Thursday, August 30, 2012

Really Low Energy Laundry

As I mentioned in the last couple of posts, earlier this summer I decided it was time to learn how to do laundry by the use of human rather than machine energy, the way it was done before electricity and washing machines. In this post I’ll discuss what I did and and what I learned from this experiment.

Some of you may wonder why I’m concerned about doing laundry if you live in an area that doesn’t experience prolonged electrical outages. St. Louis is not such an area. In 2006, severe thunderstorms in July and an ice storm at the end of November left hundreds of thousands of people without electrical service for anywhere from a day to two weeks or longer. We ourselves lost electrical service for six days as a result of one of the severe thunderstorms. While our household can go a week or two without needing to do laundry, we’d want to be able to do laundry if an outage went on for longer than that. And that’s assuming reliable electrical service exists when the weather isn’t severe. As we get farther along into energy and economic decline, grid maintenance will decline further than it already has and reliability will suffer. Most peak energy writers make a reasonable assumption that folks near the edges of the grid, the places that got electrical service the latest, will lose service first. Even in areas that retain decent service - and urban areas such as I live in are likely to be the last to lose decent service - it may become more difficult to afford electrical service as we get farther into decline. Finding another way to do essential household tasks can make the thought (or reality) of intermittent or no electric service less stressful.

The second reason to do laundry by hand was to find out if it’s as difficult as some of the commentary on blogs suggests that it was. Some feminists have worried that women’s gains in the last 100 years have been due in part to machines having made their household work less time and (human) energy consuming. Since these machines are powered by fossil fuels, the loss of sufficient energy to perform these tasks means that women will be saddled with them again, according to this argument. Laundry seems to be the task of most concern, because it required handling large quantities of water and heavy, wet clothing, and traditionally it took many hours to heat the water and do the washing, rinsing, wringing, and hanging required. I wondered how much time and physical labor was actually necessary to do a reasonable job at laundry. If I could reassure other women, and men, that laundry by hand doesn’t have to be onerous, I might be performing a useful service.

Before getting to the details of my experiments, allow me to note briefly that very few, if any, of the supposed “labor saving” household appliances actually saved any labor for anyone. Research reported on in Juliet Schor’s book The Overworked American has shown that hours spent doing household chores did not go down with the introduction of, for instance, the vacuum cleaner. Instead, rugs became larger and wall to wall carpet became fashionable, and the level of cleanliness expected by both household members and visitors became higher. The extra hours needed for the higher standards and the larger area vacuumed balanced out the lower labor hours per vacuumed area. Almost any motorized household appliance you’d care to name has had the same effect upon its introduction. The clothes washer is not an exception in terms of hours spent; we now have more clothes and wash them more often than folks did before fossil fuel powered washers came along. As for labor, well, I’ll be exploring that issue below.

The simplest laundry equipment as described by Charles Gray in his book Toward a Nonviolent Economics consists of a large sink or a large bucket and a plunger. Put the clothes in, cover them with water, add laundry soap or detergent, and allow the clothes to soak for awhile, say 15 minutes to an hour or so. After the soaking has loosened up the dirt, use the plunger as an agitator for about 10 minutes (longer if the clothes are heavily soiled). Wring out the clothes, dump the soapy water (on a tree if it’s droughty!), and rinse the clothes a time or two in clean water, plunging each time for a couple of minutes and, of course, dumping the rinse water on a plant that needs it if you’re in a drought. Hang the clothes to dry on a clothesline or clothes rack. Some of you may have done a small-scale version of this technique to wash clothing while you were traveling or to hand-wash delicate clothes. It works at larger scales too, as I found out when I tried it several years ago on a load of clothes including blue jeans. While I did not find washing the clothes to be onerous, wringing them out, especially blue jeans, took a fair amount of physical strength and allowed enough water to remain in the clothes for them to be quite heavy and hard to handle. From this I took away my first lesson: it’s not washing the clothes that is laborious, it’s handling them after washing. Plus they took much longer to dry because I couldn’t get  anywhere near as much water out of them as the spin cycle of the clothes washer does.

Now that we’ve obtained a washtub from a yard sale, a laundry plunger (called a hand washer on the Lehmans website), and a hand wringer (also from the Lehmans website) as shown in the photo at the top, it was time to try the experiment again. The washtub stands on legs with casters, so I could stand up while plunging the clothes. I moved the washtub to our patio where I could plunge without fear of getting anything wet that shouldn’t; during cold weather I’d do laundry in our unfinished, concrete-floored basement for the same reason. I haven’t found a drain plug to fit the washtub drain, so I wrapped a rubber band around the end of the drain hose, bent a sturdy paper clip into a hanger, looped a portion of the rubber band into the hanger and put the hanger on the washtub rim to keep the water in the washtub while doing laundry, as shown in the photo below.
To empty the tub, I unhooked the hanger and allowed the hose to hang below the washtub. Since we are in a drought, I caught the used water in a bucket and watered shrubs and trees with it. The hand washer is supposed to more effectively push water and soap through the clothes than a standard plunger. I used the laundry detergent we normally use and plunged the clothes for about 10 minutes for washing, a couple of minutes for rinsing. I didn’t find plunging to be onerous. It was roughly comparable to kneading bread, an activity I do on a semi-regular basis. (I didn’t use the washboard in the photo because we hadn’t obtained it yet; it will be handy to use on stubborn dirt or stains, and in fact the washboard shows signs of having been used for just such purposes years ago. Mike found it in his mother’s basement and she gave it to him.) As for the wringer, once I caught on to how to feed clothes through it and set the tension on the knob so it didn’t jam, I found that it got some of the water out of the clothes, but not enough to eliminate the need for wringing by hand. However, it was much easier to do the hand-wringing after passing the clothes through the mechanical wringer than it was if the wringer hadn’t been used first. I didn’t bother with heating the water before doing laundry because during the hottest July on record in St. Louis, the so-called “cold” water coming out of the tap was over 80F! I hung the clothes on a clothes rack to dry. They came out as clean as clothes washed in our washing machine.

All told, it took me two hours to do a full load of laundry and hang it, but that was only because it was my first time at the job and because it included the time it took me to carry 30 plus gallons of water to various trees and shrubs following washing and rinsing. Fiddling with the wringer tension and learning the right way to feed clothes into the wringer took much more time than it would if I were doing laundry this way all the time. I suspect that an hour per full load of clothing would be a reasonable amount of time for an experienced hand washer to allow. Having said that, I acknowledge that washing clothes by hand does take some physical strength, primarily for the wringing and hanging of the still-wet clothes, enough so that I don’t care to do it this way if I don’t have to. I prefer a broom over a vacuum cleaner and hand-washing dishes over a dishwasher (we don’t even own a dishwasher although I had and used one at several previous living quarters), I nearly always hang-dry clothes rather than use the clothes dryer, and I am not averse to getting on hands and knees to wash our wood and tile floors, but I won’t be giving up the clothes washer as long as electrical service is available. However, I am glad that I have the equipment to do laundry by hand and that I know how to use it when I need to. Nor does it seem to me that feminists have cause to worry that women will be especially disadvantaged by a loss of fossil fuel powered household machinery. Even laundry can be done by hand without undue physical labor and time expended, I’ve found, and I expect that we’ll lower our standards as needed when fossil fuel powered machinery becomes less available again.

What if we were in a situation where we need to do laundry by hand for an extended period of time? We’d be wearing clothes and using the same sheets and towels even longer than we now do before we washed them, to minimize the amount of washing needed. Note too that laundry is not a chore that needs to be done by an adult, or an adult woman for that matter. An older child or teenager should be quite capable of the labor involved. If we needed to do laundry by hand, I’d ask Mike to take responsibility for doing his own. I recommend having everyone in the household capable of doing the labor involved be responsible for doing their own laundry. I suspect people who do their own laundry would take more care to keep their clothes as clean as possible and wear them for as long as possible! For when I needed warm to hot water for a load of laundry, I’d pick a sunny day and use a solar shower, available from retailers specializing in camping equipment, to heat up the water for washing, since we have sunny spaces available outside or on the south-facing front porch. I do so little ironing that it seems to me to be nearly a non-issue, but at any rate irons heated on a stove exist; you can find them on the Lehmans website. I suspect they could be heated as well in a good solar oven, but I haven’t tried it since I don’t own such an iron at this time. Looks like that’s an experiment for a future post!