One of the many skills that will be necessary during a prolonged grid down situation will be keeping your clothes clean.
Even if you have a solar power system or generators, you will not want to waste your limited fuel and resources running that energy sucking motor and pump in your washer.
Doing laundry is one of those skills that often gets taken for granted in our modern world. We simply toss our dirty clothes into the washing machine, add some detergent, and let it do its thing.
However, if the power were to go out and stay out for an extended period of time, we would quickly realize just how much we rely on electricity to keep our clothes clean.
To help offset this domestic vulnerability we are bringing you a whole article on grid-down laundry day!
The Consequences of Dirty Clothes
You might think you have bigger fish to fry in a long term survival scenario than doing laundry, but think again! Dirty clothes can lead to all sorts of problems, including:
- Skin infections: Rashes, pimples, ulcers, etc. will cause pain and discomfort, and also pave the way for serious injuries.
- Illness from bacteria and viruses: Germs can readily live and multiply among the biomatter present in dirty clothing. One cut or scratch is all it will take to infect you, and you’ll be leaving a trail of germs over everything you come into contact with.
- Poor morale: When you stink and feel dirty, it affects your attitude and the attitude of those around you. It is the little things that matter sometimes!
- Poor performance: Dirty clothes don’t work as well! They won’t keep you as warm in cold environments, won’t breathe as well in hot environments and take longer to dry out.
Putting off this necessary chore is only going to make things worse. So, what are your options for doing laundry without any electricity or a modern washing machine?
So what are your options for doing laundry without any electricity or a modern washing machine? Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Washing Your Clothing
- Rinse clothes with sprayer or separately.
- Fill container with clean water.
- Add soap/detergent.
- Agitate by hand, scrub clothing together with fingers to loosen soils and stains.
- Rinse with clean water.
- Wring out, move to drying.
The most primitive way to wash your clothes is by using good old fashioned elbow grease. This method involves filling a tub or basin with water and soap, and then scrubbing your clothes by hand.
Agitate the clothes, swirl them around and generally treat them like they are in a bubble bath. While this method is very effective, it is also extremely labor intensive and slow. Also, it is not terribly effective.
There is only so much deep cleaning you will be able to do by hand! Nonetheless, a clean container, a little water and soap, and some sweat-equity and you’ll have cleaner clothes in just a bit.
This is a default method for cleaning your clothes in civilization where you have running water and a tub or sink, but no electricity or other washing machines.
Another nice perk is that pure handwashing is quite gentle on clothes, meaning they will last longer!
If you are in the wilderness or on the fringes of civilization and don’t have access to any modern tools for washing your clothes, you can use this method with any body of water. A pond, lake, stream or river might be the only water you have access to!
Simply draw a little bit of water if you need to add soap or detergent and do the best you can. Most natural bodies of water will still help your clothing get cleaner if they are badly soiled!
Using a Washboard
- Rinse clothes with sprayer or separately.
- Fill container with soap/detergent or lightly glaze clothes with it.
- Scrub clothing up and down along washboard to loosen soils and stains, focus on trouble spots.
- Rinse and repeat Steps 2-3 if necessary.
- Wring out and move to drying.
A big upgrade over the previous method is to use a tool that your grandparents and great grandparents were plenty familiar with: a washboard!
A washboard is simply a corrugated surface, usually corrosion resistant metal, that you can rub your clothes against to clean them.
This method is much more effective than scrubbing by hand, and requires less time and effort overall.
All you need is a washboard, some soap, and a tub or basin of water and you’re good to go. This is also an ideal method for use near a running body of water like a river or stream when in the wilderness.
The washboard can really make a difference when the water you are using in the first place is not super clean!
The great thing about a washboard is how portable it is.
You can carry a washboard around the homestead and use it wherever it is convenient, use it in your bathtub, or carry it down to the creek in a pinch and wash your clothes there.
These are definitely a low-tech option, even quaint by our standards, but they do work. It should be noted that using a washboard is somewhat harder on your clothing than washing it strictly by hand.
- Fill wash pot with hot water. Leave plenty of room for displacement so you don’t overflow!
- Add soap. Agitate to create suds.
- Lower the container holding your clothes into washpot. Raise and lower quickly to agitate.
- Lower clothing container into pot of cold water to quench and rinse.
- Wring out and move to drying.
If you want to get really fancy, you can build yourself a “washpot” setup. This involves suspending a pot of boiling water above your washing area, with a pulley system or some other way to lower and raise the pot as needed.
Then, you simply fill the basin or tub with cold water, add your clothes and soap, and lower the pot of boiling water into the mix.
The hot water will help to loosen and remove dirt and grime from your clothes, and make the washing process much more effective.
This method is a bit more involved than the others, but it is also significantly more effective, particularly when clothes are badly soiled with nasty and potentially biohazardous stuff. If you have the time and resources to put together a washpot system, it is definitely worth the effort.
Using a Manual Washing Machine
- Add water, soap/detergent and clothing according to manufacturer’s instructions.
- Crank or pedal machine to agitate and wash.
- Drain water and add fresh, clean water for rinse cycle according to manufacturer’s instructions.
- Crank or pedal to rinse.
- Drain water and re-cycle to wring or remove and dry.
Another option for washing your clothes without electricity is to use a manual washing machine. These machines are operated by hand or sometimes foot power, and do not require any electricity to run.
While they are not as effective as their electric counterparts and will only wash a small load of clothing, they can be surprisingly effective. Even better, they are easily used anywhere indoors and require only a little water.
They will get the job done in a hurry, and done well. Manual washing machines can be purchased online or at many big box stores in places where remote or rural living is common. They are often seen overseas, particularly in southern and southeast Asia.
- Beat or knock clothing to remove heavy soils, dust and dirt.
- Lay out flat on surface receiving full-value sun.
- Wait 6-12 hours, flip clothing.
- Repeat Step 3.
One interesting option for getting clothes cleaner in a grid-down situation is to use solar power.
While it does not require any electricity, it does require direct, copious and “high value” sunshine, and so may not be feasible in all locations or during all times of the year. The more UV the better!
This technique does not wash solids from your clothes so much as it nukes any nasty, smelly bacteria hiding in the fibers, making them smell and feel noticeably fresher and nicer! It sounds like mumbo-jumbo, but it is true.
All you need to do is lay your clothes out flat and perpendicular to the sun’s rays so they soak up as much as they can. If you have badly dirty or grubby clothing, gently flog them before hand.
After 6 to 12 hours, check your clothes: they should be noticeably cleaner in smell and texture. Obviously constant exposure to UV will begin to fade and slowly weaken most fibers, but this technique is still gentle compared to others on this list.
- Rinse clothing separately to remove heavy soils.
- Add soap/detergent if on hand.
- Beat clothing briskly against any suitable surface (see below).
- Wring out, move to drying.
Last but not least, there is always the option of flogging your clothes. This method sounds a bit crazy, and perhaps it is, but has been used by people living hard in austere environments for a long time.
This method involves beating your clothes against a hard surface to loosen and remove dirt and grime. While it is not as effective as other methods, it is very fast and does not strictly requires no water or soap.
It can be done with the clothes dry! Soap and water definitely help, though.
To perform this technique, simply find a broad and reasonably flat surface to beat your clothes against. A tree trunk, fence wide post, boulder or even the side of your house will work just fine.
Be sure to use something that won’t unduly damage your clothing, however: as you might has guessed it is very, very hard on clothes!
For this reason, flogging works best on tougher fabrics such as denim or canvas, but can be used on any type of fabric in a pinch.
These are some of the best options for washing your clothes, but what about drying them?
Drying Your Clothing
The easiest and most traditional way to dry your clothes is to line dry them. This can be done almost anywhere, as long as you have something to hang them from. Trees, fences, porch rails or even bushes will work in a pinch.
This method is simple, reliable and gentle on your clothing- perfect for those with less access to modern conveniences or who are just looking for an easy life.
Just make sure you choose a sunny spot with good airflow! Don’t forget your clothespins and keep one eye on the wind!
If you have access to a woodstove or fireplace, you can also build yourself an improvised dryer. To do this, you will need to rig up a pulley system that runs from your stove up to the ceiling.
Then, you will hang wet laundry on the line and allow it to dry by the heat of the fire. This method may take longer than using an electric dryer, but it will get the job done, even if your clothes come out smelling a bit toasty!
Also, and I hope you don’t need me to tell you this, you definitely must be careful that you don’t allow your clothing to come too close to the fire unless you want them singed or melted! This can be a significant accidental fire hazard!
One old fashioned option for drying clothes without electricity is to use a hand-cranked clothes wringer.
This device uses two metal rollers to squeeze the water out of your clothes, and does so much more effectively than simply hanging them up to dry.
A good quality wringer can be used to remove almost all the water from your clothing, meaning they will dry much faster.
While a wringer takes a little bit of effort to operate, it is well worth it if you need to get your clothes dried quickly. They do, however, subject your clothing to a bit of stress and they are notorious for popping off buttons and other delicate attachments. For speeding up other drying methods, especially when doing a massive load of laundry for a family, they are great!
Off-Grid Laundry Supplies
If you are going to be washing your clothes by hand, you will want to build up a stock of laundry soap ahead of time so that you do not run out during a grid down situation.
You can either purchase commercial laundry soap, or make your own from scratch using ingredients like baking soda, Borax, and Fels-Naptha soap.
Note that you truly don’t need fabric softeners; they are hard on your clothes and will leave behind an oily film on clothing that is not subjected to the forces of an electric washing machine.
Concerning water, you want to use the cleanest water you can, though that might not be readily available in an off-grid situation.
You can re-use gray water used for bathing bodies or gentle washing of other things, but you should scrupulously avoid using gray water contaminated with biomatter from food or any source of black water for obvious reasons!
My Off-Grid Laundry Experiment
On one of my many forays to Amazon looking for an old fashioned scrub board, which I bought along with a couple large plastic laundry buckets from ALDI, I came upon a rather unique device.
After reading the positive reviews. I bought two! By the way I also bought a scrub board and large galvanized scrub bucket from Tractor Supply. I did not test these as our elders were very successful with them for decades.
I did my manual laundry test in my bathtub to minimize any mess.
Filling a 6 gallon bucket half full of water and adding a measure of Oxi-clean, I placed some problem yellowed T-shirts in the bucket and then the washing plunger. It is a 8” diameter cone within a cone with a substantial 23” screw in wooden handle.
Per the instructions, I vigorously worked the handle up and down as you would a butter churn. The nature of the device creates a suction that pulls the soapy water through your clothes with out damaging them. You can easily feel the suction action at work.
A few minutes of this and I changed the dirty soapy water for clean to repeat the process to rinse. I rinsed twice.
This unit uses minimum water and smaller amount of soap than usual. It is very efficient, but don’t plan on doing a load size that you would put in your washer.
The threads in the cone would probably take a full sized pole (like those used for paint rollers) and allow you to stand or sit on a stool while plunging.
Upon hanging my shirts to dry, I found that the yellowing was gone. My conventional washer was unable to do this. The device proved more than adequate to launder a small batch of clothes.
I must say that this is work and would probably make a nice addition to your exercise schedule…but it does work well.
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2 thoughts on “6 Ways to do Laundry in Grid-Down Situations”
Washing well and a good roll of TP. Is life ever better? Lehman’s has a number of wash aids including the plunger. I found an old all wooden wash board in Mom’s attic. It was annotated, “Approved by the War Industries Board.” I guess the metal for the rough ridges went into a WWII man of war.
We should pay close attention to any good information regarding washing, be it of our bodies or clothes. Proper washing of the body improves hygiene and reduces disease while proper washing of clothing improves their wearable lifespan.
I would like to hear from anyone with experience of ‘how it was done’ before electricity. I know there are a few gasoline engine powered Speedqueens still running and would guess these are the sine que non gold standard. We all ought to have at least one high quality wringer for our wash buckets.
D, thanks so much for writing about this needful activity.
I have a galvanized plunger, this one seems to be a better set up being plastic and having threads where mine is a slip fit, good idea D.