Life in an off-grid cabin can be really peaceful and enjoyable. But not so much if getting your clothes clean becomes too much of a chore.
Getting clothes clean when you’re off the grid can be a lot of work. That said, being off-grid doesn’t mean not having access to electricity. If you can generate enough electricity from your solar system or generator to run a traditional washing machine and dryer, then you’re in good shape. But dryers in particular draw a lot of power, especially if they’re all electric. And washing machines use a lot of water. So if you’re short on either power or water, then you’ll need another solution.
This article will walk you through some great options for how to clean and dry your clothes without electricity while minimizing water usage. I’ve written it in a way that you can take and use the parts that apply to your situation. So if you have a washer but can’t run a dryer at your cabin, then skip down to the section on wringing and drying.
To get your laundry clean and dry you basically need 6 things. Let’s talk about each one and how to get them off-grid.
Of course, to wash your clothes you need water. I’ve written several articles about getting and storing water at your off-grid cabin site. The thing with clothes washing is that modern washing machines use a lot of water.
If you’re on a well and have a big septic tank, then maybe you don’t mind. The convenience of a modern electric washing is such that you’d rather just use the water. But if you’re bringing water with you to your off-grid cabin, or pumping it out of a stream, then you may want to conserve water a bit.
The methods for clothes washing that we’ll discuss here will allow you to do small loads and use only as much water as you have available. That said, some of the newer washing machines are capable of using water really efficiently and will do a great job of getting your clothes clean. But they do require electricity to run and depending on your electrical power situation, that may also be something you need to conserve.
Just like in any laundry situation, you need some kind of detergent to wash clothes. The soap bubbles and the water capture the dirt, grease, and other stuff from your dirty clothes, allowing it to be rinsed away.
The difference when you’re off grid is that it’s especially important that you use a detergent that will have minimal impact on the environment. If you are going to simply dump out your soapy water and rinse water, or even if it’s going into a septic tank, you’ll want to use a detergent that is biodegradable.
I recommend Tide PurClean which is available on Amazon. It’s actually a plant-based detergent that has minimal environmental impact all the way from production to disposal. I just like the idea of using something that’s bio-based if I’m going to be putting it back in the ground after I use it.
Any washing method you use is going to include agitating the water and the clothes.
Agitating the water causes bubbles to form. It’s the bubbles in the water that actually capture the dirt and grime and remove it from your clothes. As you agitate the water and clothes, the detergent and water are able to do their job.
But there are a lot of different ways to do the agitating. Here are a few good options for cleaning your clothes.
Water Basin and Washboard
This is how clothes were washed for centuries.
You get a wash basin and lay a washboard in it to run the clothes up and down. Fill the basin partially with water and add detergent. The washboard gives you something to scrub the clothes against.
You can actually buy washboards on Amazon.
This way to wash clothes works really well, but it takes a lot of work. There are some other options listed next that can save you a lot of effort.
Likely the least expensive way you can wash clothes (yes cheaper than a good wash basin and washboard) is the plunger method. You can use any bucket, even an inexpensive 5-gallon bucket from a home improvement store, and a basic toilet plunger.
One way to do it is just to use an open bucket or wash basin partially filled with water and detergent and just plunge your clothes with your plunger. The better method is to use a 5-gallon bucket with a lid. Cut a hole in the center of the lid that’s just big enough for the plunger handle to go through. Fill the bucket half to three quarters full of clothing, water, and detergent. Then, put the plunger handle through the hole in the bucket with the plunger on the inside part of the lid. Close the lid tightly on the bucket, and then plunge away.
This makes for a little washing machine that contains most or even all of the water without splashing all over.
If you want the best plunger for this particular use, there’s actually a plunger that’s designed for washing clothes. Check it out over on Amazon by clicking here.
Manually Powered Washing Machines
If you want something a little more sophisticated that will make better use of your efforts, there are some manual washing machine options. Each one is a little different. Most have a hand crank of some sort so you can spin your clothes with water and detergent inside. They basically work like a salad spinner. One really cool option that’s going to be a little pricier is the Drumi by Yirego. It uses a food pedal to do the spinning. It’s just that the Drumi is a new product and isn’t available for purchase quite yet. They’re expected to have it available by spring 2018.
Here are some of my favorite options for manual washing machines.
The Wonder Wash – Washes a 5-lb load in a few minutes. It has a hand crank on the side to spin your clothes clean. It also has a 3-year warranty so you can be confident that it’s not made super cheaply. You can see current pricing on this machine here.
The Laundry POD – This has a rotating handle on top and works just like a salad spinner. You can find it on Amazon by clicking here.
After you’ve washed your clothes, however you do it, you’ll need to rinse them.
Rinsing clothes is best done by following the same method you use to wash, just without the detergent.
If you use a water basin and washboard, then empty out the soapy water, fill the basin with water, and agitate the clothes again in the clean water. If you’re using a plunger either with a bucket or in an open basin, just empty out the soapy water, refill with clean water, and plunge away. Likewise, if you use one of those manual washing machines, empty it, refill with clean water, and run it for a few minutes.
When rinsing, it’s better to do two rinse cycles with less water than to do one rinse cycle with a lot of water. This is particularly applicable if you have a wash basin. Rather than filling it to the top with rinse water, fill it just high enough to cover the clothes. Agitate the clothes to get the soap out. Then, empty out the rinse water and rinse a second time. This is the best approach to getting the soap, dirt, grease, and grime to all rinse away.
This step is optional, but it will reduce drying time substantially.
Modern washing machines spin your clothes to get a lot of the water out. That way, when you put them in the dryer they’re already fairly dry. You don’t typically have water dripping from them as you move them over. They’re really just damp.
In this state it doesn’t take long to dry them out, even on a clothesline. But if your clothes are still sopping wet when you hang them up, it could take a full day to dry them. Maybe more if you live in a humid climate.
That’s why I recommend that you wring out your clothes really well before drying. You can manually wring them but that can be really tiresome. Plus twisting your clothes all up to wring them out can stretch them out. If you’re doing laundry by hand, then I suggest you get a wringer like people have been using for ages. Here’s a great one on Amazon that durable and does the job really well.
If you’re using one of the manual washing machines I listed above, you may be able to just remove the water and then spin your clothes in the washing machine without water inside. That alone may remove enough of the water that wringing can be bypassed.
Now that your clothes are wrung washed, rinsed, and wrung out, you’re ready to dry them.
The easiest way to dry out clothes is to hang them up.
Using a clothesline and clothespins will be most effective. At least when it’s warm outside. If it’s cold, even freezing, your clothes will actually still dry. It seems counterintuitive, but even if the water freezes, the water or ice will actually still evaporate. It just takes longer in the cold.
There are actually three things that impact the drying speed of your clothes. The temperature, the air movement, and the humidity. At higher temperatures, water evaporates more quickly. Likewise, at lower humidities water evaporates faster. And, if there’s some airflow then the drying time of your clothes will go way down.
For reasons of airflow, I prefer a clothesline to a drying rack. On a drying rack, you have lots of wet clothing right next to each other, so there will be less dry air flowing by each item of clothing than if they were strung out along a clothesline. However, if you need to conserve space then a drying rack is a great option.
It’s best not to overthink this. Just hang up your clothes, protect them from rain, and they will get dry. Speed up the drying by putting them where they’ll get good airflow. And if it’s really cold out, they will still dry, just more slowly.
If it’s cold out and you want to speed up drying, then get a drying rack like this one on Amazon and bring the clothes inside. Place them near a heat source like your wood burning stove or fireplace. Just be careful not to get them so close that they catch fire.
So you can see that you actually have a lot of good options for washing and drying your clothes off-grid. It just takes a bit more work and time than the modern washing machines and dryers. But it saves a lot of electricity and can even save water to use these methods. And those are often scarce resources in an off-grid situation.