Simple ways to cut your laundry water consumption
Older style top loading clothes washers use up to 40 gallons of water per load. If you wash in hot water, that adds up to not only a lot of water, but a lot of energy use as well. And when you consider that the typical US household does nearly 400 loads of laundry per year, there’s a lot of potential water savings on the table!
Your biggest expense when using hot water, is likely to be the cost of heating all that hot water, so clothes washers that use less water will save you quite a bit on your hot water costs. But you can do even better by switching to washing in cold water. With the right laundry detergent you can often get your laundry just as clean in cold water, and your clothes, towels and bedsheets will last longer.
Choose a front-loading clothes washer
The first thing you should do if you want to save water on laundry is to make the switch from a top loading to a front loading clothes washer. Top loading clothes washers have to completely submerge all the laundry in water, and the vertical axis agitator continually rubs against the clothes, wearing them out. Front loading clothes washers need only a small amount of water in the drum; the vertical rotation of the drum causes sopping wet clothes to rise towards the top then fall down, so you get plenty of water and cleaning action with a small fraction of the water used by top loading clothes washers. And none of the agitator friction.
Clothes washers are a concern not only for the water they use and the energy used to heat that water, but for the amount of water they leave behind in your laundry. The more water left behind, the more energy it takes to dry the laundry in a dryer, or the longer it takes to dry on a clothes line or clothes rack. Again, the front loading washer does better here: front loading washers can rotate their drum at a very high speed – up to 800 RPM – which allows them to extract a lot more water from the clothes during the spin cycle than most top loading washers can do. For clothes like fleece sweaters you can practically wear the sweater the second it comes off the spin cycle!
Wash only full loads
Especially with top loading clothes washers, it’s wasteful to wash less than a full load. If your washing machine lets you control the fill level, then you can cut your water use when washing a light load, but you are probably still better off to stick to full loads. And it’s especially wasteful to throw a handful of delicate items into the clothes washer and fill up the washing machine. Do them by hand instead!
With front loading clothes washers, it’s less of a problem to wash less than a full load, because most front loading washers have a sensing phase at startup where they try to determine how much water is actually needed to clean the load of laundry. The more full the barrel is, the more water they add.
But don’t be shy about stuffing the barrel of a front loading washer as full as it will go. While overstuffing a top loader can ruin it, you can go nuts on a front loader and it will handle the heaviest of loads.
Do you really need to separate whites from lights from darks? Many people do several loads a week because of this old habit. But most modern clothes are thoroughly color fast, and if you’re washing everything in cold water anyhow, which you should be, there’s no reason to do separate loads for different shades of clothing. If you’ve got three loads worth of laundry anyhow, you could separate things out this way, but there’s no law requiring you to do three loads every week!
Use less soap instead of extra rinses
If you find your clothes are still soapy at the end of the wash, instead of tacking on an extra rinse, try using less soap the next time around. And if you have hard water and your laundry isn’t coming clean, the solution isn’t more detergent or an extra rinse cycle. Instead try adding vinegar to the wash cycle, or consider installing a water softener in your home if your water is particularly hard.
Wash only dirty clothes
One of the first things to consider, especially if you have kids at home, is whether the laundry basket is used to throw dirty clothes, or is used to throw clothes people can’t be bothered folding back up. In our home the kids sometimes figure it’s easier to throw a sweatshirt or a pair of pants in the laundry basket (or just on the floor) than to fold the clothes up and put them away. You can help cut this bad habit in part by forcing your kids to do the laundry, or at the very least the folding of the clean laundry.
There’s really no need to wash clothes that aren’t dirty. You can wear shirts or trousers several times over without washing them every time. And there’s no law that requires you to wash socks and underwear after a single day. Is it really that gross to wear the same underwear two days in a row? People are conditioned to think so, but if they’re still relatively clean and don’t smell, why do we feel ashamed to wear them again? Every time you wash a piece of clothing you shorten its life a little. Less washing means less money wasted replacing clothes that have worn out!
Let them stew
If you have a load of particularly dirty laundry, it’s a good idea to let the clothes soak a while. This is easier in a top loading machine, where the clothes remain submerged: you can simply open the lid partway through the first wash, and the timer will stop running until you close the lid again. For front loading machines you can also pause the cycle – usually by pushing the cycle button in or pressing the On/Off switch – but since the clothes aren’t submerged in water, this is not quite as effective. (The clothes are at least still wet, so you do get some benefit from delaying the end of the wash cycle.)
Keep customized napkins, wash cloths, and bath towels
One of the biggest contributors to a family’s laundry load is shared cloth napkins, wash cloths, and bath towels. When you have a common set of these items, the cloth napkins get used at one meal and then washed, because no one wants to wipe the food from their hands on a napkin someone else used at the last meal; the wash clothes get used once, because no one wants to wipe their face with a cloth someone else might have wiped their armpits out with the day before; and bath towels pile up on the towel racks because people don’t like to share towels with near-strangers such as their own parents or siblings!
You can cut out a lot of unnessary laundry simply by having personalized napkins, wash cloths, and bath towels for each member of your household. When your nine year old or teenage daughter knows that the napkin belongs only to them, or that no one else has dried their behind on that bath towel, they’ll reuse it instead of getting out a new one!
For napkins, use a personalized napkin ring for each person, and have people memorize their napkin ring. Or use different colored napkins. For wash cloths, try different colors, patterns, or embroideries for each member of the household. And for bath towels, you can either give people a towel rack in their room, or have enough towel racks in the bathroom that each person using the bathroom has their own spot to hang a towel.
Save the laundry water
One other thing you can do to reduce water waste when clothes washing is to recycle the laundry water for other uses. Laundry water can be reused to fill a toilet tank, or to water your lawn or garden (the detergents can act as fertilizers for plants). The main challenge is in how you capture it, especially since many houses have their clothes washers in the basement. But if you’re handy with plumbing you could set the washing machine to drain into a large bucket, and have a sump pump placed there to pump water up to a rain barrel outside for use in your garden.