How to Wash and Dry Clothes at a Laundromat
For many people, buying a home washer and dryer is not feasible. Whether it's too expensive, you have no room, or you're worried to buy a used one and have it break down all the time, there are plenty of legitimate reasons not to have your own washer and dryer. 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 50 years of adulthood, there were only 5 or 6 years where I did not use a laundromat––when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, and again 10 years later in the West Indies where 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.
Reasons Not to Buy a Washer and Dryer
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 to Have a Washer and Dryer
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, if you choose to go with someone, 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
Have you ever used a laundromat before? What kind?
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 wash clothes with 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 knew. 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.
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.
Even if you have a washer/dryer at home, you might still find yourself needing a laundromat on occasion. 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.
I had the humblest 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. Get yourself 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. Sometimes I stop and chat briefly with neighbors as I walk.
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 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 the machines I've chosen. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Laundromat 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 a patron fill up nine machines and take off. Don't 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 to 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 you 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
Easy to get to
Coffee shop nearby
Friends go there
Hours fit my schedule
Other (like restrooms, smoking allowed, soap dispenser, etc.)
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:
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 hardly ever 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
How does dirty water clean dirty clothes?
As far as I know, it doesn't. If you're referring to laundromat water, most laundromats use water once, then schlep it into the storm drain and feed every wash with new, potable water. It's a terrible waste. Thankfully, there are new technologies being developed that would help laundromats recycle and reuse their wash water. Here is an interesting article by Treehugger:Helpful 4
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