Monday, November 3, 2014

How Do I Wash with No Running Water?

Without labor saving devices, routine chores take longer to do, and engender a great respect for such elements as sun, water, and wind.

Water is particularly precious and requires careful husbandry and judicious usage.

In the winter, we keep a 6 gallon pot on the wood stove all day (and night), filling it with snow throughout the day to melt and warm up enough to wash dishes, and occasionally, clothes, the floor, and ourselves. Humidifying the dry winter air is just a welcome addition.

Since snow melts to water in about a 10:1 ratio, depending on how dense the snow is, we bring in a five gallon bucket of snow almost every time we come in from outside. When the five gallon “bullet” of snow melts down to ½ gallon and warms up some, we can add another bucketful, and another after that. It takes about six buckets and several hours to get enough warmed melt water to do more than two tasks. I have become attuned to how little I need if I am careful: the minimums seems to be: a ½ gallon for a spit bath, 1 gallon to do the breakfast dishes, 2 gallons to do a small load of laundry. These are probably statistics that our ancestors knew, too.


To do the laundry, I have another five gallon bucket (I have several, used for numerous chores) and a gizmo I bought from Amazon that looks like a giant toilet plunger. It has a four foot wooden stick that screws into a triad of perforated, conical plastic heads that push the water through the clothes and then suck it out again. Because successful cleaning depends on rather vigorous plunging and sucking, I use no more than two gallons of water to wash however many pieces can fit in the water and the bucket without too much splashing all over the floor.  After 4-6 hours of melting two gallons of water from 20 gallons of snow, I can wash a small load of laundry. A recent batch encompassed two long sleeved T shirts, 8 cloth napkins, and about 8 socks. Having never washed clothes by hand before, it is rather gross to see how dirty the water gets from cleaning items like these. Dirty rags - yuck!   Compared to a washing machine load of 45 minutes, this hand washing is fast... but my standards are LOW!  A normal load like the one described above takes maybe two minutes of plunging, two of soaking and two more of plunging and then however much soaking I choose to do.  I will admit that things smell clean without necessarily looking clean.  Good enough here.

If I have extra water, I rinse the items in another bucket, but if I don't, or if I have other needs for that precious warm water, which is most of the time, I just wring the slightly soapy items and then hang them on a line we have strung up on the front porch to get the southern and western sun in the afternoon. ,Usually, use the refuse water to wash the floors of the cabin before dumping it out.  

In the winter, of course, the laundry freezes, but my hope is that it will drip some of the excess water before it does or that wind will shake it. Later, I collect the hard frozen items, some dripping icicles. They remind me of those cardboard dolls with perforated paper clothes we used to  attach to the human figures with tabs that bent over the shoulders and hips.  I unfold the hard, bent socks and shirts and sundries from the line and carry them inside like so many flat mannequins to string them a second time on a line upstairs in our sleeping loft, where the rising heat from the wood stove will dry them further, hopefully without as much dripping on the floor. Thin items dry within a day (so, like travelers, we favor quick dry sock liners, undies, and T shirts).   Towels and sweat shirts take longer but also require a lot of water.  The lined, cozy sweat pants that I have worn almost every day for two weeks this winter may take a whole two gallons to wash them alone. A precious allotment.  They will have to wait.

In the summer, we can use a low water washing machine that runs on lake water (update: well water) and wind/solar power. (We hauled it out by snow machine in the winter). The spinning function is particularly appreciated, and the larger load capacity. During that season, I can hang laundry on a long, high line between the wash house and a big birch tree. Spring cleaning has a very clear meaning to me out here  As soon as water is accessible and draining is feasible and sunny or windy days produce lots of power, even for short periods, I do many loads of accumulated winter wear, including all the curtains, which have become saturated with a winter's worth of wood ash.  Yea!  I never appreciated house and clothes cleaning so much before!

Washing Dishes:
(Our water plan has varied over time, through various systems purchases, each more expensive)  See other articles on updates.  

In warm weather, we pump water from the lake (through a few filters) to the kitchen sink. The “grey water” drains through a corrugated pipe into a perforated 55 gallon drum sunk into a pit in the ground that my husband and a burly teenager dug beneath the house, but of course in the winter that freezes. During the cold season, we remove the lake pump, roll up the hoses, detach the pipe and plug the floor. Instead, we have a “dry” sink – which is a sink without running water.  (now the wonderful heat trace line allows for drainage).  A five gallon Home Depot 5 gallon water cooler sits on the counter (subsequently we installed a 55 gallon cistern in the corner)  We use snow melt for non-potable water to wash dishes (and we store 40 – 90 gallons of potable water from the summer, to make coffee and juice and drinking water for our first winter weeks.  When that runs out, we boil snow water to drink, too.)  (Update:  we now have a well in the yard, although a hose froze and exploded last winter, so it didn't work until the soil warmed up).  

Because hot water is at such a premium, I size up my dishes and wash them in order of cleanliness in a large bowl in the sink.  First are tea cups and silverware.  Last is the pan that fried bacon.  I  drain the dirty water into the under sink bucket and dump it outside as I go. For meals with several guests' dishes or for greasy pans, such as roasting a chicken, the dishes may pile up in several stages over several days as they wait for sequential pots of effectively hot cleaning water. Sometimes peopIe (usually men) suggest that I use paper plates, but flat plates are the easiest items to wash. It is the cooking pots: bulky, greasy, and dirty pots,that are most demanding.

Once the under-sink bucket gets heavy, I dump it into a snow pit outside, swish a little white vinegar in it to deoderize it, and put it back for the next batch of dishes.  We don't have to worry about bears being attracted to bits and pieces of food in the snow pit, (they are hibernating) but I do worry about voles (meadow mice) that might migrate into the cabin.  So I endeavor to limit the amount of tasty tidbits in the waste water. Meat bones for example, are never dumped.  They are first boiled for stock and then burned in the wood stove.   Most of the uneaten vegetable matter is fed to the meat rabbits and chickens or to the red wigglers in my winter worm bin.

In the summer, lake water is pumped through to the kitchen sink (update: we now have a well), and the drain hose is reinserted, alleviating the tasks of melting snow and dumping dirty water buckets. From the cold season to the warm one, I jump forward a century and save hours of work.      

At first I rather resented the amount of time I spent doing laundry and dishes, not to mention other household chores (a wood stove heated house gets very dusty). But after a time I found some pleasure in it. It is both a pleasure and important (in such a remote lifestyle) to notice how pretty the setting is, and how the quality of light and weather quickly changes one's transportation, communication, food, water, and heat.  Such attention occurs most easily when doing something mindless, like dishes or laundry, or kneading bread. At first, I tried to fill my mind with recollected stories or songs, to replace the TV, radio, or music I used to enjoy as background noise during city chores.  But after a while, I found that I didn't miss the peripheral entertainments. It may sound as boring as my description of chores, but I  listen to the wind shift before a change in the weather, notice the sounds of birds suggesting an early spring, feel the shudder before the snow fall from the roof or the boom of the lake as it starts to crack. There is certainly no 60 minute plot to these entertainments, but I am aware of a millennial one that I had previously neglected to notice until it was foisted upon me. I'm glad for the rediscovery.


  1. I TOTALLY relate to the meditation of washing clothes lol. Thanks for writing!

  2. WOW! VERY thorough description of living off the grid! Good for you...

  3. Way cool! Some very valid points! I appreciate you penning this write-up and also the rest of the site is very good.