Off-Grid Laundry

Probably one of the most challenging off-grid chores is laundry.  I thought I’d share how we do it.

The text for this lesson is Laundry Work For Use In Homes And Schools, a little 98 year old treasure I found on Google Books.

The first step in our laundry process is soaking.  I presoak everything from an hour to overnight in large totes with about 1/2 cup of ammonia added to the soaking water.  Warm water lessens the soaking time so if I need to save fuel I use cold water and soak overnight.  Give the clothes a good swish several times during the soak.  You’ll be amazed at how much dirt comes out.

Next I heat water.  I have two options for heating water – a propane camp stove or my cob (earth) stove.  The propane stove heats two large pots (about 7 gallons each) quickly but the cob stove allows me to use renewable resources from here on the homestead.  I will confess to usually using propane, but  one should always have alternatives and know how to use them.

At one time I used an old Maytag wringer washer powered by the generator, but I found myself anxious and with a headache from the noise at the end of each laundry session.  Now I use a washboard and am left with sore muscles and easy sleep at the end of laundry day.  I really don’t think the Maytag cleaned any better or faster than I am able to do with the washboard.  Basically (and I’m speaking as one part of a family of only two) if I have too much laundry to do by hand, I probably have too many clothes.

While the water heats I prepare my soap.  I like to use Fels Naphtha and have been fortunate to find it at the local WallyWorld for $.97/bar.  I buy 10 bars at a time and that prompts their Just In Time system to restock at least that much.  I grate 1/4 bar per load and soften it in about a pint of hot water. Surprisingly our spring water is quite hard so I also add about 1/4 to 1/2 cup borax or washing soda to the soap mixture.

Once the soap and water are ready it’s time to wash.  I fill the wash tub with 5 to 7 gallons of water depending on the size of the load hot enough that I can just stand to put my hands in it and add the soap mix.  I wring our the clothes from the pre-soak and work them through the soapy wash water then I start scrubbing.  In the movie Far And Away Tom Cruise shows Nicole Kidman how to “plunge and scrub.”  It was good advice.  The purpose of the washboard is to facilitate working the hot, soapy water through the clothes to loosen and suspend the dirt.  You can’t do either if you don’t keep the clothes soppy wet.  Plunge and scrub, plunge and scrub.  On persistent stains rub the bar of soap on the stain and do a little focused scrubbing.  Some stains just won’t come out.  Don’t ruin your clothes over a little stain.

After you’re satisfied with the cleanliness of each piece wring it well into a second tub of prepared rinse water.  Warm water is nice but in winter I don’t waste fuel on it.  The key to clean clothes is don’t skimp on the quantity of rinse water. You can skimp on wash water, but use plenty of rinse water.  Again, if you’re worried about using too much water (many off-grid folks work with a limited water supply) you have too many clothes.  Work the clothes well through the first rinse, wring again and repeat in a second rinse.  Some items like sweaters and blankets might even require a third rinse.  Washing loosens the dirt, rinsing flushes it away.  Also, leftover soap in the clothes serves to attract even more dirt for the next wash.  While wringing can be done by hand it’s much more effective if you use a wringer.  They’re a bit pricey but I would consider one essential to an off’-grid laundry set up.

Wring your nice clean clothes well after the last rinse and hang them, preferably in the sunshine, to dry.

Some tips and tricks:

  • Use ammonia, about a cup per load, to wash large bulky items that are hard to rinse like blankets.  Ammonia is amonium hydroxide, a cousin to the sodium or potassium hydroxide that make soap work.  If I didn’t have access to ammonia for the pre-soak, I would use lye water which is easily made from wood ashes.
  • Soak whites in a bleach water solution after scrubbing.
  • Sunshine whitens and the wind softens.
  • Save yourself work and fuss by building a wardrobe of darker colors and earth tones.
  • If the clothes are excesssively stiff after line drying you may be skimping on rinse water.
  • Reuse rinse water for pre-soaking another load or for wash water if it’s not really grungy.
  • Did I mention not to skimp on rinse water??
  • Use plenty of soap in the wash water.  The old texts refer to “strong hot suds” and a smaller amount of good, hot soapy water gives better results than a larger amount of lukewarm, sort-of-soapy water.
  • I lay jeans and work pants out on a table after presoaking and scrub them on both sides with a bar of soap and scrub brush before working them through good strong suds.  They’re a bit bulky to use on the washboard, even a large one and usually won’t go through my hand wringer.  My Grandma used the cellar door in place of a table..
  • Leave the clothes in the water until ready to wring and don’t start draining the water from the wash tub while the clothes are in it.  Either will deposit the dirt suspended in the water back in the clothes.

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2 thoughts on “Off-Grid Laundry

  1. Wow! This is a wonderful source of information! How often do you do all this? How much time does it take you to do 5 people’s clothes? Tell the truth, would a washer and dryer make you happy, even if you only used it once in a while and did this process most of the time?

  2. Jennifer, that you for your comment. I actually made it into a post of its own – Homestead Laundry Questions 3/28/13.

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