How to Wash and Dry Clothes at a Laundromat

Updated on April 16, 2018
Sustainable Sue profile image

With a Master's degree in Sustainable Development, Susette has taught herself, and now teaches others, how to live a sustainable lifestyle.

For many people, for many reasons, buying a home washer and dryer is not feasible. It's too expensive, you have no room, and used ones break down all the time. Does that mean you have to have all your clothes dry cleaned or, worse, not wash them at all? Of course not. For people like you (or maybe a friend of yours) a good, clean laundromat can be a godsend.

If you have been afraid of going to a laundromat, I can help relieve your anxiety. In my nearly fifty years of adulthood, there were only five or six years where I did not use a laundromat––when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, and again ten years later in the West Indies––when I washed my clothes by hand. So I'm an experienced laundromat user. I know what's good and bad about them, and I know how to make the washing/drying waiting time interesting and worthwhile.

This is the laundromat I go to now. It has over 25 washers and 30 dryers, plus all the accoutrements a laundromat needs . . . except WiFi, but that's just across the street.
This is the laundromat I go to now. It has over 25 washers and 30 dryers, plus all the accoutrements a laundromat needs . . . except WiFi, but that's just across the street. | Source

You may be wondering, “Why would you not want to buy a home washer and dryer?” Here are several reasons why:

  • Limited income––You might want to save the $1,500-2,500 (minimum) cost to spend on other things.
  • Limited space––You might live in a tiny house or a small apartment with no room for a laundry room.
  • No desire to “settle down”––You don't want to saddle yourself with too much “stuff.” You might not like where you are, or you might be planning to travel at some point.
  • In transition––You might have just broken out of a bad relationship or just moved away from your childhood home, so it's not time for big expenditures yet.
  • Economic morals––You might be retraining yourself to not buy “necessities” that other people (especially ads) say you should have, just because they tell you to.

Public Pressure

The media uses both bait and scare tactics to convince viewers that they have to buy a washer and dryer. Those tactics then become public opinion, which a lot of people are afraid to go against. Here are some of those assumptions, along with my own opinion from experience:

Public: They're an integral part of any young couple's new home.

Me: They don't have to be. You could use that room (assuming you have one) for other things––like a solarium, an ironing room, a project room, or just extra storage space.

Public: Having your own washer and dryer saves you time and convenience.

Me: Maybe, maybe not. You still have to gather your laundry, sort it into the machines, then wait for it to wash and dry. It does save you driving time but, depending on what else you do while you're laundering, you can utilize the time wisely at home OR in a laundromat.

Public: Laundromats are lonely, dangerous places.

Me: Maybe, maybe not. It depends on which one you choose, who you choose to go with, what time you go, and/or what you choose to do there.

Public: You'll wreck your clothes washing them in a laundromat.

Me: You can wreck them anywhere, if you don't know what you're doing. This article shows you what to do, so you won't wreck them.

I was more ashamed that I couldn't work the washing machine than the fact that I was taking drugs.

-Elton John

What Is a Laundromat?

When I talk about laundromats, I'm including the ones offered by apartment complexes, as well as commercial ones. They are small businesses owned by someone who provides several machines to wash and dry clothes, for which they charge you money. In addition to washers and dryers, laundromats usually have money-changing and soap dispenser machines, and usually a place to sit. Which one you choose to use will depend, not just on the machines, but also on what's outside.

The laundromat I frequent now has 15 top loading washers, 10 front loading washers, and 30 dryers. It has a money changing machine, a soap vending machine, a sink, lots of mobile laundry baskets, long counters, and three wobbly benches. Across the street there's a bakery with good coffee, home baked pastries, and WiFi. Next door is an Armenian market that also sells organic food. It takes me 15 minutes to walk from my home to the laundromat.

The laundromat I used before this had only three washers and three dryers. It was located on the ground floor by the parking garage of my 30 apartment complex. You had to time it just right to get there when no one else was using it. There was no place to sit and no counter to fold your clothes, but it was easily accessible from my apartment on the third floor. Many people would prefer that one, because it's close to home. I don't. I like the one I'm using now.

My Current Laundromat

Laundromats can look modern or rundown, depending on how well they're maintained. This one is quite nice, with everything I like in a laundromat . . . except comfortable benches. But then I've never seen a laundromat with comfortable benches.
Laundromats can look modern or rundown, depending on how well they're maintained. This one is quite nice, with everything I like in a laundromat . . . except comfortable benches. But then I've never seen a laundromat with comfortable benches. | Source

Your Experience

Have you ever used a laundromat before? What kind?

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Benefits to Using a Laundromat

Your parents and friends have no doubt already told you why you should never use a laundromat. Here are some of the reasons why using one actually makes sense:

  • You can make friends there––A guy introduced himself at the first laundromat I ever went to. When we discovered we lived near each other, he invited me over to listen to his sound system . . . which I interpreted it as a pick-up attempt and laughed off. One day, when I was walking past his house from the bus stop, he invited me in to meet his wife and kids. Wife?? I went in. She and I subsequently became best friends.

  • You can meet friends there––I've run into friends several times where I go now. Twice it was people I knew from work, and last time it was a fellow political activist I know. If you have a friend who uses a laundromat, there's nothing to stop you from arranging to wash your clothes there at the same time they do, so you can hang out.

  • You can combine tasks––If choose a safe place and drive there, you can go shopping while your laundry washes . . . or get your hair cut, or your nails done, or borrow a book at the library down the street.

  • If your washer breaks down, you can wash clothes in a laundromat and dry them at home. If your dryer breaks down, you can dry your clothes at the laundromat. Either way, it's a convenient fix until you get your machines repaired.

  • You can use the laundromat as a break from your kids––If you have an older child you trust, you can have them watch the younger ones for an hour while you go and relax. Yes, it can be relaxing, if you plan it that way. This is how.

I had the humble beginnings. I was doing comedy in laundry mats in 1992, literally where I would bring a little gorilla amp and a lapel mike and just start performing.

-Dane Cook, comedian and actor

How Laundromats Work

The best way to show you how a trip to the laundromat works is to describe one of my own. Here I'll share the process, along with things to be careful of:

1. Schedule ahead––Depending on what else is going on, I usually go on Saturday or Sunday. Luckily, I've only once found it to be too crowded in four years of going to this particular laundromat. With other laundromats, I've tested to find a time when it was normally clean and fairly empty, then scheduled that time on my calendar.

2. Gather together what you need––On my scheduled day I pack up laundry soap, clothes, and money in my backpack. If I'm going to wash delicate items or knits that are normally hand washed, I place those in a mesh bag to throw into the washer and add hangers to my collection. I also decide what I want to do with my waiting time and take a book, writing tablet, camera, or laptop.

3. Transport to the laundromat––I walk. That's partly to get exercise and partly because I don't own a car (for environmental reasons). Carrying a big laundry bag, plus soap and such in my backpack, exercises my arms, trunk muscles, and legs. Sometimes, if my laundry load is light and the weather is nice, I take my camera and photograph gardens along the way (for articles). Sometimes I stop and chat briefly with neighbors as I walk.

I use a big bag that came with my sleeping bag. It's just big enough for two loads of laundry, and it's easy to carry. I walk, instead of drive, to get exercise.
I use a big bag that came with my sleeping bag. It's just big enough for two loads of laundry, and it's easy to carry. I walk, instead of drive, to get exercise. | Source

4. Once there, set yourself up with washers and a basket––I plunk my laundry bag and backpack down on the counter, find a basket to use, then check out the machines. I'm looking for a machine that's clean and, of course, empty––looking on the outside for spilled soap and the inside for debris. If there aren't any clean empty ones, I pull a couple of paper towels from the dispenser above the sink, and wipe the outside and inside of those that are available.

5. Add soap––Inside the lid of each machine you will find instructions on how to use it. On these machines soap comes first, so I pour a capful of biodegradable laundry detergent directly into the washer and add baking soda to soften––1/8 cup for colored clothes and 1/4 cup for whites. If I run out of soap or forgot to bring some, I can always feed change into the soap dispenser, but the packaged soap that comes out is powder (I prefer liquid) and is not biodegradable. Be sure not too add too much soap, or you'll flood the drains with bubbles.

I prefer liquid laundry soap, to which I add a little baking soda to soften clothes––more for whites, less for colored.
I prefer liquid laundry soap, to which I add a little baking soda to soften clothes––more for whites, less for colored. | Source
Seventh Generation Liquid Laundry Detergent, Free & Clear, 50 oz, 33 Loads (Packaging May Vary)
Seventh Generation Liquid Laundry Detergent, Free & Clear, 50 oz, 33 Loads (Packaging May Vary)

I always buy 7th Generation or Trader Joe's liquid laundry detergent. I trust their ingredients more than other kinds and like that they're biodegradable. If you plan to walk to the laundromat, like I do, be sure to buy a size that's comfortable to carry.

 

6. Sort clothes into the machines––I put my laundry bag into the basket and wheel it over to “my” machines. Then I take the clothes out and sort them into the coloreds machine and the whites machine (I nearly always use two).

Sometimes other patrons like to hog baskets, so you have to be assertive––with a smile––and ask if you can use one for a second. I've never had anyone refuse, although some were reluctant. Since I can tell it's important to them to have a basket for themselves, I always return it when I'm through. Otherwise, I just move it against a wall out of the way.

It's important not to fill the washer too full or the clothes won't be loose enough for water and soap to swish through them. This level is good.
It's important not to fill the washer too full or the clothes won't be loose enough for water and soap to swish through them. This level is good. | Source

7. Insert coins and start the machines––Next it's time to start the machines. I feed $3 into the change dispenser to get enough quarters for two loads. Sometimes, if the machine rejects my dollars, I have to exchange dollars with another patron. The machine also only gives quarters, so I never feed in more than $5. If I only have a twenty or ten, I'll close my washers and walk next door to the store for change. I usually buy a little something for their trouble.

Next I feed six quarters ($1.50) into each machine and start them going. The machines will let you select the water heat level. For the colored clothes I select “Permanent Press,” then “Start.” For the whites I choose the hottest setting. If I'm washing delicate items, like silk in its mesh bag (to stop it from rubbing against other clothes), I select the lowest setting.

There's a trick to getting these machines to accept newer dollars. You have to crunch the dollar up in your hand and smooth it out again, making it more pliable. You also don't want to insert a $10 bill, because you'll get it all back in quarters.
There's a trick to getting these machines to accept newer dollars. You have to crunch the dollar up in your hand and smooth it out again, making it more pliable. You also don't want to insert a $10 bill, because you'll get it all back in quarters. | Source
Six quarters will get you 1/2 hour of washing time. In fact, that's the minimum you can put in to get it to work. The machine counts down from $1.50.
Six quarters will get you 1/2 hour of washing time. In fact, that's the minimum you can put in to get it to work. The machine counts down from $1.50. | Source

8. Hang out for half an hour––Now I can play. My favorite thing to do here is walk to the bakery across the street, buy a latte and pastry, and hang out reading a book for a bit, or take coffee back to the laundromat to read.

On the rare occasions I drive to the laundromat, I can take my MacBook Pro to the bakery and use their WiFi. Sometimes I'll take a paper tablet and pen to draft out a new article. Sometimes I take my camera and walk around the block shooting photos, if the lighting is good. On the occasions I run into someone I know, we just hang out and talk. It's very relaxing.

Patticakes is kitty corner from the laundromat. It's a small bakery with good coffee and fresh baked pastries. It also has WiFi. I usually take a book or writing tablet over and hang out during my washing time.
Patticakes is kitty corner from the laundromat. It's a small bakery with good coffee and fresh baked pastries. It also has WiFi. I usually take a book or writing tablet over and hang out during my washing time. | Source

9. Move clothes to a dryer––The washers take 1/2 hour. The dryers take 10 minutes per quarter. When the wash is done, I pull a basket over to my machines, lift everything out into the basket, and wheel my laundry over to the dryers. I take out the silk items and, using the hangers I brought, hang them on the top beam of the basket. (The dryers get too hot for silk.) Then I throw both loads of clothes into the same dryer and put three quarters into the machine . . . which equates to another 1/2 hour.

I usually put my temp on low and feed in coins for 1/2 hour drying time. Note the arrow. That shows you this coin slot is for the upper dryer, not the lower one. The lower one has an arrow pointing down. I fed the wrong dryer once.
I usually put my temp on low and feed in coins for 1/2 hour drying time. Note the arrow. That shows you this coin slot is for the upper dryer, not the lower one. The lower one has an arrow pointing down. I fed the wrong dryer once. | Source
My towels are thick, so they are usually not dry all the way when I take the clothes out, but that's alright. As long as most of the other clothes are dry, I can just lay the towels out at home to finish up.
My towels are thick, so they are usually not dry all the way when I take the clothes out, but that's alright. As long as most of the other clothes are dry, I can just lay the towels out at home to finish up. | Source

10. Hang out for another half hour––Usually I read or talk to pass the second half hour. Sometimes I play with kids who've come with their parents. Sometimes I actually sleep with my arms wrapped around my backpack. If you've brought a car and there's a store nearby, this might be a good time to do a little shopping.

There are lots of things to do during your wash and dry breaks: Read, write, chat with others, get coffee, shop, meditate, play with kids, take photos, knit or crochet.
There are lots of things to do during your wash and dry breaks: Read, write, chat with others, get coffee, shop, meditate, play with kids, take photos, knit or crochet. | Source

11. Gather clothes, supplies, and recreation items and go home––I commandeer another basket when my clothes are dry, pull them out of the dryer, and stuff them into my laundry bag. Some of them I fold first, like shirts and pants. My silks and sweaters that were hand drying, I put into my backpack.

By that time I'm ready for home, so I finish up as quickly as possible and get out of there. Other patrons fold everything carefully on the counters, before placing the piles into their personal laundry baskets to carry out to the car.

12. Fold and put away clothes–Once home I dump all my clothes out of the bag onto my bed. I lay out the towels, which usually need a bit more time to dry. The silks I hang up to continue to dry. The sweaters (if any) I lay out with the towels. All the other clothes I fold and put away. Altogether, including walking time, it takes me two hours to do my laundry.

Common Courtesy Tips

You may run into some pretty inconsiderate people at laundromats. You hopefully don't want to become one of those yourself, so here are some tips:

  • Don't hog the baskets––All laundromats provide laundry baskets on wheels for their patrons. Leaving something in the basket after you've used it, in an attempt to "claim" one for yourself for the whole time you're there is rude. During that half hour or so that your laundry is being washed or dried, let others use the basket. By the time you're ready for one again, there will be one free.
  • Stay close by while you are washing or drying––Just as it's rude to hog a basket, so it's also rude to hog the machines. I spoke with a patron today, who told me someone tied up four machines once, leaving their clothes in them for four hours. I once saw an patron fill up nine machines and take off. Don't you do that. If you want to go somewhere, only go for 1/2 hour while your clothes wash, come back to move them to the dryer, then leave for another 1/2 hour for them dry. Don't stay away longer than that.
  • Teach your kids to be respectful––I put myself in the bad graces of a patron who had kids. They were running all over the place, screaming and yelling, and she was doing nothing about it, so I did. She got defensive and yelled at me. I told her if she wasn't going to discipline them I would. The next few times I saw her they were much better behaved. Now we greet each other cordially.
  • Clean up after yourself––Dirty machines come from patrons spilling things and not cleaning up after themselves. Be sure to check your machines when you're through with them. If you accidentally left something in your pockets that spread all over the machine inside (or spilled soap outside), be sure to clean it up.

Essentially, you're wanting to treat others in the same way you would want to be treated. You end up with a pleasant experience that way each time.


Finding and Choosing a Laundromat

People who have a car have greater options than those of us who don't. I happen to have a great laundromat nearby, but not everyone does. If your closest one is not satisfactory, you can use the following criteria––plus whatever else is important to you––to check out alternatives.

Do a search online for "laundromat, your city" or open a mapping app and do a search there. (Mine just showed me four locations nearby, but the one I use was not one of them. Interesting.) Look for the three or four most promising. Location, neighborhood, and nearby shops can all be determined via online mapping. Public transportation access can be too. Create a chart like the one below, choose the day you're most likely to go, then go there physically on that day to check them out.

Sample Checkoff Chart

Ammenity
Location X
Location Y
Location Z
Well maintained
 
 
 
Easy to get to
 
 
 
Coffee shop nearby
 
 
 
Safe neighborhood
 
 
 
Friends go there
 
 
 
Hours fit my schedule
 
 
 
WiFi available
 
 
 
Other (like restrooms, smoking allowed, soap dispenser, etc.)
 
 
 
You can make a chart like this one to compare laundromats, if you can't decide just by looking. It makes you think about what is most important to you.

What Don't You Want?

You can add anything to your list that you want to. For example, if you like to smoke, you'll want a location to do that. Those will be the pluses. You'll also want to look for potential minuses, like the following:

The occasional spill is fine, but if multiple machines look like this every time you go, it's an indication that the owner doesn't clean very often.
The occasional spill is fine, but if multiple machines look like this every time you go, it's an indication that the owner doesn't clean very often. | Source
Water and soap on the floor are inevitable when machines break down, but very unsafe. Make sure your laundromat places warning signs out and cleans it up quickly. Constantly dirty floors are also a deterrent.
Water and soap on the floor are inevitable when machines break down, but very unsafe. Make sure your laundromat places warning signs out and cleans it up quickly. Constantly dirty floors are also a deterrent. | Source
Woah! Somebody clearly tried to break into this coin changing machine. How safe is the neighborhood? What kinds of people go to this laundromat? You might have to ask some of the regulars.
Woah! Somebody clearly tried to break into this coin changing machine. How safe is the neighborhood? What kinds of people go to this laundromat? You might have to ask some of the regulars. | Source
People often accidentally leave clothes behind. What happens to them? If you left yours, how would you find it again? Most patrons place left-behind items on the counter, expecting that the owner will return for them, but is there a lost and found?
People often accidentally leave clothes behind. What happens to them? If you left yours, how would you find it again? Most patrons place left-behind items on the counter, expecting that the owner will return for them, but is there a lost and found? | Source

How to Handle Problems

Let's say you found a good laundromat and now you're noticing problems. Every good laundromat posts a phone number or two that you can call for machine breakdowns, major spills, coin losses, or other problems related to laundromat maintenance. If you have problems with other patrons (rare, in my experience) you can call 911 or the police, then just don't go there again.

Sometimes you'll see parents dealing roughly with their children or not disciplining them at all. It's really tempting to interfere and berate the parent, but that would only make things worse. What I usually do is look for an opportunity to chat up the child to make it more fun for them. Sometimes the parent "gets it," but that's not the reason I do it. Frankly, I do it to make myself feel better. If it's really bad, I leave and go somewhere else, or bury myself in a book. Again, this very seldom happens.

Most of the time being in a laundromat is quite uneventful and peaceful, and sometimes it's downright interesting. If you've had interesting experiences too, feel free to share them below. If not yet, I wish you luck in finding a laundromat that's just right for you.

Questions & Answers

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    • Kenna McHugh profile image

      Kenna McHugh 

      8 months ago from Northern California

      I use a laundromat when I travel and the hotel laundry prices are too high. I usually get bored at these places and find it hard to enjoy myself. Reading is a good idea. I appreciate your pointers and will use them the next time I am in search of a laundromat. You might want to check out the play Third and Oak the Laundromat: A Plain In One Act my Marsha Norman.

    • Sustainable Sue profile imageAUTHOR

      Susette Horspool 

      8 months ago from Altadena CA, USA

      @Cynthia - Thanks for your (and others') commendation. In answer to your question, most people with washers at home, when they need something washed in a rush, will throw it into the washer and start it going, even when the washer is not at all full. I've never seen anyone do that in a laundromat. When you use a laundromat, you make sure you have enough dirty clothes to fill the washer. That uses wisely both water and the energy it takes to heat it.

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 

      8 months ago from Brazil

      It has been some time since I've been to a laundromat. You've shared some good tips here.

      Where I live, there are many people who still wash their clothes by hand in a sink or a large plastic bowl.

    • Natalie Frank profile image

      Natalie Frank 

      8 months ago from Chicago, IL

      Your article includes so much more than simply how to operate a washer and dryer. A great contribution to your sustainable articles.

    • techygran profile image

      Cynthia 

      8 months ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

      This article was a delight to read with tons of good information for those of us who probably have a laundering history speckled with laundromat nostalgia and currently exploring sustainability in general while pondering the soon-demise of the old Maytags.

      Could you please tell a little about how using a laundromat saves water?

      All the best, Cynthia

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