easily removable in a self-evident manner. The timer, for instance, is immediately behind the large cycle and timer knob that you use to start the wash. This part may snap into place with a retaining clip or secure with screws. Check the wires running from the timer to the other parts to ensure they are secure and in good condition. Test the timer itself with a volt-ohm meter (VOM) on the RX1 scale, which is usually the default setting. Attach the meter’s probes, one each, to the optional wire pairings leading from the switch. Each of these corresponds to a wash setting. The reading for each terminal should be zero on one and infinity on the rest. Any other results means the timer is faulty. Detach and replace with a new timer. Test, remove and replace the other control switches, including the lid safety switch, similarly.
The pressure switch mounts to the control area as well. It controls the washer’s water level. A clear tube runs from the switch, carrying air, which reacts to a rising water level inside the washer’s tub, with an increase in air pressure. The proper pressure for the water level selected activates a switch that stops the water valve and the flow of water. If the hose has fallen loose, is pinched or has any holes, however small, the air pressure will be inaccurate and may cause your washing machine to overflow, thinking it isn’t full yet.
Pull the air tube from the pressure switch and replace with a new tube of the appropriate size to repair faulty tubing. Test the switch with a VOM to ensure it works accurately. Clip the probes to the terminals and blow forcefully into the end of the attached air tube. The VOM should beep and register zero or the switch is faulty. Remove and replace to fix.
Repairs Inside the Washing Machine
Failure in the mechanical parts within the washer also frequently occurs. While every washing machine make and model varies somewhat, each is guided by the same principles and most of the same parts, with the exception of the drive system, whether belt-driven or direct, and the top-loader’s agitator versus the front-loading machine’s lack of one. Several repairs are easily performed by the average DIY repairman with a little observation and determination. Others depend on their level of general mechanical experience plus a healthy dose of confidence. A few of the most common, simple and useful repairs include removing and replacing the agitator, cleaning the pump, and checking or replacing belts.
If your agitator fails to move, moves weakly or only in one direction, one of the first things to look at is your agitator. It’s simple to remove and, once it’s gone, makes access to the transmission, clutch, or even removing the inner tub much easier if you have the knowledge and ability to make more complicated repairs.
Older washing machines have an agitator that simply pops out with a little encouragement, but some may require removing a screw or two. Simply unscrew or lift away the fabric softener dispenser, if present, then lift, pry or unscrew the cap at the top of the agitator. If you see a bolt in the middle of the surface under the cap, remove it as well. Look for a screw near the bottom of the agitator’s base and remove if present. Now lift the agitator up and out, using a slight rocking motion to break it free. Some agitators will remove easily but some will prove extremely stubborn. Looping a rope under the agitator base and over a broom handle resting on top of the washer, then levering up on the broom, may help.
Replacing the agitator will fix broken fins and clothes torn from rough agitator parts. If the issue is weak agitation, look for string, clothes and other objects wedged under the agitator or wrapped around the drive shaft underneath the agitator. Another common repair, suspected when the agitator moves in one direction only, are the agitator “dogs,” located inside the agitator where the top and bottom pieces join. Step on the bottom flange surrounding the removed agitator and pull up on the top to separate the sections. Flip the top portion upside down and remove the assembly inside. This piece contains the dogs, four small cogs encircling the cam unit. Use a replacement kit, following the specific instructions, to remove and replace these cogs. The agitator reassembles in the opposite manner from disassembly.
Cleaning or replacing the pump is another fix for drainage problems. The pump is located in the bottom of the washer cabinet and attaches to the drainage hose. Sometimes the pump becomes clogged or simply fails and needs replacement. The pump may attach directly to the washer motor with retaining clips keeping it in place, mounted independently of the motor but attached with a drive belt, or may run independent of the main motor, using an internal motor instead. Disconnect the drain tubes, one running from the tub to the pump and the other from the pump to the wall, and free the unit. Tear the pump apart – the process is self-explanatory – and check for clogs caused by hair, clothes and debris. Replace the unit, alternatively, snapping it in place of the old pump and reattaching the hoses.
Worn, broken or slipping drive belts may also cause agitation and spinning problems. Changing belts is a messy, time-consuming job, so a visual inspection is a good first step. The belt shouldn’t have any cracks or look glazed over. When you pluck the belt like a guitar string, it should be taut. Try moving the belt side-to-side to test the play. It should move about ¼ inch before resisting. If the belt moves over ½ inch, however, the belt either needs tightening or, on newer models, replacement.
To replace the belt, use a screwdriver to detach the clamps from the pump coupling. These are flexible rubber parts that attach the pump to the motor. Once the coupling is removed, the belt slides out. In some cases, you may need to loosen the motor’s mounting bolts and push it slightly inward to take enough tension off the belt to slide it free. The new belt then hooks over the transmission pulley and the motor pulley. The belt may resist placement – slide it over the near edge of the motor pulley and turn the pulley to work it on gradually. Then, replace the coupling or tighten the mounting bolts to complete reassembly. Test the play before putting the washing machine back together.
No repair guide is exhaustive. With all the parts, and the parts that make up the parts, that form a washing machine, a complete repair manual would likely run a hundred pages or more. Considering all the manufacturers and washer styles, no single manual would cover every washer around. If you’ve made it this far, however, chances are good that other repairs, not listed, are within your reach. As a wise man once related, if you can tear it apart and pay attention to how it fits together in the process, chances are good you can put it back together again. From there, it takes little more than figuring out how the part works and then, what isn’t working properly. If your washing machine is already broken, you have little to lose but time, and a lot of money to save.
Additional Washing Machine Repair Resources
Consider visiting these free online resources if you need additional assistance with your washing machine repair efforts.
Part Select’s Repair Help Pages – This exhaustive guide from Part Select, “a leader in helping do-it-yourselfers with their home repair needs,” breaks down washing machine repair on a symptom-by-symptom basis. It also has videos on identifying issues with washing machines and walkthroughs on how to make repairs.
How Stuff Works’ Washing Machine Repair Guide – From timer troubles to pump problems, this guide can walk any washing machine owner through the process of fixing – or at least identifying – their appliance’s issues.