Our washing machine was not appreciated. It faithfully sat in the corner of our laundry room and dutifully agitated and spun the dirt away… until it broke last summer. It had served us well by cleaning 60 loads a month, but it was not worth repairing.
This was our unplanned introduction to off the grid washing and putting into practice the skills needed to clean clothes without electricity. No one, except me, was enthusiastic about this new adventure. For two weeks we did our laundry by hand and lived to tell about it.
We knew enough of the basics and we did have clean clothes, but as those 2 weeks wore on, we learned a lot more. If you’re ever without power or if there’s ever a grid-down scenario, these tips will come in handy.
Clean clothes without electricity — not easy, but doable!
• Do your best to keep up on laundry. When an emergency happens, you will feel some sense of assurance that most of your family has clean underwear. In fact, hurricane-hardened moms know to go on a laundry-cleaning marathon once a hurricane is just 3 or 4 days out. If the power goes down, at the very least you’ll have clean sheets, towels, clothes, and plenty of clean underwear!
• Assign a laundry day to each person in the home. If they are old enough to, have them be responsible for their own laundry, this includes their linens. Teach and help younger children how to do laundry, including sorting, which detergent to use, how to remove stains, how to fold each type of item, and finally, where everything goes once folded. When they are 12 years old they should have this mastered. It’s a life skill. Am I right?
• Stock up on laundry soap, dryer sheets, fabric softener and stain remover. A 3 month supply would be awesome! If you want to make your own products, download Switch From Store-Bought to Homemade, a FREE Survival Mom e-book!
• As a bonus, Fels-Naptha can be used for poison ivy treatment, cleaning very greasy/dirty hands and household cleaning. Do not wash dishes with it or use it as a regular hand soap.
• Zote is a great soap for those with sensitive skin or for baby clothes. It has a strong scent, however.
• Clotheslines and clothes pins are a must. Clotheslines come in a variety of styles. Buy what works best for your home and size of your family. Be prepared to have a drying method for inside your house on rainy and/or wintery days. Wet clothes have been known to freeze solid on a clothesline!
• Have a backup location to wash and dry. In Southern California we found the weather to be wonderfully cooperative! Consider the bathroom a great place to wash. You will need to drain the water somewhere. Maybe a garage or basement would provide the room needed for a clothes line.
• Once in a while, wash clothes by hand or just bypass the dryer. There is much to learn about the art of hanging clothes on a line. More people than you might think continue to use a washboard for scrubbing clothes by hand.
• In a true grid-down scenario or a severe drought, be prepared to recycle your grey water. Grey water is the water that you used to do laundry and can be used to water plants, wash a vehicle, or other uses that don’t involve contact with food. If you’re planning to do this, use water that has not been used to wash underwear, since any water that comes in contact with feces will be too contaminated to re-use. The solution for that is simple: schedule one or more loads of “underwear laundry” per week and wash everything else separately.
• Consider buying a non-electric washing machine as a backup for power outages. These units run around $50 and the WonderWash was reviewed here a few years ago. Some of these units have a foot pedal or a hand held crank and hold about 6 lbs. of clothes. They require less physical strength and it only takes a few minutes of turning to have clean clothes. Rinsing goes fast and the clothes can be spun to expel much of the water.
There are a variety of laundry soaps and stain treatments that you can make at home. I have made both the powder and the liquid. The powder is faster to make. I recruited one of my children to grate the soap to see how it would work. It went well and I got a clean smelling kid out of it. A food processor was used to grate another batch. It got the job done but it did required electricity. You could easily make a 6 month to a year supply of laundry detergent in an afternoon. Personally, I store bars of soap and have additional store bought detergent as well.
Download Switch From Store-Bought to Homemade for free recipes and instructions for homemade laundry detergents.
Methods of off grid washing vary. If you are strong, want to get strong, or have kids that need to burn energy, I recommend the 5 gallon bucket and plunger method. It is cheap to make and simple to store. This is what you need:
• 2 5-gallon buckets (home improvement store, some restaurants give them away for free)
• Lids for buckets. Washing can be done without a lid, as we have learned, but a lid is better!
• A new plunger, average quality is the minimum.This one was designed specifically for off-grid laundry use.
Take one of the 5 gallon buckets and drill holes all around the side of it. Drill holes in the rubber part of the plunger, if you’re using a traditional plunger and not the one pictured here.
If you choose to use a lid, drill a hole in the lid that is large enough to place over the stick of the plunger. Put the bucket with holes inside the other bucket. Add water, soap and clothes. Allow enough room for agitation!
Grab a chair, put the bucket in front of you, and pretend you are plunging the toilet for about 10 minutes. Dump dirty water out, fill with clean water and continue plunging. When you are finished rinsing, place the outer bucket inside the bucket with holes and press or sit on it. Most of the water will drain from your clothes.
If you are determined to permanently wash without electricity, there are other options to be explored. A bicycle powered washing machine or a large hand cranked machine can be purchased. Antique stores and auctions often have non-electric washing machines from many years ago that are still functional. These vary in price and quality. What matters most is that you have a plan and the proper equipment ready to clean clothes without electricity. It’s not easy, but it’s definitely doable!