Flashback: Off-Grid Laundry Machine

Energy & Sustainability
Flashback: Off-Grid Laundry Machine
off grid laundry machine.png

One issue of MAKE that has no shortage of practical home projects is MAKE Volume 18, the ReMake: America issue. Featuring everything from making a two-person shovel to building the Garduino geeked-out indoor gardening system, this volume is a gem and my regular go-to gift for friends who are homeowners. For this week’s Flashback, we offer Michael Perdriel’s off-grid laundry machine how-to. Michael is serious about creating sustainable tools for people in developing countries. Check out the tutorial here and pick up a back issue of Volume 18 over in the Maker Shed. You’ll be all the wiser for it.

This think-small washer needs no electricity or running water.
By Michael Perdriel

A couple of years ago, I decided to concentrate my design research on devices that would be useful to poor families in developing countries — easy-to-make tools that address a specific need without disrupting the local economy, culture, or environment.

Here’s one of my designs: a manual clothes washer that does a load of laundry in about 20 minutes using no power other than muscle. It’s portable, so you can carry or wheel it to a water source, and if you wash with biodegradable soap, the wash water can easily go to a garden afterward.

They’re now using the washer in Hyanja, Nepal, where I collaborated on designing a localized version. It’s also a neat design if you’re living off the grid by choice in an industrialized area, or just conserving water and power.

The washer consists of 3 main components: a container, a net bag, and a lever-driven shaft mechanism held in place by a simple wooden frame. The key component is the net bag, which is designed to hold, squeeze, and agitate the clothes. The middle of the net bag is a wide, open cylinder of flexible mesh netting. End-capping the cylinder above and below are semi-rigid cones made from short plastic pipes strung together with rope. Both cones point upward, so the bottom cone sticks up through the clothes and prevents them from balling together.

While the washer is in operation, the top cone holds fast while the bottom cone is pulled up and down by the shaft, carrying the clothes with it. Each pump of the lever handle pulls the clothes up out of the water, squeezes them out between the nested cones, and releases them back down. The lever’s 40″ length provides mechanical advantage for easy operation.

You can modify this design to suit both the materials at hand and the skill level of the builder. These instructions show how to build a bare-bones device for less than $50 using materials from any home supply store. You can modify the design to suit available materials and your skill level. A machine of this size can handle only small loads up to 5lbs, but the ones we made in Nepal were larger, and I think that one could be made 2 or 3 times larger and would still be easy to operate. I also built a fancier, wooden version that’s towable, with wheels and a barrel-style container.

Read the full tutorial shared with you in our Digital Edition.

10 thoughts on “Flashback: Off-Grid Laundry Machine

  1. craig says:

    I was into nightcrawler picking in my teens for fishing. I noticed at my grangpa’s farmhouse how thick the lawn was to the left of the steps and the crawlers were big and plentiful there as well. My mom said that they used to toss the soapy dishwater off the steps there when she was a kid. 30-40 years after indoor plumbing stopped decades of that, and it was still the thickest lawn and biggest toughest crawlers I’d ever seen. How bad is soap for the environment?

  2. cyenobite2 says:

    Hello craig,
    I wanted to mention one thing to be cautious of regarding soap… some soaps that claim to be all natural or biodegradable may be stretching the truth just a bit. Some soaps that are not designed for direct contact (like clothing soap, and even some dish-washing soap) contain “cancer causing” chemicals. As I recall, they are petroleum based products. About a year ago (which is how I became familiar with all this) Method Soap (which advertises and promotes all natural, environmental, etc…) came under scrutiny for some of these cancer causing agents. They claimed though that it was in such tiny amounts that it was not an issue.
    Sorry, long story short… check the ingredients of the soap before dumping in a garden with food you might be eating.

    and… GREAT project! I’m thankful I have access to a washer and dryer, but I’m aware many people in the world do not. This is a great design and idea.

  3. Dave says:

    Craig, your grandparents clearly used old style soaps for dish washing, simply due to the time element. Those were probably simple fat-and-lye based soaps, and a good source of phosphates and other nutrients. Modern washing detergents often contain more noxious components, as cyenobite2 mentioned.
    Another environmental issue entirely is that even old-style soaps are not completely harmless when they get into the waterways. A large influx of phosphates will stimulate algae and other plant growth, sometimes detrimental to streams and lakes.

  4. Alan says:

    Despite the comments above, there’s very, very little danger in dumping any modern laundry detergent on the ground, even if you dump it in your kitchen vegetable garden. People have gotten the notion that some substances in detergents are “carcinogens,” without apparently understanding what that word really means in a toxicological context.

    For example, some sources cite trisodium nitrilotriacetate as a bad actor, but if you read the MSDS on it you’ll see that it’s not only quite benign in detergent-level doses, it’s also rapidly biodegradable. The misunderstanding stems from some experiments that showed that feeding massive quantities of this stuff to laboratory animals increased their risk for tumor development. All that proves is that if you drank several gallons of laundry detergent, you might have some health problems, too. The toxin is in the dose.

    In fact, detergents and soaps – modern synthetic detergents, “organic” products, or old-school lye soaps – are all excellent fertilizers. That’s actually a major reason they’re a big pollution problem when dumped directly into waterways. They cause algae blooms, which kill fish. In addition, doing laundry next to or in a river is part of a whole pattern of activities that helps parasites spread and shortens lifespans of people around the world. Moving the laundry into a modified bucket like this would be a huge upgrade for the people as well as the environment.

  5. indoorgardener says:

    Hello. I just saw you on the Colbert report and looked into your book and website. This is the first article I’ve read, and I look forward to reading more. I guess my only comment about this design is that as someone who does hand washing on a regular basis, this seems a little over complicated. What is wrong with using a tub and wash board? It’s a design that has worked well for a long time. They even make soaps that are not as harsh on your skin these days. Simplify for success ^_^

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at snowgoli@gmail.com or via @snowgoli.

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