Hanging Out: Reducing Clothes Dryer Use

We have a tyrannosaurus in our laundry area. You may not realize it, but you probably do too.

This voracious eater from another era sits in a white metal box perched atop the washing machine. Clothes washers like ours have seen major efficiency upgrades in recent decades, helped along by governmental rebates. Front-loading machines typically use at least 40 percent less water and 30 percent less energy than their top-loading predecessors. And they’re gentler on clothes.

But that tyranno-dryer? Its mechanical innards are archaic and surprisingly wasteful – with all the technological sophistication of a hair dryer aimed at a pile of wet clothes. A 2014 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that a single clothes dryer can consume as much energy annually as three major appliances combined (for example – a relatively new and efficient refrigerator, dishwasher and washing machine).

This wasted energy costs consumers, particularly those who own electric clothes dryers (about three-fourths of the U.S. population). Powering an electric dryer over the machine’s lifetime can run upwards of $1,500. Gas models are more efficient, typically offering a per-load savings of 50 to 75 percent.

The technology exists to make clothes dryers efficient and, predictably, it’s already in use abroad. But the U.S. government didn’t even bring dryers into the federal ENERGY STAR program until 2014, so manufacturers had few incentives to offer highly efficient dryers.

Both consumers and the environment stand to gain from improved dryer technology. If U.S. clothes dryers were manufactured to meet the most stringent standards used abroad, the NRDC claims, consumers could save $4 billion and generate 16 million tons fewer carbon dioxide emissions each year. If the U.S. sold only Energy Star dryers (which typically use 20 percent less energy than conventional dryers), consumers could prevent greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to taking more than 2 million vehicles off the road.

Of course, the most efficient option is to sidestep the clothes dryer altogether and use free solar energy. Line-drying laundry might strike some people as laborious. Yet I find it a surprisingly satisfying task (not something I’d say of many other household chores!) – one that offers personal rewards and planetary benefits.

The gentle motion of bending to collect clothes and extending to pin them flows like a yoga posture, at once relaxing and invigorating. Our clothesline is mounted by lilac bushes, so this time of year I bask in the heady scent of springtime blossoms as well as the sun’s warming rays. The minutes spent hanging and gathering clothes from the line – listening to birdsong and breathing in lilac – are peaceful bookends to over-packed days.

Sunlight acts as a natural bleach and sanitizer, minimizing the need to “pre-treat” clothes with other chemicals. When the sun has worked its magic, every item carries the inimitable scent of outdoors. Ersatz laundry fragrances (with names like “clean breeze” and “butterfly kiss”) contain dubious chemicals and fail miserably in their efforts to approximate the appealing aroma of sun-scented clothes.

Some people object to the stiffer texture of line-dried clothing, but outdoor drying is far gentler to material. The softness the dryer imparts comes through abrasion, and lint is the accretion of eroded material worn off by the dryer’s vigorous tumbling. Line drying sustains the life of clothing, saving money and resources.

Solar clothes-drying would seem like an obvious choice, and for some cultures around the world, it is. Our British-born neighbor hangs out wash year-round, leaving clothes out a few days in freezing weather if needed. She has a dryer but grew up where no one owned them. A half-century later, she has never lost that early habit of hanging out wash.

Sadly, laundry lines are no longer part of our cultural fabric. Colorful clothes dancing in the breeze look to me like impromptu prayer flags, a hopeful symbol of sustainable living. But clearly not everyone sees it that way. Many subdivisions and condo associations attempt to prohibit outdoor laundry-hanging. A friend living in a “green” condo complex was even chastised for setting a modest wooden drying rack out on her private back stoop.

A “right to dry” law, passed by the Maine Legislature in 2009, affirms residents’ rights to use “a solar clothes-drying device” on property they rent or own, but it can be a struggle to uphold that right.

It’s time to bring clotheslines and wooden drying racks back into fashion. Dryers can be a helpful fallback at times, but in the heat of summer, it’s best to hang out.

What You Can Do
• Set up a system that makes line-drying easy. Accessories like line-tighteners and S-hooks can help keep clothes well off the ground. Consider folding wooden racks for small items (which can second for indoor clothes-drying on wet or wintry days).
• If replacing an old dryer, consider choosing a natural gas model that meets ENERGY STAR standards.
• Using lower temperature settings on your dryer cuts energy use significantly—even if the machine runs longer. Felted wool dryer balls can save on drying time.