Doing Laundry in Five-Gallon Buckets

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For a long time I have been aware of the idea of doing laundry in 5-gallon buckets. I heard about it the first time when I read “Travels with Charlie” by Steinbeck. He describes putting his dirty clothes, soap, and water in a 5 gallon bucket, putting the lid on, and then driving around so that the sloshing would clean them. He said it worked very well. I thought it was a bad idea for several reasons:

  • It takes too much water. That’s not a problem when you live in a house or stay in motels. But for those of us with small vehicles we can’t carry much water with us and finding it can be difficult.
  • The clothes wouldn’t really get clean and you couldn’t really rinse all the soap out of them.
  • You couldn’t do enough at once to make it worthwhile.
  • Where would you dump all that water without drawing unwanted attention to yourself?
  • The soap would damage the environment without going through a sewage system first.
  • How would you dry the clothes without drawing attention to yourself?

Recently I met a desert rat who lived in a tent in the desert and did his laundry in 5 gallon buckets. He told me he had tried many different methods of using the buckets, but most either took too much water (which is precious in the desert), or didn’t get his clothes clean. He finally came upon his current system which he says gets his clothes cleaner than traditional washing machines and only takes 4 gallons of water. I still don’t see how this system would work for those living in their vehicle in a city, but if you live on public land, it appears to work extremely well. He uses three 5 gallon buckets:

  1. The first bucket is for washing the clothes
  2. The second is for the first rinse.
  3. The third is for a final rinse.

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Above we see the first (wash) bucket in use. He puts 2 gallons of water in it and then a very small amount of phosphate-free, low suds soap. What’s important in washing clothes is to thoroughly soak them so that the soap can loosen and lift the dirt from the material, but that doesn’t mean they have to be floating in water. Two gallons of water is the minimum amount, so be sure all the clothes are soaked with water and soap. His lifestyle limits how much water he can carry, if you can carry more, you can put more water in the wash bucket. Next, he sets a timer and every 15 minutes he agitates and rotates the clothes (below). After an hour total, you are ready to move on to the rinse.

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It’s hard to generalize exactly how many clothes you can wash at once. Women’s clothes tend to be smaller and different materials take up different amount of space. But here is what he put in the wash the day I was with him:

4 Boxer Shorts

7 Pair of Socks

1 pair of Shorts

1 Pair of Jeans

1 Pair of Long-Johns

I Nylon Windbreaker

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Here he is using the middle bucket for the first rinse. He pours a gallon of water in and then takes a few articles of clothes (in this bucket he had two T-shirts) out of the wash bucket, wrings them out and puts them in the rinse water. He puts the agitator in the bucket and puts the lid on over it (he had already cut a hole in the lid for the plunger). He then does 30 strokes of the plunger, all the way up and down. He doesn’t guess when he has done 30 strokes, he actually counts them out. The idea is that the soap in the wash cycle loosened the soil out of the material, and now the agitation of the rinse will actually remove it. The agitator was made specifically for washing clothes and he bought it off eBay.com.

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In the picture below, he is doing the third and final rinse. This one is a little different than the first rinse. Instead of one gallon of water, he puts in 1/2 gallon of water and a 1/2 gallon of vinegar. He says the vinegar helps to do a final removal of any dirt and soap that may be left. He counts the 30 strokes on this rinse as well.

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Here we see the water after the final rinse and the 30 strokes. It seems a little dirty to me. He says that he let these clothes get dirtier than he usually does, but the water is usually a little dirty. But once the clothes are dry, they are very clean. He says they are cleaner than they get using commercial washers at a Laundromat.

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Finally, we see the clean clothes drying in the desert sun. Even in the winter, the desert is so dry it quickly pulls the moisture out of the clothes. He bought the clothes-line off eBay as well. The poles collapse to a small package so they are easy to pack. They guy out with line and you stake them down to stand them up

And that’s it—simple and easy. It doesn’t take very long, probably less than you would spend sitting in a Laundromat. Using phosphate-free soap means you can just dump the water out on the ground without harm. The buckets nest together and don’t take up much room. So there are no real disadvantages and you save money and it is much better for the environment than a Laundromat if you use hot water and the dryer.