Air Your Clean Laundry

Time to Air Your Clean Laundry in Public
by Sarah (Steve) Mosko, PhD

Apppeared in:

  • E-Magazine ‘s This Week as “Airing Your Clean Laundry,” 19 March ’12
  • Surf City Voice, 18 June ’11

If all Californians used clotheslines, one nuclear power plant could be shut down.

During the Leave-It-to Beaver era of the late 1950s, most homes certainly had a clothesline and probably no one thought much about whether it offended their neighbors. It’s a safe assumption that June Cleaver, the perfect homemaker, would have taken issue with anyone even hinting her clothesline was an eyesore.

Then fast forward a half century to the present where the majority of Americans have abandoned the clothesline in favor of electric or gas dryers and homeowners associations (HOAs) routinely prohibit clotheslines or impose such restrictions as to effectively ban them. One can only guess what June would have said to that, even absent her knowing about the threats from global climate change and the pressing need to reduce America’s dependence on fossil fuels.

Few today will dispute that tossing a load of wet clothes into a clothes dryer is more convenient than pinning up clothes, one by one, and surveys confirm that most people living in communities governed by HOAs have no problem abiding by the restrictions on clotheslines from the standpoint of curb appeal or property values.

However, interest in reducing the oversized energy footprint of Americans – twice that of people living in the European Union – has given rise in a handful of states to so-called “right-to-dry” laws that rein in restrictions HOAs or other entities can impose on residents’ freedom to use clotheslines. California is not among them, however, despite its sunny weather and reputation for environmental progressiveness.

The Right-to-Dry
Florida stands out for pioneering the right-to-dry movement with far-reaching legislation enacted decades ago that explicitly bars all municipalities as well as HOAs from banning clotheslines outright or from establishing regulations that effectively prohibit them. The spirit of the law is clearly to foster utilization of renewable resources as it also protects the right to put up solar collectors for electricity generation or water heating.

Six other states have since passed other versions of the right-to-dry (UT, HI, CO, Maine, VT and most recently MD), though the language invoked does not necessarily specify clothelines but may more generally target “solar energy devices” that reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

No right-to-dry legislation has ever been introduced in California. The state’s historic Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which mandates a rollback in greenhouse gas production to 1990 levels by 2020, impacts only large industries and power generators. However, there is clear precedent in California for legal protection of the people’s right to access solar energy: Since the late 1970s, the bedrock Solar Rights Act has prevented HOAs and local governments from restricting installation of solar collectors for electricity production or water heating. Twenty-two other states have enacted similar laws.

Why California’s legislators have never proffered legislation to similarly limit the restrictions HOAs and mincipalities can impose on solar clothes dryers (aka clotheslines) is unclear.

Energy Cost of Clothes Dryers
To get at the energy Californians could save by a return to air drying clothes, consider that the typical American household does nearly 400 loads of laundry a year, according to the California Energy Commission (CEC). The latest census figures put the number of households in California at over 12.5 million, so 12 million would be a very conservative estimate of the average number of loads of laundry being done per day statewide.

The CEC tells us that clothes dryers do not vary much in energy utilization. Electric dryers are far more common than gas ones and usually draw on 4 kW while operating. So if it takes 45 minutes to dry one load of laundry, the energy consumed would be about 3 kWh, the equivalent of keeping forty 100-Watt incandescent light bulbs lit for the duration of the dry cycle.

San Onofre Nuclear Power Plants

Or, consider this: If all Californians opted to line dry their laundry for one year, the potential energy saving (13 billion kWh) would be enough to shut down one average nuclear power plant (annual energy generation 12.3 billion kWh, according to recent U.S. Energy Information Administration statistics).

How many hardcore air dryers there are among us who already rely exclusively on clotheslines or drying racks is unknown, but Project Laundry List – a New Hampshire-based non-profit organization that supports the right-to-dry – estimates that they amount to only four percent of U.S. households based on the number that own clothes washers but no dryers. That leaves 96 percent of households using clothes dryers all or at least some of the time, and indeed most American households have clothes dryers: 92 percent of single-family homes, 78 percent of mobile homes and 40 percent of multiple-family dwellings (like apartments), according to the Energy Information Administration.

The other obvious savings is monetary: The CEC estimates the energy tab to dry one load of laundry at 30-40 cents with an electric dryer and 15-20 cents for one run on gas.

Are HOAs Really to Blame?
A relevant issue for any state considering right-to-dry legislation is the number of people living in housing governed by community associations. As there is no national database tracking HOAs, accurate figures are hard to come by. However, for 17 years, Skip Daum has been a lobbyist in Sacramento for the Community Associations Institute, a national organization representing the interests of people who live in and manage HOA-governed communities.

Daum puts the number of HOAs in the state at close to 50,000 and says a quarter of the population is subject to their rules. Just how many HOAs place tough restrictions on clotheslines is unknown although the assumption is that it is the majority.

Still, this leaves three-quarters of the state’s population without a HOA to fault when they opt for the clothes dryer on a sunny day. City ordinances can also limit clotheslines to the extent of requiring that they be in good repair, but the real reality behind the lack of public enthusiasm for clotheslines is that convenience and esthetics trump concern about fossil fuel consumption as priorities for most Americans.

The position of the Community Associations Institute – and probably most people whose homes are governed by HOAs – is that governments should not be interfering with policies agreed to by residents who opt to live in a community governed by a HOA. As a homeowner myself whose rooftop solar electric panels and retractable backyard clothesline (invisible to my neighbors) violate no rules of my HOA, I tend to agree that what we need is not more right-to-dry laws.

Rather, I perceive a need for something less tangible, a seismic cultural shift to placing such high value on actions of personal responsibility for contributions to global warming that right-to-dry laws become unnecessary. Instead, the members of HOAs would vote to ease restrictions on clotheslines themselves.

It really boils down to a simple question: Isn’t it preferable to take in a glimpse from time to time of your neighbors’ sheets and underwear than to bear witness to the inevitable consequences of runaway global warming, like the submerging of coastal cities and the extinction of polar bears?

If you have a clothesline and haven’t used it in a while, why not give it a whirl, wave to your neighbor, and pat yourself on the back for this simple gesture of personal responsibility.

2 Responses to Air Your Clean Laundry

  1. Doug Korthof says:

    The kids like folding indoor racks, which, left in a sunny area, dry the clothes in a very few hours. Moreover, being a skeptic at first, what convinces you is that it’s easier to sort the clothes on the rack (if you fold them, that is, which some people do) and they also smell better.

    Astounding the cost of natural-gas driers; and there’s a direct link between natural gas and electricity, since we use it to make electric. In the case of natural gas or electric and oil, there is no such link, because we don’t use oil to make electric.

    In fact, we waste lots of electric to make oil! The energy used to extract and refine one barrel of oil (12% according to the DOE) would take an Electric car farther than the REST of the barrel takes an Oil-Fired Vehicle. So we could just leave the oil in the ground, and use the electric to run our Electric cars….ironically, similar logic applies to coal-burning, oil- and coal-burning are a charade to enrich certain large companies and powerful striped-pants Banksters.

  2. Doug Korthof says:

    What I meant by “no relation” between electric and oil is that no amount of heroic savings of electric will save even one drop of oil, since oil isn’t used to make electric. So putting in a solar system, as many people are doing, doesn’t impact oil unless you use some of the electric to power a plug-in car.
    To drive 1000 miles per month takes 250 kWh in our all-electric NiMH 2002 Toyota RAV4-EV, a small SUV; that’s about a third of the average home’s electric use, and less than even eco-folks (who cut down use to almost nothing).

    Looking at it another way, to make 250 kWh per month takes a solar system of about 1.3 kilo-Watts, about a third the size of BOOGIE GREEN’s own solar system. Solar panels that can produce 250 kWh per month (8 kWh per day) take up a roof space of about 200 square feet — less than a garage.

    Even better, the solar system in the daytime helps the grid meet peak usage, while at night slow charging of the EV using otherwise unneeded electric helps the grid both ways.

    Sorry to get so far afield, but it’s important to know what saving electric will do – and what it WON’T do, won’t save one barrel of oil at all.

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