Brief History of Fisher & Paykel Top Loading Autowashers [3]: ECS Washers

In the last part of this series I took a look at the Hotpoint based washers which F&P licensed for assembly in NZ until the 1980s. In 1985, after a five year research process, F&P unveiled its own replacement for what was, by then, becoming a fairly dated design. The new washing machines were called ECS (Electronically Commutated System) and were quite a radical design compared to their predecessors. There were two major differences: the old mechanical timer and switches were replaced by a microcontroller, touch buttons and lights, and the mechanical drivetrain with its gearbox, friction clutch and brakes was superseded by a reversible variable speed motor and solid dog clutch. There were many advantages to the end user from this system. Noise and weight were significantly reduced and servicing / maintenance requirements were substantially eliminated.

The ECS at its heart consists of a number of key components. The electronics are mostly housed in the top control panel at the rear behind the display panel. Apart from providing the user with the ability to customise and manage wash cycles, an important capability is found in the motor controller, which operates the advanced motor in the base of the machine. The pump has its own motor, eliminating the need for a drive from the main motor as was used in Hotpoints. The microcontroller apart from the two motors also operates the water inlet valves for filling the machine, and receives input from a number of sensors such as the rotation of the driveshaft, the lid safety switch open/closed state, and water level indications. The user can select changes in water level, spin speed and wash temperature on all models, and also different cycles, the number of which varies between models. There is also a customisation capability provided. Indicator lights show the progress of the wash cycle. Warm fill temperature in ECS is adjusted by a fixed control at the rear similar to that on the Hotpoint.

The ECS does have a drivetrain of sorts, albeit greately simplified from its predecessors. The General Electric-made motor is mounted to one side of the outer bowl and drives the agitator shaft via a flat belt and pulley. A fixed dog clutch is used to engage the drive to the inner bowl for spinning. The engagement is simply made by turning the agitator shaft until a lug on it strikes a corresponding lug on the bowl drive shaft, at which point the two rotate together. During agitation the two shafts work independently of each other; as long as the agitator shaft does not strike the inner bowl drive shaft, they are free to rotate independently, although in practice due to the free rotation of the bowl under the influence of water and clothes moving, the lugs tend to hit each other quite often, producing a characteristic knocking sound. The variable speed and reversible motor creates all of the agitation’s oscillatory cycle by spinning up, slowing down, reversing and spinning in the opposite direction, very rapidly, completing each cycle in less than a second. Thus there is no need of a gearbox to create the oscillations from a constant direction constant speed motor as most agitator machines have historically used. The rotational action causes the motor to move quite a lot when it reverses, this being taken up by the flexible suspension system on the outer bowl.

Another innovation in the ECS over its predecessors is the automatic lint disposal system. Lint is trapped between the inner and outer bowls during the wash/rinse cycles and is pumped out of the machine during the drain/spin. The machine uses a flexible drain hose – the F&P hotpoints had a fixed hose which hooked onto the back of the machine and could not be adjusted, although the hose could be replaced. There is also a fabric softener dispenser built into the top of the agitator. The agitator in the ECS is a straight design deviating from the “Spiraclean” in Hotpoint machines and is not user removable. ECS machines have generally proved to be quite reliable although the plastic lids sometimes crack in the middle and have to be reinforced. ECS production lasted about five or six years, so the last of them were made around 30 years ago, yet numbers of them can still be found at work in the community and at May 2021 are often for sale on Trademe. F&P released them under various names, including Fisher and Paykel, Kelvinator, Shacklock and Frigidaire. Model numbers included EW50, GW51/52, LW52, MW52, RW51/52 and SWA50M. They were also known as “Gentle Annies” for a time, the name being a reference to the claimed gentleness on clothes. As noted previously, noise was cut down significantly, but the characteristic whine of the motor at all speeds is still noticeable and further improvement in this regard has been achieved in the ECS’s successors, of which more in Part 4. The suspension and balancing system of the ECS is a big change from its predecessors – the outer bowl is suspended from the top of the machine, and balancing is done by having water filled rings attached to the top and bottom of the inner bowl.

Our family owned a Shacklock ECS machine, which was probably a GW51 or GW52, from about the late 1980s. It stayed in the family until around 2001, when the household inherited a SmartDrive. The ECS was then stored for a couple of years until I obtained it when I moved into my own place. I only had it for a year until it became unreliable, probably the bearings had swelled in storage, and although it could have been serviced and gone on for years more, it got replaced with my refurbished F&P hotpoint 380 which has been my washing machine up until this month, May 2021.

This is an economy model ECS, with only a few program buttons visible.

Under the hood of an ECS. Unlike the Hotpoints which had springs in the hinges to hold the lid in the up position, the designers of the ECS put wedges that engaged with protrusions on the lid to keep it raised. The agitator had rigid fins, and the centre section fabric softener dispenser was a taller version of that fitted to Smartdrives.
Control panel of a Shacklock ECS such as our family owned. This was the more premium model in the range as shown by the number of wash cycle buttons.
Video clip of a ECS running. This example was brought to the UK by a family emigrating from Australia. The video shows the powertrain operating as well, confirming some of the mechanical details of these machines. It also shows the noise level was considerably greater than today’s Smartdrives.