Clotheslines: Using the Summer Elements to Your Energy-Advantage

Whatever our good intentions, it can seem prohibitively expensive to make the changes needed to reduce our energy use. Most of us simply cannot afford an electric car, heat pump appliances, or solar panels.  One energy and money-saving device that comes virtually free is a clothesline, which substantially reduces the use of one of the biggest energy hogs in most households—the tumble dryer. However, even though line drying used to be routine in the US, it is now a comparatively rare sight. 

Travelers in other countries may have noticed clothes flapping in rural yards or strung from urban balconies, even across streets. Many of these homeowners own clothes dryers, but they use them as a backup when necessary—not for every load. 

Laundry Day on a Rooftop in Cádiz, Spain 

Sadly, over the course of the 20th century, clotheslines became associated in the United States with poverty. Aggressive promotional campaigns by the electrical appliance industry encouraged consumers to switch to dryers as one of the many marvelous “electric servants” available to the modern homemaker, a marker of post-WWII prosperity. Conversely, a clothesline might signify to the neighbors that you could not afford one of the fancy new appliances. 

Consequently, it was argued that clotheslines “brought the neighborhood down” and negatively affected property prices. Homeowners’ associations and condo boards began to adopt rules forbidding clotheslines. Even those people not living under such regulations had absorbed the idea that clotheslines were unsightly and meant unnecessary hard work. 

In recent years, with increased awareness of climate change, there has been a movement to confront the classist stereotypes, to change the attitude to clotheslines, and promote the “right to dry.” In 2013, the American Bar Association reported that 19 states had enacted laws banning the banning of line drying:  ‘The exact nature of “right to dry” laws vary from state to state—while some prohibit clothesline bans directly, others recognize a right to use solar power that implicitly may preclude those in authority from preventing a homeowner from drying laundry in the sun.’ (Iowa is not one of these states, but, of course, you can dry your clothes outside unless your homeowners’ association forbids it.) 

Slowly but surely, the image of someone hanging out the clothes is changing to become fairer and more positive: an environmentally aware citizen, making the most of solar energy. But even walking in alleys where it is possible to see into backyards, I still see very few lines. In fact, most of my friends who I know take pains in other respects to live sustainably routinely use a tumble dryer. 

Admittedly, it takes a few more minutes to hang a load outside than to shove it in the dryer, but the time commitment may be offset by the many advantages of line drying: 

  • It is cheap—free once you have the line and a bag of clothes pins. 
  • It has a virtually non-existent carbon footprint, just whatever it took to manufacture the line and pins. 
  • It is non-combustible. Tumble dryers cause 2,900 fires a year along with deaths, injuries, and property damage.  
  • No need to stay home for safety reasons (see above) or to get the clothes out before they crease (while some clothes can feel stiff and towels downright scratchy, many garments come off the line crease-free). 
  • It is friction-free, prolonging the life of clothes and reducing the shedding of plastic microfibers (though some garments may fade faster, so I turn those inside out or hang them in the shade). 
  • It will not shrink your clothes. 
  • It will not cause static cling, so no need to pay for dryer sheets. 
  • Sunshine and fresh air can enhance whiteness and reduce odors. 
  • It doesn’t heat up the home during the summer months, which adds to the AC’s workload. 

Remember cloth diapers? 

Finally, if you are worried about the neighbors seeing the state of your underwear, just hang it in the back or behind a tee shirt!  

*A word on safety: there have been cases of children suffering head or neck injuries from driving ATVs into clotheslines or fences, and presumably low-hanging clothes might present a strangling hazard. However, children have also suffered death or injury in washers and dryers, so watch the kids whichever method you use. 

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