A red sheet, a collection of white socks and a vintage bra or two flap in the breeze on Ella Burnham’s backyard clothesline in North Bend.
It’s wash day for Burnham, 74, and that means hanging out the laundry as she’s done since she was a kid barely able to reach the line to peg up her knickers.
Now when she hangs out her clothes, she does so with satisfaction, knowing she’s saving energy. But she does it with a grumble or two for neighbors down the road where homeowners’ associations prohibit drying clothes outdoors.
Amid all the talk about energy efficiency and conservation among government officials and others, what seems to be overlooked is the benefit of line-drying the laundry outside, Burnham said.
“Everyone keeps talking about saving energy; well then, why don’t they do it?” Burnham said.
Thousands of developments, apartments and condominiums across the Northwest ban clotheslines outright as unsightly and potentially dangerous artifacts of the past. Others have de facto bans where clotheslines can be ordered removed if they are visible from a neighbor’s property, can be seen from the street or are considered offensive by those living nearby.
Former state Rep. Deb Hall Eddy, D-Kirkland, not long ago considered sponsoring a bill to prohibit homeowners associations from banning clotheslines after a group of high-school students came to her with the idea. She didn’t get far when the powerful homeowners association lobby came to Olympia intent on crushing the idea because it saw the notion as state intervention in homeowners’ rights.
“It wasn’t going anywhere until you’ve got some equally powerful interest group in Olympia advocating for it,” she said. “Unfortunately, we create legislation by whether there is an interest group, not by what’s in the public interest.”
Discouraged, Eddy dropped the idea.
But a number of energy conservationists say it’s time to reconsider.
There are 19 so-called “right to dry” states, including Oregon and California, that have outlawed bans on clotheslines.
Jon Howland, a teacher and former volunteer with Sightline Institute, an energy-policy nonprofit in Seattle, would like to add Washington to the list.
“I’m looking for a state law which expands the protection for solar panels to include protection for clotheslines so if we want to do the sustainable thing we can do that,” he said.
Howland, who lives in a Belltown high-rise, dries his clothes indoors on a rack.
Like Howland, Burnham also wonders why so many homeowners associations don’t loosen their regulations, given the emphasis on energy conservation and sustainable living when many residents pay top dollar for fuel-efficient cars and organic food.
An average household in the Northwest uses 4.3 percent of its annual electricity consumption drying laundry, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. A refrigerator uses 3.5 percent.
According to the United States Energy Information Administration, a typical U.S. household could save an average 1,500 pounds of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere by hanging out clothes. The carbon footprint would be less in the Northwest, where most of our energy comes from hydropower instead of coal, but it’s still a savings, said Alan Durning, Sightline executive director.
Depending on whom you ask, the average homeowner could save between $100 and $300 a year by drying laundry outdoors, including saving on the cost of replacing clothes because line-dried clothes last longer, line-drying advocates point out.
Typically, new housing developments and apartment buildings and condominiums almost universally ban clotheslines, either outright or under homeowner covenants that prohibit activities considered a nuisance or offensive, activists say.
Offensive activity? fumes Burnham. “If you don’t like my underwear, don’t look in my yard.”
At Snoqualmie Ridge, where children’s play sets can’t be put in the front yard, and signs, flags and types of planted trees are all regulated, the covenants are vague regarding clotheslines, said Jules Binder-Sifford of the homeowners association.
“If someone was going to put up something permanent, we’d probably decide against it,” she said. “But having grown up in Southern California, I love the smell of freshly dried clothes.”
At Redmond Ridge, banning clotheslines is part of creating a “clean, well-kept community in which specific design standards are in place to maintain property values and enhance a sense of community,” said Sandy Cobb, the association director. They also pose a strangulation hazard and can get in the way of utility workers, she added.
At Sammamish’s Heritage Hill, drying laundry outdoors is considered an “unsightly condition” up there with “litter, trash, junk,” according to the covenants. And clotheslines are banned in the units managed by the homeowners association management company, Seattle’s CWD Group. The group manages about 125 homeowner and condominium associations.
Danielle Mello, the community association manager for CWD, says the reason is “to preserve the uniform exterior appearance and maintain a clean visual from the exterior.”
Even the Seattle Housing Authority bans clotheslines in its thousands of public-housing units.”It’s a safety thing,” said Laura Gentry, spokeswoman for the housing authority. “We don’t want anything hanging out the windows.” She said most of the housing authority’s units are high-rises, but the ban covers all buildings, including single-story structures like West Seattle’s High Point.
Some new housing developments in Columbia City also ban clotheslines.
“It’s unfortunate what seems to offend some people’s aesthetic sensibilities,” Howland said. “Would you rather see a smokestack or a mountain being torn apart to put in a coal mine than see someone’s laundry flapping in the wind? There’s a misplaced priority here.”
For Burnham, line drying isn’t only a sunny-day project. When it rains, she postpones doing her laundry – several weeks if necessary – until it’s clear and then hangs out the clothes.
Last winter her sheets froze on the line, and when she brought them in she “had a heck of a time with them.” So she turned to a device she owns but rarely uses: a dryer.