Permaculturing in Portugal

One family's attempts to live in a more planet-friendly way

Wash day

Yesterday I did the laundry. I put the laundry in the washing machine, added laundry liquid, switched it on, and went away while it did its thing.

And was almost insanely pleased with myself.

Ancient washing machine

What, you are possibly wondering, is there to be so pleased about in the switching on of a washing machine? It’s something the majority of the western world likely does on autopilot without so much as a thought. And considering that said washing machine is not some shiny new A++++ eco-acme of engineering and design, but an ancient, inefficient, leaky and generally bad-tempered monster diverted from a house in the village en route to the lixo, how come I’m grinning rather than cursing?

Well first off, we don’t have a house, let alone plumbing, so the installation of a washing machine presented one or two logistical problems …

On Thursday at market I bought a 200-litre plastic container with a tap in the bottom. The screw thread on the tap just happened to be the same diameter as the screw thread on a standard washing machine cold-water feed, so all I needed was a double-ended connector from the hardware store to connect hose to plastic container, and I had a cold water tank. The hose on the washing machine was just long enough to reach up through a gap in the log store roof to the tank placed directly above it. One of the 50m garden hoses plus plastic funnel from our high-tech irrigation system was enough to reach the barroco and, after a fair bit of bramble-wrestling, there was just enough elevation to get the water to run along and into the tank, so water supply was sorted. A spare bit of cable trunking, which just happened to fit snuggly over the end of the waste pipe, directed the wash water down onto the vegetable garden, so the waste was taken care of. Bingo!

All that remained was to run an extension cable up from the battery house for the power supply, load the machine and switch on.

Washing machine tank

It works! The gravity feed takes a while to fill the machine – it’s a long way from being mains pressure – but it does the job. And 200 litres isn’t enough for the monster’s full wash cycle so I have to refill the tank for the final rinse, but it beats handwashing, I can tell you! Especially in winter …

Though once I’d stopped being so ridiculously pleased with myself, it was an interesting exercise to reflect on the process and what it had brought to my attention.

Over 200 litres of water for a full wash cycle! Over 200 litres of drinking-quality water turned into detergent-polluted (even if eco-friendly biodegradable detergent-polluted) waste that can only be returned to a healthy state by processing through a grey-water treatment system (= plants+soil). And 200 litres is around 5 times the average amount of water that two of us use for all purposes – drinking, cooking, washing up, washing, cleaning – on a daily basis. (When you have to fetch your water by the bucket, you know how much you use …)

According to Waterwise, washing machines account for 14% of water usage in the average household in the UK. The rest of western Europe is likely in the same ballpark. I did some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations. If we doubled our personal daily water usage and only did one load of laundry a week, the washing machine would still account for more than 25% of our water usage. Clearly this washing machine is one of the most inefficient in existence, but still, what does that say about water usage in the average western European household?

I switched our 2.7kW generator on for the spin cycle and it was toiling (though, to be fair, it was charging the batteries at the same time). Even so, that’s still a lot of power a good mangle could substitute for.

For all the undoubted convenience of a washing machine, I’ll be thinking twice before I switch it on again.

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  1. michele January 19, 2011

    Saw a mangle on freecycle other day!What about bike power…..something for long legs to do to earn her keep???
    Seriously well done.I love the way you think things through and hey presto …THEY WORK!

  2. slbma January 27, 2011

    amazingly interesting… and I agree, when you have to fetch your own water YOU KNOW how much you use. Currently I go to the laundrette once a week and it’s amazing to me how we would undoubtedly have the machine running daily when we lived in a house…

  3. Kit March 3, 2011

    Its a huge amount of resource eh? I hand wash unless the water is actually freezing. Its an easy rhythm once you get into it. Soak overnight, wash, rinse, mangle, peg out, ultra satisfying! To keep up I have to do it every day for family of three, but it only takes half an hour.

  4. Quinta do Vale March 3, 2011

    Good for you Kit! I’ve done it by hand here too from time to time and right enough it’s fine when you get into the rhythm. I may consider it again if I can get hold of a decent mangle. Though for now while there’s all the land and building work to do to get the place into a self-sustaining state, and Portuguese classes twice a week, half an hour a day is quite significant!

  5. Diniz August 5, 2012

    Do you think soap nuts would grow well in Portugal? They work quite well for cleaning clothes. Also you could have a water wheel to drive the machine.

  6. Quinta do Vale August 5, 2012

    I haven’t looked into growing soap nuts yet though I have some to try. The first attempt was a bit of a disaster as the cloth bag to hold them opened in the wash and I ended up with little bits of soap nut everywhere throughout the wash. We now have a top-loading twin tub machine which a group of us all off-grid here bulk ordered. Top loaders get a bad press for using a lot of water but what people seem to forget is that i) you can use a single fill to wash several loads while rinsing/spinning in the spinner, and ii) the average complete wash cycle is less than half the length of a front-loading automatic, therefore using much less power. Several of the people who bought them here have pretty small solar systems and the machines run fine. Because they have timer-based simple manual controls, there’s less to go wrong and so much more flexibility in how you use them. It seems to me to be a reasonably efficient use of the power we generate here. We do have a water wheel, but our water volumes don’t create enough torque to drive a washing machine for most of the year.

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