Hang drying clothes is a simple way to save massive amounts of energy. Hear me out — the statistics are startling. The average American family does 2300 pounds of laundry per year, and drying that, literal ton, of laundry in a clothes dryer uses close to 1000 kWh of electricity or one tenth of a family’s total annual usage. For context, that’s enough electricity to drive across the country (4,000 miles) in the typical electric car or to heat all the water you’ll need for an entire year with a heat pump water heater.
Even though most dryers run on electricity, and one of the primary strategies to fight climate change is to electrify everything, our carbon drawdown challenge in the crucial coming decades, is to make sure we are using electricity efficiently and well. To quickly electrify all homes, buildings, cars and trucks, we need to triple our electricity supply, and, at the same time, make sure it all comes from clean renewables. So hang drying your undies, and using that saved electricity to fuel your electric car (or bike), or heat your water and house, suddenly becomes an important piece of the climate puzzle.
This is why I help organize “Hang Dry for Climate Change Week.” It’s now an annual celebration of the original form of solar energy and the power in sun drying our clothes rather than using inefficient, energy hogging machines. Shameless plug — Hang Dry Week is August 22-28, hang dry your laundry, snap a photo and post it to #hangdryweek.
Something about the message of “fighting climate change with our undies,” seems to comically resonate. I’ve been filmed hanging up my own undies (as well as my daughter’s diapers) on the nightly news, and this year I even made it into the New York Times. I chock it up to the fact that people are hungry for something they can do now, and sun drying laundry is an enormous low-hanging, climate-change-fighting fruit. If we follow the lead of the vast majority of the world that still practices this technique, we can have real and immediate impact.
But, since most of us North Americans have grown up with dryers as our go-to clothes drying technology, how do we get started hang drying? How do we incorporate this climate friendly practice into our daily lives, saving the energy-hogging dryer for those rare occasions when it’s not blazing hot in this warming world? A friend recently asked me those very questions so I’m delighted to share my responses more broadly.
Here are a couple key tips to get started hang drying your own undies and saving energy.
- Make a hang drying plan — Hang drying certainly isn’t rocket science. It’s just hanging wet clothes on a rack or line and waiting for the sun (or indoor heater) to dry them. Still, if you do a little planning you can easily incorporate the practice into your daily routine. Planning means figuring out what drying rack or line you’re going to use and finding a laundry cadence that is optimal for hang drying.
- Wash your laundry on sunny days — This may seem like a no-brainer, but it should be said. Do your laundry in step with the weather. Many of us have flexibility when we wash our clothes, so wait for that sunny day to start your wash and then do it in the morning for maximum outdoor daytime drying. Protip — Beware the sunny spring mornings that fool you into hanging outside only to sprinkle on your clothes an hour later. That’s happened to me more than a couple of times and I’m left scrambling, and cursing the clouds under my breath as I take all the still damp clothes in quickly. On those days it’s safer to hang indoors.
- Get a drying rack — Drying racks are cheap, easily foldable and storable, and you can usually hang a whole load of laundry on one. They come in a wide range of sizes and shapes but the primary options are those that fold out horizontally and those that rise vertically. Both have their advantages. Check out a couple options here.
- Get a clothes line — Clothes lines are the most ancient of drying technologies and, with the right setup, can be incredibly useful. You can get retractable or pulley systems and can usually dry several loads at once (including sheets) on the systems with multiple lines. I recently used one at my grandpa’s house that hadn’t been used in decades, and I was able to fit four loads of laundry on it at the same time.
- Get a front loading washing machine — Washing and drying clothes are very related from an energy standpoint. A front loading washing machine uses less energy, and less water, than a top loader. It also spins the clothes much faster meaning your laundry will come out of the washer with hardly any excess moisture and hang drying won’t take as long. This might not mean much during the hot summer days but when hang drying in the winter, it can make a major difference in how long your clothes have to sit on the rack.
- Give the laundry a shake before hanging it — My host mother in Italy recently told me that shaking laundry is crucial to minimize crunchiness. Giving your laundry a little snap, especially bigger items like towels and pants, makes them fluffier and less stiff. My wife bemoaned our crunchy hang dried towels until we learned this technique. They still won’t come out as fluffy as the dryer but the shake definitely softens them.
- Turn clothes inside out to protect from the sun — I’ve read that people in China and Japan prefer hang drying because they trust the UV rays of the sun to disinfect clothes. This makes sense in the era of COVID-19 as we’ve learned that virus can’t survive UV rays. The flip side is that the sun’s rays can make the clothes fade when you hang dry a lot (to be fair the dryer seems to have this effect too though.) This has never been a big problem for my family, but if you’re worried about fading, take a little extra time and turn your clothes inside out before hanging them to dry.
- Dry indoors next to a heater and out of the way — Hang drying outdoors is a no brainer. Hang drying indoors may seem inconvenient to some but most of the world does it, and you can too. Air drying in the winter takes longer than the summer heat and sunshine so you’ll want to find an out-of-the-way spot in your house, if possible. Also, try to find a spot that is near a heating source as this will help dry your clothes more quickly. We set up a drying rack near a ductless heat pump in our bedroom so the warm air blows directly onto the clothes. Clothes take about 24 hours to dry so if I hang them first thing in the morning they’ll be dry by the next morning. More great indoor drying tips here.
- Use clothes pins with clothes lines — Clothes pins, that attach to the very end of clothes, work really well with clothes lines. This approach exposes more of the fabric to sun and wind to speed up the drying process compared to clothes that are folded over a line or drying rack. Clothes pins also help ensure the wind doesn’t blow your undies into a bush nearby.
- Wash in the morning — Getting on a good hang drying schedule is essential when incorporating this practice into your daily life. Usually that means doing laundry in the morning so it can hang dry throughout the day. My wife and I typically start the washer as part of our morning routine so we can hang the laundry before starting work for the day.
- If your HOA doesn’t allow laundry lines, use an inconspicuous rack — Many HOAs across the country prohibit visible outdoor laundry lines, considering it an eyesore. Nevermind the classic Italian charm of laundry hanging outside windows that people travel across the world to see.
If you can use this article to help change your HOA rules, awesome! If you don’t have the time, consider getting an inconspicuous drying rack (like the ones that fold our horizontally) that can be placed out of the visual way.
- Get creative when traveling — The beautiful thing about hang drying laundry is its simplicity. When you’re without your preferred hang drying technology, you can still do it. I’ve used hangers, banisters, chairs, you name it as substitute hang drying technology when traveling. I’ve also seen students in Africa “lay dry” clothes on the ground. There should be no reason not to hang dry!
- Use the dryer as backup — We’re not such hang drying purists that we claim we never use the dryer. Sheets are challenging to dry indoors in the winter and there are rare occasions when my family has to dry clothes more quickly than hang drying will allow. Don’t think it’s all or nothing with hang drying. You can start slowly incorporating this practice into your life, see what makes most sense and go from there. I’m also really excited to try heat pump dryers which use 60% less energy than conventional dryers though I’m sure hang drying will always remain our go-to drying technology.
So there you have it. Hopefully you feel armed with some of the skills and know-how to start harnessing the sun to dry your laundry and saving boatloads of energy and emissions. Let’s join the rest of the world and bring back this timeless, surprisingly impactful practice so we can use our clean electricity for appliances that don’t have such an easy replacement (like water and space heating). Let’s fight climate change, one hang dried pair of undies at a time!
Visit www.hangdry.org for more information and join me for a webinar with Electrify Now on heat pump dryers and hang drying on August 25. Any hang drying tips I missed? Leave them in the comments below.