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I’ve got a clothes washer that drains into a slip sink in our basement. This evening we did a normal load of towels, and later discovered that the sink had clogged up and overflowed. In the drain I found a lot of slightly rubbery, soft material that looks like this:

gunk from washer

Any idea what it is? The machine is 20+ years old. My guess is that it’s just some scummy stuff that builds up over years and then one day the whole layer peels off and washes away. But I’m concerned that it might instead be some important part of the machine, like a seal that has broken down. Has anyone encountered something like this before?

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It looks to me very much like 1,743 layers of fabric softener deposit from the inside of the outer tub (that's about sixteen years worth of loads at twice a week). Fabric softener leaves a thin layer of of oily residue every time it is used. Some people disassemble their washing machine and remove this gunk as part of a cleaning or refurbishing procedure.

Usually it is quite a chore to clean, but I can imagine chunks of it breaking off given some circumstances, like an extra large load washed with hot water or after some time of disuse where the stuff had time to dry out and shrink, breaking loose from the plastic tub by itself.

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    Using less fabric softener than the people who make money off it would like you to use, and not using it in every load, reduces the problem significantly. I use very little, and have never had more than a thin skin of build-up even after several years (when I had to dismantle the machine for unrelated repairs). I dislike the smell, so only use it on towels that are to be dried outside, plus it's not good for sportswear which accounts for a lot of my washing.
    – Chris H
    Commented Sep 5, 2023 at 13:00
  • That's a pretty good hypothesis. This is also something that can result from using too much detergent because many detergents contain fabric softeners. That tends to be more of an issue with high-efficiency washers, though.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Sep 5, 2023 at 14:24
  • @JimmyJames good point - and detergent manufacturers often recommend using too much. If I did as I was told with (powder) detergent, it wouldn't all dissolve and it would accumulate in the dispenser drawer. Even if it doesn't contain fabric softener itself, detergent can still contribute residue
    – Chris H
    Commented Sep 5, 2023 at 15:54
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    @ChrisH When I got my high-efficiency washer, the salesperson stressed the importance of not using too much detergent. It's apparently the #1 cause of issues with these washing machines. Apparently, my spouse didn't hear that, and we started having issues with what I would call funk-ass-smell. Got some cleaning tablets and those seem to have helped along with using a very small amount of detergent. It really doesn't take much at all.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Sep 5, 2023 at 15:58
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    @Conrado mine is a front-loader. Top-loaders are rare here - we tend to have less floor space in our houses and want a useful surface over the top (even those of us who are lucky enough to have utility/laundry rooms. We also have higher expectations for water and energy efficiency.
    – Chris H
    Commented Sep 6, 2023 at 8:10
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Ruskes won't like this because I'm giving an answer that doesn't 100% match the question, but I'm doing it anyway, because that's what I do!

I don't know what stuff is. It could be:

  • Some collected residue that broke loose
  • Some part that broke apart
  • Something that was wrapped in one of the towels

If the machine still works then I wouldn't worry about it. If it won't run properly any more, or if it leaks, then it needs investigation.

But having had way too many drain clogs over the years, for a variety of reasons, there are some basic things you can and should do to prevent at least some of the clogs. One of them is specifically for the washing machine if it drains into a sink. A lint trap can do wonders:

lint trap

This is an example from Amazon (easiest way to find stuff with pictures) but you can get them in any hardware store and even in many grocery stores. This will prevent most lint (which everyone has) from going down the drain, and it will definitely catch the bigger stuff like you encountered today.

Change it every few weeks (depending on how many loads you do) when it starts to get clogged up. Inexpensive protection against one of the ways your drain can clog.

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    What a contraption, it will not prevent the deposits from washing powder, which OP has
    – Traveler
    Commented Sep 5, 2023 at 4:10
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    @Ruskes These are extremely common types of lint traps. The gunk that OP found would absolutely have been blocked by one of these lint traps. Commented Sep 5, 2023 at 4:15
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    Just to be clear, yes, it's true that a trap like this wouldn't prevent the deposit from forming, but it would indeed have either caught it or forced it to break into pieces small enough that they wouldn't have lodged in the drain.
    – Caleb
    Commented Sep 5, 2023 at 5:03
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That looks like the bacteria film that I find in my sink drains.

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