NORMAL: Use this cycle any time and for almost anything. “Normal is average, so it uses the middle speed for agitation and spin, and it washes clothes for a medium length of time compared to other settings,” explains Mary Leverette, a detergent and appliance manufacturer consultant who has taught classes on fabric care at Clemson University. Use this setting for everyday items like sheets, towels, jeans, T-shirts, and socks. Normal will “remove everything but the heaviest of soil,” so particularly mud-soaked items won’t be thoroughly cleaned.
HEAVY DUTY: This setting lasts longer than normal, which gives the detergent and water solution more time to break down stains and soil, according to Leverette. The amount of time is the only thing that really sets the heavy-duty cycle apart. “If you have an average amount of soil on your work clothes,” says Leverette, and you use this setting, “you’re just wasting time.” Not to mention water.
BULKY: Leverette cautions that you don’t really need to use the “bulky” setting at all. Mostly it’s useful for cleaning heavier items, like a bath mat, because the slower spin speed will help keep your washer from getting thrown off balance when a bulky item jerks around. “You should always try to balance your washer by having more than one item in there anyway,” Leverette says.