Laundry Rooms and Laundry Closets

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Laundry Rooms

(April/June 2002)

Part I

No one gives the laundry room much respect. You can tell this from the fact that I've been writing this column since 1991 and haven't yet written about one. For many people, the laundry room is hidden away in a dark, remote corner of the basement. Although laundry has to be done on a regular basis, the laundry room is a very uninviting place in which to work. It doesn't have to be.

The two biggest problems with Virginia Hills laundry rooms that I've seen are a lack of light and a lack of storage. In the next two articles, I'm going to talk about how to remake the basement laundry room to solve these problems, and then I'll talk about a laundry closet for those of you who don't have basements.

Very often, the basement laundry room was an afterthought. Very few people had dryers in the 1950s, and the washer was placed near the concrete laundry tubs. When a dryer was eventually purchased, it needed to be vented, so it was often put near one of the basement windows. Sometimes this was near where the washer sat and sometimes it wasn't. Often, the washer and dryer were squeezed into a small room near the furnace because the plumbing and laundry tubs were there. Very often, minor modifications can be made to this setup, but sometimes it's easier to rip it all out and start over.

First, think about what you will be doing in the laundry room. This involves putting clothes in the washer, moving them to the dryer, taking them out of the dryer and folding them, and possibly doing the ironing. Some may want to use laundry room sinks for cleaning up paint brushes or themselves after a particularly dirty project.

Next, plan the space for your laundry room. You'll want room for a washer, dryer, sink or laundry tub, an ironing board, and lots of storage. Decide whether you want this open to the rest of the basement or closed off with walls. Do some trial layouts by drawing lines where things will go on the floor and walk through "doing laundry" in your new imaginary laundry room. As you do this, however, you need to think about plumbing and electrical infrastructure.

What infrastructure do you need to have a laundry room? The washer needs supply lines for hot and cold water and a drain for the used wash water. You can drain your washer into a laundry tub or into a separate standpipe. Running hot and cold water lines is an easy job for a plumber or anyone who has done a little plumbing. Installing a drain system is a little harder, but still not much of a problem for a pro. Finally, it is very helpful if you have a floor drain in case of an overflow. Most Virginia Hills houses have floor drains near the furnace, but previous homeowners may have covered up the floor drain because of an odor problem. The odor problem is easy to fix. Just pour a quart of water down the floor drain when it starts to smell. The water fills the trap again and blocks the odors.

If you have a gas dryer, you'll need to have a gas line run to the vicinity of the dryer. This is another fairly easy job for a plumber. The dryer MUST be vented to the outside. If you've been using flexible plastic dryer hose for more than a short connection, you need to replace it with smooth metal pipe. The metal won't clog nearly so easily, won't tear, and is much safer. The shorter the run of dryer vent pipe, the better. Ideally you will run the vent right up the wall behind the dryer and then go out through the band joist to the outside. If you're going to do this yourself, you'll need a powerful drill and a large hole saw. If you have a brick exterior, you'll also need a hammer drill and a large masonry bit to make the hole. Again, a good plumber can do this job for you.

If you have an electric dryer, you'll need to have a 220 volt line to the vicinity of the dryer and a special receptacle for its plug. You'll also need to have your vent system as described above.

Additionally, electrical code now requires a separate circuit for the washer and (gas) dryer. You'll also want some additional receptacles in the laundry room or area, and these should be on a 20 amp circuit so you can use an iron without dimming the lights. A good idea is to put the receptacle you'd use for the iron on the same circuit as the overhead lights and install a switch by the door. That way, when you leave the laundry room and turn off the lights, the iron can't be on. While there is no code requirement for the laundry room circuit to be protected by a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI), I'd certainly use either a GFCI circuit breaker or receptacle for everything but the washer/dryer circuit. There's always the problem of water in a laundry room, and it's better to be safe than sorry.

Now that we have the dimensions for our room and our plumbing, electrical, and venting systems in place, we'll tackle lighting and storage in the next article.

Part II

In my last article, I talked about designing a laundry room and getting the mechanical systems in place. That, however, is just the beginning. You want your laundry room transformed from the dark, unappealing corner of your basement into a bright, cheerful place to work.

The major problem with most laundry rooms is the lack of light, not surprising in a basement. You wouldn't want to waste one of the few basement windows on the laundry room if you could help it. The trick is to compensate for the lack of natural light with artificial lighting and light paint.

The first step in lightening up the laundry room is to paint the ceiling. Because of all the pipes, wires, and cross-bracing between the joists, painting the ceiling isn't a fun project. You have to work slowly and carefully. It is a project that any homeowner can undertake however, if they have even the most basic painting skills. While minor amounts of paint won't hurt pipes or wires, you should avoid painting them - with the exception we'll discuss below. I strongly recommend that you paint the joists and the ceiling white or off-white, with the next choice being any other light color.

The old cast iron drain pipe that usually appears in the laundry room can also be painted. Here, however, you should use a paint designed for metal, something like Rustoleum. You'll be amazed at what a coat of paint can do to make this large pipe more attractive.

The copper hot and cold water pipes that run overhead and along the walls can also be given a nice appearance. Their ugly dark brown color can be transformed back to a gleaming copper with a green pad and elbow grease. To preserve the copper color, you can either brush or spray the pipes with a polyurethane or lacquer coating after you've shined them.

The basement walls should also be painted a light color with a masonry paint. Before painting, you should remove any broken mortar from the joints between the concrete blocks and replace it with new. Paint will fill hairline cracks, but larger cracks should be fixed.

Finally, you'll want to do something with the floor. You can either paint it using a concrete floor paint or cover it with a vinyl floor covering. Some people like the look of tile, and that's also a possibility, but tile is a bit less durable, especially when a washer "walks" due to an unbalanced load. Do not cover the floor drain!

Good artificial lighting is critical to a laundry room. Depending on the size of the room itself, you may want to have two separate fixtures. I'm a fan of round florescent fixtures, but regular incandescent fixtures, such as the fixtures uses for kitchen ceilings may better suit your taste. If headroom is limited in the laundry room, you can use long, rectangular florescent fixtures and suspend them between the joists so that just the cover hangs below the bottom of the joists. If you use florescent fixtures, you may want to experiment with both the regular cool white tubes and the warm white or daylight tubes. There is a substantial difference in the color of the light each produces.

You'll also want some laundry room storage. While open shelves are certainly functional, you may be happier with much of what you store in the laundry room being out of view. Since space above the washer and dryer can't be used for anything else, you can hang kitchen style upper cabinets there, making sure to allow enough clearance to open and load the washer. One way to secure these cabinets to the wall is to fasten wood 2x4s to the wall all the way across the laundry room, one where the top of the cabinet would be and one at the bottom. You can then screw the cabinets to these 2x4s.

Another storage alternative is a tall cabinet. This will allow you to store brooms, mops, or vacuum cleaners. You can place it where you have a small area of floor space and a clear area to the ceiling.

Depending on the style of cabinet you use, you may need to install a piece of wood as a spacer to hold the cabinet sides 3/4" away from the wall. If you don't do that, you may have trouble fully opening many of the door styles on modern cabinets.

Finally, think about the little conveniences you would appreciate in a laundry room. You'll want an overhead bar on which to hang clothes. You may also want an ironing board that comes in its own cabinet and drops down when you need to iron.

As an afterthought, if someone is going to be doing a lot of ironing in the laundry room, they may want some entertainment there with which to occupy themselves while they iron. You may want to find space for a small TV for the person ironing to watch, or make space for a small stereo and speakers. At a minimum, you should consider wiring the laundry room with cable for the TV or Cat 5 wire if you will be piping in music and/or video from a computer.

Next time, for those of you who don't have a basement, or are contemplating putting a washer and dryer on an upper floor, we'll talk about how to build a laundry closet.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 2002

Laundry Closets

(February 2003)

The previous two articles in this series dealt with basement laundry rooms. If you don't have a basement, or you want your laundry room on an upper floor, a common solution is to put the washer and dryer in an expanded closet.

First, you need to plan the size and location of your laundry closet. A hall location near a kitchen or bathroom will save you the need to add a sink to the closet. However, the main location criteria relate to utilities. The laundry closet must have plumbing for hot and cold water supply lines and a drain line capable of handling the outflow from the washer. It must also have a vent to the outside (not just the attic) for the dryer and either a gas supply or a 240 volt electrical supply. Especially if your house is on a slab, managing all these utility lines may mean that you're going to have to leave the washer and dryer where they are now. It's easiest to install a laundry closet in new construction (such as a pop-top or addition) or in a house built on a crawl space. It's hardest in an existing house on a slab.

Before you leave the planning stage, you'll need to consider the type of washer and dryer that you want. To save space, you might use a stackable washer and dryer at the expense of reduced capacity for each load. If you decide you want a front loading washer instead of a top-loader, be warned. Many brands of these new washers are only acceptable when they are sitting on a concrete floor. Because the drum rotates much faster during the spin cycle, front-loaders can vibrate much more. Owners placing them on upper level floors report that the washer's spin cycle can shake the whole upstairs.

The first thing you'll need in your laundry closet is a floor pan connected to a drain. This will prevent an overflow from the washer from flooding the house. Of course, connecting the pan's drain to the house drains requires planning and plumbing work before you ever begin installing the pan.

When framing the laundry closet, resist the urge to save space by using 2x3 studs and go with 2x4s. I recommend this because it's a good idea to dampen the sound of the laundry room by installing insulation between the studs, and you can get more of it with the wider studs. This is extremely important if your laundry closet backs up against a bedroom, You might even want to take additional sound deadening measures in that case. For more information on sound reduction, read my 1993 article on "Quiet Walls and Ceilings".

Doing laundry in a laundry closet needs to be almost as easy as if you had a large laundry room. One of the key amenities is storage space. It's the rare bachelor who only has one container of detergent and a small box of dryer sheets. Shelves are the minimum requirement, but a nice upgrade is one or more cabinets over the washer and dryer. Cabinets will hide the clutter of various laundry and cleaning products and the other things that will find a home there. Experiment with cabinet heights so that you can reach what you need, but ensure at the same time that the washer lid will open and you have sufficient work space above the washer to pull out a heavy blanket without bashing your knuckles.

Lighting is key to the ease of working with a laundry closet. Perhaps you could use the lighting in the adjacent hall, but recessed overhead lights in the front of the laundry closet are a much better solution. Because of lighting safety requirements of a closet, non-recessed fixtures are probably not acceptable.

Of course you'll want doors on this laundry closet to hide the washer and dryer when you aren't using them. Bi-fold doors are often the solution of choice. If that is what you select, make sure the closet is wide enough so that the washer and dryer are completely exposed with the doors open. A nicer, but much more expensive solution is to use pocket doors that slide into the walls when opened.

Can You Vent Your Dryer Inside?

During the winter, can you capture the heat from your dryer by venting it into the house? If you have a gas dryer, the answer is NO, ABSOLUTELY NOT! Don't even think about it! The vented air contains carbon monoxide from the gas combustion. If you have an electric dryer, the answer is maybe, with care. There are three concerns. First, the air that you are venting is extremely humid. If you start seeing condensation on your windows or any mold growth, it's time to give up on indoor venting. Second, the vented air contains a lot of lint despite the dryer's filter although there are devices you can purchase (search for "indoor dryer vent") to help. Third, if this filter gets blocked, you might damage your dryer, or in the event of a fire in the vent line (from collected lint getting too hot), the fire is trapped inside. My recommendation would be to vent all dryers to the outside.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 2003

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