I don't by any means live an electricity-free life, yet, but more than any other household item, I think I would miss the washing machine the most.

Sweeping with a good broom is a good alternative to vacuum cleaning. Washing dishes I do by hand anyway. Cooking is possible with gas, wood, or even solar cookers, if you want to get fancy.

But washing machines present a particular problem. Clothes need to be washed long enough and with washing detergent, which is both tough on your muscles and tough on your skin. In those parts of the world where washing machines are rare, the task of washing clothes can take several hours for the washing alone, many more hours/days for the drying process. And the washing on washboards is also not good for the clothes.

Are there any good alternatives to commercial electrical washing machines?

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    How many people are you washing for? It matters a lot!
    – Jay Bazuzi
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 0:54
  • 6 to 8 persons...
    – Earthliŋ
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 0:56
  • What kinds of clothes take days to dry? Is it very humid where you are? Even on humid days in the summer, it only takes half a day or so for clothes to dry for me.
    – bstpierre
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 3:00
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    @user1205935: Makes sense. Laying clothes on rockswould make a big difference. I hang them up on a clothesline in the sun. Even without the spin cycle, using a bit of rope to hang up the laundry would cut drying time significantly versus rocks.
    – bstpierre
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 12:52
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    Do you know about pedal-powered washing machines? Commented Feb 2, 2013 at 19:01

6 Answers 6


I agree that it would be harder to live without the washing machine than almost any other labor-saving device.

First, reduce the need. Wool smells less than cotton, which smells less than synthetic materials. You can brush wool clean, instead of washing as often. Leather and fur might be good. Go naked in the summer.

Wear a t-shirt and underpants to absorb sweat, and change those often, while wearing the rest of your clothes for several days at a time. Wear dresses, loose skirts, and loose shirts, as these won't pick up as much body odor. Instead of diapers, let children run around naked out doors as much as possible - they'll learn to manage their pee & poop fast that way, without dirty diapers.

If you live alone, you can hand-wash underclothes and socks easily. Or you can build a simple manual washer: a toilet plunger with some holes cut in it, and a 5 gallon bucket. Use a biodegradable detergent and send the water to the landscape (use it to flush the toilet, if you don't have Humanure).

If you have children, or a group of adults sharing laundry, it's so much work to hand-wash, that you should seriously consider a more complex alternative.

One such alternative is to get a high-efficiency washing machine and a local electricity source. A small generator is cheap, effective, and convenient.

If you're looking for a small project, you can build a bicycle-powered washing machine as a reasonable compromise. You can hook pedals to an older washer, or build from scratch. Here's one example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fktpd1ymE8A.

  • Thanks. Nice video. I was thinking it would probably be even more fun to make it a rowing machine, which would make for good full-body exercise as well... =)
    – Earthliŋ
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 1:45
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    +1 As a sustainability bonus to washing clothes less frequently, your clothes will tend to last longer.
    – bstpierre
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 2:58

As someone who has hand washed his own clothes, I'd say think again before giving up your washing machine. It is a real pain in the neck, and haunches, and forearms - specially if you're washing jeans! And that was one persons clothes - Washing the clothes of 6-8 people would be a nightmare. It's not that it can't be done, you have to be used to it.

Instead of removing the washing machine from your lives, it would be advisable to use it in a more efficient manner. Like @JayBazuzi said, you could wash small items, like underwear, socks and handkerchiefs by hand. Also, wash clothes less regularly. These lyrics from a song, I'm Ready by Jack's Mannequin come to mind -

I put on the same clothes I wore yesterday. When did society decide that we had to change And wash a tee shirt after every individual use: If it's not dirty, I'm gonna wear it.

Does it need to be washed? Can it be worn again before a wash?

And be more efficient in your usage - fill the machine to capacity before use, use shorter cycles - specially if there isn't much cleaning to do, just sweat and BO to clean. And the biggest saving you could make is by sun drying clothes instead of using a electric dryer. If the clothes aren't dripping, and have been wringed, it shouldn't take too long for them to dry in the sun, or in the air if isn't sunny(if it's not raining, or too cold, it'll take a few hours). The spin cycle of your washing machine should wring the clothes well enough.

Remember, sustainable living doesn't mean we forsake the comforts of modern life - just that we use them efficiently and judiciously.


A tip for drying clothes in-doors without an electric dryer (heat):

I put a fan in the small room where we dry the clothes. The fan uses much less electricity than an electric dryer. It circulates the air in the small space so the clothes dry much quicker. We leave the window open slightly so the humidity can leave the room. Thanks to the moving air this happens a lot faster.


Your point would be very abstract to a really big number of people in the world. My mother bought a washing machine just recently, and she still washes mostly by hand. You probably never saw how hand washing should be done (if you're living in USA that's highly probable, while in East Europe it's hard to imagine). You don't wash like a washing mashine. You don't mix clothes with your hand for half an hour. You have to leave it to soak for 10-20 minutes and then you rub the stains. Hand washing is shorter but more precise and intensive than machine washing.

Modern washing powders are more intensive and much less effort is required to wash the clothes, and they are much friendlier for your hands than before.

If you have more big clothes parts to wash, you could use this idea: enter image description here

It's from a poor village in the Ukrainian mountains. People living there are too poor to buy a washing machine. I don't know if they are using any detergents except the normal soap and they still handle it. They have no choice, and their parents teach them how to do everything without the XX-century hype.

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    This solution seems to imply polluting the water with the soap or detergent. If you do have a choice, I would advise against it. Biodegradable detergents are better but it is still preferable not to throw them directly into the water. Rather, one should dispose of them in a hole in the ground far from any water.
    – Shawn
    Commented Feb 3, 2013 at 7:06
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    The solution from photo is without any detergents. Commented Feb 3, 2013 at 7:40
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    Yes, the choice of people forced by poor economy is not necessarily a more sustainable one.
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 4, 2013 at 13:08

I would suggest looking at the early electric (and late pre-electric) washing machines as prototypes. The early electric machines were just electric motors and belts hooked up to hand-driven washing machines. It might take some effort to make one, but the principle isn't that hard and with some effort I am sure the early 20th century designs could be improved upon.

The basic idea is that you have a tub you fill with water and an assembly that rotates and drags the clothes through the water. You add water and detergent to the clothes, crank the crank that turns the agitator, and the clothes are dragged through the detergent solution. Then you remove the water (Perhaps an exit hose with valve would work here) and fill with clean water, repeat, wring (again, hand-cranked wringer), and hang out to dry.

There isn't anything in the early electric machines that couldn't be driven by hand, but attention to detail would be very important.

The options aren't limited to full hand-washing or all-electric.


If you don't feel like making a DIY washer, there is actually a whole niche industry of non-electric washers, including the Laundry Pod and the Wonderwash. You spin them around manually and leave your clothes to soak. The store-bought washers may make the task a little easier than a homemade bucket-based washer, but it's up to you.

Here's an Amazon search with multiple options: https://www.amazon.com/s?ie=UTF8&page=1&rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3Anon%20electric%20washing%20machine The Amazon page actually includes some low-electricity options too.

Here's a magazine article about a couple options in more detail: http://www.greencleaningmagazine.com/3-efficient-hand-washing-machines/

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