Off Grid Washing Machine

What do you get when you combine a 5 gallon bucket and a toilet plunger? An off grid washing machine. Well, maybe not a machine in the traditional sense, unless you consider my hands the motor. This is something I have been wanting to make for quite some time now. The other day while I was in town, I saw a toilet plunger on the shelf and put it in my cart. I also picked up 3 bottles of Mrs Stewart’s bluing, I’ll explain more about that in a bit.

Plunger with holes

This primitive prototype washing machine started out as a 5 gallon bucket and the plunger. I handed the plunger to PB and asked him to cut some holes in the plunger, that makes it easier to plunge the clothes without making tons of bubbles and a big mess. I left it up to PB to decide how to cut the holes and in what shape. He took it downstairs for a few minutes, then brought it back to me, he handed me the plunger with 3, perfectly round, quarter sized holes. he handed me the rubber plugs that came from those centers.

Off Grid Washing Machine

I had a few socks and a couple of thermal shirts, all white, that needed to be washed. I put them in the bucket, filled it with enough water to cover the clothes by a few inches, added some homemade laundry soap (recipe to follow) and began to plunge. It worked like a charm. But of course, PB is never happy with prototypes, he wants to improve things, so he decided that a lid was in order, the lid would keep the water from splashing about as I plunged the clothes. We didn’t have a lid for the bucket, at least not one we wanted to cut a hole in. PB found another 5 gallon bucket, it had a bad place in the bottom, but it had a screw on lid. PB cut the bottom off that bucket and slid it into the first bucket, it fit like a charm.

Lid with hole
Lid with hole

Next, PB cut a hole in the screw on lid, he created a gasket using a prescription pill bottle, that keeps the plunger handle straight and keeps any water from splashing out of the hole in the top. Since the bucket is several inches taller now, the handle for the plunger wasn’t long enough, so PB removed the original handle and replaced it with a longer handle. Now I can put the whole thing on the floor and plunge from a standing position, I get more power to my stroke now. It works great!

Off Grid Washing Machine

I washed the clothes, I removed the clothes, wringing each one by hand, then I dumped out the water. I added fresh water, a bit of baking soda, that helps freshen and helps soften the clothes too. I added some bluing, put the top back on the primitive washing machine and began the rinse cycle. I plunged for several minutes, until I felt like everything was rinsed well. I removed each piece of clothing, wringing each one, then I hung them on the clothes line to dry.

The next thing I want to get is a mop bucket with a roller wringer, that’s the cheapest way I can go if I purchase one, perhaps PB will make a roller wringer for me in the mean time, I wouldn’t be surprised. I can use the roller wringer for my clothes, the water would drain into the bucket, it would take less time to dry on the line, and the clothes would not have to be hand wrung, that makes more wrinkles. Using a roller wringer, it would smooth out wrinkles instead of causing them, dual benefit.

Now to my homemade laundry soap, this is something I have been using for years, long before I moved off grid. it is so much cheaper to make and use, I have control over what is going in. My clothes come out clean, clean smelling, not smelling of perfumes and chemicals. My clothes are also softer.

The recipe is so simple, it’s 3 ingredients. Bar soap, borax and washing soda (not baking soda). I prefer using a castile soap, you can use Dr Bronner’s, or my personal favorite right now, Kirk’s Castile Soap, of course you can use a bath soap like Ivory, just don’t use anything that has moisturizers or major additives, they may work for your skin, but they will not work well to clean clothes. You take the bar soap, grate it in a food processor, or you can do it by hand, you want to get it grated as fine as possible, I like to run the blade attachment on the soap after I grate it, just to make it finer, it dissolves better that way. Once you have the bar soap in powder form, measure it, you can just eyeball it if you want, it doesn’t have to be exact. Add an equal amount of borax and the same amount of washing soda. Measure by volume, not by weight. So, it’s one part powdered bar soap, one part borax and one part washing soda. Put everything in a container with a lid and mix it well, you might have to break up any lumps in the borax and washing soda.

I know a lot of people who use homemade laundry soap like to take it to the next step and make it into a liquid, some people just like using liquids better, they say the powder doesn’t dissolve well, I have not had that problem, I think it’s because I grate the bar soap so fine, that’s the part that will give you trouble dissolving, especially in cold water if you don’t get it fine enough. Since I go ahead and take the extra time to use the blade attachment of my food processor, the bar soap is pretty fine and it dissolves just fine for me. If you want to make this into a liquid, just do a search for homemade laundry soap, you’ll find lots of recipes that take the next step of making it into a liquid, I just prefer not to do it myself, it takes up much less space this way too.

You use 1-3 tablespoons of the mixture per wash load, no more, it will not seem like enough, especially if you are used to using commercial laundry detergent by the cup full, I like to use a coffee scoop, it is just right. This will not suds up in the water, if you feel like it’s not enough, or you have an especially dirty load of wash, then run it through another wash cycle with another 1-2 tablespoons of powder, adding more to the initial wash will not get things any cleaner, in fact, it will defeat the purpose as it may not rinse out well if you add too much. Have you ever looked at your rinse water in the laundry? Notice how dirty and sudsy it looks? That’s because your clothes are not getting rinsed out very well. Your clothes will be cleaner, fresher and will rinse cleaner using this homemade laundry soap. Give it a try.

Some of you might say that you remember line dried clothes feeling rough, scratchy, not soft at all. One major reason that happens is because not all of the commercial laundry detergent is being rinsed out of your laundry. Take a peek at the rinse cycle about halfway through, you will probably be shocked and disgusted at how dirty and sudsy the water looks, this is being dried into your laundry, chances are you will probably want to do a second rinse cycle after that. It’s amazing at how much dirt and detergent is left behind on your laundry, this is the main reason why if you line dried this laundry, it would come out stiff as cardboard and scratchy as well. I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how much cleaner your clothes will be, smell and feel, no matter how you dry them.

Now to the Mrs Stewart’s bluing. One thing that commercial laundry detergents have are optical brighteners, this makes your colors look brighter and your whites look whiter. I say they do it to combat the dulling residue that is left behind from the detergent itself. Since the homemade laundry soap does not have these optical brighteners, eventually you will notice your colors and whites are not as bright as they used to be, so if you go back to what your grandmother used, Mrs Stewart’s bluing, you will not have that problem. You use this in the rinse cycle. Be sure not to get any undiluted bluing on anything, it will stain.

Off Grid Washing Machine

Today, I used my improvised laundry washing “machine”, I used the bluing in the rinse, the only problem I have now is I am going to have to use this on the rest of my socks for sure, half of them are going to look whiter and cleaner than the other half.

It’s a funny thing, when I explain to my friends out here about my improvised washing machine, they each tell me that I am more than welcome to come over to their house to do laundry using their washing machine and dryer. In a way, it is not a surprising reaction, they think I’m doing everything the hard way, who in their right mind would want to do laundry by hand when there are perfectly functioning, modern washing machines and dryers available? Well, perhaps I am a bit nutty, living off grid, heating with wood, hauling my own water, generating my own electricity… it seems natural to me to want to wash my clothes by hand and dry the clothes using a solar dryer, a clothesline.

Off Grid Washing Machine

Of course I can use a washing machine and dryer, any time I want, but knowing that I CAN do it without electricity or machines, unless you count muscle power. I am now one step closer to being more independent. There is also a small laziness factor in there too. How can doing laundry by hand be lazy? Well, it’s easy, to do laundry with a washing machine and dryer means I have to gather all the laundry, sort it and carry it down the hill to my neighbor’s house, it’s a big hill. I am tied to his house for as long as I am doing laundry, then I have to lug those clothes back up the hill, did I mention it’s a big hill? Then put them away. If I am doing laundry at the skycastle, then I can do them as I please, without having to lug anything up or down the hill, I can do the laundry as I go, I don’t feel like I have to have a full load, I can do smaller loads with no guilt.

Would I recommend this to everyone? Probably not, most of the people I know wouldn’t be interested. But for those who are interested, this is one way to do it. Even if you don’t use the primitive method of washing, you can still use the homemade laundry soap, it will save you money, it will get your clothes cleaner (IMHO), and you will feel better about the whole thing. I know there will be someone out there with a dozen kids, several toddlers and at least one in diapers who will say they aren’t interested in all the extra work, and to them I say, my heart goes out to you, and more power to you, thank God for modern conveniences like washing machines and dryers. You can still try the homemade laundry soap, it doesn’t take that long to make and you will save money using it, plus the extra cleanliness factor of using the homemade stuff verses the commercial stuff. You also might want to put aside a bucket or two, and a clean (unused) toilet plunger, just in case, you just never know when it may come in handy.

One cautionary note, if you use a gray water system and your gray water pours out on plants you want to keep alive, do not use the borax, it will kill plants. Just omit the borax in this case and don’t worry about it, your clothes will still come out clean.

I am now wearing one of the thermal shirts as a sleep shirt, it is soft as can be, it smells clean, not of perfume, but clean. Did I mention it’s soft? I love the feel of the material against my skin, knowing there is nothing that is going to irritate my skin, not that I am particularly sensitive to things like that, it’s nice to know that I don’t have be concerned about it. It is possible to develop sensitivities by being exposed to chemicals over a period of time. And yes, I know that everything I listed above is a chemical, the difference is I know what these chemicals are, I can pronounce the names, they have been in use for generations. Yes, I feel better about using these.

Do you use homemade laundry soap? Do you make your own bar soap? Do you use a primitive method of doing laundry? Let me know about it, leave a comment, especially if you try any part of this, let me know what you think. :)

UPDATE:
Click here to go to the update on the laundry soap I use now and more about doing laundry
http://www.www.off-grid.net/2011/07/15/solar-powered-clothes-dryer/




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139 Responses to “DIY washing machine and homemade laundry soap”

  1. Scruffy

    Oh, how I wish I’d found this about a month ago when our washer broke down. Coulda saved me a lot of trouble! Still, something about this looks super fun. I have several pails I normally use for fermenting grains but this would be a great way to use them in the meantime and save a couple of dollars. Thanks for posting this!

    Reply
  2. Dina

    This is an interesting homemade machine that can save your hands from washing and ringing clothes, the original off the grid. Makes life easier for people who want to save money or electricity. If you want really off the grid and all natural try the techniques for making black soap. Lye is made from roasting or cooking banana peels.

    Reply
  3. George

    Hello Wretha,
    First, thank you for your inspiration.
    I have made some small steps to become more energy conscience.
    I like your idea of the manual washer.
    I have a 60 litre water proof barrel, I’m going to make it into a washer. It will be a dual purpose item I can put my clothes and stuff in it when I am working away from home, and can keep my clothes clean.
    You were saying that you had a hard time to dissolve your bar soap. What if you used one of those solar shower bags to heat water for your washer. Or paint your bucket black.
    I hope this might give you some ideas.
    Best regards
    George

    Reply
    • WrethaOffGrid

      Thanks George, I appreciate your interest and advice, I don’t have a problem getting hot water, I do however want to eventually have a solar powered water heater, it’s not hard though, just a black coil of hose/pipe with water in it, sitting outside will get up to boiling/scalding hot in pretty short order. :)

      Wretha

      Reply
  4. campfirepoetry

    There is just something calming about washing clothes off grid. I’ve used an old wringer plugged into generator, then plugged into the solar, also used a portable washer spin dryer combo, and also a Lehmans Mobile Breathing Washer. All work and depends on what you want to spend, and your climate and if you have a porch. If you want to see the Lehmans idea, you can watch it on our video, we have another one showing the wringer washer also. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gv2XEZbACqw

    Reply
  5. Old Dreamer

    Hi:
    I introduced this type of washing clothes in the mountains of Guatemala. I prefer to use a plunger with suction cup; it draws more water through the clothes.
    I must admit, I was not successful with my project; the laden in the mountains are too ingrained in their system of washing in a creek. And…how dare a male teach women about a women’s job!

    Reply
  6. gille liath

    It’s actually easy enough to wash clothes in the bath. The hard part, in the British climate, is drying them without a spin cycle.

    Reply
  7. Bekah

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I live in an apt complex, but I grow my own food and I am looking for more ways to reduce my carbon footprint. Thanks again!!!

    Reply
  8. anna

    My husband and I live off grid on a sailboat 6 months out of the year.. We are hoping to find a peice of land in the north east to build a 350 sq ft off grid “shack”… I love this wasing machine idea Thank you
    Anna

    Reply

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