Airing Your Clean Laundry

Will Right-to-Dry Laws Convince People to Bring Back Clotheslines?
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.

Fast forward a half century to today 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, ME, VT and 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 municipalities can impose on solar clothes dryers (aka clotheslines) is unclear.

The 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 kilowatts (kW) while operating. So if it takes 45 minutes to dry one load of laundry, the energy consumed would be about 3 kilowatt-hours (kWh), the equivalent of keeping forty 100-Watt incandescent light bulbs lit for the duration of the dry cycle.

Or, consider this: If all Californians opted to line dry their laundry for one year, the potential energy savings (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 nonprofit organization that supports the right to dry, estimates that they amount to only 4% of U.S. households based on the number that own clothes washers but no dryers. That leaves 96% of households using clothes dryers all or at least some of the time, and indeed most American households have clothes dryers: 92% of single-family homes, 78% of mobile homes and 40% 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, California, 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 aesthetics trump concern about fossil fuel consumption as priorities for most Americans.

The position of Community Associations Institute—and probably most people whose homes are governed by HOAs—is that governments should not interfere 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.