Doing Laundry by Leg (Not by Hand)

May, 2018.

As we’ve continued to look closely at our lives, at the daily needs we can provide with the labor of our own hands, it was only a matter of time before we took a good long look at our washing machine. Or, to be specific, our laundromat habit. I had grown uneasy with it because I had no way to quantify how much fossil fuel or water I was using–they kept coming eternally, as long as I fed trails of quarters into the machines. I had begun to feel my soul slowly sucked out of my body by that weekly pilgrimage to the laundromat. Maybe that’s extreme way to put it. But I dreaded it, so I let the clothes pile up as long as possible before hefting the gigantic pile to the country music den that is our local laundromat.

I needed a new solution–one that didn’t involve carting the dirty clothes out of the woods. Or earplugs. Figuring that my legs could provide the motor, I began to troll Craigslist for a non-working washing machine. The man I married being who he is, we already had enough bikes and bike parts to poach for a great many bike-powered machines. Connecting the washing machine with its new motor–a bike–would mean I’d never have to go to the laundromat again. No more need to stockpile quarters; if the fuel ran low, I’d just eat another peanut butter and jelly sandwich.


It turned out to be a little more complicated than that, but I’ll walk you through, in case you also dislike country music.

In case you’ve ever wondered, this is what it looks like in the back of a front-loading washing machine. The motor at the bottom turns the rubber belt, which turns the flywheel connected to the back of the laundry tub.

I drilled a hole at the end of each spoke of the flywheel above and inserted a 6 inch bolt into each hole. Then I bolted a plywood circle into the ends of each bolt. This was simply a way of extending the flywheel past the skin of the washing machine, so the bike chain can reach it. I bolted a chain ring to the plywood circle, so when you turn the chain ring, the clothes basket turns inside the stationary laundry tub.

Here’s the flywheel/chain ring set-up, removed from the machine.

At a thrift store, we found a stand for the bike, the kind people buy to clamp their frames down so they can pedal indoors for exercise. Without getting the laundry done. Ha! What a futile endeavor!

You could build your own stand, but this one works just fine.

We mounted the bike on the stand and hooked up a very long bike chain to the ring on the back of the washing machine.


In this first iteration, we left alone the chain going from the pedal crank to the rear wheel, and put on a separate, longer chain to go from the washing machine to one of the gears of the three-speed assembly. We hoped this would allow me to change gears and hence speeds during the washing cycle.


This arrangement didn’t work too well. We couldn’t quite figure out how to adjust the bike’s position in relation to that of the washing machine, and kept derailing one or both of the two chains.  It worked fine until you actually added clothes and water to the machine. This is, admittedly, a crucial flaw.

As usually happens, the solution was to simplify the whole assembly. We turned the bike around and ran the chain directly from the pedal crank to the washing machine. While excluding the possibility of a spin cycle, this would allow me to pedal forwards or backwards, which makes me think I’m getting more agitation, and the clothes are getting cleaner. I like thinking that.


So here’s the current setup. Notice the pallets, which act as bracing to keep the bike from creeping closer to the washing machine. A two-by-four screwed into the pallet holds the bike in the right place, with shims to correct for chain stretch. Too much deviation in the position of the bike will still derail the chain, so I always sight along the length of the chain to make sure it has as straight a path as possible between the two gear rings. Because stopping to put the chain back on gives you greasy, black fingers, which is not helpful while you’re doing laundry. Trust me.


So here’s how I wash clothes on my pedal-powered washing machine. First, I soak the clothes in a small tub of soapy water for about a half hour. (I’m a firm believer in anything that makes my job easier. If a half hour soak lessens pedaling time by 5 minutes, by all means: soak the clothes.)

This bucket represents about three days’ worth of laundry for our family of four. Doing one load of wash every three days is really not too bad, even when it’s your legs that are the motor.

After strapping on my biking shoes, I dump the clothes with their soaking water in the front door of the washing machine. Then…

  • I pedal for 10 minutes. At some point I may decide I want sparklingly clean clothes, at which time I’ll pedal for 15 minutes. For now, “cleaner” is good enough for me.
  • Drain the soapy water out by letting the drain hose down onto the ground. When the water is done draining, I lift the hose back up and pour 4 more gallons of fresh water in the front door of the machine.
  • Five more minutes of pedaling.
  • Second drain. I pour this water on the plants, if they need it.
  • I fill a 5 gallon bucket half full of water and prepare for the “final rinse.” By which I mean, as I pull the clothes out of the machine, I drop them by batches into the bucket of water, swirl them around, then wring out each piece by hand.

This last bit is maybe a little less than elegant, but I found that the clothes needed that second rinse, plus my hands were feeling left out after my legs got such a thorough workout.

Average water usage per load: around 13 gallons (rainwater if I can get it). Average energy usage: half a bowl of granola.

Finally, I hang the clothes out in our “solar clothes dryer” and go inside for some lemonade.

It was all worth it, when I got to do this…

There’s a quick video of me biking the laundry (the first iteration) on my teeny tiny YouTube channel. (I know. The Luddite has a YouTube channel.) Here’s the link.


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