More and more, I'm realizing that this whole urban homesteading thing is a trade off. You can't always use the route which takes less energy without completely encumbering your life. You can't always take the most environmentally friendly option without taking so much time that the work becomes infeasible. In such instances I am forced by sheer practicality to do a trade off.
The major trade off in our house is with laundry. Starting in about March, we can dry our clothes outside on the fabulous umbrella stand drying line. The whole family likes the therapeutic slowness of both hanging the clothes up and then taking them down. It is a process which cannot be done quickly and forces you to enjoy the warm breeze in the sun. Something about drying clothes this way just oozes summer. The trade off comes in that without the rain, the barrels we have are used to water our veggies and not wash our clothes. No rain means the clothes will dry outside, but there is no excess of water for all the other tasks of our household. Though there is physically enough water which falls from the sky during the rainy season for us to stockpile for the summer, we would have to have barrels all over our yard in order to store it all. So, once it hits about October and the excessive rains set in on goes the dryer. A major bummer. (Though I'm looking into year round drying outdoors. We will see.)
Likewise, this time of year (the rainy season) there is plenty of water to use. We can wash all our clothes with rainwater. The task of carrying five gallon buckets of water through the house might sound to some like a completely cumbersome idea. I quite like it however; it is much cheaper than a gym membership.
Much like with the toilet, I had no frame of reference as to how much water our washing machine used. You just pull out the little knob, close the lid, and it does its thing. I will preface this by saying, we don't have an energy efficient washer and it definitely isn't a water efficient model. It is an older top loader. The capacity isn't teensy, but it isn't like some of the newer ones that can wash 7 pairs of jeans at once. We get about 2 giant Jules sized pairs and a few other things. It is just a standard household washer.
At this point in the rainy season, our rain barrels have been cleaned and the bleach water has completely cycled through. When you fill a bucket, it is completely clear, non-bleachy smelling water. So I figured I'd try it for clothes.
I turn all the knobs as if I was going to do a standard load, put the clothes in, and pull out the knob for the basin to begin filling with water. I then quickly push the knob back in. At this point, the washer is now ready to fill with water. Normally it would be filling itself, but I now manually fill it. (This will not work if you have a front loading washer. There is no way to manually fill your washer as the whole water sensor and fill system is different and computerized.) I thought maybe a five gallon bucket of water, maybe two. Well, no. Our standard household washer takes almost 4 full five gallon buckets of water to fill. That's almost 20 gallons a wash. Holy Crapoly! That is 100 gallons a week on a busy week. It is at least 50 every single week. To be able to easily mitigate that much water usage seems a no-brainer.
I fill the washer up to just under where it would normally stop filling itself. The detergent goes in and I pull out the knob. Usually the washer fills itself for only a second or two more before the water sensor kicks telling the washer it is full enough and the cycle starts. For the most part it is almost exactly the same as when I did it before. This way is only slightly more labor intensive, but I have a feeling it is going to kill the water bill a tad.
Let me add a little bit here about washing machines. Many companies are phasing out top loader machines. They are seen as outdated and not as swanky. Not only that, it is very difficult (if not impossible) to make a top loading machine water efficient. (The water efficiency doesn't matter as much to us since we aren't using any city water.) However, you can make them energy efficient and there are a few companies still doing that. Many of these top loaders are available for tax incentives and rebates through state and federal programs. So, if you are like us and do not want to drop the cash (or household remodel) necessary to hook up a water barrel cistern/system but still want to be energy efficient, a top loader is where it is at.
One thing is for sure, washing clothes this way is definitely helping my biceps.