I Want to Save the Planet, Or Do I?

As luck would have it, all of our household appliances are going out at the same time.   We replaced our refrigerator three months ago, the washer/gas dryer unit is leaking transmission fluid and has been deemed “unfixable” by our appliance tech, and our hot water heater is on its way out.  The question is, should we replace those appliances, come up with alternatives, or learn to live without them?

I have long petitioned to get rid of our household appliances in the name of saving energy, saving resources, and saving money.  I have argued with my husband that we possess the ingenuity to reduce our impact on the planet while still maintaining our standard of living.  I lost the argument about living without a refrigerator (at least for now), and am now arguing that we live without a washing machine or dryer.  Gulp.

The reality of the situation is that if we have our old washer/gas dryer hauled away, and “replace” that appliance with hand washing laundry tools, I, personally will see an impact to my standard of living.  I do the bulk of the laundry around the house and I am the one arguing to get rid of the appliances.  (I assure that if I “win” this argument it will be me, and me alone outside in February plunging our clothes clean).  Right now “washing and drying” a load of laundry takes no more than 5 – 10 minutes of my time.  I sort the clothes, add them to the washing machine, add some soap, turn the machine on and walk away.  Drying clothes is much the same – clothes in the dryer, add dryer sheet, clean lint trap, set machine and I am done.

Compare the above scenario to hand washing laundry.  Plunging clothes in basin (minimum of 100 plunges for each round), rinsing and plunging clothes again, rinsing and plunging clothes one more time, running clothes through a wringer, and finally hanging clothes to dry.  What currently takes me no more than ten minutes could in the foreseeable future take me 12 times as long.  Considering that we run 2 – 3 loads of laundry each week, in the future I could be doing laundry not for 30 minutes each week, but instead for six hours each week (in both cases this excludes time for folding laundry and putting clothes away).  Not only is the time commitment considerably higher, but the work is hard and back-breaking.  It is true that we would save energy, resources, and money, but am I really up for this?  I turn 40 this year and am not getting any younger, and I wonder if this is a lifestyle choice I can endure into the future.  I want to save the planet, or do I?

So here are the questions for you:  Should my husband and I buy the shiny new appliance (or new-to-us appliance) and make the environment pay by our continued dependence on natural gas/fracking, coal, mineral extraction, oil dependence, and water pumped into a desert?  Or should the “payment” for the clean laundry be made less by the environment and more by us (me) in the form of sweat equity?  What should we do?  What would you do?  Would you give up your washer/dryer and commit to hours of additional work for the sake of resource protection?  These are really tough questions, and I don’t pretend to have the answers.  We are making our decision in the next week and could really use your help.  We’d love to hear from you on this so definitely leave a comment below and let us know what you think we should do.


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22 Responses to I Want to Save the Planet, Or Do I?

  1. Eva November 20, 2012 at 12:53 pm #

    Christine, I’ve actually thought about doing this – and writing a book about it, complete with a short history of textiles. Needless to say, I gave up when I considered that I would have to do this with a full work schedule, and icy water in the winter. I hang clothes to dry all summer – really I don’t run the dryer during that season at all – but when school starts I find I simply don’t have the time. I know, I know, I could give up yoga and running and cycling and reading.. and I find I don’t want to. I was also surprised at the expense of the supplies; even a washboard and wringer run to several hundred dollars. So here I am, continuing to wreck the environment for my convenience I guess..

    • Christine November 20, 2012 at 1:23 pm #

      I was also surprised at the price of the supplies – nearly the same price as a used electric washer/dryer stacked unit ($800). There are less resources tied up in the hand laundry supplies, but still resources none the less, as well as energy to manufacture and ship. Sigh.

  2. MoxyDave November 20, 2012 at 1:05 pm #

    Interesting thoughts. I would argue that the time you’d spend doing laundry manually could be better used. It’s true that modern conveniences use energy, but energy is freely available via the sun and other sources. Also coal and other non-renewable resources have come a long way in terms of efficiency. The question is how much do you value your time here? Regardless of what it does to the Earth, you’re only going to be here for a very short time. Do you want to waste it doing laundry?

    • Christine November 20, 2012 at 1:34 pm #

      And there is the crux of the question – my time and convenience vs. the planet’s resources. Unfortunately no energy is freely available, not even sun or wind. Both are dependent on fossil fuels to extract, manufacture, and ship the solar panels and wind turbines. (This is also true of the tools I would need to wash clothes by hand, though they would arguably have a smaller impact). A solar array for our house is roughly $10,000 – cost prohibitive for a household like ours. Effectively, we don’t have access to these “free” resources because we can’t afford to harness them. That being said, six hours of laundry per week, in all kinds of weather, does not excite me. There is a reason these machines were so popular when they hit the market – nobody likes washing/drying clothes by hand, and that does include me.

  3. fred November 21, 2012 at 1:02 am #

    On the washer issue, it strikes me that you aren’t considering the value of your time and knowledge in the equation. if you spent that same 6 hours/wk. spreading your knowledge around rather than washing clothes, you will do far more to impact the future.

    I’d recommend a simple (as in minimal electronics) front load washing machine with a final spin cycle of at least 600 rpm, which will extract a lot more moisture than you’re used to with your top loader. I looked long and hard at the Staber, but ended up getting a standrd household size Speed Queen commercial unit that’s commonly found in apartment buildings and in military base housing. Measured with my Kill-A-Watt, it uses 90-115 watts per load (even better than the Staber) and there’s much better parts availability should that ever be an issue.

    Forget the dryer. In the winter, hang your clothes in front of the wood stove. They’ll dry quickly and add a nice bit of moisture to the home. (And everyone knows how to dry clothes in the summer…)

    For a hot water heater, a solar domestic hot water system has the best ROI of any residential solar project, and there’s a 30% federal tax credit on top of that. You should also consider a small demand (tankless) water heater like the Bosch 330 or 520 series. You could easily get by with the 330 as long as you run only one hot water faucet at a time. Both models are available with a Piezo ignitor (pushbutton like a gas grill, but minus the barbecue sauce buildup that requires you to use a lighter after the first three weeks). The 520 is also available with a little inline water wheel that generates the electricity to light the burner, which is novel but probably not worth the extra money and complexity. These use generic B-vent pipe, and you should stay away from anything that requires a proprietary venting system.

    If I were faced with a water heater purchase for a house I owned, I’d seriously consider a propane model, even in the city. That means you’d have to buy or lease a propane tank and have it filled, but then you could eventually add a propane stove/oven. (Gas is SO nice to cook with!) Just keep the tank topped off for a serious advance in grid-down survivability, not to mention ease of life during the painful transition to again growing everything everything we eat.

    Additional food for thought: if you bought an energy star fridge, you can run that and an efficient front-load washer (and a couple of CF lights!) with a simple off-grid PV system that can be built for around $2K.

    • Christine November 21, 2012 at 8:11 am #

      Thanks Fred – lot’s of good tips in there. I am hearing over and over that my time is worth more than the resources, but as someone who wants to set the example that’s tough to swallow. I like your dryer solution for the winter, and I will consider the washing options you mentioned. If you happen to know, what is the set-back inside the city for a large propane tank? We have been looking into the tankless hot water heaters; we have someone coming by today to give us the low-down on that.

  4. Eva November 21, 2012 at 9:55 pm #

    the downside of tankless water heaters? No baths! In the experience of my friends, you’re pretty much limited to showers. That’s a dealbreaker for me – my nightly bath is close enough to my beloved hot springs to trump all.

    • Christine November 22, 2012 at 7:28 am #

      Oh wow – that would be tough. I love a long hot bath as well. Yet another thing to consider…

  5. Carol Horen November 23, 2012 at 10:16 pm #

    I lived in the UK for quite a while without a dryer. I hung clothes outside all year around and even in rain-rich England, the clothes got dry. In the winter, sometimes they would freeze-dry….:) Out of all the appliances you mentioned, the dryer is the easiest to live without. Another thing they did in the UK was to “boil the laundry”… Fill a huge pot with water and clothes and bring it to a boil. You didn’t have to scrub hardly at all. Obviously, the downside was that you couldn’t wash everything this way and your loads were small.
    Living without a refrigerator means more trips to the store as you can’t keep certain things at home. Do you like powdered milk? If your store is close enough to walk or ride a bike to, that makes it better.
    One thing to try is to live without a particular appliance for a month…. see what changes it forces you to make. Can you live like that? Would you end up taking your clothes to the Laundromat when you wanted a break or ran out of time?
    Good luck!

    • Christine November 24, 2012 at 8:22 am #

      Thanks for the ideas Carol, especially the “try it for a month” challenge. Maybe I will start there, with the dryer. If all goes well, then perhaps we will just replace the washing machine as Fred suggested. We can work our way through the different appliances and see how far we get. Love it! 🙂

  6. Valerie November 25, 2012 at 10:28 am #

    I disagree on the tankless heaters. We had one in Portugal with 5(!) females in the house and even my husband always got a hot bath. My brother-in-law built his house with 4 bedrooms and each had a bathroom and a jaccuzzi tub. He runs it all on a tankless heater and there is always hot water. You need to just purchase the correct size. And they use so much less water and energy. Why we even use hot water tanks is beyond me.

    • Christine November 25, 2012 at 11:22 am #

      Good to know! My hope is to take our house off of natural gas (water heater, cook stove and range, dryer, house heat) and get everything on electric and wood for an ultimate conversion to solar (one solar panel at a time…). The tankless hot water heater seems like a step in the right direction, but you just never know until you actually do it.

  7. fred November 25, 2012 at 10:34 pm #

    On the issue of time vs. resources, I would point out that it is no longer possible to conserve any fossil fuel resource on this planet. Why? Anything you don’t use will instead be consumed by someone else, somewhere else on this little rock. You are welcome to forego your car and your hot bath, but all that means is that a couple of people in India can buy scooters and someone else will enjoy a hot bath.

    Bottom line is, no fossil fuel will stay in the ground, no matter how much we might wish it would. That’s the most fundamental implication of “peak” anything. We can and should reduce our use of coal derived electricity, first through efficiency and then through alt. energy sources. But, we need to understand that every ton of coal we “save” will promptly be exported to China (which is the main reason Warren Buffet recently bought a railroad!).

    So why, then, should we personally reduce OUR dependency? Simply put, self defense! We have some time left in the twilight of the fossil fuel age in which to prepare to thrive when these resources are exhausted. The infrastructure of the next age can best – and perhaps only – be put in place by wisely using the resources of this age before they run out.

    That’s certainly true of PV solar, which for the most part just returns energy embedded in the manufacturing process over the life of the system, in the form of direct current. That may sound futile, but when you reflect on all the implications of resource depletion, you realize that it is necessary to implement things like solar and wind power NOW, just to leverage some of today’s energy and technology forward into the next age, This doesn’t guarantee success, but it does better the dismal odds we face in the absence of fossil fuels.

    By far the most important of those resources is the time now freed up by fossil fuel use. Rather than bemoan the consumption (about which we can do nothing) we should be thankful we understand what’s coming and use that free time wisely. Much better that your time be spent learning and spreading the word than washing towels, in my view..

    Glad to see the latest comments about tankless water heaters. It’s been my experience as well that hot water from a demand heater is essentially unlimited. Also, your tankless heater will remain part of the equation when you move to solar collectors for your domestic hot water. It will kick in on cloudy days when the solar collectors can’t keep up, and you’ll be very thankful you have it.

    • Christine November 26, 2012 at 7:58 am #

      I think you might have just summed up why I feel like returning the set of Little House on the Prairie. I am passionate about moving ahead by reducing our households dependence on modern energy and its associated appliances, if for no other reason to demonstrate how it can be done gracefully. For me walking the walking, more than anything else, is the best use of my time. Now, that may not mean washing towels and such for six hours a week, but it does mean reducing our households dependency overall. Thanks Fred. 🙂

    • Joe July 31, 2014 at 9:06 am #

      I’m cynical enough to think that we should horde our easy-to-reach resources and get other suckers to sell them to us while the global price is cheap. Am I wrong or does that seem all too rational in a game-theory ‘delayed greed is good’ sort of way?

      • Christine July 31, 2014 at 10:21 am #

        Ha ha! Not sure if it’s wrong or not. I like a good deal as well as the next person, as long as it’s a good deal and not a rip-off.

  8. Valerie November 27, 2012 at 12:59 pm #

    Christine. when I was in Afghanistan I used this for all my laundry except my DCUs.
    It only takes a couple of minutes to do a load and the clothes come out really clean. I was surprised the first time I used it. Afghanistan has a huge amount of dust and filth, and this little machine got it all out. Perhaps a compromise? Use something like this for your shirts and light items, and use your regular machine for the heavy and bulky items, jeans, blankets and sheets??

    • Christine November 27, 2012 at 3:15 pm #

      Wow! That looks pretty cool. How much were you able to wash at one time?

  9. Valerie November 28, 2012 at 1:57 pm #

    I usually washed about 2-3 Tshirts and my 6 or so of underclothes, including boot socks. I could also wash a load of my PT uniforms, which was usually 3 shorts and 3 Tshirts. The PT pants are lined and bulky, so I usually only washed one at a time. I also washed my washclothes and towels, but my towels there were thinner than normal American bath towels. I found that if I hung Tshirts on hangers to dry, they dried without wrinkles and without stretching out of shape.

    • Christine November 28, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

      Really? That’s more than I would have guessed. That’s pretty good for such a small appliance. ‘Nice for small loads, camping, or power outages. Thanks!

  10. Kinch October 27, 2014 at 5:50 pm #

    Thanks for the article on your bee hive insulation. This was the next article which I read as well.
    You should live out on the prairie or on a bit more land. Just think about how many more animals you could have. How does this relate to getting rid of the appliances?
    I think I’m doing more good for the environment by planting hundreds of trees and perennial crops than I could by getting rid of the washer or dryer. I learned in the permaculture design class that trees are 93% carbon dioxide. I’m growing food locally and in a way to regenerate the land. I look at all land as a solar collector and much of our land is used for mono crops that only live for a few months and thus only convert some carbon. And they take plowing to plant each year and to harvest.
    I’m happy to burn some diesel when taking leaves out to the farm. As they say above someone will use the diesel if I don’t. I’m happy I can use it to dig swales for a food forest!
    Think of all you could do with a homestead of 3 acres!!

    • Christine October 30, 2014 at 10:58 am #

      Your points are excellent – it’s not the individual act but the sum total of our impacts. Well written. 🙂

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