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Clothesline wars: the solar dryer

The return of the clothesline. This low-tech solar device is back, but its popularity is being stymied by lawsuits and community bans. See why everyone is weighing in on the common clothesline.

Clothes dryers are one of the most energy-intensive household appliances. In the US, they consume about 6% of total household electricity usage.

In a climate of rising energy costs and global warning concerns, this expenditure is increasingly being viewed as unnecessary, given the existence of a 100% renewable alternative.

Mandatory appliance?

Until about 50 years ago the clothesline was a part of the American backyard, but as the electric dryer spread to the masses, it quickly became viewed as a mandatory appliance. In 2007, a 2006 Pew survey found that 83% consider them a necessity, as opposed to 62% a decade ago.

As opinion leaders and governments begin to search for ways to cut energy use, this need to machine dry is being reevaluated and the clothesline is getting a second look:

“This trend… is about people making a little change to help the environment as opposed to something like solar panels which is much more of an investment,” explains Michelle Baker who started the Vermont Clothesline Co. because of her own desire to swap her dryer for a clothesline.

The online store The Clothesline Shop told faircompanies they have seen an increase in sales partly due to environmental reasons, but mainly due to finances. “The increase in fuel prices is becoming the most important factor to people. They are looking for cost cutting alternatives.

The clothesline underground

The problem for the newly converted to the clothesline- and for potential recruits- is that in the half century during which dryers have become a “necessity”, clothesline use has become restricted and even banned by many housing developments. For many, if they want to hang a line, they’ve got to go underground.

Jessie Bourke of Prescott, Arizona has hung her line under the deck. Carol deMarcado of Aurora, Ontario (Canada), sneaks her clothes back into the house before 5pm so her neighbors won’t notice.

Susan Taylor of Bend, Oregon has been forced to use her garage for drying after being threatened with legal action by her subdivision.

These women are not alone. In the US, 60 million people live in communities governed by homeowner associations, most of which restrict clotheslines to some extent. While there are even some cities with local ordinances with some type of ban, like in Vallejo (California), Poughkeepsie (New York) and Franklin Lakes (New Jersey), most of these restrictions are conceived of by developers and community groups.

Clothing as “unsightly”

Most homeowners associations cite aesthetics as the reasoning behind the bans. Richard Monson, president of the California Association of Homeowners Associations, argues that: “Modern homeowners don’t like people’s underwear in public. It’s just unsightly.” He claims the presence of a clothesline in a neighborhood can lower property values by 15%.

To those behind the growing “right to dry” movement- individuals and politicians working to defeat clothesline bans and covenants-, this viewpoint is outdated. Phyllis Morris- who won the mayorship of Aurora, Ontario on a pro-clothesline platform- argues: “If it was seen as lower-class before, it’s starting to find its way into the upper classes in Canada. It about the right to dry how you choose.”

Clothesline bans as a design flaw

Alexander Lee of the US clothesline advocacy group Project Laundry List told faircompanies that most residents don’t know what they’re getting themselves into with these homeowner clauses.

“We now have 60 million people living in these places where you agree to the rules when you move in and you don’t think about something as small as a clothesline restriction. It is a design flaw now that is built into the architecture of many communities.”

Lee was motivated to work in defense of clotheslines as a college student in 1995 while listening to a speech from anti-nuclear advocate Helen Caldicott.

“I grew up in a household where my mother- as a point of Yankee pride and post-depression years thinking- had always hung out our clothes and when Helen Caldicott said if we all hung out our clothes we could shut down the nuclear industry, I was put to action.”

Today Caldicott sits on the board of Project Laundry List and the organization has helped give focus to a movement. They have created an annual National Hanging Out day (April 19) and have helped promote “Right to Dry” legislation.

While Lee is working on getting clothesline legislation into national climate change legislation, there are some states with laws protecting the homeowners right to dry.

Florida on the forefront of clothesline rights

There are some states with laws protecting clothesline owners. In 1995, Ed Triglia sought protection under Florida’s law when he was sued by his homeowner’s assocation for hanging out his clothes. After an 8 month battle, the association was forced to pay his $23,475 legal fees and allow his line to stand due to a 1980 state law that invalidates bans on “solar collectors, clotheslines, or other energy devices based on renewable resources.”

Utah has a weaker law that defends “reasonably sited” clotheslines and ten other states, including Nevada, Wisconsin and North Carolina have less specific laws that limit homeowner associations from restricting solar-energy systems. According to Washington, DC-based lawyer Erik J.A. Swenson, it’s unclear whether clotheslines would qualify. Lee from Project Laundry List is hoping to find a “test case” in North Carolina to formally establish clothesline rights there.

In Vermont, right-to-dry bills have been vetoed twice and a third will be introduced in January, similar to those in Florida and Utah. The climate may be more favorable for this type of legislation now, but in the 1990s, when Senator Richard McCormack was mocked when he authored right-to-dry legislation to guarantee his constituents “the right not to pollute”.

While defeated in the past, he won’t stop trying to make the clothesline available to everyone because he believes as a lawmaker it’s his job “to protect people’s right to voluntarily conserve, if not actively support energy conservation.”

Canada’s awakening

While they have less solar energy than their neighbor to the south and 75% own a dryer, Canadians are fighting just as hard to win back their right to dry as they choose. In April of 2007, Nova Scotian legislator Howard Epstein proposed a bill that would nullify any developer agreements banning the line.

The Nova Scotian Energy Minister Bill Dooks is considering the proposal and sees it as a sign of our times. “There was a day when people did not view clotheslines as being very attractive,” Dooks said. “Today it sends a message to say the person using a clothesline is energy conscious.”

Clotheslines as a good, service or technology

In Canada’s most populous province of Ontario (nearly 12 million inhabitants), the mayor of a town of less than 50,000 may help change the rules for the entire province.

Aurora mayor Phyllis Morris is trying to override the anti-clothesline agreements by convincing the Ontario government to designate clotheslines as a good, service or technology under the Energy Conservation Leadership Act. If it is given this classification, all covenants preventing clothesline use would be nullified.

Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty said in July of 2007 that his team was looking at the proposal, but those in support of the measure aren’t comfortable just waiting.

In September of 2007, Toronto Law School students Nalin Sahni and Andrew Moeser filed a petition appealing to the Environmental Bill of Rights. In their statement they appeal to common sense: “At a time when homeowners are asked to use less electricity to reduce the load on our strained electricity system, it is odd that the Government of Ontario is not taking this simple and straightforward step.”

They call it a “no-brainer”, but the Ontario Energy Minister’s office say they are consulting with municipalities.

In the meantime, one Ontario mayor is encouraging his constituents to ignore the bans and hang their lines. After all, says the Woodstock mayor Michael Harding, “It’s just common sense.”

For more, Kirsten has a blog post on A place called the clothesline as well as a video on the solar dryer.