Make a Wood-Fired Water Heater for Laundry

You can use junk fuels and a metal oil drum to make a wood-fired water heater for laundry.

| September/October 1980

065 wood fired water heater

There are no wilderness washday blues with Old Wik's little wood-fired water heater.


Anyone who's ever lived in the bush—or for some other reason done without electricity or running water—knows how much time and effort it takes to do the laundry under such circumstances. My wife and I have lived in the back country and regularly tackled this chore for upward of 15 years now, and I think we've streamlined the process just about as far as it will go.

A Primitive Start

When we first came to live in the Alaskan woods, Manya and I really started from scratch. Our original laundry setup consisted of a homemade wood stove, two empty five-gallon cans, and a stick. As the years went by, we added a manual wringer (no more blistered palms from squeezing diapers by hand), a plunger-type agitator, extra tubs, better cooperation, and—most important of all—a burning determination to get the wash done quickly.

But as our speed picked up, we ran into a new bottleneck: We couldn't heat our water fast enough! To solve that problem I built a simple, heavy-duty, high-capacity, energy-efficient, wood-fired water heater for laundry using materials that we had on hand.

A Broken Bottleneck

My plan was to build a metal shell that would hold an ordinary washtub above the fire, yet allow the flames to lick both the bottom and the sides of the container. To bring my vision to reality, I cut a circular hole in the top of an old oil drum (making certain the vessel was large enough to accept a No. 2 washtub) before slicing off the lower third of the barrel, at the first rib. I then made a few smoke ports around the drum's rim, and a fuel-feed opening—as well as some draft holes—in its bottom edge. With that, the heater was complete.

Next, I dug a shallow pit, set the heater shell over it, and loaded the pit with wood. I then put the washtub in place, filled it almost to the top with river water, and lit the fire. Boy, did that heater takeoff! By the time we'd rounded up the other tubs, set out the soap, mounted the wringer on its board, and color-sorted the clothes, the water was already at 150°F and rising.

No Fuel Waste

We've used the heater for a year now, and our wash day system goes something like this: We start scrubbing when the water gets hot enough. As soon as we draw off any liquid, we replace it immediately with more river water (and stoke the fire, if necessary). By the time we need more hot water for washing, what's in the tub is always right back up to laundry temperature or even higher.

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