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Meet my solar dryer

A year ago my wife was firmly in charge the household laundry. Now, not only am I washing and drying all our clothes, including the sheets, towels, and pillow cases, I find myself looking forward to doing it. What is going on here?

A divorce? Wrong answer. Anyway, that would only explain the shift in personnel, not the attitudinal change. A personality transfer à la “Freaky Friday”? Incorrect. This is not a case of life imitating a Disney movie.

Place the blame instead on our rooftop solar water heating system, which was installed in January 2006. That purchase challenged me to think about integrating our solar ration—the daily allotment of sunlight that falls on our house and yard—more effectively into our regular routines. And few routines are as unavoidable as doing the laundry.

It so happens that we share a clothesline with two neighboring households. In years past, my wife would hang the clothes out to dry during the warm summer months, but in the colder months she would simply transfer the wet clothes to the gas-fired dryer stacked above the washing machine.

One may wonder: why deviate from that routine? Using the washing machine and dryer in our decidedly unfinished basement would allow her to go through a week’s worth of dirty laundry and finish the job in three hours.

But some time this spring, a question started plaguing me: if it’s a good thing to use sunlight instead of natural gas to wash clothes, why isn’t it equally true for drying them? And if my solar panel can preheat up my water tank on a sunny day in March, why not rely on the same energy source to dry the wet clothes after they’ve been washed?

With these questions tumbling round and round inside my brain, I decided to take action by commandeering the laundry and doing it myself. So what did I learn?

First and foremost, weather conditions should be the deciding factor in selecting when to do the wash. On cold days, clothes dry much faster in breezy, sunny days than in slack days under overcast skies. If you’re depending on the weather to deliver the energy it takes to dry your laundry, you’ll need scheduling flexibility and an opportunistic attitude. And I can’t emphasize enough the value of periodically checking the Internet weather sites, particularly the radar images, to avoid being unpleasantly surprised by sun showers or swiftly moving thunderstorms.

Everything you hang on the solar dryer, as I like to call it, will become dry over time. The same is true for garments hung inside your house or apartment. But there will be occasions, especially around the winter solstice, when there isn’t enough solar energy outside to finish the job by sundown. If your goal is to avoid using a fossil-fueled dryer, then you’ll need to deploy a drying rack or two to take advantage of the low-humidity warmth inside your dwelling. In the dead of winter, your furnace or wood stove can deliver whatever supplemental heat is needed to dry a full load of laundry in a 24-hour cycle.

Since I’ve taken over laundry duties, the combination of our solar ration and the available indoor heat handles about 80% of what the gas dryer used to do. The only action the gas dryer sees these days are towels and heavy garments.

And how is my obsession with the solar ration affecting our bottom line? While it’s too soon to estimate an annual savings, we did use about 20% less natural gas this November versus the year-earlier period, even though November 2005 was a much warmer month.

The rewards of a well-used solar dryer are by no means limited to the energy and dollar savings reported on the monthly utility bill. The best part of the package is the time spent outside. There you can take the pulse of the day from the sunlight, clouds, air temperature, wind and humidity that make up this continuous flux of energy that we call the weather. Relying on solar energy in this way makes a person more attuned to the ebb and flow of weather conditions. Yes, forsaking the fossil-fueled dryer for the great outdoors does take more time and effort, but it’s a small price to pay for eliminating the drudgery that comes with doing the laundry on autopilot.

Amazingly enough, community prohibition of clotheslines is not uncommon in the United States. Ironically, this inane belief that the sight of gym trunks and sweat socks hanging in a yard will drive property values lower is strongest in the Sun Belt, a region where solar drying—and water heating--should be the norm and not the exception. What can you say about a mindset that thinks nothing of wasting a precious fossil fuel on doing the laundry just to keep up appearances? Given how prevalent this silly and self-destructive behavior is in our land, is the imminent arrival of the oil peak and terminally declining natural gas stocks necessarily a bad thing?


Petroleum and Natural Gas Watch is a RENEW Wisconsin initiative tracking the supply demand equation for these fossil fuels, and analyzing its effects on prices, consumption levels, and the development of energy conservation strategies and renewable energy alternatives.

For more information on the global and national petroleum and natural gas supply picture, visit "The End of Cheap Oil" section in RENEW Wisconsin's web site: www.renewwisconsin.org. These commentaries also posted on RENEW’s blog: www.zmetro.com/community/us/wi/madison/renew
and Madison Peak Oil Group’s blog: www.madisonpeakoil-blog.blogspot.com

Contributed by Ed Blume

Editorial Notes: Since our dryer broke down, we've been following Michael's example by relying on racks to dry our laundry. I find the laundry smells and feels better (though my wife misses the fluffiness imparted by a dryer). Other discoveries of a house-husband:
  • Hang shirts on coat hangers to dry out.
  • Save work by wearing shorts rather than long pants, weather permitting. They don't get as dirty, and are much easier to dry.
  • Some clothes can be worn for more than one day without being washed (employ the "sniff test").
  • Electricity consumption goes down significantly.
-BA

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