Laundry and Energy – A Personal History

Laundry is one of the more energetic domestic chores, either for the person doing the washing of the machine to which it is delegated.    During the past few weeks the renovation of the kitchen has been a large part of my life (I desperately need to get out more).  What we now use as the kitchen used to be the scullery.  A scullery is might be described as the Victorian’s idea of a utility room, there was a large coal store, storage place for food marked on the plans as “larder” and usually referred to a the pantry”, a sink for washing dishes and a “copper” for washing clothes.  The copper can be seen on the plans:

The copper, possibly made of cast iron, was mounted in a brick structure, the lower section of which was a small furnace.  I’ve looked several house plans and as far as I can see, these things were not connected to chimneys, so the weekly wash would have been done amid smoke and carbon monoxide.  In 1900 much of the laundry work was boiling clothes and bed linen.  Boiling 5 gallons of water might require 2 kwh, but allowing for the heating a mass of brickwork and other losses, the total energy consumed might be 10 – 20 kwh or in more practical terms, a shovel full of coal.  Add to this the physical effort the laundry itself.

I’m guessing, but coppers remained in use in our family into the 1920 or 1930s.  My mother carried on boiling things into the 1960s.  This might have been a fear of disease, in her youth, there were a lot of things that could become fatal like TB, scarlet fever and measles.  Boiling would have dealt a deathblow to those microscopic lifeforms known as germs.   My early memories of Monday, the day of laundry, are centred on the “Baby Burco” which was the 1950s equivalent of the old copper, which by then was gas fired.  Clothes were extracted from this cauldron of soap and boiling water with wooden tongs.  After use, the hot water was dumped into the drain one bucket at a time, this may have been good for the drain, less so for those doing the work.  The energy uses might have been 2 – 4 kwh.

It was many years after leaving home before I encountered another Baby Burco.  This was at the back of the local greengrocer (now a Thai takeaway) where the owner used one to boil beetroot.  After the success of the Harry Potter novels, it would require only a small stretch of the imagination for a young adult to see a wizard stirring a vat of blood red potion before dispersing it to the neighbourhood through the sewers.

The Baby Burco was finally replaced by a washing machines which might be described as an electrically heated tub with an agitator, the buckets were replaced by hoses and wires, the danger of scalding decreased, but the risk of flooding increased.  I’m guessing but the energy used also decreased, but the stress levels remained high.

For quite a long time, I found better things to do with my life than measure the energy consumption of washing machines, but in 2010 I bought an energy meter.  When applied to the then current washing machine, it seemed that the device consumed roughly 1.0 – 1.5 kwh/wash including the hot water it took from the hot water cylinder.  I never, investigated the inner working of this thing but I think it heated the water from the “hot” supply if it was below a certain temperature using electricity as it’s electricity consumption dropped once we fixed the hot water system.

A few days ago the old washing machine collapsed under it’s own weight into a heap of foul smelling rust and water, depriving a newt of a home in the process.  The new washing takes advantage of a microprocessor and advances in detergent technology and seems to consume 0.5 kwh/wash.  The trend in energy consumption is shown in the graph below.

This graph is potentially misleading as it does not take account the size of the wash.  In 1900 there would probably been one big wash on Monday, whilst a modern family might run the washing machine several times per week.  A better graph would have needed more research.

PS – To replicate Brownian motion, place an unlevelled washing machine on quarry tiles.

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About SolarBucket

I trained as a mechanical engineer in the 1970's and then spent most of the following 25 years doing sums and software for Oil and Gas Exploration. Current interests are the study of wind and solar resources.
This entry was posted in Energy, History, Laundry, Sustainability, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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