Friday, March 13, 2009

Hanging out the wash - well meaning or misguided?

An interesting blog on my reader list is Eat Close to Home, and recently, there was a post about a One Stone Carbon Challenge which is very intriguing to me. Basically the concept is to find easy ways to reduce your carbon footprint. One suggestion for ideas of things to do is to hang dry clothes - to save 1 stone of carbon, it is suggested to try air drying 4 loads of laundry. This is something that is often suggested to reduce my carbon footprint, but I have always been skeptical of this idea. A good friend was trying to hang out her laundry last year and I thought her efforts were well meaning, but misguided. After all, she has a family of 5 to do laundry for, including a baby, and works full time. Does she really have time to hang out her laundry?

I can't put a finger on why I felt this way. Maybe it is because when I was a teen, I became fascinated by the idea of hanging out the wash. I wanted the laundry to smell "line dried fresh". My mother, having grown up poor in rural West Virginia without electricity or running water, thought my hanging out the laundry idea was well meaning, but misguided. After all, she did hang out her laundry for half of her life, as well as washed her clothes using a wash board and a wringer. One of her charming West Virginian colloquialisms is the phrase "Don't get your tit in the wringer", which means the same thing as the phrase "Don't get your undies in a bunch", but definitely conjures up a more vivid image. (or maybe I just think so because I had a mammogram yesterday). No one knows what a laundry wringer is anymore, anyway. Once my mother took that Greyhound bus to Detroit in 1953, she used a washer and dryer and never looked back.

My teenage laundry experiment ended after one try. We had an old fashioned T bar clothesline in our backyard that was never used since we moved into the house, so I strung it with some clothesline, and hung out the wash. Being a teenager, I had the attention span of a gnat. (Still do!) Soon after the laundry was hung, I retreated to the house to watch "General Hospital", my favorite TV show of the era. I didn't hear the thunderheads rumbling on the horizon as Luke and Laura embraced, or Richard Simmons did his exercise routine at the disco, or whatever was going on during that episode of GH. Nor did I remember my wash as the rain, and then hail, pummeled my clothes. Soon, night fell. The next morning, my mother reminded me about the wash still on the line. I went to take it down and it was covered with dew. By late afternoon, it was finally dry and the towels were planks and my Gloria Vanderbilt jeans were so stiff they could stand on their own without me wearing them. So much for line dried freshness! I saw the wisdom in using the dryer at that point. Maybe the coal miner's daughter that is my mother was on to something...

I went away to college and I did dabble in rack drying my clothes to save money and keep from shrinking my sweaters. After all, every quarter not spent in the laundry room at the dorm could be spent playing "Space Invaders" in the dorm lounge. Fast forward to it worth my time and effort to air dry my clothes? I am a nerdy engineer and have to do my own math when in comes to environmentalism. I can readily see that going green is the current huge marketing opportunity, so I am always skeptical about any green claims.

I have found the laundry facts and figures hard to come by, though. Some environmentalists talk about how dryers use 13% of your household energy costs, but that's for people that use electric dryers. Who uses an electric dryer? No one I know! There are no Energy Star ratings for dryers, because all brands use about the same amount of energy. According to Greenpeace says that traditional clothes dryers are very energy intensive. So-called 'condensation' models – without an exhaust tube – use even more energy and I can save 3-4 kWh per load by line drying. That's fine, but I don't have that kind of dryer. They also suggest making sure that my washing machine can spin at 1600 or even 1800 rpm. Mine does. They also say that gas-fired clothes dryer used far less energy - it uses 60 percent less energy (including the gas) and dries 40 percent faster. So, I am still confused....

Finally an answer! This blog gives me the data for gas vs. electric dryers:

  • Electric dryers - 3.3 kWh electricity /load
  • Gas dryers - .2 kWh electricity + .22 therms gas /load

So....what does that mean for carbon emissions? From this website

  • Kilowatt hours X 1.5 pounds of CO2/kilowatt-hour = pounds of CO2
  • Therms of natural gas X 11 lbs CO2/therm = pounds CO2

So that means electric dryers are responsible for 4.95 lbs of CO2 per load and gas dryers 2.72 lbs of CO2 per load. Gas dryers are much better....almost 2x better for the environment. That means to save a stone of carbon for me, it would take hanging up 6 loads of laundry. So is it worth my time and effort to hang the laundry outside? How much time am I willing to spend to save is 2.72 lbs of CO2? I figure it would take me 10 additional minutes to hang up a load of wash to dry and take it down off the line. That amounts to an additional hour of laundry time per week. I'm not sure I want to do that.

But I could focus just on the jeans load to start. I could convince the family to wear their jeans twice, and save a load that way, and then use a laundry rack outside in the summer to dry one load per week. I found out the trick to keeping the jeans from turning into planks - as it turns out. a 1/2 cup of vinegar added instead of laundry softener will do the trick. Check out many good tips on the handy website called Project Laundry List.

The bottom line? It's not worth it to me to hang out the laundry, it's far better for me to carpool AND it doesn't take any more time out of my's the equation I used:

lbs of CO2 generated by my commute = (miles of my commuteXnumber of lbs CO2 emitted from burning a gallon of gas)/(number of people I carpool withXMPG of my car)

My commute is 80 miles, my car gets 28 mpg and each gallon of gas emits 22 lbs of CO2, and I carpool with one other person....I save a whopping 31 lbs of carbon per day by carpooling...that adds up to 11 stones per week. For my time and effort....I'd rather carpool! But I will try the jeans thing for a while...I still want to experience "line dried fresh" clothes on a regular basis.


Buttercup said...

Ah, the memories this brought up of my childhood. I had to run to save clothes from the rain so many times. You missed the joy of bringing in frozen laundry. (All items really stiff as a board.) Also, we lived on a dirt road so there were times that even on a line in the back we had to watch the time of day things were hung out so they wouldn't come back dirty.

Also, we used old-fashioned laundry starch for some things. I had layers of net petticoats that had to be starched and hung upside down. And for your jeans, maybe pants stretchers - put the jeans on so you don't have to iron in creases!

Needless to say, I'm not tempted yet to give up my gas dryer for a line.

mlle noelle said...

Your family washes jeans after only one wear?!? I usually get at least 4-5 wears out of mine before they need a wash... Same with sweaters, I'll wear them 2-3 times-if I'm wearing a t-shirt under them, it's not like they're getting "dirty" unless I spill something. In fact most clothing, I find that if I hang or fold it up neatly right after wearing, I can at least get a couple wears in. So maybe the key to reducing the carbon footprint is just wearing things more than once before washing? It sure would save you a lot of work as well! Not only that, but your clothes would probably last a lot longer too, which would also reduce consumption. Win-win! :)

Mom said...

Noelle - the adults in the family rewear their clothes all the time, but the middle schoolers, not so much.

Trying It Out said...

I have two of these drying racks in my basement ( They're nice because they fold flat and can either be big or, well, smaller if you only use one half. I can also lay things flat across them to dry, when needed.

I've found I can dry almost anything without my kids complaining - but they're little! I think it saves me a little bit of time on the folding too - instead of ending up with huge baskets of clean laundry, I fold all of one persons laundry off the rack, then fold the next...

When it's nice out, I drag, er, I mean take them outside.

I wish I could dry sheets outside though - that's what I'd like to have that line dried scent on most! Maybe I'll make something to do that with this year...

I LOVE your vinegar tip, I'd never heard that! I always wonder if the fact that I use fabric softener in loads I'm going to line dry erases the line drying benefit environmentally.

Thanks for the conversions though, that's the kind of thing I always think about but never follow through on researching!

Anonymous said...

Woohoo! This is *exactly* the kind of thing I was hoping the One Stone challenge would help people figure out - what's really a meaningful step for you, personally, to take, and what's not really worth it.

FWIW, every house I've ever lived in has had an electric dryer. We originally started air drying because the dryer "ate" our clothes and wore them out. We just put a closet pole in the laundry room (which also held the furnace). Even now, in a new house with a better dryer (still electric out here in the stix) we still hang-dry all our shirts and pants.

But you're right; all that's "small potatoes" compared to carpooling. We've only got so much personal energy to spend on saving the fossil fuel kind of energy - it makes sense to use it where it'll have the most impact.

Anonymous said...

Gotcha... Middle schoolers... makes sense. :)

Thanks for doing the "homework" on this question for the rest of us, by the way!