Laundry list: handwashing from start to finish

Run four loads of laundry through a washing machine and that’s about two or three weeks’ worth of water, for all our needs, for the two of us. 

We do not have running water. Being off-grid is not a choice at this point in time; the water line has not yet reached our property. When it does, trust me, I’ll be the first to break the ground for that trench. We currently have a 500-liter water tank, which is roughly 130 gallons. When it runs low, we have a guy bring more water for us, which costs 12,000 shillings – about $6. That’s 5 cents per gallon if you price it out.

Today, as I was procrastinating actually doing laundry, I looked up how much water a typical clothes-washing machine uses per load. A relatively efficient washer uses 30 gallons per load. My mind, which now thinks in increments of buckets, reeled: that’s six five-gallon buckets! For one load!

Since we have neither electricity nor running water, all our laundry is handwashed (as is probably 99% of all clothing in Tanzania). For about ten largish clothing items (pants, dresses, shirts, etc.), I use a total of less than five gallons. Maybe even three. Again, this is out of necessity, but in any case, at least now I know how to clean clothes with no electricity and minimal water. I think it’s a valuable skill.

All you need is a wash basin and a rinse bucket. Pour about a gallon, maybe two, of water in each. I typically use just bar laundry soap (an American brand would be Fels-Naptha), but if clothes are exceptionally dirty, I use detergent powder as well. The powder is harder on your hands, though. If using powder, put about a quarter cup in the basin and agitate the water so the suds appear. You’ll scrub clothes in this water, using the bar soap for stains and dirty sections.

The rinse bucket can be either plain water or water with a cup or so of white vinegar. Using vinegar makes your rinse water go much further, as the vinegar removes all the soap, keeping the rinse water from getting sudsy and slick and having to be dumped and replaced. It’s also great for removing sweat stains and deodorant residue from shirts.

After destroying my hands a couple times from washing jeans, I added a scrub brush to the operation. It comes in handy for heavy fabrics like denim and twill, which can hurt your skin when you’re washing them with your bare hands.

For each article of clothing, turn it inside out and put it in the wash basin. Scrub it against itself in your hands (or use the brush if it’s a sturdy fabric). Use the bar soap for especially dirty areas. Wring out, then rinse in the rinse bucket and wring again. Hang up on your laundry line (clothing still inside out to prevent fading from the sun) and move on to the next one.

Bleach I find is typically unnecessary if I’m line-drying clothing outside; the sun bleaches white fabrics naturally.

Take care with fabrics that may bleed color or shrink, and also with sweaters or other clothing that may get stretched or warped by wringing and line drying. 

So there you go. You might have to develop some handwashing muscles, but once you get the hang of it, it’s not such a bad chore for a beautiful sunny afternoon. And now you know you can keep your clothes clean – off the grid as well as on.