How To Wash Laundry Post-Disaster

By Daniel Valles, 06/06/2013

 

After any disaster (tornado, earthquake, fire, etc.), or even in a missionary setting, the need for clean clothing is always present. This tutorial is designed to show you the concepts and thoughts to have in mind when washing laundry in a not-so-normal situation.

Some likely disaster or situation assumptions:

  • Electrical power is out or very unreliable for washing appliances.
  • Regular water supply might be compromised.
  • You are not at your house (displaced or evacuated) or able to access regular laundromat facilities.
  • Your clothing is soiled beyond what you would want to wash in your regular washing machine (greasy rags, wading in questionable or contaminated water, extra muddy, etc.)
 

The Basic Setup:

Components will vary depending on situation, but this helps you see the stages involved.
Left to right: Dirty clothes, Washing Bucket, Water Hose, Soap/Scrubber Station, Rinse Bucket, Wringer (without wheels), Ready-to-Dry Bucket.
   
I do not normally do my laundry like this everyday, only for items that are extra dirty e.g. workclothes from crawling in the red clay dirt under the house working on plumbing, or rags from the workshop.
   

Find your best working height.

Since you will be doing laundry more than you want, and with larger amounts that you would want, you don't want to be in a hunched or bent-over position.

Try putting your working bucket on buckets of different sizes, stacked cinder block, etc. to bring the work up to you, not the other way around. A taller person may find a 6-gallon bucket easier, while a teenager or child might find the 4-gallon bucket easier on them.

I made a work platform out of three deck boards and six cinder blocks. This brought everything to a comfortable height for me.

Vital Ingredients:

Clean Water
Note that it doesn't have to be drinking water quality, per se, as long as it is clean and clear. Lake, spring, snow, well, rain water, etc. is fine. Just make sure it is not stagnate water or has an odor.

I use water from my rainwater tank for this. Rain water is really good for washing clothes, since it is a soft water, and free of absorbed minerals. Rain water (with soap) is also better for getting grease and oils out of clothing.

Laundry Soap
I put liquid laundry detergent in this re-purposed dishwashing bottle. This makes it easier to grab and dispense the little amount of soap that is needed.

You can use normal liquid detergent, homemade detergent, laundry powder, or laundry bar soap such as Zote.

You may want to have a bar of Fels Naptha Bar Soap handy to pre-treat stains or for more stubborn stains.

Do not use much soap! Just enough to make the water soapy. Typically, for a half-full 5-gallon bucket of water, you will only need 1/2-1 teaspoon of soap, depending on how dirty of clothes you are washing. Normally 1/2 tsp.

Too much soap makes it harder on the rinsing, uses much more water (meaning you might have to haul more water), and the greatest danger is that not all of the soap will be rinsed out, and you might develop a rash from wearing clothes not fully rinsed, especially for those with sensitive skin or skin allergies.

Water Agitator
This is a commercially-made manual water agitator. It has special vents toward the top that redirect water jets downward as the plunger is pushed down through the water. Other vents and grills help further agitate and mix the water.

The idea is (like an electric washing machine) to agitate and shake the water and soap around and work it into the fibers.

A clean toilet plunger will work just as fine, especially if you drill a few holes near the top of the rubber dome, so water can squirt out and help mix up the water.

   
Step 1: Fill the Wash Bucket

Filling depends on the size of the laundry item. You want enough water to slosh around with the item so that it gets well ventilated with soapy water.

Use the plunger in small plunging motions. When you pull it up, you want to feel it 'pull' on the water by vacuum, and then work it back down, 'pushing' the soapy water through the item.

Do this several times.

Remember, in a disaster or austere environment, you might not have plenty of clean water. Wash as many clothes as possible in the clean water, starting with the cleanest clothes first, then working your way to the dirtier work clothes. Change wash water as needed. Keeping your buckets raised up on something makes it easier to dump the used water (mostly the rinsing water) into another bucket for other uses. Consider how you can get the most use out of your water supplies.
   

Scrubbing Stains

Some items, especially work clothes, will have mud, blood, or grass stains. These clothes would be easiest to clean if you first let them pre-soak for a while in water to loosen the stain. Adding some ammonia to the soak water will also help loosen up heavy soiling.

Place the clothing on a flat surface, and apply some soap or Fels Naptha to the stained area. Then, using a soft brush, scrub the area and work the soap into the fibers. A used toothbrush will work for smaller stains, especially on more delicate cloth.

You may want an additional table or workarea that is much higher so you don't have to bend over as much.

A traditional washboard would also work well for this type of stain-scrubbing application.

   
Use the wringer to wring as much soapy water out of the clothes before you put it in the rinse water. This way you can rinse more clothes before it gets sudsy without having to change the water as much, or worry about skin irritation from soap residue.

Step 2: Rinsing

Repeat the plunging process for rising. Work the water through the clothes to get the soap fully dislodged from the fibers.

You will be able to use this water for several items, until the water gets noticeably dirty and or starts getting sudsy.

Step 3: Wringing

While you can do this by hand, it will take a toll on your finger dexterity after a prolonged while. It is best to let mechanical means do the brunt of the work and take the brunt of the abuse.

Depending on how you prefer, you can set the wringer up to work by pulling on it, or by pushing on it.

I found that I prefer pushing on it, so I can put a little bit more of my overall weight into it. It is easier than pulling it. However, if I was doing a lot of laundry this way for a prolonged period of time, I would alternate methods and arms.

For large or thick items such as jeans, towels, etc. two people can hold either end and twist on it in opposite directions to wring additional water out.

   

Alternate Setup:

Have two rinse buckets - one to get the most of the soap out, and the second to further get out the remaining soap. This would be best for those with skin allergies from unrinsed soap residue. Notice that the wringer is between the two rinse buckets. Rinse well, wring out as much water (and minor soap residue) as possible, then rinse again in the cleaner water. Wring out again.
   

Washtubs & Larger Tubs

These larger blue tubs are also good for washing larger items such as sheets and blankets. The taller sides (than some galvanized tubs) give you more depth to agitate the cloth in the water.

An easy way to wash larger items, or to take a more relaxed approach to lightly-soiled-clothes laundry would be to have a platform 3 cinder blocks high next to the tub. Sit on the platform and dangle your feet in the tub, and use your feet to agitate and work the clothes. Allow your legs to do the work, versus your arms. During hot months, this will also be refreshing.

Hang on clothesline or drying rack

Note that your clothes will be wetter and heavier using this method versus spun-dry like in a washing machine. It will take longer for them to dry as well.

   
If you have just a few small items that need washing (pair of socks and/or underwear) then a large plastic (not glass) mayonaise or pickle jar makes the job easy. Place the items in the jar with a little soap (1/4 tsp or less), screw the lid on, and shake to agitate. Then wring out clothes, and place back in jar with clean water to rinse. Shake well to rinse, and then wring out. You might have to rinse twice to be sure all soap residue is out, especially for undergarments. If you have access to hot water, using it instead of cold water will slightly pressurize the plastic container, forcing the soapy water deeper into the fabric and cleaning it more deeply.
   

Additional Thoughts:

During any prolonged disaster or austere environment where regular clothes washing is not accessible, you can wear clothing several times to a degree. Here are some guidelines:

  • Clean, dry socks every day is an absolute must to prevent infection and damage to your feet.
  • Undergarments should be changed more regularly than outer garments such as pants or shirts.
  • Do not continue to re-wear clothes that are sweat soaked or stained, as these can harbor bacteria that can lead to skin infections, especially since wet clothing will tend to chafe the skin more so than normal.
  • During times of prolonged power-outage during warmer months, the bedding and pillowcases will need to be washed much more frequently.
  • Clean, dry clothes can be an incredible morale booster, especially in hard situations.
 
I know you are all chomping at the bit to try this yourself, but take a minute and give us some feedback on this tutorial! Thanks!

 

 

 

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