For most Americans, drying our clothes after we wash them is a routine matter. It is, both literally and figuratively, mechanical. But many are opting out of technologized laundry. The backyard clothesline, a symbol of domesticity many of us grew up with, is experiencing a revival.
What’s behind this retro laundry revolution? Concern for the environment plays an important role. Project Laundry List, an advocacy group that promotes air-drying and cold water laundry, was founded after physician and anti-nuclear activist Dr. Helen Caldicott gave a speech in which she said that the nuclear industry could be shut down “[i]f we all did things like hang out our clothes.” Clothes dryers consume a lot of energy, with electric dryers being particularly heavy consumers. For example, in northern California, running an electric dryer can cost between $0.25 and $0.70 per hour. The Environmental Protection Agency says that dryers account for roughly 4% of residential energy use, and, as of August 2013, only one dryer model has received EnergyStar® certification for energy efficiency. There are other reasons for line drying—clothes last longer, sunlight can bleach and disinfect clothes, and clotheslines are safer than mechanical dryers. (Between 2006 and 2008, there was an average of 7,000 residential fires each year caused by clothes dryers, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.) Other reasons include the exercise value of hanging clothes and the aesthetics of laundry dried in the fresh air.
Line drying one’s laundry may seem like an innocuous activity. Nevertheless, those who do this may run afoul of the law. While some people think of clotheslines as “art installations with clothes,”> others regard them as eyesores. The “eyesore” theory has led many communities to ban, or to restrict severely, residential clotheslines. Many homeowners’ associations also have provisions in their rules or agreements that prohibit using clotheslines.
In nineteen states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin), the local laws and residential covenants that prohibit clotheslines are invalid. A Florida law, Fla. Stat. § 163.04, has been the model for state clothesline legislation. That provision states that any ordinance or deed restriction that prohibits, or has the effect of prohibiting, “solar collectors, clotheslines, or other energy devices based on renewable resources” is itself invalid. Other state laws that prohibit the restrictions do not explicitly mention clotheslines, but refer generally to solar energy “devices” or “systems.” The law in Hawaii (Haw. Rev. Stat. § 196-7) defines the term “solar energy device” to include equipment or an apparatus that “makes use of solar energy for heating, cooling, or reducing the use of other types of energy dependent upon fossil fuel for generation.” Wisconsin law (Wis. Stat. § 13.48(2)(h)1.g) defines a “solar energy system” as equipment which directly converts and then transfers or stores solar energy into usable forms of thermal or electrical energy.” Although the laws do not spell it out, clotheslines are within these definitions.
If you want to start drying your clothes out-of-doors, and you live in one of the nineteen “right-to-dry” states, you should have no legal issues. If you don’t live in such a state, check your local ordinances to see if your city has restrictions or special requirements. In addition, if you live in a community with a homeowners’ association, check the rules before you install. You may find that the rules do not have a clothesline restriction, or that they have an easy way around the restriction (such as a note from your neighbors that they have no objection). Or you may choose to be an environmental rebel.