Clothes dryers are among the biggest energy hogs in a typical home*. Line-drying clothes cuts the energy use down to zero, but who has time for that? Here's how you can line-dry clothes without extra work.
The key is to handle each item as little as possible. You can do that by hanging clothes on plastic hangers once, while they are wet. Once the clothes are dry, you just grab the batch and move it to a closet, without any of the folding, hanging or sorting that takes time when you take stuff out of a dryer. A drying rack can make socks and underwear even easier to dry.
People talk about about recovering the lost art of line-drying clothes the way our grandparents did it. But after experiencing modern convenience, it's hard to go back. My goal is to make line drying almost as easy as using a dryer--low energy for me as well as for the power plant.
In addition to saving energy, line drying has lots of other advantages. It can actually work better than a dryer for busy people, because you don't have to worry about being around when the dryer finishes to avoid clothes wrinkling. Clothes can last longer because they don't get overheated--this particularly helps preserve elastic. And rather than using detergents whose chemical scents try to mimic the fresh smell (or lack thereof) of line-dried clothes, you can have the real thing!
For more about the advantages of line drying, check out Project Laundry List, a non-profit dedicated to promoting simple ways of saving energy--such as line drying.
In this instructable, I'll describe strategies and equipment for hanging different kinds of clothes with minimum work, discuss setting up a clothesline (choosing a location, etc.), and finally describe options for minimizing dryer energy use if you do use a dryer. An appendix explains the small effect that drying clothes indoors can have on heating or air-conditioning energy use.
*For more on appliance energy see this summary; dryer energy use is typically 900 to 1000 kWh per year for an electric dryer.
Step 1: Look at the Energy You'll Save!
This picture shows a TED energy monitor when my dryer is on and pretty much everything else in the house is off. 5 kW is more than anything else in my house, unless I turn on all the burners of the stove at once. Avoiding using high power like this is my goal.
Step 2: Clothes With Plastic Hangers: How to Do It Fast and Easy
To dry shirts, pants, skirts and dresses, use plastic hangers. Take the clothes out of the washer and hang them on the hangers. Hang up the clothes on a line, rod, or hook. Ignore them for a day or so, and then check the thickest cotton item. If it's dry, they'll all be dry. You can then lift the whole batch of clothes off the line and take them to your closet, without handling them individually. If you have a particular organization system in your closet, it can be helpful to sort the clothes according to that system as you hang them, so that they are already sorted when they go in the closet.
You can either carry the clothes in a basket to where you will hang them, and put them on the hangers there, or you can put them on hangers as you take them out of the washer, and then carry the whole batch to the hanging spot. I like the latter because I enjoy spending a few minutes in my hanging spot near my apple tree in my back yard, rather than in my dark basement near the washer.
Let's compare the work involved to the work involved in using a dryer. With a dryer, you move the wet clothes from the washer into the dryer, and then, when the dryer is done, you fold or hang them. That's one "batch" step and one individual handling step. With the plastic hangers, the amount of work is the same, but the order is reversed--you handle them individually hanging them up, and then transfer them in a batch to the closet.
Step 3: Clothes With Plastic Hangers: the Hangers
Plastic hangers are the way to go. Steel wire hangers could rust and stain the clothes. Vinyl-coated wire hangers can work, but they generally aren't quite strong enough to hold their shape with a heavy, wet shirt, and vinyl isn't a very green material. Wood is also a good option. Commenters here have suggested that good wood hangers help avoid shoulder bumps in shirts, and that they are often available on freecycle. You could use this nontoxic waterproof finish if you have unfinished wood hangers. Hollow, large-diameter plastic hangers are widely available at discount stores.
For pants and skirts, clamping hangers with a metal mechanism and plastic arms work nicely and are also readily available.
If you are worried about the petroleum used to make the plastic in the hangers, consider this: One dryer-load can use about 2 kWh of electricity. If that electricity is produced by a power plant burning oil, it requires about a pound of oil. (In practice coal in the predominant fuel used to make electricity in the US but that's even worse, environmentally.) That pound of oil could make a lot of plastic hangers, which can be used for a lifetime of loads of laundry, not just one.
If you have trouble with stuff blowing off the line, you can hold the hanger on the line with a clothespin. But since that's extra work each time, better options are to add a hook to to the hanger or use a commercial product called the Tibbe line. Both of of those also keep the clothes evenly spaced.
Step 4: Socks and Underwear
Hanging each sock or pair of underwear with a clothespin would take a really long time. Instead, put a drying rack in a clean area inside or out, and dump the whole load of laundry over it. It will be in a big clump that won't dry very fast. So you need to do a little work to then spread it out to hang nicely, but that doesn't require handling each piece.
Once it's dry, you can sort it as you collect it from the rack. Or, if you want to be really lazy, you can keep the drying rack in your bedroom, and simply take the clean clothes from it as needed. Then you only need to put stuff away from it when you do the next load of socks and underwear, at which point you've already used most of what was on it.
There are lots of drying racks available. These and these wood racks are made in New England using wood from New England--no tropical rain forests involved. There are more good options for metal racks than I can list; for example this basic model, this high-end stainless steel rack, and this space-saving tall, narrow one.
The Clothesline Shop has a growing collection of different types of indoor and outdoor racks and clotheslines. But my top recommendation is the Project Laundry List Store, because they have lots of those options, and the proceeds support a great cause.
Most of the wood ones come unfinished. Consider de-waxed shellac as a waterproof non-toxic finish.
Step 5: Other Stuff: Towels, Sheets, Etc.
Towels, and particularly sheets, are large enough that there aren't that many in a load of laundry, and so hanging them on a line piece by piece is not a lot of work. You can hang them with clothespins, or just drape them over the line. It's that simple.
A high-tech method that's really cool (though not really necessary) is the Candian Cord-O-Clip system that attaches clothespins automatically as you move the line around pulleys. It's available in the US from The Clothesline Shop, among other sources.
Step 6: Locating and Installing a Clothesline
The classic place for a clothesline is a sunny spot in the back yard. But consider also a porch: the clothes won't dry as fast, but you don't have to worry about whether it's going to rain. You can just leave the clothes hanging on the porch until they dry, without worrying about rain. And it can actually be an advantage to keep them out of the sun, because sunlight can eventually fade the colors in some clothes. (If you are worried about that, you can also hang them inside-out.)
If you don't have a porch or other sheltered outdoor spot, you may want an indoor drying spot, especially for winter (see step 6). An unused living space is great--for example a guest bedroom. A shower curtain rod can be convenient for hanging clothes on hangers, though it would need to be a shower that isn't used regularly. Basement spaces tend to be cool and damp, so unless there is a warm area near a heater, that's not a good choice. Some people make pulley-based systems or use commercial pulley-based systems like this or this to raise the clothes up out of the way once they are hung.
You can buy a simple rope and tie it between two trees or other objects (houses, fences, ...), or you can buy one of many commercial clothesline products: retractable lines, multiple retractable lines, drying "trees", etc. Again, my top recommendation for a source is the Project Laundry List Store because they have a great selection and you'll support a great organization by buying there.
Step 7: What About Winter?
You can actually dry clothes outside even below freezing. If the air is dry, ice will "sublimate" directly from the solid state to water vapor, "freeze drying" the clothes. When you first hang them they freeze stiff; when they become soft, you know all the ice has come out. But that can take a while, and most houses are very dry inside in the winter, so clothes dry very fast inside. That means drying inside is the best option for most people, since it's easy, fast and helps keep the humidity in the house at a comfortable level. This does very slightly increase the energy needed to heat the house, but much less than the energy that would be needed to run a dryer, so it's still a good idea energy-wise. See the appendix for more detail on this effect.
Step 8: If You Use a Dryer
If you do use a dryer, here are some things you can do to reduce its energy use.
-Don't over-dry clothes. Baking them well past dry wastes energy and can damage clothes. Many new dryers have moisture sensors. Whether or not you have such a sensor, experiment with settings to find the minimum setting that still adequately dries the clothes.
-If you are buying a new washer, get one that has a high-speed spin cycle that gets more water out of the clothes. If you aren't anticipating getting a new washer soon, you can add this capability with a stand-alone high-speed spinner. It gets most of the water out of the clothes before you put them in the dryer, using much less energy.
-Some clothes dry much faster than others. If you need to run some clothes through the dryer to have something to wear to tomorrow's meeting, go ahead and put the lightweight dress shirt in the dryer with some other quick-drying stuff, and save out the cotton canvas pants to line dry.
-Don't run the dryer too empty or too full. It's a waste to run it without a full load, but if it's overfilled, the air can't circulate and it doesn't dry effectively or uniformly.
-Gas powered dryers are overall much more efficient than electric dryers, if you consider the energy losses in the power plant that burns gas to produce the electricity. If you have natural gas supplied to your house, but have an electric dryer, consider upgrading to a gas dryer (if you use it a lot). You can also install a propane tank and a propane-powered dryer even if you don't have natural gas.
-In Europe, one can get heat-pump dryers that effectively use a dehumidifier instead of a simple electric heater to remove moisture from the clothes, drastically decreasing the energy use. Appliance manufacturers say that Americans won't buy them because they are a little slower and we're too impatient. If you are in Europe, you can buy one; if you are in the US, you can call appliance manufacturers and tell them you want one even it it's slower.
Step 9: Technical Notes: Effect of Inside Line-drying on Heating and Air Conditioning
In hot, dry conditions, hanging clothes inside will help cool the space by evaporative cooling, and will be beneficial whether you
have air conditioning or not.
In hot, humid conditions, the evaporative cooling will still happen, but the added humidity may make the air overall slightly more uncomfortable, so it's better to hang the clothes outside. But the two effects partly cancel, so it's still OK to hang clothes inside if that's most convenient.
In the winter, many houses are overly dry inside, and the added humidification can be helpful. The small evaporative cooling effect will need to be overcome by the heating system, but, unless you have electric heat, this is reasonably efficient and much better than running an electric humidifier, and that's before even considering the energy savings from avoiding using the dryer.
If your house is very dry in the winter, this may be an indication that there are air leaks in the building envelope or ducts. If you get it sealed well enough that humidity gets higher than you'd like, it may be time to consider installing a heat-recovery ventilator. That will allow bringing in fresh, dry air and exhausting stale, damp air, without losing the heat in it.
In summary, drying clothes indoors can be beneficial to the indoor climate if it's dry inside, in either winter or summer. If it's humid inside, it would be better to dry the clothes outside, but it's still a lot better to line-dry them inside than to use a dryer.