3 Methods to Wash Laundry When the Power is Out

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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 the catalyst for us learning how to do laundry without electricity. And boy, did we learn alot!

No one, except me, was enthusiastic about this new adventure. However, this unplanned introduction to off-grid washing forced us to put into practice an important skill that’s necessary to maintain hygiene. We knew enough of the basics and we did have clean clothes. Yet as as those two weeks wore on, we learned a lot more pro laundry tips that come in handy. Read on to discover how we did laundry by hand for two weeks and lived to tell about it.

image: woman in white top hanging laundry to dry inside her house

What to use for laundry cleaning products?

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 require electricity. You could easily make a six-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.

3 Methods of Off-Grid Washing

Methods of off-grid washing vary. A well-designed portable clothes washer can eliminate a good deal of the physical labor involved, and there are numerous options.  Only you can determine what is the most effective way for you to do your laundry when there’s no power. Here are a some of suggestions:

Method 1: Buckets and Plunger

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:

Supplies

  • • Two 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.

Instructions

  1. Take one of the 5-gallon buckets and drill holes all around the side of it.
  2. Drill holes in the rubber part of the plunger, if you’re using a traditional plunger and not the one we’ve linked to.
  3. 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.
  4. Put the bucket with holes inside the other bucket.
  5. Add water, soap and clothes. Allow enough room for agitation!
  6. Grab a chair, put the bucket in front of you, and pretend you are plunging the toilet for about 10 minutes.
  7. Dump dirty water out, fill it with clean water, and continue plunging.
  8. 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.
  9. Hang to items to dry using your preferred method.

Method 2: Buckets, Washboard, and Wringer

This method uses more tools to lessen the physical labor.

Supplies

  • At least two very large buckets. Try to find some 20 gallon tubs at the big box store.
  • Rapid Washer
  • Wash board
  • A clothes wringer, if possible.  If you don’t have the funds to purchase an actual clothes wringer, a mop bucket wringer will work as well. You need something that will get as much water out as possible to help the clothes dry quicker.
  • A clothes line outside or some sort of rack inside to hand the clothes out to dry.

Instructions

  1. Start with warm water in one bucket with a minimal amount of soap. You need soap to clean but too much and it will take longer to get the soap out of your clothes.
  2. Place clothes in the bucket and just let soak for a couple hours or overnight. Much of the surface dirt will come out of your clothes.
  3. Use the Rapid Washer (or your hands) to agitate the water. The Rapid Washer helps circulate the water and separate the dirt from the clothes.
  4. In the second bucket, place your rinse water. Wring out as much of the dirty wash water that you can and put the clothes in the rinse bucket
  5. Agitate again to get soap out of the items and wring.
  6. The first bucket of dirty water is then dumped and refilled to make a second rinse bucket.
  7. If you need to do a second load of laundry, you can reuse the first rinse bucket and repeat the steps.

Method 3: The Lavario

A more sophisticated retail solution is the Lavario Portable Clothes Washer. My husband and I had a chance to give this a try and were impressed with the sturdy construction, effective design, and the easy, smooth operation of washing our clothes. Read my full review of the Lavario, including a video showing us using it.

Other Options

If you are determined to permanently wash without electricity, there are other options to be explored. For instance, 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. Here are my top tips for making off-grid laundry easier no matter what method you choose.

Additionally, if you must use your home as your car, modifying one of these options may be worth considering to save money on the laundromat.

Final Thoughts

We all need clean clothes and we’ve become very dependent on our washers and dryers, but laundry can still be done without these conveniences. And some method is necessary, especially if the power is out for a very long timeYou need a plan, proper equipment, these off-grid laundry tips, and plenty of practice. It will take longer, and it’s not easy, but it’s still do-able.

Do you have a preferred method for cleaning laundry when the power is out? Share it in the comments!

Originally published June 23, 2015

19 thoughts on “3 Methods to Wash Laundry When the Power is Out”

  1. Might I suggest an old-fashioned hand-crank clothes wringer also. It’s a great addition when it comes to wringing out heavy cotton items like jeans, towels, etc. It helps the clothes to dry faster when you’re hanging them out on the lines.

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  3. I read about this method a long time ago, in The Mother Earth News, I think. A cowboy said he put water, soap, and clothes in a milk can and threw it in the back of his jeep. In the course of riding around all day, the clothes were agitated with no labor on his part. Don’t know if it would work, but it suggests a useful line of thinking on the problem (wave action on a bobbing can in the ocean, for example).

    1. Linda Smith,

      I have the Wonder Washer as well as the bucket for doing the laundry. This part is for the Wonder Washer plunger to fit in. A 5 gal bucket from your local hardware (with lid) will do fine, if you cut or drill a hole in the lid big enough for the Wonder Washer handle to fit through. Believe me, it DOES get clothes clean, even sheets and jeans.

      Now for the wringer. You’ll need 3 buckets that are 5 gal and 1 of them needs a lid. Drill or cut holes in what will be the middle bucket. (Little tip here, you DO NOT need a drill, a good sturdy serrated steak knife and some patience will work fine. All you have to do is cut an “X” where you want the hole. Take knife out and reinsert knife right in the middle of the “X” and then twist a tiny bit to open up the hole. Just make sure the holes open out the BOTTOM so they face the bottom bucket and NOT toward the clothes. ) Cut/drill five holes on the side of 1 bucket down near the bottom, then drill/cut 5 more holes evenly spaced into the bottom of the bucket. Now, the bottom bucket has NO HOLES, the middle bucket has the holes in it, and the top bucket has NO holes. Put the wet clothes in the middle bucket, insert top bucket, put on the lid (if you want to) and push hard until all water is in bottom bucket. This process may take a couple of times to get all water out of clothes but it DOES WORK. If you want a picture just do a Google on “5 gal bucket clothes wringer” or something along that line.

  4. I read in Carla Emorys book many years ago and I think she said she herself did her wash a few times in the back of a pickup.

  5. I, too, have the wonder wash. My problem is that it won’t stay tight…the handle always comes apart from the plunger part. Anyone else have this issue? It is a big one for me! Plus, I can’t find any where to actually do this where the buckets don’t slide around or are tall enough to do without breaking my back! I usually do it in the tub, but that is low and the buckets slide around and make black marks all over the tub. Using a sink would be too tall. Outside isn’t really an option, summer would be fine, but I’m not going out in the winter!
    I don’t mind the thought of hard work, but there are real issues about this. What about queen or king sheets? How do you expect them to get clean in a 5 gallon bucket?

    1. This was a post under the “comments” section in the reviews on Amazon for the plunger..”A couple of tips: The first thing I would recommend is replacing the handle if you intend to use it on the floor. Your local hardware store or home center should have longer screw-in broom handles. I bought a 4-1/2 foot tubular steel handle from Lowe’s for $5, which should last the rest of my life. The longer handle lets you stand upright and close to the bucket rather than having to stoop forward and down. This eliminates stress on your lower back. With the longer handle, the power comes from your arms, not your back. Or put the bucket on a platform to raise it up if you want to use the included handle (which is a few inches longer than your average toilet plunger). The first few loads I did without the longer handle, I just put the bucket on my bathtub rim, which also made it quick and convenient to fill with water and tip to dump out when I’m done. The bucket can’t fall off the rim. If it slid towards me, I could quickly brace it with a bent knee. If it tilted away, the handle of the Breathing Washer gives me enough leverage to easily pull it back. In fact, even with the longer handle, I prefer to work with the bucket inside the tub, so any splashing is contained and, again, I have easy access to the tub faucet and drain (have to stand inside the tub to agitate, though). I can also wash larger items like comforters directly in the tub thanks to the longer handle. The long handle also lets me space my hands further apart for good control. I grip it with one hand at about shoulder level and the other at waist level, which would be nearly impossible with the original, short handle.”

    2. I use my buckets inside the tub, but I put down a tub mat so they don’t slide around or mar the tub. It works great this way.

  6. I used to wash all of my dedicates similar to this using the towel wring out method for drying or line drying to save money on my energy bill. It can be a pain but you waste less money on water and power and you know how to do it if an emergency occurs.

  7. I like the three 5-gallon bucket idea with the holes drilled in the center bucket for “pushing” the water out. I am going to try this.

    I have also been pondering purchasing a (dedicated) mop bucket with wringer on wheels – like this one http://www.amazon.com/Rubbermaid-Professional-Bucket-Wringer-FG728100YEL/dp/B00GJ0Q47S/ref=sr_1_1?s=industrial&ie=UTF8&qid=1436900304&sr=1-1&keywords=rubbermaid+wringer+bucket&pebp=1436900158585&perid=1XBQXWM1D1XHZDKA4ZPY to be used only for laundry wringing. It’s not terribly expensive, I can store other disaster-laundry items inside, tuck it away (after testing it out, of course), and be ready with a mobile drying station in the event of an emergency.

    Carol, above, asks about cleaning Queen or King sized sheets. In a true emergency, I wouldn’t use them. I’d simply use twin sheets or sleeping bags with sheets as liners, so only the smaller, easier twin sized sheets would need washing.

  8. Does anyone know if the Wonder Wash is still being made? I looked for one and everyone, including Amazon, says it is sold out or not available.

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  11. You could use a rolling pin on you kitchen sink draining tray to wring the water out of your clothes. Same principle as a two roller wringer.

  12. 60 loads per month??? wow! you must be the cleanest people on earth! the two of us do 2 loads per week–one for people clothes and one for sheets, towels, cleaning rags, etc. cutting down on laundry dirtied seems like a good idea–less to wash no matter the method used saves on water, power (yours or the electric company’s), and cleaning agents. we each have a drawer for clothes we have worn but managed not to soil. we use aprons and sometime sleeve guards in the kitchen and the workshops. we have outerwear worn only for working in the gardens and yard. rugs and boot scrapers outside doors reduce dirt entering the house (and therefore reduces the time and materials needed to clean it up).

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