Laundry – Keeping Clothes Clean When the Grid Goes Down

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Editor’s Note: This post is another entry in the Prepper Writing Contest from frequent contributor R. Ann Parris.  If you have information for Preppers that you would like to share and possibly win a $300 Amazon Gift Card to purchase your own prepping supplies, enter today!


The Unending Chore: Laundry

Since we started wearing clothes, we’ve been doing laundry. How we’ve done that laundry has come a long way and it’s one of the cases where history has maintained slow, constant progress up until relatively recent times, where progression has bottle-necked a little. If you’re bored or you like old stuff, you can check out the History of Laundry and the Evolution of Washing Technology (ignore the advertising side) to get some ideas, both for the mechanics and the plants and chemicals and soaps that were used for them.

Using history and modern innovation, we now have a lot of options for keeping our clothes clean, even if we end up off the grid, conserving power, or lacking electricity entirely. We can also adapt some of the being-forgotten methods of limiting how much laundry we have to do in the first place. There’s also some options for the types of soaps we use, and some things to be aware of when we’re counting on good hygiene to help keep us healthy because we have limited access to medical care.

Powered Options

There are a number of options that use power, but use a little less or have a lower draw that most generators can provide (to include fuel-burning and mechanical like wind or hydro, or solar backup banks). There are also the small-space and high-capacity machines that have a pretty big draw, but they’ll use it efficiently. Those let us still do whole loads in 15-20 minutes or so, and walk away from loads that are washing themselves so we can go do something else.

Some of those options include:

Panda Small Mini Portable Counter Top Compact Washer Washing Machine – washer-dryer combo unit for RVs, dorms and tiny homes

Some of the electric options do require water hookups, or for you to be there to drain and refill when they’re ready. It’s something to be aware of while gathering information. Also, be aware of the power draw. As mentioned, some of the mini’s are only more efficient or smaller than standard washers, and can have high power draws.

Some of the RV and camper or dormitory mini’s are all-in-one units that either convert to a dryer or have two chambers. You can also get separate low-power, highly efficient, or space-saving dryers like the EasyGo Wardrobe Dryer that works like an oversized dehydrator but for clothes (without the shrinkage) or dedicated spin dryers like the XtremepowerUS Stainless Steel Tumble Dryer.

 

 

Lehman’s Own hand-washing and crank wringer laundry system
Lehman’s Own hand-washing and crank wringer laundry system

 

Commercial, non-powered laundry cleaning options

There are options for just picking up a hand-crank or foot-petal washer as well, for those who aren’t DIYers. Most are going to be in the general build of a lettuce spinner or a tumbling “egg” washer. Some require hoses (or hassle) to drain, too. Some are a little easier on that aspect, but they all have to be rinsed somehow. Sometimes the little guys will wash the clothes, but then it’s up to us to better rinse the soap out and wring them dry.

Some of the commercially available hand-crank or manual-pump washers are:

*Most of these are going to be pretty small and only do 1-2 pairs of jeans or a few shirts at a time.

DIY project to power a spinning-basket drum washer using a bike
DIY project to power a spinning-basket drum washer using a bike

Manual Clothes Washers

There are truly lots of options to go DIY or old-old school. You can buy some of the options for manual washing, but there are really easy DIYs for some of them that can save move or just keep you from spending it, because by the time you need them, power’s off and you can just salvage them.

Plunger + bucket = DIY Clothes Washer for your Laundry
Plunger + bucket = DIY Clothes Washer for your Laundry

 

Instead of buying the large head, consider just drilling some holes in a clean plunger so that it doesn’t stick to anything. You can use a 3-5 bucket system or a bathtub, storage tote, trough or small stock tank. No reason not to use an aquarium or planter or filing cabinet drawer if they’re available (for this one or any other).

I like buckets and storage totes with lids I can drill a hole for the handle for, because it’s less messy. Five or six waiting buckets makes the process fast for me. It only takes a couple of minutes per load. They go in the first with a few drops of dish detergent or a penny-sized pool of pine cleaner, get pumped 8-20 times, then they go in the first clean water bucket. It usually takes 3-4 buckets for me to be confident they’re well rinsed. Unless stuff is just black, I can use the soapy bucket 2-3 times without adding detergent. By then, the first rinse bucket or two is getting pretty soapy, I add a little more, and somebody takes the dirty wash bucket to dump. That bucket gets refilled and goes to the end of the line.

You can go even more advanced with it like these guys:

Simple DIY Washer

Mechanized bucket washer

*If you use Dawn or an eco-friendly detergent, that bucket can get dumped for well-established trees and shrubs, or into less-sensitive annuals beds. Dawn is still not great for compost, and it’ll shut down the microbe processing for red wiggler bins.

Washboards

You can spend money on a washboard. Or you can just plan to take the large A/C or heater intake vent cover off the wall and use that alone or along with the current bathtub brush(es). I don’t find any real difference in clothes results, but I’m not doing lacy finery or sweaters on them. You do need to pad the bottom edge with a dowel, bamboo, or section of hose before you stick it in your bathtub, though.

The nice thing about a board and a brush is that you can really work specific spot stains, and you can use bar soap and laundry powder as well as dish soap and liquid detergents like pine cleaner, which can be had in super condensed forms really inexpensively. I also don’t worry about soaps degrading my buckets or toilet plunger (or the $20 blue thing I bought before I knew better) or my potato/bathroom brush and grate. Some people are a little crazy sensitive about the types of soaps they’ll use on their “real” washboards.

The downside is that you’re going to be doing one piece of laundry at a time, two tops, and it takes me a lot longer than dunking a pair of jeans in the buckets and plunging, even if they’re oily and it takes me 2-3 sessions of 15 plunges to get them clean. It takes me way longer to do the weekly hand towels and wash cloths with a washboard.

Boiling your laundry

Finnish Immigrant Boiling Clothes for Wash, Near Bayou Cumbest, Mississippi. Around 1900
Finnish Immigrant Boiling Clothes for Wash, Near Bayou Cumbest, Mississippi. Around 1900

This method will lift some things, but anybody with two Xs and a learning curve for adulthood or wine on a shirt can attest that cold water is our friend when it comes to stains and appearance. Boiling clothing is really more about just killing germs. You can do as many clothes as you have a container to fit with room to stir them a bit – stock pot, maple syrup boiling cauldrons, big Dutch ovens. You want to boil in excess of 30 minutes and you want a hard, rolling boil. This is a good method if you’ve already got a fire going for something else and appearance doesn’t matter, but be aware that boiling alone will not kill all germs. Many bacteria will form resistant spores that “hatch” again as conditions return to tolerable. The addition of a soak in cool water and bleach for whites or pine cleaner for colors can help with both stains and germ reduction.

The nice thing about just boiling is that once it’s cool, the water can be dumped into any garden plot, creek, or pond without anything that wasn’t already in the dirt touching it.

 

Stones, brushes and boards at creeks
Stones, brushes and boards at creeks

*Please use Dawn detergent or a no-kill camping soap or detergent so we limit our impact on the microbes that are the base of the food systems in creeks and ponds.

This isn’t that different from a brush and washboard. It’s how I did a lot of laundry in my time as a through-packer and kayaker. You apply some sort of soap (or just water if you pre-boil clothes to kill germs) and then scrub with whatever’s handy – even if that’s just the friction of clothes against each other.

Mop wringers and presses

There are mechanical clothes wringers that can be purchased. Or you can pick up a mop wringer or press for a whole lot less most of the time. There’s also a crazy-expensive 5-gallon salad spinner on the market for restaurant that can replicate the washer’s spin cycle if we so choose.

*All links are just an examples. Not purposefully plugging any manufacturer.

Quickfire considerations

Consider the expandable or rotary racks for indoor drying as well as lines inside and outside

  • Laundry matters for hygiene reasons, not just appearance.
  • Many of us are already going to be working pretty hard, so investing in a fast or low-labor option may appeal.
  • Small battery-powered fans and generator-run box fans can help drying immensely in campers, tents and humidity or cold-rainy houses with limited airflow and high moisture (when dehydrating food, too).
  • Bleach is only a sanitizer in cool water. Boiling and hot-hot water break down that aspect and it becomes only a whitener.
  • With most hand-washing systems, bleach is going to be best used out on a tarp in the yard or in a bathroom (and in grubby clothes or birthday suits).
  • Laundry is a high-water-use process a lot of the times, so a good catchment system or backup system is important. They sell some powders and gels for water-free shampoos, body wash, laundry and pet shampoos, but they tend to be pricey.
  • Consider the expandable or rotary racks for indoor drying as well as lines inside and outside. Getting clothes dried especially on cool, damp days can be a trial and there’s only so much space near a stove.
  • Nobody ever said a now-defunct extension cord, cargo straps, or dog tie-out line can’t be used as a clothesline or that you can’t string your line between your shed and a vehicle. Don’t spend money you don’t have to until you’re totally set to take care of yourself for at least 6 or 12 months.
  • We can take cues from our ancestors (and parents) who had/have “school” clothes and “play” clothes and through-packers who change undies and base layers, let those air dry, and re-wear outerwear. Work clothes get re-worn multiple times. (Ask service members how often they washed BDUs/ACUs/Cammies/Diggies).
  • Wearing farm boots or gaiters can protect clothing from picking up debris and muck.
  • Use two sets of sheets and pillowcases on beds and inside bags. Sheets function as the base layers for packers. They’re thinner to wash and faster to dry than blankets and quilts.
  • If pets get on furniture or beds, consider throwing another set of sheets over the comforter or quilt so that can get washed instead of the thicker covers.
  • The more hankies, towels and sheets we have available, the longer we can go without needing to wash them, which can become an issue if the whole household gets a stomach flu or head colds when it’s cool and wet outside. We’re not overly inclined to be doing laundry even now, and without the ability to just press buttons, it’s going to be even harder to keep up with sickness, wet animals, and poorly trained humans. A pass through pine sol or bleach can absolve Salvation Army rejects of all previous germies, and freebie rejects can be a great way to increase our storage of those items without paying a dime.

Laundry

Laundry sometimes doesn’t get its due, even from people who’ve had the joy of showering in their clothes first or going weeks with just a couple of pairs of base layers and a set of outerwear. We can pre-plan a lot of ways to reduce the amount of laundry we have to do, and take advantage of a number of DIY projects and household items to create low-cost alternatives to our stand washers. Super-condensed, powerful cleaners like commercial Pine Sol concentrate and liquid dish soap can be used just a few drops at a time and stored for upwards of 10 years without loss of potency, or we can research lye and germ-killing plant teas for our laundry purposes. For those who already have power systems in place, there are some low-power-draw options that can maintain some ease with the process.

For most of us, water is going to be a consideration – and it will be a consideration even before we run out of clothes in a lot of cases, unfortunately. Some methods are more and less water friendly, and some of them allow more reuse of laundry water than others. That might influence us one way or another as we cruise through our options.

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9 Comments on "Laundry – Keeping Clothes Clean When the Grid Goes Down"

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LawyersGunsorMoney
Guest

For the small stuff, a large mesh laundry bag, not over filled, would work nicely. It worked in the Navy, anyway.

Kula Farmer
Guest
So heres a laundry hack i saw somewhere, need to search for the links, basicly was a 55gallon drum cut in half (NOT lengthwise) set on a base made of hollow tiles filled with cement so you can build a fire under them to heat, opening for stoking fire on opposite side from where you stand, and a washboard made with a scrap of corrugated roofing and some 2x2s for a washboard, and a piece of PVC pipe with a cut in half basketball connected to it so it looks like a giant plunger,, used to agitate the wash drum,… Read more »
A Cracker but not creepy
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A Cracker but not creepy

I used a trick my grandfather taught me. When he was a single farmer he would put his cloths in a bucket of water and soap. Put it in the back of a wagon and drive with a team of horses 7 miles into town. There he would dump the soap water, wring out the clothes and refill the bucket with fresh water. When he got home he would again wring out the clothes and hang to dry.

I did the same thing 25 years ago during the early days of Desert Storm using a humvee. Worked great.

Bolofia
Guest

Good article, and well presented! I must agree that access to clean water will be issue for a lot of people when the grid is down. Adding bleach or boiling polluted water before washing seems like it might be a good idea. Unless you have your own well (which I do), I would be very cautious about pulling water from a stream. If it needs to be purified before drinking, why would unclean water be safe for washing clothes?

R. Ann
Guest
High praise. Thank you. I wouldn’t do it with heavily polluted water (which is going to become more prevalent with sewage and dumping and chemical overflow and system failures in the event of a big disaster), but I was a through backpacker for a long time – and before internet shopping. I washed clothes in water I was purifying for drinking on a regular basis. Just part of the fun when living out of a bag and off maps for days and weeks, especially in summer and with dogs. That’s definitely something to note for sickroom stuff, kitchen cloths, and… Read more »
overit
Guest

unclean water? unless it got sewage in it its fine
its just for clothes..and you would be boiling bandages etc or baby stuff if your smart.
and on that..Nappies
half towels large t towels etc all double as cloth nappies.and many generations used them and washed them by hand then boiled and kids were fine.
vinegar as a final rinse aids handy also
make a wash cheapy by using acetic acid powder and add water.

Huples
Guest

I’m going naked!

Great article and overlooked. I’ll have to look at laundry soap supplies next time I’m shopping

R. Ann
Guest
I like to aim for stuff that multipurposes and stores *forever* whenever I can. Bleach can run flat, especially stored in the heat, and you don’t need much per gallon, although for hankies and sickroom/quarantine pass-through, it’s champ. I like getting liquid dish soap and pine cleaner concentrates that I can use for laundry, surfaces and floors, and the dish soap has its additional gardening uses. If you grate bar soap, it’ll still work with the plunger methods and it’ll work with any of the brush-plank scrubbing types. I have too many mosquitoes and brambles to consider commando. Plus, the… Read more »
overit
Guest

eucalyptus oil removes grease and oil and wax. its also great for deterring bugs in woolens you store. as are bayleaves amongst layers.powdered borax removes rust blood and is a gentle whitener for older linens, its fine to throw on gardens especially for spuds and the brassicas.

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