Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Hidden Costs of the "Family Cloth"

A fellow homesteading blogger posted a link to an article extolling the virtues of the "family cloth"- you can find it here.

OK - let's talk cost ratio.  Which is more affordable?  People are talking about how much it costs to buy TP.  Now consider this - you need to figure out how many times a day people in your household go to the bathroom, multiply by number in your family.  Even if you wash them every two days, you should have at least 4-5 days supply if these clothes on hand, because sometimes laundry doesn't happen when it should.
Now, material- author doesn't mention it. Are you going to buy pre made washcloths, the cheap kind, at Walmart - that's about $4 for a pack of 10.  If you are buying your own material, you need to look for something absorbent - old sheets are NOT going to cut it.  You could use old towels, maybe.  But if  you want terry cloth or diaper material - both actually rather expensive by the yard. Terry cloth is $10 a yard, diaper fabric is $7 to 10 a yard.  Plus time to make them.  Assuming you can- or the cost to pay someone else to make them for you.  Most seamstresses I've ever met charge materials cost and $10- $20 an hour, including myself.  Or they charge by project - to make say 120 clothes, I would say a fee of at least $60.  Plus materials.  And these will wear out with the repeated washings and need to be replaced much sooner than your average washcloth.
Now, we need to factor in the laundry cost.  There is the cost of heating the water and running the machine.  Not everyone does laundry every 2 days. Gas or electric, there is a cost. Unless you wash them by hand, and there still is going to be a cost for heating the water.
There is the cost for detergent, even if you make it at home.

I found this lovely chart that goes about how much it costs to a washing machine per year. It's awesome, because you can adjust it to your cost per kilowatt, if you dry, water temp going in, etc. and get an estimate. It also does top loader vs front loader. I have a top loader, and I calculated this:  I set my actual rates for gas and electric, set it for 100% hot- assuming I was doing these clothes - and figured for a family of four that I would do at least 4 of these loads a week. That's a cost of $20 a month! And it's only that low because I don't pay for water - I have a well.  The front loader was cheaper, but the cost of a new front loader machine is - dear gods, I found them from $600 to $1400!   Here's the laundry link so you can play with it for yourself.

Then factor in those folk who do not have wash facilities at home.  They can choose to wash them in a sink or tub, or they go to a Laundromat.  Last time I went, the average cost for a standard sized washer was $2.50, drying was 75 cents.  Of course, you can hang them up at home.  Note, that is here, in a rural town.  In the city, it could easily cost more. And some Laundromats do not like you washing diapers or bathroom related clothes in their facilities.
There is a potential plumbing cost.  On a very rare occasion, a person with a small child who doesn't understand you don't need to use the entire roll will end up with a clogged toilet. But not often. Face it, someone is not going to pay attention one day, and boom that cloth goes in the toilet. And flush. And clog.  Because fabric clogs the toilet EVERY TIME.  Ask me how I know about this. So if you cannot plunge it out, the plumber needs to come out.  That's a sizable fee. Even with home warranty insurance, that $75 a call.  Without it, it's closer to $200 a call. More if you add weekend or evening rates, because that is invariably when it will happen.

Let's say by luck it goes through. On a broader scheme, it is costing the water processing plant even more to pull out the cloth that it was to add the chemical to make the toilet paper biodegrade faster than its usual 2-5 months.

If you have a septic tank, the cloth  in there for years.  It helps fill up the tank faster (again, that TP is breaking down pretty fast - septic tanks are a prime biodegrading environment) which leads to that septic tank needing to be pumped out much sooner than might usually be necessary. Average pump cost for Colorado? $310.

Now, a 24 pack of White Cloud costs me $8.  You can buy more expensive, you can buy cheaper.  I find that a good price range, decent quality and not too expensive, and not ripping my behind off like it was sandpaper or pine cones.  This lasts me and mine - three of us home right now - about 4 months. Even if someone is ill, if you know what I mean.

Note, I didn't even touch on the possibility of needing a second wash depending on the level of dirt- much as cloth diapers need sometimes- nor on the potential bacterial breeding ground you're setting up right near your toothbrushes. 

I'm not saying don't use the family cloth if that's how you think you should go about it. But please stop telling people it is a more cost effective way to go about it.  Just on the basic add up, I'd be spending  in initial costs - (I'm going the cheap end and buying Walmart wash clothes)  $48 for the clothes.  The reoccurring costs - $7 a year for detergent, the made myself or bought, that's a reasonable average.  And the $20 a month, assuming the well is holding up and I can do it all at home.

So for me, that would be $295 a year.  Toilet paper costs me $32 a year.

As part of this, we'll address the living greener.  Now not only are you using the water to flush the toilet, you are now also using extra water to wash these clothes several times a week. This is not greener.  In a lot of areas, like California right now, water is scarce. When they are telling residents to take one shower a week and water nothing, even a small load on your washer takes as many gallons of water as your short shower.

Toilet paper biodegrades. That's just a fact. Put in a septic tank, it biodegrades faster than it would if you left it under a tree in the woods, and that rate is 2-5 months. A cloth left in a camping site or in the sewer system or in your septic tank can take a decade or more to degrade. And that cloth will happen - kids or an adult who makes a mistake - it will happen.
Pay attention to hidden costs, especially if you are on a tight budget.  Sometimes what you think is living greener and more cost effectively is neither.


  1. very good analysis! thanks for breaking it down to the simplest terms!!!

  2. One important thing you did not factor into your analysis is that it currently requires 37 gallons of water, 1.3 kilowatt/hours (KWh) of electricity and some 1.5 pounds of wood to make a SINGLE roll of toilet paper? [1] Not to mention all the energy it takes to process it from our sewer system (for those who do not have septic systems).

    The "green" side of this is the not having to create/use as much of the actual toilet paper and resources to create it as listed above. Additionally, using family wipes/cloth in conjunction with a bidet sprayer on your existing toilet actualy cleans you better and is more sanitary (more than half of the world uses some additional wet form of cleaning themselves instead of just dry toilet paper like Americans). In this scenario, the family cloths are used essentially as a drying cloth and are very easy to wash with existing cloth diaper load or underwear load as they are not icky.

    Finally, the nice thing about having a bidet sprayer in conjunction with drying family cloth is that if there is ever a power outage where our well pump will not work, the bidet sprayer will still work to clean ourselves and we can dry with the cloths This is a good back up plan for emergencies even if people do not care about the environmental impact that their toilet paper usage has on the world.

    Thank you for highlighting some valid points and I hope I brought up some additional information you may not have thought about.

  3. Sorry I've taken so long to reply. Water is becoming a more scarce commodity for many people, including us. A bidet would waste gallons of water that we just don't have. I live on a low yield well, with a 300 gallon holding tank. The tank is often not full, especially in the middle of summer. We make conscious decisions about showering, how often the toilet gets flushed, running the dishwasher (which uses less water than handwashing).

    In a areas of California this spring, they were telling people to NOT shower. That's a shortage.

    Then there is the cost of water for some folks - a rising price for many people who do not live on a well.

    In these cases, the cost of toilet paper is actually MUCH less. One time use of the bidet could use up my allotment of toilet water for half the day, easily.

    It's a nice idea in areas where water is plenty, but for half the country, we're in a several year drought. Extensive use of water is not suggested.