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Difference between revisions of "Washing and drying clothes"

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Revision as of 11:10, 6 June 2008

Washing and drying are common activities that can use a lot of energy - if we aren't careful. But there are a lot of things, most importantly washing in cold water and line drying, which are not only greener, but will make your clothes last longer (as long as you don't leave them outside too long, to fade).

Why does it matter?

Energy usage

We need to use less energy with efficient washers, and use renewable energy where possible.

Water usage

The more water we use, the harder it is to clean, and the more strain we place on water supply.

We need to:

  • Use more water efficient washers,
  • Use water at least twice - e.g. use greywater irrigation of gardens (which requires greywater treatment and/or using suitable detergents to avoid poisoning the plants).

Water pollution

What do you do when you clean? You take dirt, you add more dirt in the form of chemical agents, and then you put all that dirt somewhere else - usually into the water supply. Once people appreciate that they make other things dirty when they make their clothes clean, they think differently about what they're doing...
Do you want to take a chemical derived from benzene, put it on your white clothes, let it absorb ultraviolet rays, get energized, and then emit ultraviolet rays with a bluish hue - all to trick your brain into thinking a graying shirt is white? Is there a value to that, especially when it may create health risks? Is it worth the hazards to your kids? - Gunther Pauli, head of Ecover.[1]


You have better things to do than wash clothes, and you'd rather your hands didn't become dry and cracked, so you would probably choose a washing machine over hand-washing your clothes. Those in poor communities are the same as you, but 1) cannot yet afford a washing machine, and 2) when they can, they will have the same heavy impact on their environment as the rich.

So, how do we have the best of both worlds? We need better designs, and better detergents.

Reducing the need for washing

After being hung up overnight in a breezy location, shirts worn once (even in the tropics!) smell quite fresh enough to wear again.

Environmental impact and labor can both be saved by measures that reduce the need for washing: suitable choice of clothes (color and fabric) and habits such as hanging and airing clothes. See the Clothing page for more detailed suggestions.

Saving energy

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About 90% of the energy used for washing clothes is for heating the water. There are two ways to reduce the amount of energy used for washing clothes—use less water and use cooler water. Unless you're dealing with oily stains, the warm or cold water setting on your machine will generally do a good job of cleaning your clothes. Switching your temperature setting from hot to warm can cut a load's energy use in half.


  • Wash your clothes in cold water using cold-water detergents whenever possible.
  • Wash and dry full loads. If you are washing a small load, use the appropriate water-level setting.
  • Dry towels and heavier cottons in a separate load from lighter-weight clothes.
  • Don't over-dry your clothes. If your machine has a moisture sensor, use it.
  • Clean the lint filter in the dryer after every load to improve air circulation.
  • Use the cool-down cycle to allow the clothes to finish drying with the residual heat in the dryer.
  • Periodically inspect your dryer vent to ensure it is not blocked. This will save energy and may prevent a fire. Manufacturers recommend using rigid venting material, not plastic vents that may collapse and cause blockages.
  • Consider air-drying clothes on clothes lines or drying racks. Air-drying is recommended by clothing manufacturers for some fabrics.
  • $ Long-Term Savings Tip: Look for the ENERGY STAR and EnergyGuide labels. ENERGY STAR clothes washers clean clothes using 50% less energy than standard washers. Most full-sized ENERGY STAR washers use 18-25 gallons of water per load, compared to the 40 gallons used by a standard machine. ENERGY STAR models also spin the clothes better, resulting in less drying time. (Note: Energy STAR and EnergyGuide are U.S. programs, but similar programs exist in many developed countries)
  • $ Long-Term Savings Tip: When shopping for a new clothes dryer, look for one with a moisture sensor that automatically shuts off the machine when your clothes are dry. Not only will this save energy, it will save wear and tear on your clothes caused by over-drying.
  • $ Long-Term Savings Tip: ENERGY STAR does not label clothes dryers because most of them use similar amounts of energy, which means there is little difference in energy use between models.

Saving water

A method of saving water is to re-use water from the rinse cycle for the next wash. A place is needed to store the water. Great care should be taken if color has come out in the water, not to use that water for washing light-colored clothing. Thus the best design is likely to use a tub or tank which is white or light colored on the inside, and which can be looked into to check the water.[Suggested project]

Buying a Washing Machine?

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Buying a Washing Machine? It's a Load-ed Question

If you're in the market for a new washing machine, consider sinking your clothes into an energy-efficient one. It will not only conserve energy but, closer to home, can help lower your utility bills.

To help consumers see just how energy-efficient a washing machine is, the Federal Trade Commission requires manufacturers to post an EnergyGuide label on their appliances. The Guide shows how each model measures up — energy-wise — to others of the same size.

For many years, the Guides compared top-loading models with similarly sized top-loaders and front-loading washers with similarly sized front-loaders. But changes in technology and marketing are resulting in changes in the law: Starting July 2000, changes to the FTC's Appliance Labeling Rule and the familiar yellow-and-black EnergyGuide will make both more meaningful for consumers and manufacturers.

With front-loaders now more widely available for purchase in the U.S., the FTC has decided to require manufacturers to provide information that will compare all washing machines of a certain size (either "standard" or "compact") with others of the same size, regardless of whether they are loaded from the top or the front. The label change is expected to alert consumers to highly energy-efficient clothes washers and spur competition among U.S. manufacturers. Front-loaders, which have been popular for years in Europe, generally are considered more energy efficient than top-loaders, although they usually are more expensive, too.

Spinning to a Different Drum

Most washing machines sold in the U.S. are top-loaders. They wash the clothes with an agitator that turns on a vertical axis. The tub also spins the clothes dry on a vertical axis. Front-loaders work by tumbling the clothes and then spin-drying them in a tub that rotates on a horizontal axis.

There are some exceptions: One manufacturer makes a horizontal-axis machine that loads from the top, and another company sells a machine with an axis that is between vertical and horizontal.

Typically, front-loaders use less water — from one-third to one-half the amount that top-loaders require. The clothes tumble in the tub, rising above the water and then falling back into it as the tub rolls on its side. Because less water is used, less gas or electricity is required to heat the water; because the machines spin faster, clothes get wrung out more completely, reducing the cost of running a clothes dryer.

Horizontal-axis washers (front-loaders) have one major drawback: They can cost more than vertical-axis machines. Still, with the energy savings they provide, front-loaders may save you money in the long run. In some areas of the U.S., utility companies, environmental groups and government agencies help sweeten the deal by offering incentives to consumers who buy front-loaders. At the same time, there are many highly efficient top-loaders available, too. Use the EnergyGuide to find efficient products at the price that's right for you.

Reading the EnergyGuide

The bright yellow-and-black EnergyGuide label helps consumers factor an appliance's energy consumption or efficiency and its annual operating cost into their purchasing decision. The law requires manufacturers to place the label on most major appliances so that consumers will see it when they are considering various models.

The EnergyGuide for clothes washers uses kilowatt-hours (a measure of electricity use) to tell how much energy each appliance uses in a year and compares the appliance with other appliances of the same or similar size. The range on the label — where the appliance's energy use is on a continuum — is of particular benefit to consumers: A marker shows where the particular model falls in the range and how it stacks up against the competition.

The EnergyGuide also gives the estimated cost per year to run the particular model when it is used with an electric water heater and with a natural gas water heater.

Saving Energy

Getting the best energy value from any washing machine depends on several energy-saving wash-day practices. For example:

  • If possible, wash one big load rather than two small ones.
  • Load the washer to capacity.
  • If you must wash smaller loads, select lower water levels, if possible.
  • Use cold water rinses.
  • Use lower temperature settings and pre-treat or pre-soak stains or heavily soiled clothing.
  • Use the recommended amount and type of detergent.
  • Set the thermostat on your water heater to no higher than 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

The FTC (Federal Trade Commission, USA) works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint or to get free information on consumer issues, visit or call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357); TTY: 1-866-653-4261. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft, and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.

Human power

Pedal-powered washing machines have been made at MIT in partnership with a Guatemalan community (see Bicilavadora: A Pedal-powered Washing Machine) and at Humboldt's Campus Center for Appropriate Technology (see HSU Bike powered washing machine). These designs use direct power, rather than generating electricity to run the washer.[1] There are also many more hits on Google.

The Centre for Appropriate Technology (Australia) has had some success in Australian indigenous communities with a hand-operated "washing machine" using a paddle to stir the water, which is popular for washing blankets. Attempts have been made by CAT (or people associated with CAT) to introduce it to Indonesia, but it was not popular, as they felt the clothes were not getting a proper wash.[2]

A television show in Australia in the 1980s ("The Inventors"?) had a small hand-operated washing machine, suitable for nappies (USA "diapers"), for example, while camping.

Reducing labor

Washing clothes for those who cannot afford a washing machine can be hard work which is particularly hard on the hands.

Solar hot water could make soaking and washing easier and more effective, as the additional cleaning effect from using warm or hot water could be an alternative to hard scrubbing work the hands. Of course, this is not suitable for all materials, especially colored clothing, or clothing which is liable to shrink. Care should be taken not to immerse the hands in very warm or hot water for long periods, as this will be even harder on the hands than usual. The clothes might be soaked for a time in just enough water to cover, with detergent, then cooler water added before scrubbing; or it may be left to soak for long enough (overnight or a couple of hours) that the water has cooled down significantly before scrubbing.

Spin-drying or wringing

In developing countries, after washing and before hanging up, clothes are generally wrung out by hand.[3] This is less effective than the spin cycle of a washing machine, and the result is that the clothes dry less quickly, and have a less fresh smell.[4] Wringing is also hard work, and tough on the skin of the hands.

It may be possible to build an appropriate technology spin dryer.

  • Depending on just what you have in mind, a simple centrifuge to extract "most" of the water from the clothes should be one of the simplest possible human-powered devices. One needs only a circular "cage" mounted on an axis (horizontally would probably be best), and a bicycle-chain, drive shaft, or even a rope "belt" around pulleys from the power source. Pedal power would be ideal, but even a handcrank should work with this. -- Writtenonsand 15:07, 5 March 2008 (PST)

However, the best solution may be the one which was popular in Western countries before washing machines became popular, i.e. the mangle or clothes wringerDEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD., in which clothes are passed between two rollers which squeeze them tightly.

Examples of wringers can be seen at here at Survival Unlimited - these start at around US$100, but it can be expected that they should be much cheaper in a developing country, especially if mass-produced. (Other pictures, including old-style wringers, can be seen at Google image search.)

Drying clothes

Clothes hanging to dry in Parras, Mexico

Traditionally in most places, clothes are dried on a clotheslineDEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD.. This practice uses readily free, renewable energy sources - wind and sunshine.

Care should be taken with colored clothes, as they may fade in the sun. They should either be left in the sun for a short time only, or dried in a shady position (or hung out overnight so that they are almost dry by sunrise - this may be less effective where there is heavy dew or fog).

Wealthier people (whether in developing or advanced countries) may choose to use clothes dryersDEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD. - they are seen as convenient and reliable, not dependent on weather. However, they are very wasteful of energy.

Some council codes (e.g. in many parts of Sydney, Australia) actually require developers to install clothes dryers.[5] This is very wasteful of energy, and so sustainable alternatives are desirable. Where drying clothes in public view is not allowed, in order to maintain a tidy appearance, there are designs which can satisfy both sustainability and aesthetics. One approach is to have drying rooms (perhaps a small section of a balcony) with louvers to allow airflow. Another is to have the balcony railing designed in such a way (e.g. with louvers) that drying racks below a certain height are not visible from outside the building.

In some cases, such as hospitals or large hotels, clothes dryers may be considered necessary, either for regular use or (preferably) only as a backup. It is perhaps inevitable that laundromats will have dryers as well, if only for urgent situations where a customer needs or wants to dry clothes quickly. In this case, more efficient dryers such as heat pump dryersDEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD. and mechanical steam compression dryersDEPRECATED TEMPLATE - PLEASE USE {{W}} INSTEAD. should be considered. Gas dryers may also be more efficient and have lower carbon emissions.[Suggested project] Where energy ratings are given, these should be considered. More efficient dryers are likely to be more expensive up front, but will have lower ongoing energy costs, which will be very significant in cases of frequent use.

New technologies

Ultrasonic cleaning

Ultrasonic cleaning is currently being investigated as a possible alternative to conventional dry cleaning.

Ultrasonic waves pass through a solution of water and soaps, and the molecules (should this say "particles"?) of soil, being more dense than the fiber, separate from the fabric.

Results have been encouraging enough that it is being developed further, but the effect on fabrics is not completely clear yet. [6]

See also

External links

References and footnotes

  1. Pedal Powered Washing Machine Tests, David Butcher, a pedal-power enthusiast, calculates it would take 1 hr and 45 minutes of pedaling to generate electricity for one load of washing. Presumably it is significantly more efficient to use the mechanical power directly, rather than using a generator; also this may be cheaper in a developing country setting.
  2. Based on personal conversation between Chriswaterguy and (name?) from CAT, at the EWB Australia national conference, 2005.
  3. This is common practice in Indonesia, and presumably also the case in other developing countries. --Chriswaterguy
  4. At least, I assume it's the less effective wringing that is the reason for the smell. Note that it's not a really bad smell, but clothes that have been through the washing machine and spun dry are definitely fresher smelling. --Chriswaterguy
  5. This contributes to the unexpected result that new apartments in Sydney use as much as or more energy than stand-alone houses.
  6. Training Curriculum for Alternative Clothes Cleaning, the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute, University of Massachusetts. See also the answer and links at Yahoo Answers.