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Portable Washing Machines: Tips to Buy, Install, & Use

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When I lived in downtown Seattle my entire apartment building shared a total of 2 washers, 2 dryers, and zero elevators. This, combined with living on the third floor of a very high-ceiling 19th-century building made laundry day a dreaded task. When dryer #2 tore my favorite shirt to shreds, it was the final straw that sent me in pursuit of a portable washing machine for washing my laundry in an apartment.

Read on to learn about the mistakes I made shopping for my first portable washing machine and the beloved portable washing machine I eventually settled on.

Tips for buying, installing and using a portable washing machine in an apartment or tiny home + bonus tips for efficient clothes drying without a dryer

With my original washer shopping motivated only by getting one at the lowest price, I ended up with an absolute garbage can of a washer. After replacing it with a Black and Decker model– with a bit higher price tag – I decided to write this article for other apartment, tiny home, or RV tenants researching portable washing machines.

First, Understanding how portable washing machines work:

Full-size washers are connected to existing plumbing and have a water inlet, where water enters, and a drain. Portable washing machines perform the same function but with temporary plumbing- inlet valves with nozzles that fit onto a garden hose or shower head (with shower head uncrewed- this is my preferred method of installation- read on for DIY) and a drain hose that can be placed into a sink, washtub, bathtub, or- if used outdoors- the ground.

My lifesaver, my queen, my portable washing machine.
My lifesaver, my queen: my portable washing machine.

Things to look for when purchasing a portable washing machine:

After trying a few portable washing machines in my third-floor walk-up Seattle apartment, here’s my advice on what to look for in a portable washing machine and why:

One drum or two?

Cheaper portable washing machines have side-by-side drums – one for washing and one for spinning the clothing dry. The user must manually lift heavy, dripping, water-saturated clothing from the washing drum into the spin drum. This is a very wet job as well as an extra task you’ll need to attend to manually. Higher-end portable washing machines- such as Black & Decker’s Portable Washing Machine combine this function into one drum, mimicking a typical wash cycle of a full-sized unit.

Before buying and trying a two drum washer, I didn’t realize that two-drum washing machines do not clean clothes as well because clothing enters the “rinse cycle” while still fully saturated with dirty water. To get clothing really clean, the user must move clothes to the spin drum, then back to the wash drum for a second wash. Using a double-cycle like this to get my clothes clean quickly burned out the motor on the Pyle portable washer I first purchased.

It's worth investing in a one-drum washer for convenience.
It’s worth investing in a one-drum washer for convenience and effective washing

Inlet valve or manual fill?

Some portable washing machines require a manual filled for each wash or rinse phase of a wash cycle. These machines are only slightly easier than manual handwashing, as they require attention throughout the cycle and, most likely, a willingness to get a little wet. Good machines will have an inlet valve to which you can screw on a hose so the machine will automatically fill with the right amount of water at each phase of the cycle.

Gravity drain or pump drain?

Having used several portable washing machines, the most important feature to me is a pump drain. Gravity drains empty very slowly and only work when the hose can be placed on a downward incline. Pump drains work quickly to empty water from a hose at any angle, allowing a wash cycle to be completed sooner.

Hacks for installing a portable washing machine:

Follow your manufacturer’s instructions for installation as a primary guide, but these two modifications may help improve the function and ease-of-use for your machine:

1. Upgrade your shower to a handheld showerhead, then use the same hose for filling your washing machine.

Guys, this is a game-changer, an absolute essential, and the first modification I make to the shower in any apartment I move into:  Swapping from a wall mount shower head to a handheld is so cheap and literally just takes three minutes and no tools. The #1 handheld shower head on Amazon (which is the one pictured in this post) costs less than $25. Once you’ve upgraded to a handheld showerhead, the included hose makes it easy to connect to your washing machine in a convenient location whenever you need to wash a load of clothes in your washing machine.

how to attach a portable washing machine to a shower head

You’ll probably need to purchase an adapter to couple the showerhead hose and the washer inlet. To connect a standard handheld shower hose to the vast majority of portable washers (they tend to be threaded for garden hose connections), you’ll need a 3/4″ MGH x 1/2″ MPT Adaptor (MGH = male garden hose, mpt = male pipe thread).

You can get a brass one at amazon via this link, or, if you are lucky, you might be able to find a plastic version at your local hardware store for a lower cost (Amazon doesn’t seem to stock the plastic version, and big box home improvement stores almost definitely won’t carry this unusual pipe adaptor in any material).

2. Experiment with drain hose placement

Your mileage may vary depending on your washer model, but my Black & Decker portable washing machine functions much better when the drain hose is placed up high. 

While gravity-draining models require the hose to be placed lower than the unit for best results, some pump-drain style washers need to be placed up high in order to prevent draining prematurely due to excessive pressure on the valve.

The drain hose needs to be placed in a position where it won't shift when water is pumped through it at velocity. Using a resistance band to hold mine over the tub, with tension, keeps the water draining safely over the tub
The drain hose needs to be placed in a position where it won’t shift when water is pumped through it at velocity. Using a resistance band to hold mine over the tub, with tension, keeps the water draining safely over the tub

 3. Invest in Water Alarms

Water + Homes = always tricky. Protect your investment or your rental deposit by using devices designed to alert you when water begins to pool where it shouldn’t (such as a misdirect drain hose emptying water onto a floor rather than a tub!).

Although there are wifi-based leak sensors that can send an alert to your phone when sensors detect water, if you’ll only have your washer connected when you are at home then an inexpensive water sensor that emits an alarm when wet should work.

For Drying Clothes:

TIP: Avoid purchasing a portable washing machine that claims to be a portable washer/dryer units. Although full-size, standard-installation washer/dryer combination machines exist and work pretty well, machines advertised as “portable washer dryer combos” online are usually very bad at both functions (and believe me, I tested a few and read hundreds of reviews). What online sellers claim are “portable washer/dryers” lack a tumble feature or a heating element, and the only “drying” mechanism is an extended spin cycle- which any good portable washing machine will offer.

If I get a portable washer do I also need a portable dryer?

Definitely not! It’s uniquely North American to view a washer and dryer as an essential pairing. There are so many easy and energy-efficient ways to dry clothes without using a dryer (even in the winter) and it’s SO much better for your clothes!

Here are the dryer methods that I’ve used and liked. The perfect one for you will depend on your living situation and what you have access to:

Retractable clothesline

A retractable clothesline is the simplest and also the most aesthetically appealing option for drying clothes without a washer. I love this one so much that I’ve uninstalled, moved with it, and reinstalled it 3 times in the last 10 years! With a section mounted on each side of a room, the retractable clothesline allows you to pull the necessary length out and attach it to its counterpart across the room, creating a clothesline when you need it and free space when you don’t. Retractable clotheslines work best to dry clothes when installed in a bathroom with an exhaust fan.

Travel clothesline

You guys have heard me rave about Lewis N Clark products on my travel posts, but I love their travel clothesline because the tiny gaps in the stretchy braided cord allow it to be used without clothespins- just tuck a tiny corner of the fabric into a gap and the tension will hold it secure. Surprisingly strong suction cups keep this mounted on a variety of services- This model was my go-to when I spent three months in South America last year.

drying clothes the old fashioned way on a balcony in Valparaiso, Chile.
drying clothes the old fashioned way on a balcony in Valparaiso, Chile.

Pants Hanger

Pants hangers were very popular in decades past, and honestly all three of the pants hangers I own I purchased from vintage shops (you can get vintage ones like mine via these listings on Etsy). They are ideal for small locations and for maximizing drying space in a vertical direction. I also like that unlike many products FOR drying clothes- they aren’t single-use. They’re technically designed for hanging skirts but I love them for organizing scarves and accessories.

Another bonus of this style of drying rack is that the hanger is ideal for situations where you might need to dry clothing in an open window- clips keep garments secured even in a strong breeze.

a pant hanger makes a great drying rack
a pant hanger makes a great drying rack

Dryer rack

Somewhat common and perhaps something you already own for drying sweaters, dryer racks take up a lot of floorspace when in use but have only a tiny footprint when folded up. They’re great for drying an entire load quickly. Because they’re portable, they can be used inside or outside.

How to avoid humidity when air drying clothes indoors.

The trick to drying clothes fresh from your portable washing machine without creating a swamp-like microclimate is ventilation. Consider how air is entering and exiting the room where you are drying clothing.

Keep humidity down by 1. exchanging wet air for dry by using a fan + open window or an exhaust fan, or 2. actively dehumidify the air by using a heater or a dehumidifier. Both strategies work well to keep your living space comfortable while drying clothes indoors.  Here are a few tips:

  1. Manually adjust your wash cycle to force the machine to spin the load as long as the settings will allow.
  2. If using in a bathroom, turn on the exhaust fan
  3. If air outside is a tolerable temperature, open windows.
  4. Set up a fan blowing on the wet clothes
  5. Run a space heater in the area (heaters dehumidify air), a safe distance from flammable materials.

If you have a small bathroom, the combination of a space heater and a strong fan can dry clothes in just a bit more time than a conventional clothes dryer takes.

Need a reminder for later in your project? Pin the image below:

Tips for buying, installing and using a portable washing machine in an apartment or tiny home + bonus tips for efficient clothes drying without a dryer

FAQ’s

How do portable washing machines work?

Portable washing machines work just like standard clothes washers except instead of being hooked up to a dedicated water inlet and drain, a portable washing machine fills via a temporary hookup to a faucet, showerhead, or hose and drains into a bathtub, basin, floor drain, or grey-water reservoir. Although some cheap units require manual fill and drain, a quality portable washing machine runs a regular cycle of soaking, agitating, and spinning dry a small load of clothing. Portable washing machines work well for many apartments, RVs, and tiny homes.

How do I clean a portable washing machine?

Cleaning a portable washing machine is not much different from cleaning a standard washing machine. From time to time, it may be helpful to run a load with a cup of hydrogen peroxide added (caution- this may whiten clothes). The hydrogen peroxide gently cleanses the drum and hoses of a portable washing machine without being too harsh on delicate parts.

Cleaning a portable washing machine also should include clearing all filters (check your owner’s manual – many portable units have two different filters that catch lint and debris!).

Keep your portable washing machine working its best by making sure to fully drain the unit before putting it back into storage.

How to fix portable washing machine?

Cheap portable washing machines are notorious for failing and being impossible to repair- the first portable washer I purchased died exactly 2 days beyond its 30-day warranty! If your portable washing machine isn’t working properly, empty it, unplug it, and check for obstructions. Clear all filters (many portable washing machines have a filter located on the inside and a filter located on the exterior near the drain hose) and check the owner’s manual for troubleshooting advice.

If your portable washing machine still isn’t working, you don’t have to pay for an appliance repairman to make a home visit. You can just load it up and take it to an appliance repair shop.

Do portable washing machines really work?

Yes! I have a lot of experience handwashing clothing during international travel and while cheap nameless-brand portable washers don’t do much better than handwashing, good quality portable washing machines such as Black & Deckers do clean clothing equivalently to a standard washing machine.

Do portable washing machines use a lot of electricity or water?

Generally, portable washing machines use less water and electricity than typical washers. Because a typical washer is built to wash 12 to 16 pounds of laundry and a portable washing machine has a capacity of about 5 to 7 pounds of laundry, the machine doesn’t have to work as hard or use as much water as a full-size washer. If you only need to wash a few garments, it’s much more energy-efficient to use a portable washing machine than to use a full cycle of a standard washing machine.

Is a portable washing machine worth it?

For me, a portable washing machine was the best investment I ever made in my apartment living lifestyle. A portable washing machine takes a little more work than a typical washing machine (most people do not leave their portable washing machine hooked up so laundry day requires connecting some hoses and after the wash cycles are done, hanging laundry to dry). If your apartment building’s laundry facilities are safe and convenient or you don’t mind taking your clothes to a laundromat, a portable washer might not be worth it for you.

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