When we think of going off-grid, many of us come up with images of a small house on some land, powered by the sun with food growing everywhere. We almost never conjure up images of the hours of chores that need to get done to keep the homestead running.
Laundry is one of those chores. Without the right equipment, doing your laundry can turn into a daily task that can take over an hour of your time.
To wash your clothes off-grid, you will need some variation of a basin filled with soapy water, an agitator such as a washboard, plunger or brush, a wringer to remove excess water after rinsing and a clothesline to hang your clothes to dry.
In this article, we will go over 4 different ways to wash your clothes on the homestead that require no power and one way that will take power. The method that works for you really depends on your budget and what you have available.
|Method||Cost||Build Time||Load SIze|
|Bucket & Plunger||$30||20 min||small|
|Basin & Washboard||$60||10 min||medium|
|Bike Powered Laundry||$0 – $150||1 – 2hr||large|
|Hand Cranked Wonder Wash||$55||10 min||small|
|Standard Electric Washing Machine||$400||5 min||large|
I have tried out all of the methods above. Some definitely work better than others. Let’s start with the simplest method.
Bucket & Plunger Laundry Method
When I first moved onto my homestead, I didn’t have much. I was living in a van and charging my tools while doing laundry at the local laundry mat. Eventually, I built our home but still did not have enough power to operate a washing machine.
I also had a new baby at home and we were using cloth diapers that needed to be cleaned almost every day. Heading off the property to go to the laundry mat every day was not an option, so an alternative needed to be found. Enter the Bucket and Plunger Method.
The Bucket and Plunger Laundry Method utilizes a 5 gallon bucket and a specialized Laundry Plunger (find it here on Amazon). Add some water and soap about halfway and fill it to the water level with dirty laundry. Soak for 30 minutes. Agitate with the plunger to draw the soapy water through the threads of your clothes for 5- 10 minutes.
Some people claim it is OK to use a plunger used for toilets (New of course), but I haven’t found that to be the case. Toilet plungers are made of soft rubber that is designed to create suction. The plunger just tends to stick out fold over on itself.
The Laundry Plunger is where it is at! It is made of hard plastic with strategically placed vents that allow the tool to effectively agitate your laundry. I could really tell the difference the first time I used one.
Before utilizing a laundry plunger, I would use a brush and washbasin to clean the laundry, piece by piece. This method was very effective, and I still use it to this day to pre-clean those extra stubborn stains, but it was hard on the back and took a long time.
If I didn’t finally upgrade my solar system so that I could use an electric washing machine at home, I would still be using this method today.
If you want to make your own Bucket and Plunger Laundry System, check out this video I made describing exactly how to make one.
A really awesome commercial version based on the ideas of this system is the Lavario Portable Clothes Washer. It works great! The design is simple yet very effective, allowing you to clean a good amount of clothes in a small amount of time, without breaking your back or the bank.
Basin and Washboard Off-Grid Laundry Method
There is something romantic about filling a galvanized washbasin with soapy water and scrubbing each item of clothing by hand along the washboard. Talk about living simply!
While the cost of this setup is a bit higher than using a bucket and plunger, the tools will last you forever. I still have my washboard hanging on the wall in my laundry room, reminding me of the many hours I put into washing clothes by hand.
It’s pretty simple really. Scrubbing laundry along a rippled washboard that is partially submerged in soapy water. It gets the clothes pretty clean. But you have to do each…one…by…hand. It takes forever. Occasionally you’ll rip through the fabric because you scrubbed too hard.
On the bright side, it doesn’t take electricity and it’s a great way to work out your arms.
I used this method before I learned about the plunger method. It was an ok way to do laundry, but when you have a daily dose of reusable diapers, it does not cut it long term.
Bike Powered Laundry Method
This has been in the imagination of many off gridders probably since the invention of the laundry machine. The idea to power a laundry machine by bicycle, I mean no brainer right? Why isn’t it mainstream yet?
There have been some students in China that designed a Bike Washing Machine which seems very promising. Unfortunately, it is at the prototype stage and is still not available commercially.
That leaves it to the rest of us to have to come up with wacky inventor type ideas of our own to put this idea into practice. A long time ago, I tried my hand at making a bike powered washing machine very similar to the one described in this post by The Greenlever Blog.
I got an old bike and old washing machine and hacked away. Don’t take apart a new washing machine, that would be crazy! It took a lot of customizing, work and time, but I finally came up with something that looked like a bike powered washing machine. It worked OK, for a while, but then things started to happen.
Parts broke. Clothes did not get washed very well. Things just stopped lining up properly. To say the least, I junked the project.
I do know that there are people out there that have had success with this method. The folks over at The Greenlever Blog were some of them. They even created a step by step process documenting their method. Who knows, maybe you’ll have more success than I did.
Hand Cranked Commercial Laundry Options
Ok. So you’re not quite into the DIY methods, but you do still want to have the option to do some laundry without power by utilizing a commercial product. Lucky for us, there are a few commercially available laundry options that take no power at all.
While they all do a decent job of washing clothes, they are no match to an electric washing machine. If you don’t have that option, these hand-cranked commercial options are a good plan B. I’d still choose a bucket and plunger as my go-to non-electric option though.
Below are a few commercial hand-cranked laundry machines that I’ve used in the past.
If you are looking for a neat little washer that acts as a manual front loading washing machine this is your guy. The sleek design is compact and is a great conversation piece when you have guests over. It does a pretty good job washing clothes, but there is still work involved.
The trick is to crank it over slowly so that the laundry has a chance to slosh from one end to the other as it turns, similar to how a front loading washing machine works. It can be a little difficult rinsing the clothes in the Wonder Wash. I do an initial rinse in the Wonder Wash and then transfer the clothes to a wash basin where I can rinse them more thoroughly.
It does not have a spin cycle so you must still wring the clothes by hand or have a wringer setup to remove excess water from the laundry.
I found the Wonder Wash to work as well if not better than the previous methods above. It does have a smaller capacity though and has trouble with hot water. I tried hot water in a load once and it seemed as if the seals began to fail and it started to leak all over the place. Other than that, it’s a great option.
You can easily pick up a Wonder Wash on Amazon at a fair price.
This non electric hand cranked washing machine is similar to the Wonder Wash, except a little better in my opinion. It operated in the same fashion as the Wonder Wash, working similar to a front loading washing machine.
This washer can handle up to 5lbs of clothes at a time and take as little as 2 minutes to get the job done. It is so easy to crank that a toddler can do it.
The difference between the Avalon Bay Eco Wash and the Wonder Wash is that it handled hot water with no problems. In fact, I haven’t heard anyone have much of a problem with these washers.
You really can’t go wrong with either washer, but if i were to choose, I would choose the Avalon Bay Eco Wash as my first choice.
You can find out the current price of the Avalon Bay Eco Wash on Amazon.
Standard Electric Washing Machines for Off-Grid Homesteads
I remember the day well. One year of hand washing cloth diapers almost everyday and we finally upgraded our solar system to be able to power an electric washing machine. It was a glorious day.
As luck would have it, my daughter was potty trained a week later!!
No matter, it still was nice not having to do laundry by hand anymore. To top it off, it wasn’t that difficult to find a washing machine that would work with my meager solar system. Turns out, I was able to find one at Home Depot.
These days, most washing machines are made to be super energy efficient. That’s great news to those of us on solar. Now there’s no need to have to purchase a specialty washer designed to be used off grid. Now we can save thousands and have the process be way more convenient.
I asked my friend Doug, who runs Solarman Hawaii what kind of washer I should be on the lookout for and he instructed me to find one that had as few electronics as possible.
You don’t want your washing machine to have digital displays and fancy electric dials. The more analog the better. Once I was able to narrow the ones down that fit that criteria I was left with 3 models to choose from.
To further widdle down my choices, I checked out their energy star ratings and checked with one was the most efficient. Ignore the dollar amount spent per year on the energy star label, what you want is the total Kw hours used.
I ended up getting a very basic GE Top Loading Washing Machine that was rated at 182kWh per year. As long as I use it on sunny days during peak sun exposure time, I can run this washing machine without the need for a backup generator.
Be sure to check that your solar power can handle the load before using this option.
As long as you have a decent enough solar system and ample water, an electric washing machine is a must have for any homestead. I went from spending an hour and half on laundry a couple days a week to having that time freed up to do more important things around the homestead.
Drying Your Clothes Off Grid
Now when it comes to drying your clothes, things can be a little trickier. Most options mentioned above do not have a spin cycle. When you are done rinsing your clothes, they are soaking wet.
You can wring out your clothes by hand, but your wrists are going to be killing you after a few minutes. I set myself up with a clothes wringer, similar to what homesteaders of old would use.
I got one similar to this one on Amazon.
At first it was a little tricky feeding the clothes through the wringer, but once I figured out the proper tension, it was a breeze. It didn’t get the clothes as dry as they get when they come out of an electric washing machine, but it was a lot easier than twisting each item of clothing dry by hand.
Once you are able to wring out the excess moisture, then you can hang it up to dry in the sun. I like to use a simple clothesline, but if you don’t have the space I really like these. You’ll see these types of driers all over New Zealand.
An electric dryer just isn’t an option for most off grid homesteads. I say most because my mom has one, but her solar system is extensive. For the rest of us, the sun is our only play.
When hang drying, I like to hang my clothes inside out so they do not fade in the sun. It’s also important to try and wait for a sunny day to dry your clothes, but in some areas that’s just not possible.
In East Hawai’i, it can rain for weeks at a time. It’s almost impossible to dry clothes when we’re in a wet pattern like that. When it gets really bad, we’ll just head down to the laundromat and dry our clothes there.
The rest of the time, we have a clothesline set up under a roof in our carport that has clear roofing panels in it. This allows the clothes to stay dry, but also lets in a little solar light to enhance dry times in the wet weather. This is where I do most of my clothes drying, you never know when it’s going to rain next around here.
Best Detergents To Use That Are Greywater Safe
As off grid Homesteaders, it is important to manage our wastes responsibly. I believe in utilizing greywater on my homestead. It is a great way to reuse water on the homestead and found to be more ecologically beneficial than sending that water into a septic.
To do this you need to choose laundry soap that is greywater safe. You can write off all powder based detergents right now. They all contain harmful salts and chemicals that would not be good for the landscape.
The brands that you will want to look for are Ecos, BioPac or Oasis. Ecos can be found in many retailers including Walmart and Target, or at least they used to carry them. My favorite is Oasis. The Oasis brand of laundry soap actually breaks down into fertilizer for you plants, something no other laundry soap can do.
Be on the lookout for the Seventh Generation brand. They claim to be greywater safe, but contain boron and salts that can be harmful to your plants.
If you are looking to setup a Laundry to Landscape Greywater System, you can check out this article as I dive into how to install one of your own.
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