The washing machine is one of the workhorses of a household, but it’s also one that likely isn’t given much thought—until something goes amiss, of course. Although major household appliances are built to last for many years, no machine lasts forever, and an old washing machine will eventually begin to have problems. If you start to notice oil spots on your clothes, there may be a problem with your washing machine.

Regardless of the style of your machine, each one has an electric motor, a transmission, and a gear mechanism. Similar to your vehicle’s transmission, the transmission in your washing machine contains oil to keep the moving parts lubricated and to guard against overheating. If you were to remove the inner and outer drums of your washing machine, you would find an intricate arrangement of mechanical parts as well as seals and hoses that ensure the engine stays dry. Within the transmission, there are additional seals that, unfortunately, break down over time. Those seals and hoses are typically made of rubber, which has a finite lifespan. When the rubber breaks down, oil and grease can make their way out of the transmission. If the watertight seals that keep the engine compartment dry fail, then that oil and grease can enter the washing machine’s drum during a wash cycle. Oil doesn’t mix with water, so that’s why you see spots on your clean clothes.

Troubleshooting a Washing Machine

If you have started to see dark spots on freshly washed clothes, there are a couple of issues to consider—and rule out—before inspecting the motor and transmission. First, write down the manufacturer and model number of your machine, and do a quick online search for it. If there is a known problem, you’re probably not the first or only person to encounter it, and there are countless internet forums where people post questions, answers, and tips about washing machine problems. You may even find a forum that is moderated by your machine’s manufacturer. Such forums are excellent places to get information about possible part recalls and manufacturer-approved fixes for problems.

If an internet search doesn’t bring up helpful results, clean the washing machine drum to rule it out as the cause of the stains. Sometimes, dark spots are the result of grease buildup from years of doing laundry or using liquid fabric softener. Many retailers now sell products specifically designed to clean washing machine drums, but running a cup of white vinegar or bleach through the machine on an empty cycle will also do the trick. Wipe the drum and door seal with a clean, dry towel, and use a cotton swab or other small, absorbent tool to clean out all of the drainage holes.

If your washing machine is top-loading and has an agitator, it’s possible for dirt and grease to become trapped underneath the agitator. Removing the agitator is typically not easy, so consult the machine’s owner’s manual or do an internet search to learn the best way to do it. The upside to removing the agitator is that you will be able to tell fairly quickly whether residue buildup is the problem or whether your machine has a leaky transmission.

What to Look For

Once you’ve wrestled the agitator out of the drum, you’ll see either dirt buildup or motor oil. If you see dirt buildup, clean the agitator and the drum underneath it, and reinstall the agitator in the machine. If you see motor oil—which is dark brown in color and has a liquid consistency—your best bet is to start deciding on the features you’d like to have in a new washing machine. You can, of course, call in an appliance repair company, but similar to how a transmission problem can essentially total a vehicle, a washing machine transmission problem is so expensive to fix that you will most likely save money by buying a new, more efficient machine.

Washing machine problems can bring a household to a temporary standstill, but there are ways to troubleshoot on your own. In many cases, the machine just needs a thorough cleaning, but doing some investigation—or even getting some advice from a Best Pick appliance repair company—can give you a good idea of whether or not you’ll need to go appliance shopping.

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Sources:; The Appliance Clinic; How to Clean Stuff; How Stuff Works.

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