About seven months ago, Sarah and I picked up a set of six wool dryer balls. We found them quite inexpensively — about $1 each, while I’ve been unable to consistently find them online for much below $3 apiece – and we had heard from several places that they were effective at reducing drying time and were a substitute for dryer sheets as they resulted in softer clothes out of the dryer than drying without dryer sheets and without fabric softener in the wash.
I decided to put these claims to the test as carefully as possible by doing a bunch of loads of laundry with and without dryer balls to see if I noticed a difference in drying time and softness of clothes. Do they actually replace dryer sheets? Do they actually save energy?
To summarize, my answer is dryer balls save a little bit of energy per load, but only if you’re paying attention and shorten your drying time accordingly and it’s not life changing.
How did I test them?
Over the course of several months, I did a number of identical loads of laundry in our washer and dryer. I literally counted out clothes items on the first load and then matched them item for item on subsequent loads so that the loads were as similar as I could make them.
I ran sixteen loads that were mostly underwear and t-shirts of mixed colors, ten loads of towels and blue jeans, and six loads of workout clothes (shorts, martial arts uniforms, and so on). These loads were evenly split between loads with dryer balls and without a dryer ball.
Subsequently, I ran one load of each type with a dryer sheet and without a dryer ball so that I could compare how that felt, as well as one load of each type with fabric softener in the wash.
I kept notes on all of these loads in a Google spreadsheet and kept a reminder to myself to remember to do this. Obviously, this was one of those things that I was personally curious about as well as something that was obvious material for an article.
I dry almost everything on the permanent press setting for 60 minutes, as I usually run larger loads, and I check them at the end to make sure they’re dry and will occasionally run them for 20 minutes more if they’re not fully dry. For this project, I also ran some loads at 40 minutes and 50 minutes so that I could figure out how long the dryer needed to run to fully dry clothes with and without the dryer ball.
For maintenance, we keep the lint trap fully cleared between loads and I wash the lint trap every few months to get tiny particles out of it. Once a year or so, I’ll open up the dishwasher and clear lint out of the interior and exhaust. If we don’t do those things, drying time will gradually increase and the dryer becomes a fire hazard, so it’s good to do them. Our dryer is a pretty typical low-end tumble dryer that’s about 20 years old.
What did I find?
Let’s talk about drying time. On average, across all the loads, adding two dry wool dryer balls to a full load reduced drying time by about 4 minutes, or about 7%. I was able to figure this out pretty precisely by running some loads for 40 and 50 minutes with and without dryer balls and keeping track of total drying time. (I decided that clothes were “fully dry” when they were dry to the touch.)
In other words, using the dryer balls meant that for roughly every 15 loads, the dryer balls were saving us a load in terms of drying time.
A typical clothes dryer uses about 3000 watts, or 3 kilowatts. Over 15 loads, we’re using the dryer for an hour, so the dryer ball saves us 3 kilowatt-hours over the course of 15 loads. Our average energy price when we do clothes is around $0.15 per kWh, so over the course of 15 loads, we’re saving about $0.45.
In other words, the dryer balls save us about $0.03 per load on average with one big if attached to that.
What’s the “if”? The savings relies on us actually cutting back our drying time by four minutes. In practice, what I’ve been doing is setting the dryer to 55 minutes for most loads rather than 60 minutes as I used to do without the dryer loads and most loads are perfectly dry after that time. I could probably save a little more if I cut the time more, but I’d have to take more trips into the laundry room because I’d often be restarting the dryer for a short period and that would only save me a fraction of a cent by doing so – it’s not worth it. I want to set the dryer each time to a length that will almost always have the load completely dry when I check it in an hour or so, and setting it to 55 minutes with dryer balls has roughly the same success rate as setting it to 60 minutes without dryer balls for my usual sized loads. That cuts the cost of an average load by $0.03.
The thing is, at that rate, a $1 wool ball won’t pay for itself until we hit the 33 load mark, and after that we’re still only saving about $0.03 per load. It’s not really adding any work, as we just leave the dryer balls on top of the dryer and toss them in with a load, so the time is negligible.
Now, over the course of a lot of loads, that does add up. If we do 1.5 dryer loads a day on average, and that’s about right for our house in my experience (we have five people living here), we save about $0.045 per day, or about $16.43 per year once the balls are paid for.
I’ve used ours for perhaps 40 loads each and they look basically identical to how they looked when they were new, so I’m not really concerned about lifespan. They were advertised to work for 2,000 loads apiece and that seems reasonable to me.
So, I think dryer balls are worth it in terms of energy savings if you adjust your drying habits a little and intentionally start setting the dryer for a drying cycle that’s a few minutes shorter than what you were using before.
What about softening the clothes? In my opinion, wool balls get clothes just a bit softer than nothing at all, but not nearly as soft as dryer sheets or fabric softener. I noticed a difference, but it wasn’t a giant difference. That being said, I don’t bother with dryer sheets or fabric softener as the softness of clothes from the dryer is a non-factor for me and some types of softener seem to mildly bother my skin, too.
What about static cling? Dryer sheets reduce or eliminate this, but what about dryer balls? In my experience, static cling usually only happens if you overdry your clothes. If you find that you’re getting a lot of static cling on clothes you pull out of the dryer, simply dry your clothes for less time in the future, as it’s warm dry fabrics bouncing together for a while that causes static cling. Thus, I did not really check to see if the wool balls reduced static cling because I’m pretty focused on minimal drying time, thus static cling is a rare issue for me.
Are the clothes harmed? I couldn’t really detect any sort of additional impact on the clothes and I was definitely watching for it. There didn’t seem to be much difference in the amount of lint caught in the lint trap after a load with or without the wool balls, which would be a sure sign of damage to the clothes. I can’t say for absolute certainty, but I don’t think wool dryer balls would contribute in a significant way to long term damage to clothes.
Final thoughts and recommendations
Wool dryer balls like these do have a small positive impact on drying time as well as a small positive impact on fabric softness, but it’s not a big impact. In fact, to really see any benefit at all, you have to consciously reduce your drying time for a load by 5% or so. If you usually set your dryer to 60 minutes, you can probably set it to 55 minutes or so and get the same level of dryness from a load if you use wool dryer balls.
That being said, the savings is pretty negligible – somewhere around $0.03 per load by my calculations, though the amount changes a little bit depending on energy costs in your area and your dryer model. It is something that would add up over time and more than pay for a few dryer balls, but it’s not enough for it to be a “go out and buy this now!” kind of buy. As I noted above, I’d need to use a dryer ball for 33 loads to pay for the inexpensive $1 balls I was able to find, and most online sources seem to come in around $3 per ball (like these), which would take about 100 loads to break even on a single ball.
While you will save a little bit over the long haul and they do seem to soften a little bit, it’s not going to make a life-changing difference. If you can get one for free or for pennies, go for it; otherwise, there’s no reason to bother.