You can save money and conserve water if you gain a deeper understanding of how laundry really works.
It seems so basic, but doing laundry is a complicated science, and one that very few of us understand. "No one ever teaches us how to do laundry properly," says Joey Green, author of the new book Joey Green's Cleaning Magic (Rodale, 2010). "When you're sent out into the world, you go to a Laundromat and you put the quarters in, pour in the little box of soap, and then wonder why your clothes aren't clean. But there's a lot more to it than that." Over our laundry-washing lifetimes, he adds, we pick up a lot of bad habits like overdosing with soap, overstuffing machines, ignoring stains, and not taking the time to sufficiently separate fabrics. That not only leads to loads of dingy clothes, it also wastes soap and can require extra wash or rinse cycles, which waste water, energy, and money.
Green offered us some of his best clothes-, water-, and energy-saving laundry tips so your clothes will actually get clean the next time you wash:
#1: Soak stains immediately. "When you get a stain on something, you have to deal with it immediately," says Green. "If you let it dry, it's permanent. That's something a lot of people don't realize." When spills happen, Green recommends leaving the soiled article of clothing in a bucket full of water with a little detergent added until you have time to treat the stain. In his book, he lists a hundred different ways to treat various stains. Our Nickel Pincher Jean Nick also has a few tips for handling common summer stains like grass and berry juice. The key, Green says, is to let the item soak and then treat the stain, not the other way around.
#2: Learn how to sort. You thought it was just about whites, darks, and delicates, but your clothes will wind up much cleaner if you separate them not just by color, but also by fabric type and water temperature. Green recommends you make five separate piles for colors: whites (entirely white), light colors that include striped whites, darks (blacks, blues, and browns), brights (reds, yellows, and oranges), and delicates. Then, to prevent lint from spreading, separate linty fabrics like towels, flannels, and sweatshirts from corduroys, permanent press, and other smooth fabrics that can pill.
#3: Don't overstuff. You want to wash full loads only so you save on water use and energy consumption, but you don't want to fill your machine so much that your clothes can't get clean. High-efficiency front loaders can hold up to 20 pounds of clothes, but top loaders max out at about 16. If you aren't weighing your laundry, Green notes that you should fill your washer about three-quarters of the way to the top of the drum.
#4: Add soap, then stuff. Before you add your clothes, add your detergent, allowing it to dissolve in the water fully before adding your clothes. Your soap will work more effectively and, if you're using powdered laundry detergent, there's less of a chance for powdery residue on your favorite black jeans.
Want a weird way to keep those black jeans from turning gray? Try this cool trick.
#5: Mark your measuring cup.Consumer Reports has found in its tests that liquid detergent caps are often impossible to read, leading to overdosing of detergents, which itself can leave detergent residues that make your clothes look dingy. They suggest marking the fill line with a permanent marker so it's easy to see. And when it comes to actual amounts, follow your machine manufacturer's recommendations, not the detergent manufacturer's. "The manufacturer wants you to use as much detergent as possible," he says, but they don't know what kind of washing machine you have. Also, the softness or hardness of your water affects how much detergent you need to use. Soft water usually requires less detergent, Green says, while hard water usually requires the full amount. If you have hard water, Green also suggests adding a water softener, such as baking soda, to help your soap dissolve. Start with equal parts detergent and baking soda, and then experiment from there.
#6: Add boosters. Green is a big fan of washing soda and borax, which he says boost the performance of detergent; they act as both whiteners and water softeners, and borax is also a deodorizer. You can add them individually or together—about a half-cup each per load. "Just make sure they're powdery," he says. Both can clump, at which point they don't dissolve well.
#7: Opt for cold water. According to the Department of Energy, 90 percent of the energy used for washing clothes in a conventional top loader is used to heat the water. And, Green adds, "warm water makes colors bleed."
#8: Clean your machine. If you're a chronic detergent overdoser, you'll want to clean out your machine. "Too much soap leads to soap scum in your pipes and tubes," Green says. He suggests running an empty machine with no laundry, adding a cup of white vinegar to help remove soap residues. If the wasted water and energy make you cringe, run a normal load of clothes and add the vinegar to that. "You're deodorizing your clothes while simultaneously cleaning out your washer," he says. If you don't regularly add white vinegar to your wash loads, run an empty load about once a month if you do tons of laundry, or once every six months if you're not a frequent launderer.
#9: Vacuum your dryer. You may be conscientious about cleaning out your dryer's lint filter every time you dry, but lint can build up in your dryer's hose and in the pipes running to the dryer's external vent, increasing your dryer's energy use by up to 30 percent, creating a fire hazard, and preventing moist air from venting outside, which can cause mildew problems. Every six months or so (depending on how much you use your dryer), vacuum out the lint filter with your vacuum's hose attachment; detach the dryer hose and vacuum lint from the back of the machine and from the pipes where the hose attaches to the wall; and head outside to clear any linty obstructions from your dryer's external vent.
#10: Line-dry. Line-drying your clothes uses zero energy, poses no fire hazards, and can keep your clothes sparkling white—solar energy is a natural stain remover. Read our Nickel Pincher's advice on hanging a clothesline if you need help or ideas.