I’m doing the laundry! – The Tick
A new reader, Karen, (yay, new readers!) writes:
I really want to use less energy because my husband is out of work and I care about the planet – can you write about how you do it? We try and conserve, but our utility bills tell me we’re not doing that great a job. I guess I care most about the everyday stuff – how you do the laundry, get to places, cook dinner, etc…
Thank you, Karen, for the push, since I’m supposed to be writing a book on precisely this subject right now, and instead have mostly, well, not been. So I thought I’d do a series of pieces about how to cut your resource use in various areas of daily life. You mentioned laundry, so I’ll start there.
First, I should say that I do a lot of laundry – as do most people with kids. My eldest is disabled and not fully toilet trained. At least one of my kids still wets the bed (this is the sort of thing your kids can legitimately sue you for if you discuss on the internet in specific terms, so we’ll leave it). My youngest is only recently out of diapers.
Furthermore, we live on a farm. If there is something gross you can get on your clothes, we’ve got it. Simon was carrying eggs in his shirt and forgot they were there? Got that one. Goat gave birth on my lap? Got it. Mud? Muck? Manure? You name it. We also use cloth, rather than disposable products for almost everything (we use some disposable pull ups with my eldest, since they can’t use cloth at school) – so we make a lot of laundry.
Even furthermore, we live in a climate where there is a distinct season known as “mud season,” where your laundry freezes on the line half the year, and we have every mineral known to man in our water – it is so hard you have to hit it with a hammer.
I say this not to be competetive about who has the most laundry, but to point out to people who say “but I have kids…but we have diapers…but it gets cold/humid/rainy here…but I have hard water…” that you can deal with all of those things and still use energy efficiently while washing. Seriously, it is totally doable. It just takes a shift in perspective, and a little practice.
Maybe you’ll think I’m insane when I tell you that I love hanging laundry out, but I really do. I go outside and watch the world – I love the quiet, the birds, waving to my neighbors as they go by. I find hanging laundry a meditation, a pleasure – it stopped being a chore. I will not say the same about washing or folding or putting laundry away – but I do think it is worth mentioning that the part of this that probably sounds hardest to most people is the part that feels easiest to me.
But first, the washing. Until I had a child in my late 20s, I never owned a washing machine. For more than a decade of my adult life, laundry was brought to the laundromat for washing – usually either in one of those little carts or by carrying it. In the interim, underwear, socks and some larger items were washed by hand in the bathroom sink. Were my husband and I childless, I would probably still choose this method, rather than purchasing a private washer – it just doesn’t seem necessary. If I lived in an area where private washers were the norm and laundromats distant, I’d probably try and barter with a neighbor to share a washer once or twice a week. While households with kids may need their washer nearly every day, households made up primarily of adults simply don’t, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have one in every house.
Or I might make do with a combination of sink washing and one of these I’ve used one, and it is simple to use, inexpensive and gets the clothes quite clean. It isn’t made for families with lots of laundry, but it would work great for a single adult or a couple that doesn’t get dirty that often.
The best way to reduce your energy use in laundry is simply to do less laundry. This is one of those obvious things that we sometimes don’t think about. So the first strategy we use is to try and minimize the number of items getting washed and loads per week. That means we:
1. Take a careful look at our clothes to see if they can be worn again (this is my job, since my kids and husband tend to think that everything can be worn again, no matter how revolting).
2. Change into playclothes when using dress clothing. Put on smocks or aprons or previously dirtied clothes when doing especially vile jobs.
3. Lower standards. Now I’m sort of a slob, so I probably shouldn’t lower my standards any further , but in some households this would be viable – change sheets and towels less often, for example.
But even though we do all that, I do have kids, and we do get dirty so we do have a washing machine. When the washing machine that came with the house died last year, we considered shifting to a James Handwasher, and doing all laundry by hand – for about 30 seconds. Then I purchased the most energy efficient front loader in our price range (not that high). I wish in retrospect that I’d purchased the front loader sooner – the difference in electrical usage, water usage and detergent usage is dramatic. For me, the single most important appliance at my home is the washer – it is the one which gives me the most freed up time and ease, for the lowest price.
We do virtually everything on “quick wash” with cold water, with the exception of one pile I keep for “exceptionally filthy” things which I do a load of once every week or two on regular with cold and a little vinegar added to the rinse. As you can probably imagine, given the kind of things I wash, it has to be pretty disgusting to make it to this pile. But even with hard water, we find we are able to get clothes clean with a quick wash in cold water.
We use a couple of brands of eco-friendly detergent. I used to make my own laundry soap, but I haven’t since getting the front loader, since I called the manufacturer and they told me that they don’t recommend any homemade soap, because of the problem of over-sudsing. I’ve since read accounts of mixtures that can be used in front loaders, but haven’t yet tried them.
We use a little less detergent than is recommended – if you had softer water, you could presumably use less still. We don’t use fabric softener. Once in a great while I do use a capful of bleach on some particularly recalcitrant stains – usually I soak them beforehand, rather than adding bleach to the wash water. Remember, the less you put in your laundry, the less often you have to shop, the lower the cost, the lower the resource use…
As deeply as I love my washer, I think that there’s really little point to a dryer for most people. I think generally, using coal fired electricity to do something the air will do for you for free is overpriced and wasteful. Gas dryers are better, but these are still fossil fuels we are using – and the sun and the wind or your winter heat source will do this without using fossil fuels.
There are a few exceptions to the rule that using a dryer is wasteful – for people who have no vehicle and are reliant on laundromats, I think it is unreasonably onerous to ask people to carry wet laundry back to their apartments to dry. And every once in a great while you can’t get something to dry without a dryer – we had that happen this June, when it rained 26 days out of 30. My husband took several loads of our laundry to the llaundromat one day, simply because I couldn’t keep up with the quantity, given the time required to get it dry. But that’s only happened once (and we get nearly 60 inches of rain a year) in 7 years. I have also used a dryer while travelling, when we wouldn’t have been able to wait for clothes to dry. Otherwise, we have one leftover from the days when Eric’s grandparents were alive, but we don’t use it.
How do we dry our clothes all year round? Well, first of all, I’ve got two clotheslines. The first is one of those spinning circular ones, the second, a regular clotheline that goes around the margins of our front porch. The advantage of having it on the porch is that it provides some cover, so that I don’t have to go racing outside every time a sprinkle of rain hits – it won’t protect them from a downpour, but it does reduce the number of times I have to worry about it.
It takes me about 7 minutes to hang a load of laundry – less if it is big things like sheets and towels, more if it is little things like socks and underwear. I try and mix things up when I can, so that I never have to pin too many little things. I hang small stuff like socks and undies together.
For people with disabilities, who have trouble standing or raising their arms up long enough to hang laundry, you can hang the wet laundry while seated on hangers (thanks to Pat Meadows for this tip!), using clothespins to attach it to the hangers, and then just hang the hangers on the clotheline. This also works indoors on a shower curtain bar.
I hang laundry out about 9 months of the year consistently, plus during warm spells in the winter. The reason I hang laundry out in the winter, when it may take several days to dry, is because winter laundry smells better than anything in the world. You can buy detergents to give you fake-springtime smell, but honestly, the best smelling laundry is the stuff that comes cold off the line. I don’t know why this is, but it is a wonderful scent. I use it especially for sheets and towels.
When it is extremely cold, rainy or humid, I move clothes indoors. I have a free standing clothes dryer – not one of the cheap ones that your grandmother put in her tub (or my grandmother did, anyhow), but a heavy-duty laundry rack that can dry more than a load of laundry at a time. It won’t collapse under the weight of wet laundry, but folds down and fits in a space in a corner. The one I have is similar to the largest of these: http://www.amishhomeplace.com/dryingracks.html and is a wonderful thing. I had just about given up on drying racks, since they often collapsed, but this is terrific. I’ve also heard great things about this model: http://www.bestdryingrack.com/
We heat with wood, so we often set up our dryer near the stove – if you had radiators, near a radiator is good or over a floor vent. You can also use the shower curtain as a laundry rack, either hanging it directly or using the hanger method mentioned above. If I can keep up with my laundry through a New York Winter with no dryer, odds are most of you can do so as well.
What about the “crunchy” texture of the laundry? Honestly, while we noticed it at first, we don’t notice or mind anymore at all. One possible answer if you just can’t bear it, is to run things through the dryer for five minutes with a damp towel to soften them – that’s still better than running an entire load. But honestly, just accepting that it takes a little time to adapt is probably better. No one in my household even notices it any more. Shaking the clothes out, adding vinegar to the rinse and wearing them will add a little natural softness.
What about the time involved in hanging laundry? Well, you do need enough clothes for a load of laundry to take a day or day and half to dry. You should plan on keeping up with it. But hanging a load of laundry really isn’t that time consuming. Remember, if you use the dryer, you have to pay for the dryer, the dryer sheets, the repairs and the electricity that you use, and calculate that into the time equation as well.
What about dry cleaning? We dry clean once a year – my husband and I are fortunate enough to be able to wear serious dress clothes infrequently – his suits are worn for funerals and the high holidays, mine are worn for the occasional professional event. Otherwise, we try to avoid dry-clean only clothing, air out of dry-clean stuff if it needs it, spot clean and try not to get it dirty. For those who have to dress up more often, we find that most natural fiber clothing can be washed safely by hand. If you do dry clean, find a low-toxicity dry cleaner, since the chemicals used are really nasty and bad for you. Even at our low-toxicity cleaner, we hang the clothes outside to air for 24 hours after we have them dry cleaned.
How about ironing? I admit, Simon, my 8 year old once took a developmental test – he was about four. After the test the person giving it came out to talk to me, saying that he had done extremely well on the picture-word id segment of the test – in fact, he’d missed only one word, “ironing board.” I blushed and admitted that there was a good chance he’d actually never seen one. We’re not much for ironing here. I do have an iron and ironing board, and use it occasionally for sewing projects and when absolutely necessary, but generally I find that choosing clothes that don’t wrinkle much and hanging things out on a windy day will make my wardrobe look fairly crisp without it.
As with dry cleaning, for those with serious professional jobs, more ironing may be necessary, and the best you can do is only do what you need to – if you are ironing your underwear, you are probably not making the best possible use of your energy . We all do what we can.
How does all of this actually stack up from a profit and loss standpoint? If you use it a lot, replacing an old top loader washer with a front loader will save you 70 or 80 kwh per month and 7-15 dollars, depending on your electric budget. Not buying any washer at all, and sharing with a neighbor, or using the laundromat will save you still more. Reducing detergent could save as little as $1 a month if you do laundry infrequently anyway, or as much as $8 month. Giving up the dryer could save you $20 a month or more, and a much larger number of kwh. Even reducing their use will make a difference.
Using a front loader is no more time consuming, if you use the quick wash cycle, than running a top loader, so the time is the same. Hanging laundry takes 2-5 more minutes per load than using a dryer – maybe less if you salary is low and your per hour wages to support your dryer aren’t high. Using less detergent, no fabric softener and no dryer sheets saves you time and money – less shopping. Less drycleaning saves you pick up and drop off, not to mention chemical exposure. Less ironing saves you time and electricity.
Best of all, you cut out energy use fairly painlessly – and leave something for the future.
Ok, next week I’ll do keeping warm!