During stressful times, our immune systems are weakened, and any threat of illness or infection should be minimized. That said, good hygiene goes beyond brushing your teeth and washing your hands. Keeping your clothing clean is a must, even when your situation devolves into chaos.
These days, it’s easy to take technological innovations such as a laundry machine and dryer for granted. Until relatively recent times, the 1900s, people were washing and drying clothes without electricity. However, these electric-free methods shouldn’t be completely forgotten. They can still be applied today in plenty of emergency situations where the power has gone out and/or your water supply is running low. For example, when Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico or planned PG&E power outages in California left people without power for weeks, everyday civilians were forced to rely on alternatives.
As you’ll see below, I’m sharing various ways--from the conventional and unconventional--to do your laundry if you’ve lost power at home or are surviving in a rural area. As you read, think about which alternatives could be best applied to situations your area is at risk for, and stock up on the necessary supplies ahead of time.
But, first things first: there are some basic supplies you need to stock up on regardless of the exact method you use. Nothing fancy, just water and detergent.
Water: Regular electric washing machines require anywhere between 15 and 45 gallons of water for each load of washing. That’s a hefty amount, especially when supplies are limited. Therefore, even if you have working electricity, you may not have enough water to use your washer. Aside from having a healthy supply of clean drinking water on hand, you’ll want to stock up on an additional supply of water that can be used for washing as well. Do your best to conserve your supply, and don’t use more than you need each laundry cycle.
Detergent: There isn’t much of a point to washing your clothes if you don’t have the proper soap on hand to remove dirt, bacteria, grease, and more. Detergent’s chemical makeup differs from soap, and tends to be more “water loving.” As For the Love of Clean explains, “even when it’s holding onto hydrophobic soil through chemical interactions, the whole thing is generally water soluble and will rinse away cleanly. Detergents are also much less likely to interact with magnesium and calcium, making them more effective than soaps in hard water and also less likely to contribute to soap scum.” Detergent can either be synthetic or plant-based. When doing laundry off the grid and in nature, it’s best to select a biodegradable detergent so you minimize your impact on the surrounding environment.
The actual method you select to wash the clothes should be effective in agitation--the process of moving the water and clothing quickly enough to form bubbles. Sudsy bubbles are the key mechanism used to remove grime from dirty clothing, sheets, and more. Here are several ways to create agitation in your off-grid laundry process...
#1: Water basin and washboard
This is a very basic and traditional way of washing clothes, but requires more manual effort than the other options listed in this post. All you need is a large basin and a washboard, which you can buy at places like Home Depot or Walmart. Soak your clothes in the wash basin filled with water and detergent, and then run the clothing up and down the washboard above the basin, scrubbing to create agitation and bubbles. From there, rinse the detergent out with clean water.
#2: Bucket and toilet plunger
This method is best used for smaller loads, so if you have a large family it might not be the best option. However, for couples and single people, it’s inexpensive and easy! All you’ll need is an inexpensive plastic 5-gallon bucket (or an empty emergency food storage bucket) and a toilet plunger. Fill up the bucket with water, detergent, and your laundry, leaving about 1.5 inches at the top of the bucket, and plunge away. Do this vigorously for about ten minutes. Dump the soapy water, and refill the bucket and agitate as many times as needed to remove the detergent. Ideally, you should have a bucket with a lid and cut a hole for the plunger handle to fit through it. This way, you can plunge without spilling water out of the bucket, making a mess and losing your precious water supply.
#3: Wringer washer
Wringer washers were used in the past, and they’re making a comeback in off-grid communities. Though some older models can be hand-operated, many do require an alternative power source such as solar power, a backup generator, or running it off diesel. As The Spruce describes, wringer washers “have a tub with an agitator to move the suds through the laundry and dislodge dirt and grime, and then rinse it out. You feed the laundry through the wringer to squeeze out the water.” They may be a bit harder to find, but your best bet will be antique stores, Craigslist, eBay, estate sales, and auctions.
#4: Foot-powered washer
This is a terrific option if you have physical limitations with your upper body. Just as it sounds, these washers use the power of your feet, versus your hands, to work. Many look like mini garbage cans with a foot pedal attached. Load up the washer with water, detergent, and your laundry, then use the foot pedal to agitate the clothes.
Washing is only one part of the equation--drying is the second half. Electricity-based dryers actually use more energy than washing machines. Fortunately, you can easily rely on air drying your clothes the old-fashioned way, with a clothesline and clothespins. The more airflow the better, which is why a line is better than a clothing rack if you’re looking to minimize drying time. Additionally, make sure you don’t leave them out in humid or damp weather for too long or they will start to mildew.
Though there are plenty of other factors of survival that should be prioritized when preparing for the worst-case scenarios, it’s important to remember additional tasks we don’t want to have fall by the wayside. Prepare now for restricted access of your washing machine and dryer, and invest in one or more of the alternatives I’ve covered here today.
Preparedness Advisor, My Patriot Supply