Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

The cost of laundry, networks and keeping clean

Posted by shannonclark on February 10, 2007

Laundry in 4 minutesMy new apartment building does not currently have washers and dryers for the residents, so instead, every other week or so I bring a large bag of laundry across the street to a dry cleaners where it is weighed, washed and folded and usually ready the next day.

Four months ago, my old apartment building did have a washer and dryer, one of each shared with the apartment below. There my bi-weekly laundry would take me four to five hours (sometimes longer) and I could only use the machines 4 days of the week (with Wednesdays shared with the other apartment) and they requested that I not do laundry after 9pm. Once, just before leaving the country for a week I had to go to a late night laundermat over a half-mile away, walking there pushing a cart with my laundry, where I had to spend $3 or so per load (more for loads that took a long time to dry) and to finish my laundry took me a few hours, very late at night while I was recovering from being sick.

Before that, when I was in Chicago my laundry cost me about $2.00 a load and I used the large collection of washers and dryers in my high rise, since the laundry room was open 24hrs, I usually did my laundry late at night until the early hours of the morning, rarely having a problem doing 4-6 loads at once. Even so, laundry would take me 2-3 hours, sometimes longer if I folded everything carefully.

In all cases I would also have to buy the one laundry detergant which I can use (Tide Free – surprisingly and annoying hard to find). This adds about $9 for every 30 loads or so (sometimes a bit less).

So why do I go through all of this? What does this have to do with networks and economics? A few weeks ago I saw a great sign in a window, advertising the 4 minute laundry (2 minutes to drop off, 2 minutes to pick up).

This got me to thinking about the networks around laundry and cleaning – and in a related note, to how we think about time, money, and necessities of life. For almost everyone on this planet, clean clothes are highly desired, without them you suffer physically and socially. Yet frequently the costs and effort around getting those clothes are skipped over and not thought deeply about. Frequently this is a task undertaken by some of the people in a household (usually though not always women) and in many cases, done as part of their contribution to the household, not in exchange for payment (though historically and still in many parts of the world people do have servants or cleaning help who do the laundry as part of their paid work).

In a large number of households here in the US, and in a lot of the rest of the world, the household has a private washer and dryer (certainly the case throughout the majority of single family homes in the US today). In these homes they incurred a one time cost for the machines (either directly or as part of the price of the home when they bought it), ongoing costs of the energy and water the machines use, periodic costs for the detergants and other items consumed while doing laundry, and sporadic costs to repair the machines, replace belts etc.

In apartments and condos, many of which do not have private washers and dryers the machines are frequently shared amongst the units of the building – the costs of the machines, service on them, energy and water use either being born via per-use charges and/or part of the monthly costs for each unit.

For many city dwellers, such as myself, we turn instead to corner cleaners and/or nearby laundermats, where our costs are on a per use or a per pound basis, the difference being investing our own time, or paying for someone else to spend the time to wash and fold our laundry.

So how are these prices and costs set?

In economic terms why and how do all these various options exist side by side?


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