The Clean, Green, DIY Washing Machine

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This article originally appeared in Hartford Advocate (August 2, 2012), a weekly print publication with articles, reviews, classifieds, personals and happenings in Hartford, Connecticut, and surrounding communities.

I don’t have a lot of money. It’s not uncommon to hear of educated folks in their late 20s and early 30s living paycheck to paycheck because their jobs don’t pay well and they have debts (the legal, credit-card and student-loan kind, not the knee-breaky, loan-sharky sort). We live in apartments with “character” in neighborhoods that would make our parents cringe if they had any clue. We eschew cable and the timely watching of our pop culture TV obsessions for Netflix and Hulu, and if we can swing it, we eat real food.

A Laundry Conundrum
Recently I was faced with a laundry conundrum after my roommate moved out and took his mini, apartment-sized washer and dryer with him. The apartment he and I moved into last year had no workable washer and dryer hookups in the basement, and after months of trudging to his mom’s house to hang out and do our laundry, he bought the little machines. Yes, laundromats are an option, but not one I’m comfortable with in my neighborhood. Call me entitled, but I believe the option to wash my underwear in the comfort of my own home is part of the American Dream. Plus people keep getting shot outside the laundromats by my house. So, no thanks. With laundromats out of the question and being unable to afford to replace those machines, my search for cheaper alternatives led me to the Mobile Washer, a DIY washing machine you can use in the comfort of your own home.

Having the machines in our kitchen was a super convenience. No lugging uncomfortably balanced collections of unmentionables and jeans carrying three weeks of life around on them down to the basement via narrow stairwells. In the words of Michael Cera’s character from Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, “I never wash my pants. I like to keep the night on them.” It’s gross, but whatever. No searching for quarters or waiting in line behind a houseful of people you’re slightly acquainted with. It was great.

The Quest for an Alternative

After realizing I was potentially laundry-less once again, my first move was to start visiting my parents more often. Trips home mean free laundry, even if it’s a 40-minute drive up to Old Lyme. Free laundry, free food, and quality time with our dogs, sisters to me, is not a bad tradeoff. But my car is quite old and my gas budget is small. Next I started browsing around the Internet for smaller, cheaper versions of the machines my old roommate had bought. Amazon has a handful of miniature, apartment-appropriate laundry options in addition to the tiny washer and dryer I was already familiar with. Unfortunately, most of it is priced out of my affordability range, or had bad reviews that made me nervous about making the investment: Everything from electric-powered washers and dryers to machines powered by good old elbow grease via a hand crank.

Then, lo and behold, I noticed the Breathing Mobile Washer. It looks like a toilet plunger. You use it in a sink, tub or bucket. It costs less than $30. I knew I’d found the one. I also bought a drying rack to use for the time being. I’m hoping to be able to afford an electric-powered centrifugal force dryer, like a salad spinner for clothes.

The Mobile Washer and drying rack arrived sooner than expected, erasing my fears of going a couple weeks without clean underwear. My initial concerns were that all of the glowing reviews were plants and I’d find the washer impossible to use as directed, and that my clothes would eventually dry to be stiff and crinkly because I didn’t have any liquid fabric softener at the time. I imagined my attempts to do anything unfamiliar on my own resembling some hellish episode of “I Love Lucy.” I braced myself for the possibility of destroying my bathroom and still having piles of dirty underwear.

Taking the Plunge
I purchased three of those orange, all-purpose five-gallon buckets from Home Depot and, after warning my new roommate that I would do all I could to avoid a disaster, I set up shop in my bathtub. I filled each bucket with about six inches of cold water and lined them up so that the one that should end up with the cleanest laundry and water was closest to the faucet. I threw three pairs of underwear and two tank tops into the first bucket, and added about two teaspoons of powder detergent.

The directions that come with the Mobile Washer aren’t exactly detailed or specific, so most of what I did was guesswork, trying to emulate the YouTube videos I’d watched as research. To get the Mobile Washer to do its thing, you simply push it down and up under the water, like you’d move a toilet plunger. It moves the water through the fabric of the clothes, instead of just sloshing them around in some soapy water, to get the dirt out. After a couple minutes of this, switching hands and grip positions a few times, I moved the clothes to the middle bucket to begin the rinsing process. Using the same technique and motion, I saw the clear rinse water slowly turning soapy. I’ve done a few loads of laundry with the Mobile Washer now, and I’m still not sure how long each “cycle” should be. It’s guesswork until I get a better feel for it.

Watch Alison use her Mobile Washer

After rinsing, I moved the clothes to another bucket of clean water to ensure all the soap was gone. Having three buckets means I can designate one for soapy, washing water, and rotate the other two for rinsing, enabling me to keep rinsing between the two buckets until that water stays clear.

Now, What About a Dryer?
Wringing the clothes out is the hardest part. No matter how hard you squeeze and twist, it’s still not enough. I did another load of a skirt, pair of pajama pants, leggings and another pair of underwear after the first one, and then hung everything up on the drying rack in my room. After a few minutes I realized that everything was dripping onto my floor, even though I’d squeezed and squeezed till my carpal tunnel screamed in protest. I threw a spare bath towel down under the rack and collapsed on my bed to rest. (Having used this method for laundry for a few weeks, I decided it was better to hang up my clean clothes in the kitchen, where the floor is linoleum, and therefore drippy clothes will not rot the floor.) Thankfully, my new roommate does not object.

I’m not gonna lie, washing clothes this way won’t be easy. I ended up pretty sweaty, but that’s not all the fault of the work required by the Mobile Washer. Third floor apartments are cauldrons this time of year. Still, the entire experience was quite rewarding. A small batch of my clothes were drying peacefully in my room as I admired my handiwork from my bed. I’d say the entire process probably took about 45 minutes, from dirty to drying. Clean-up was simple, as I just dumped the water into the tub, stacked the buckets and stuck the Mobile Washer in the top bucket. Boom, done.

Going Green Accidentally
In terms of the things we do to save money, switching to hand washing isn’t the only accidentally green way we try to save some green. A quick poll of friends on Facebook and Twitter revealed that many have taken to walking to work due to the inability to afford a car, or have gotten rid of their cars entirely, or have taken to hanging (presumably machine-washed) laundry out to dry in the yard in the warmer months. All of these things come with some risks, as being carless puts you out and about on foot in New Haven, or wherever you live, more often. Hanging your clothes outside runs the risk of someone making off with your favorite t-shirt.

When I lived in a nicer part of town, I walked to work just because I could, and saved money on gas and car repair while losing a bit of weight in the process. “Going green” doesn’t have to mean spending a zillion dollars to add solar panels to your house, or buying an expensive electric car, when those options are clearly out of the question due to lack of financial stability. Opting to wash my clothes this way will certainly lower my electric bill, which did jump up after we started using the mini appliances. Having a little extra money when you’re stretched so thin financially is nice, and I may just be able to afford healthy groceries consistently with the money I’ll save on electricity. Eating healthier will help me lose weight, which will ultimately help to use less gas when I drive my car, which means less pollution and less money spent at the pump.

Running a washer and dryer for a couple loads of laundry every week can cost a few hundred dollars a year–not to mention the cost of the machines. And the time spent at a laundromat is time you’ll never get back. Washing my clothes by hand at home with a DIY washing machine eats into whatever “leisure time” I’d normally have while doing laundry, but the benefits far outweigh the loss of a couple hours of sittin’ on my butt. I never thought a few pieces of plastic and a wooden handle could do so much.

Top image courtesy of moonlightbulb, licensed underCreative Commons

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