Clothes lines: Energy savers or eyesores?

Do it like the Amish do. Traditional Amish clothes hang from a clothes line in Lancaster County.

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Kai Ryssdal: Good for you if you're trying to keep your energy use down by hanging your laundry out to dry instead of throwing it in the dryer. Every kilowatt hour you save is a kilowatt hour you don't have to pay for.

Australians have been on to that trick for decades now. Almost every house down under has these things called Hills Hoists -- rotating laundry racks, basically.

The company that makes them is trying to crack the U.S. market, but it turns out a lot of us aren't allowed to dry our clothes in the backyard.

Joel Rose has the story.


Joel Rose: The classic Hills Hoist looks like a big, square patio umbrella minus the fabric. It's hard for Americans to grasp just how ubiquitous they are in backyards across Australia, so I asked an Australian.

Kate O'Toole: Every suburban home is built with enough space to put up your Hills Hoist. I just couldn't really imagine how Australian people would dry their laundry otherwise.

That's my friend Kate O'Toole. She grew up a few hours from Melbourne.

O'Toole: People don't use dryers very much in Australia. Even though we had a dryer growing up, we weren't allowed to use it because I was always told it took up too much energy, too much electricity.

Hills Industries has sold over 5 million hoists in Australia and New Zealand since 1946 and the company reports it's worth almost a billion dollars. Still, as beloved as it is down under, the Hills Hoist has considerably less name recognition in the United States.

Gary Sutterlin: We're looking to change that as well.

Gary Sutterlin is the North American rep for Hills Hoist. He's demonstrating the collapsible model for me near his house outside Philadelphia.

Sutterlin: It opens up like a standard umbrella...

Sutterlin says the Hills Hoist pretty much sells itself once people realize how much it can lower their energy bills.

Sutterlin: A clothesline will save the average consumer 6 to 10 percent of your utility costs. That's significant.

But for millions of Americans, it's not that simple. There are about 300,000 homeowners' associations in this country and about half of them prohibit outdoor drying. That's according to Alex Lee, director of Project Laundry List, a non-profit dedicated to protecting the so-called "right to dry."

Alex Lee: There's this self-perpetuating myth of the real estate agents who say that property values will drop, but I think it's time for us to get over this fear.

Lee says lots of people find out the hard way that their homeowners' associations doesn't allow outdoor drying. Take Susanna Tregobov. She recently moved into a house in Timonium, a suburb of Baltimore, and tried drying her family's laundry on the back deck.

Susanna Tregobov: And then we just started getting complaints that it wasn't aesthetically pleasing. What's the harm of hanging clothes where really no one sees it except for the people who live here and happen to be walking their dogs?

Ceil Bell: Clothes drying is just unsightly.

The Tregobov's neighbor, Ceil Bell, is on the board of the local homeowners' association.

Bell: You get people hanging towels over the railings, you get clotheslines in the backyard. We just don't like the look of it. It looks like a lower-class neighborhood.

Those objections may have something to do with why Hills waited so long to tap the North American market. Rep Gary Sutterlin started selling the clotheslines just last March and has moved fewer than 500 so far. But he's optimistic about the long-term prospects.

Sutterlin: We estimate the U.S. market to be in excess of $400 million and just from what we've seen in the last four months, I think it's close.

With energy prices on the rise, Sutterlin predicts that homeowners' associations will eventually hang their objections out to dry.

In Philadelphia, I'm Joel Rose for Marketplace.

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