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Fair winds!

Dave and Anke
triloboats swirly gmail daughter com

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Way Off-Grid Laundry

 The rest of my clothes are still wet!

I believe you should live each day as if it is your last, which is why I don't have any clean laundry, because, come on, who wants to wash clothes on the last day of their life?
- Wisdom from the Web

Way Off-Grid Laundry

Doing laundry is a challenge for those of us living far from the Grid. 

For offshore sailors fresh water is precious, so efficiency is paramount. And getting it dry - is no small feat in the maritime reaches of a boreal rainforest!

For years, we've been picking away at the problem of laundry at large. Here's what we've found (or hope to find) for those times when the sink just isn't enough...


First we need a decent anchorage. 

Laundry can take a day or two, all told, so we need to be confident we won't get blown away in the night. We might have to wait in a good location for laundry weather, which could be anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.

Next, we need a freshwater non-salmon stream with good flow and accessible banks. Fortunately, these abound. If we happen to be near a sea-level hotspring, its run-off simplifies the whole operation.

An adjacent, south-facing beach for drying is a big plus. We'll likely heat water for washing, too, so need some drift- or standing deadwood close at hand.

A big, smooth rock or clean driftwood log is a plus for sorting and folding.


Most of our stuff is wool or synthetic, and colorfast. A few cottons take their chances. No whites (it's been said we favor "moth colors"!) or delicates. No sorting; everything gets thrown into one wash. Hot wash (mostly), cold rinse. Regular cycle (we do our worst, in other words).

Wool does shrink, a bit, and can be a little tight the first day worn. Most trousers end up 'let out' at the cuffs. After that, it seems to find its way back. If not (rare), it goes to rags.

We don't have anything that requires a special coating, or I should say, that coating doesn't last. Anything 'breathable' becomes an ordinary garment in fairly short order. And good riddance. Even new, they just tempt us into the rain where we get soaked.

A Cheap and Easy DIY Washing Machine. Spin Cycle Included!
From Tiny House Listings
YouTube location with several useful comments here
Synopsis follows post for the connectivilly challenged

Here is a variation with some useful additions to this system.


The video (above) presents a brilliant, DIY washing machine; inexpensive, compact, economical and... well... just freaking BRILLIANT! Just heard of it and can't wait to try it out!
It's made from two, stackable plastic buckets with plumber's helper agitator (one bucket, lid and agitator modified), rinse, press and spin cycles! Just add water, laundry and muscle.  If you can't load the vid, there's a verbal description following this post.

We're hoping that the the perforated bucket will streamline our present (one bucket) practice, and encourage the heavy agitation and  thorough rinsing that seem the key to clean loads. More efficiency here may further our quest to reduce or eliminate soap (see below).

Aside from their obvious advantages, both buckets can do double duty for other jobs around the boat. The perforated bucket can be a laundry hamper, colander, sieve, clam basket, line bucket, etc..

NOTE: The 'spin cycle' may not be a big improvement over mere gravity drip? But then, all it has to do is overcome surface tension (which holds water in a sponge in spite of gravity), and spinning may help transport what does drip. Either way, it's just too cool a step to skip!  8)

We currently use a Lehman's 'good' hand wringer  (their 'best' wringer is bigger, costlier and harder to clean.. didn't work any better that we could see). But it's amazing the amount of water clinging to fabric! We often have to send it through three to six times. Getting water out is one key to quick drying.

A Press/Spin Cycle prior to wringing may get it down to a single pass. Or none!

Cleaning Agents

Laundry produces a lot of grey water (used, often soapy water), which is difficult to dispose of in a conscientious manner, in town or out. In wilderness settings, its impact can be acute.

We aim to use soaps sparingly or not at all, and to follow (ever evolving) guidelines for disposal.

When in a situation where limited soap seems tolerable, Doc Bronner's is our one-soap-fits-all choice.

First off, the label is a hoot! It's biodegradable, pure castille soap (no animal fats) in concentrated liquid form (Dilute! Dilute! Dilute!) with a range of pleasant scents and righteous credentials. It doesn't foam up, much, which I read as an environmentally good sign, yet cleans well.

Castille soaps can be combined with baking soda and/or vinegar to handle just about any freehold cleaning job. The label even has directions to use it as toothpaste and contraceptive!

If we can get our hands on it, a bar of bile aka gall soap, or, alternatively, naptha soap, can be used topically for oil or grease stains. Both cut right through, and, at least on an engine free sailboat, last a long time.

On the counter-soap side, we've had good luck with some re-usable 'laundry balls' that came our way, for everyday laundry.

These are a collection of ju-ju rich, ceramic pellets in a water permeable container. They claim they reduce or eliminate the need for laundry soap. The science behind them is... ah... dubious. But there's plenty of anecdotal satisfaction (including our own), especially regarding odor neutralization.

Many types are available, and apparently not all created equal. Also, different users get different results, even within the same brand. Caveat emptor!

A similar, and maybe less controversial (?) possibility is stainless steel bars of 'soap', which purport to remove odors. Again, lots of anecdotal success (from professional chefs, among others), and the science is more credible. They're spendy, but generally well made and last forever. They're marketed for hand-washing, not laundry, but what the hey? Eventually, we'll try one and get back to you. Same cautions.

Drying Laundry

Drying is most places a simple matter of line drying. Not so simple in our rainy climate.

We look for a sunny day (ha!) and a breezy spot. As with firewood gathering, we scope the undergrowth for relatively dry, open woods. If it looks like the Black Lagoon, it probably is... even in dry weather, humidity stays high in such spots. And, of course, it has to be close to a freshwater stream.

Direct sun is a big plus, as UV rays help reduce any remaining biologics (cooties) in the laundry, and radiant heat helps dry the clothes. If we ever get it together, I've been thinking of a low level, solar concentrator, cobbled up from reflective space blankets.

Might exceed our productivity threshold, though. Mere laundry is daunting enough!

Summary of Methods

These approaches, in this order (descending) strike me as most effective:
  • Dirt is removed by mechanical agitation in hot water.
  • Grease/oil is removed by solvents (i.e., soap).
  • Odors are neutralized by ionic (?), UV and/or chemical action (e.g., baking soda).
All of the above are aided and abetted by:
  • Multiple rinses (especially with hot water) remove or dilute all of the above.
  • Mechanical extraction of water between rinses multiplies benefits.

None of this is exactly news. It does remind us to lean on the agitator and go light on the soap. Odors tend to evaporate with their medium (grease and dirt), but it never hurts to hedge our bets.

So... whoops... gotta go!

Laundry, again.


SYNOPSIS of DIY Washing Machine: 

Build: Two equal sized, plastic buckets, stackable. Inner bucket and plumber's helper perforated with small holes (not so many as to weaken). Smooth inner hole edges. Hole lid at center to accept helper handle. 

Wash Cycle: Load laundry + water + cleaning agents into inner bucket (stacked in outer). Attach lid over helper and plunge (~5 to 10 minutes). 

Rinse Cycle: Empty liquids and repeat as necessary, minus cleaning agents. 

Press Cycle: Insert intact bucket into perforated one (may raise on two sticks) and sit on it.

Spin Cycle: Hang inner bucket from line. Twist by manually spinning, then stand back and let gravity do the work. Repeat as necessary.


  1. Hi Dave,

    What a great invention, that bucket washing machine! The spinning part looks enormously entertaining – but the really revolutionary concept, to me, is the pressing the water out of the clothes by putting the solid bucket on top of the clothes and then sitting on it. Absolutely brilliant.

    You know, baking soda all by itself does quite well for washing clothes, so long as the wash water is warm or hot. It wouldn't be great to dump on fragile soil, but I don't generally worry about it going into water. I've been using baking soda, and no soap, for years, for all my clothes. We did use those gizmos with the ceramic beads for a number of years also, in combination with the baking soda. But I haven't really missed them since we stopped.

    The only other thing we've been doing is laundry enzymes for polyester undershirts, which in my boat time can get seriously smelly. For that we've been using one or another variety of health food store style laundry enzymes, which works really, really well as a presoak. Seems like those would not be so harsh on the environment either – no "soap" for one thing. Baking soda does alright on its own, even for those shirts, but together with the enzymes it's stellar.

    Thanks so much for writing this up – it's incredibly useful!


  2. Hi Shemaya,

    I've heard bits and pieces about enzyme action. The laundry balls we used recommended a few, supplementary drops of grapefruit seed extract. But we've never tried it. Glad to hear it works!

    Baking soda, too, which is much easier to come by. Sounds pretty benign, environmentally, too, though I think you're right that it's best not dumped directly into water systems.

    Baking soda and vinegar are often traveling companions and is another on-board staple... searching 'vinegar laundry' returns a lot of interesting possibilities.

    So much to learn! 8)

    Dave Z