My Varied Collection of Drinking Containers

I have a thing about glasses, cups, and containers for drinks of the water and non-alcoholic varieties, specifically for drinking iced tea (Nestea for those who are wondering), of which I drink really large amounts daily, and which itself is a personal trademark.

My obsession with drink containers is to the point that it would also be a bit of a personal trademark in and of itself except that, barring given containers that have been and/or are particularly noticeable or distinctive in their colouring scheme or design, most people would not notice my obsession because most of the containers I use — publicly, anyway — are actually rather mundane containers and cups.

That being said, I’ll start with what I use at home to drink my iced tea:

Some of my favourite glasses, which I use at home.

At home, my favourite drinking glasses are old glass candle holders of the variety that some restaurants have been known to have on their tables. I started using the glass candle holders back in the early 1990’s when I found one still with the wax in it; I took it home, reclaimed the wax for a hobby of mine that uses wax, and cleaned up the container. I have since found, cleaned, used, and unfortunately, broken well over a dozen of these containers over the years.

I also have a tall glass container that may have once served as a flower vase, which was found in a garbage bin.

When I go out, whether or not the drink container I use is distinctive enough to be a personal trademark depends on which container I bring with me. Below are three of my more distinctive containers:

A few of the attention-grabbing travel mugs I have.

The large “X-Treme Gulp” mug – the largest of them in the centre – holds about a litre and a half, and garners attention and incredulous comments to the order of it being “one really big coffee mug”. This was a surprise Christmas gift from my aunt in 2005; I had mentioned my interest in (at least somewhat) unusual drinking containers, and I probably joked about wanting a clownishly large container. That Christmas, a package arrived in the mail, with the mug in it. It is indeed clownishly large, and at the point of being unwieldy to use and drink from.

The yellow mug on the right holds about a litre, and garners similar attention. In 1995, I was driving around for work, and a yellow “something” caught my attention in a snow-filled ditch; I stopped and went to find it, and it was the thermal travel mug pictured above (but without a lid). Obviously, I grabbed it and took it home.

The smallest of them holds about a half litre, and its claim to fame is its wide bulbous base. In 1996, I was part of an organizing group for a party weekend with a wide group of friends, and we’d ordered a bunch of those travel mugs with custom artwork put on it memorializing the event — this one being the tenth edition of the event. We ordered enough for everybody to get one, so as to discourage people from leaving empty bottles of beer, liquor, and soft drinks laying around, which not only of course would have been a nuisance to clean up at the end of the weekend, but which also would have become a safety hazard when many of about a hundred, twenty-somethings became somewhat to very inebriated.

Found Containers

A particular characteristic many of the cups, mugs, and bottles which I have collected over the years is that they have been found on the street, or were found in recycling bins or the garbage.

A number of the mugs, bottles, and water containers I have found on the streets and elsewhere over the years

Most of these containers and mugs shown above have at various times been a favourite container of the moment, and have seen a lot of use over the years. In fact, the opaque container with the red top (second row, first on the left), which I found in the bushes while I was geocaching in 2002 or 2003, came with me on a trip to London, while the small greenish Nalgene container with the black lid (first row, second from right), was found in a lost and found pile in 2017, and went with me on a couple of cruises.

Of course, all containers I find on the street or elsewhere are properly washed in a dishwasher before I ever use them; it’s the same logic as “don’t you wash your dirty dishes before using them again?”

Unfortunately, a number of the bottles and cups I find in the street, including the stainless steel units, that were used for coffee, have a lingering coffee odour to them, and even after an initial cleaning, will impart a coffee taste when filled with a new drink. This is a mild issue for me since I do not drink coffee, nor do I particularly care for it. However, the taste disappears after a few uses and cycles in the dishwasher. Soaking in a mild bleach solution can help in extreme cases.

One virtually new travel coffee cup I found on the street in a snowbank in 2018 was branded with the logo of a well known goodwill organization; I imagine that the organization’s local major location being barely a block away made the chances of finding the mug there coincidental approaching zero. A family member guilted me into not using it, and tried to prevail upon me to return it to the organization. I ultimately gave the travel mug to my aunt when she visited, so that she may have a thermal coffee mug for when she were to go about her visits with friends.

Another travel mug I found in 2016 is a favourite given how well its lid seals (photo above, first row, third from the right); however, it has two little holes in its base, which allow water to enter in between the mug’s interior and exterior when I clean it in the dishwasher, upside-down. Mildly annoyingly — and a perverse reason why I like it all the more — it leaks a lot of water after I take it out of the dishwasher. However, its story lies in the corporate logo and company name which were silk-screened on it side; I was not familiar with the company name, and thought nothing of it, much as I would not think anything of most other common corporate logos on a mug. For months after finding the mug, I innocently used it everywhere, such as at work and other areas my life would bring me. One day, a work colleague saw my mug’s logo; he asked me if I knew what it meant, and suggested – in a suspiciously insistent way – that I should look it up. My immediate reaction was one of horror that it might be connected to a website of a particular type of explicit material (which could lead to unwanted consequences with my employer); I checked on my personal phone’s internet connection — of course not my work computer with the work internet — and found out that the logo was indeed generally connected with explicit websites. I quickly scraped the silk-screened logo off of the stainless steel exterior of the mug, and of course I continue to use the mug to this day.

Nalgene Water Bottles

Prior to learning about Nalgene containers for the consumer market in the early 1990s, and that they don’t absorb and retain flavours, then impart them in later contents, I only knew of Nalgene through school lab equipment such as squeeze bottles for lab-grade water and other reagents and solvents such as acetone and hexane.

Generally, I use Nalgene bottles for carrying water around, and I’ll drink my iced tea from another container or mug.

My current collection of Nalgene bottles

My first Nalgene bottle was one I found at a campsite in Vermont in 1994, left behind by previous users of the site. Unfortunately, after several years of service, I inadvertently left it – filled with water – in my car overnight in the middle of a particularly bitterly cold part of winter. The ice expansion caused the plastic in the bottle to split open, and I put it in the recycling bin.

Another early experience with Nalgene bottles was during a sales call with my employer in 1995, who showed a potential client two water samples — one murky, one clear — in clear Nalgene sample bottles in order to demonstrate his filtration device to recondition the process water or glycol in building heating and cooling loops. The sales demonstration was very effective on me, and I asked if I might be able to secure a bottle or two. I used the bottles he gave me for several years; however, the plastic was soft and over time became deformed by the heat in my dishwasher.

Over the years, I have found a Nalgene bottle in a recycling bin (second from the right, 500mL, blue cap), another in a lost and found bin (last on the right, green container, black cap), and others at used goods stores. My most recent acquisitions are two 1.5 litre bottles (first and second on the left), received as a recent Christmas gift (2019).

Stylish Insulated Stainless Steel Bottles

The “stylish” insulated stainless steel bottles I have: three new ones on the left, which I have never used, and three used ones I found on the street on the right

There are the relatively new fangled stylish insulated bottles that seem to have taken the water bottle market by storm. Although stainless steel insulated bottles and thermoses have been around for ages, S’Well and similar bottles seem to have started a style revolution in water containers over the past few years, with a lot of copycat competitors, ranging from low end look-alikes to high-end rivals.

I have three new such bottles which I have never used: One received from my employers in 2017, of course with corporate branding (third from the left), and which was the first time I’d seen the style; another received as a Christmas gift in 2018 (first on the left), which was a copycat; and one received as a promotional item during a themed cruise in 2018 (second from the left).

The only such bottles I actually use are the three I found on the street: A cheap discount store, single layer / uninsulated knockoff bottle in 2019 (third from the right); a salmon pinkish orange bottle of the S’Well brand in 2019 (second from the right), and a third, which I call “Le Chic” (because of the branding on it) in 2020 (last bottle on the right). All three show varying degrees of definite signs of wear and tear, and at least two leak very slightly, one a bit more than the other. The “Le Chic” bottle is a very recent addition, and it has the coffee taste issue mentioned earlier; it will probably enter into my regular usage rotation.

Glass Drinking Jars

I have known about glass drinking jars for a long time, although I only first had one in 2006, when I bought two at the tuck shop at a campsite I was spending a long weekend at; they were relatively expensive, but I purchased them anyway.

Since then, I have found a few at Walmart (the fruit design on the left in the picture above) at a far more reasonable price. Of the other two, one was found on the streets when it caught my eye one morning, while the other was given to me by the recipient of some of my pickled eggs who was returning empty mason jars.

Save for the fact that they are glass and hence susceptible to breakage, these jars are great travel drink containers: In fact, I brought one with me as my main drinking container during a month long business trip out of province in 2009. It served me well, and it amused me when I used it on an airplane. Once I’d finished drinking the water the flight attendant poured into it, I put a lid on the drinking jar. When the airplane landed, I opened it, and was amused by the popping sound caused by the relative vacuum created due to slightly lower cabin pressure.

However, as to the breakage factor, they can be difficult to use on a daily basis in a backpack, since I have accidentally broken a couple of them over the years by simply putting down my backpack on a hard floor in a less than ginger fashion, unfortunately breaking the jar in the bag.

What’s Next on the Horizon?

Of course, I haven’t told the stories to all of the containers I’ve seen come and sometimes go, let alone some that never were. But that is, in a sense, part of the story: There have been so many over the years — including old plastic containers never meant to be used as drinking containers, but rather should have been placed directly in the recycling bin once the original contents were consumed, or finding really good quality travel mugs on the street with excellent seals, that allow me to vigorously shake it to dissolve the iced tea powder I added to the water in it. Oh, and the sort of pear-shaped clear 500mL bottles that a certain type of inexpensive, convenience-store table wine came in … I have fond memories of using those for several years throughout the 1990s.

And while over time I’ve had — and continue to have — favourite containers in the lot, the choice of which container(s) is(are) today’s or this week’s favourite can be ephemeral over time, especially as the overall collection grows with new additions, and contracts due to losses and breakage.

Also, while I actually (somewhat) zealously protect my containers, including very much those found for free, this has also led me have a certain zen when one goes missing, especially if it was one of the “found for free” containers. Just as I found the container because somebody else lost it before me, sometimes I lose containers, leave them behind locked doors to rooms to which I no longer have access, or they get confiscated at a public event such as at a stadium that doesn’t allow participants to bring in items like mugs and bags, both for safety reasons (projectiles), as well as to protect revenue streams from the concession stands.

But this is one of the fun things about what I dare call a hobby: The collection evolves and renews itself, and while I may “mourn” the loss of one of my containers, all I have to do is wait to find another “new to me” container or mug in my various travels, and I’ll end up with a new favourite container.

Katadyn Pocket filter capacity: The verdict is in

I purchased a Katadyn Pocket filter in 2012 for a variety of reasons, the principal amongst which was to have drinking water at my cottage during the off season (winter) when the water system is turned off to protect it from freezing. Issues such as not wanting to depend on neighbours and even just whether or not the neighbours were there, the relative convenience of having as much water as I was willing to filter when I wanted regardless of the hour, and not having to transport very large quantities of water from the city, circled through my head.

Like so many other people, I repeated in my blog the 50,000 litre nominal capacity of the filter cartridge as a deciding factor in the purchase of this particular filter. Despite having accepted the value as a ballpark figure to mean “you’ll get lots and lots and lots of water, a few orders of magnitude more than other filters”, I also recognized the ballpark nature of the figure, and that actual capacity would vary (possibly considerably) according to real world conditions such as varying water quality and just how vigorously one might clean the filter cartridge. Unfortunately, I have been disappointed with just how variable this figure has actually proven to be in my case.

In 2016, I began wondering about the real life capacity of the filter cartridge, given a noticeable change in pumping experience filtering water from my artesian well instead of melted snow from my front yard at the cottage. The obvious visual wear of the filter gave me a reference point, and, having kept notes, I revealed that since purchase and up to that point, I’d only filtered roughly 1,500 litres. I had estimated that I might attain a very rough total capacity of 3,000 litres.

In 2017, I had passed a benchmark: The plastic gauge that had come with the unit had passed over the filter, at about 1,650 litres, and by the time I’d written the post, I’d reached 1,750 litres. This represented 3.5% of the nominal 50,000 litre capacity. I mused over the lack of any reported real life capacities that I could find on the internet, going through some hypothetical arithmetic I was able to develop from one source.

I knew that I wouldn’t get anywhere near the oft-touted 50,000 litres. In anticipation of needing a replacement filter cartridge, I went to a store selling them, hesitantly because the replacement part has a fairly expensive price. I purchased a replacement, and was pleasantly surprised to get a 73.2% discount on the price at the counter (for reasons unknown). I surmised that a part of the discount was since the unit was in a box that had obviously been opened and resealed, although why it was so significant still eludes me. The only thing in my favour were the local consumer protection regulations requiring that in the case of a difference between the advertised price and the price at the counter, the consumer gets either up to a $10 discount from the advertised price if lower than the value at the register, or the value of the register price if lower than the correct price.

Since January, 2017, when the gauge passed over the filter unit, I have been bringing somewhat more water up to the cottage, up to five gallons at a time instead of just a single gallon, in order to somewhat extend the life of the filter cartridge. I have been continuing to use the original filter unit, wanting to take full advantage of its lifespan.

During my most recent weekend to the cottage in April, 2019, I began filtering water as usual. The filter had been cleaned and bleached prior to use. However, the filter quickly clogged, and suddenly, the plunger went down quickly; the unit’s internal pressure had been sufficient to collapse that which remained of the filter.  

The collapsed filter, note that the element has been worn and significantly ablated

It should be noted that the filter failure was due to the fact that over time and hundreds of filter cleanings, it had been physically worn away, and therefore the failure was due to it being thin (about 1mm to 2mm thick) and not because I’m inventing a frivolous claim of manufacturing defect.

I also have a definitive capacity of the cartridge I received with the original  purchase, under the various conditions of water quality I filter and maintenance: approximately 2197.5 litres (let’s round that up to 2,200 litres), or 4.4% of the stated 50,000 litre capacity. It was used up over seven off seasons at the cottage, providing a significant amount of the drinking quality water needed for cooking, cleaning, and drinking.

It seems that I didn’t get anywhere near the nominal capacity. Sigh.

Now it’s time to see how much capacity I get out of the second filter.

Katadyn water filter capacity — update

This is an update to my post from 2013 on the Katadyn Pocket Water Filter.

In 2012, I bought a Katadyn Pocket water filter principally for use at the cottage during the off-season when our water system is turned off, plus a small handful of personal interest reasons like being a trained water techie, having been involved in Scouting, camping and hiking a long time ago (but no longer), having been involved in geocaching which can involve some hiking in the woods, filtering water from snow or ice for my homebrewing (mostly just to be able to have a story to tell about the “specialness” of the water), and generally to use for my amusement while hiking around at the cottage during my holidays and other times.

About two thirds of the way down the above post, I asked “So, does the filter work? And do I get the runs any more?” to which I answered with an obvious tone, “Of course, and of course not.” Those answers are as true today as they were back in 2013.

I use the filter principally up at the cottage during the off-season, about mid-October to mid-May (during the winter, when the water at the cottage is turned off due to freezing weather), for my water needs for drinking, cooking, hand washing, and dish washing (normally, just the rinsing part at the end.) Obviously, as long as the water isn’t grungy, a lot of water doesn’t need to be filtered to begin with, like for soaking dishes before cleaning them, or as long as it’s fairly clear, for washing my hair and taking a sponge bath.

Every year, I keep a register of the amount of water I filter, as a function of the five litre plastic jug to receive the filtered water, which I always fill up to the brim. I’ve checked the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 registers (I can’t seem to locate the previous two), and I respectively had filled the container 67 and 72 times. That adds up to roughly 695 litres of water. There is going to be some variance in this number, since I when I fill up my container for brewing water, I skip using my 5 litre container and fill the brewing water container directly.

Assuming that during the previous two winters (2012-2013 and 2013-2014), I’d used it similarly, let’s say that I’ve filtered about 1,400 litres. Add to that the very occasional use during the intervening summers, let’s say a good 100 litres, and I’m up to about 1,500 litres.

Here’s the clincher, though: The ceramic filter is visibly wearing down after four seasons of use, and I’m certain I won’t get 50,000 litres out of it.

Normally when I use the filter to filter melted snow or lake water, I have to clean the filter typically after about 12 or 13 litres, because it’s becoming too difficult to filter water at that point due to the ceramic filter clogging up. On general principle, barring the exact number of litres, this is normal and has always been to be expected.

However, recently I noticed something I find curious: During my most recent usage, I was filtering water from the artesian well, which is a good 60 feet deep. I was filtering this water since while the water system had been turned on, I hadn’t yet bleached the well after the winter to clean out the well as well as the house’s pipes. The curious part: I was able to get to 20 litres and beyond without any increase in difficulty in operating the filter, and were I not to have been too curious and opened up the filter for a preventative cleaning, I would have been able to filter an ample amount more.

The well, being a good 60 feet deep, is therefore supplying water that has been very nicely filtered by typically 60 vertical feet of gravel and sand. Further, since I’m assuming that the aquifer is at least somewhat dynamic, I assume that one day the water I’ve drawn from the well could have been rain water or lake water from a few days previous that trickled through the 60 feet of gravel and sand on my property, while another day the water may be runoff having traveled through I don’t know how many hundreds or thousands of lateral feet of sand and gravel from the hills behind my cottage. As such, the water is presumably — and I assure you, actually is — sparkling clear.

This is as compared to when I filter lake water or melted snow, the latter of which, may I remind you, is not quite so pristine as you may think, even when excluding the yellow variety; it is relatively chock full of dust particles that fell with the snow or became nuclei as part of the condensing and / or crystallization process. At this point I assume that at least some of the dust particles may be coming from the various chimneys at the cottages surrounding mine, including the chimney from my own cottage.

Which leads to the notion of this post regarding the filter’s capacity.

The filter is rated as having a capacity of “up to 50,000 litres”. When I bought the unit, I did recognize this to be codespeak for “Depending on the source water quality, the capacity may and will be reduced in real life.” Unfortunately, as it seems in my experience so far, possibly by a very significant margin.

However, I am wondering exactly when I’ll be needing to replace the filter. Yes, I have the little gauge to measure the filter thickness, and I use it occasionally. The question *is*not* “How will I know when to change the filter?” The question is “*When* will the ‘when’ be.” Let me explain.

I’d guess I’ve worn down at least half of the working thickness of the filter in the past four years of use over roughly 1,500 litres, especially if my vague memories of where the gauge the unit comes with was at when the filter was new are correct as compared to where it is now, and just visually guestimating the wear against where it obviously used to be when it was new.

And here’s the conspiracy theory:

I bet that the 50,000 litre estimate that they give is based on using either laboratory grade distilled water, or perhaps treated tap water intended to be potable.

I know that everyone’s source water will be different, and generally using it while traveling to areas where the tap water is clear but not quite potable is as legitimate a use for the water filter as filtering swamp water while out hiking.

(As a side opinion: Regarding dubious water systems while traveling, depending on where you go, unfortunately outside of the westernized world — and even within it in some cases — the tap water may not be quite potable at least from a microbiological point of view as one might expect or hope it to be. The water system can be dubious at best due to antiquated pipes, or the production plant is old and breaking down, or the employees are severely underpaid, or there aren’t enough of them to do the work well. And that’s just the areas which have a distribution system, and that isn’t delivering water that’s smelly or cloudy or outright foul.)

But I’m wondering just how long my filter unit will actually last. For the moment, I’m betting on another two to four cottage seasons, or “up to” another 1500 litres, the way I’m using it. That’s still far beyond other filters where the unit has a nominal capacity of a few hundred litres, and the filter unit itself is disposable and needs to be replaced the way a razor blade in a razor has to be, or ink cartridges in a “wow this printer isn’t expensive at all!”. Ultimately *a* *part* of what makes the other filters, razors with disposable blades, or ink jet printers so deceptively inexpensive is that the manufacturers make their money in selling you spare parts and refills.

I know that the kind of water I filter and of course its quality are far beyond Katadyn’s control. I know that if I’m filtering snow where a good amount of the particles to remove are composed of fine mineral dusts, there will be a sandpaper effect when I’m cleaning the filter, versus filtering stream water where the solids to be removed are more likely to be decaying organic matter in the form of fish poop and dead leaves, which will be easier to clean off the filter when the time comes. I know that the filter is designed such that when it is being cleaned, the process is meant to be ablative. But I’m wondering how much of my perceptions are, well, perceptions and not real life, how much of my use represents an edge case, how much my of cleaning is a bit too vigorous, and so on.

And I wonder just how much Katadyn knows that the 50,000 litre mark is about as close to an imaginary number as it can get. (Or conversely just how delusional I am. 🙂 ) I’d love to see their internal graphs on the real life capacity of their filters. I’d love to see the range that their customers get out of their filters.

So Katadyn: Here’s my estimate, for my filter — about 3,000 litres, given the kinds of water sources I’m using (cottage country snow, some lake water, and a small sundry other sources like streams when I’m hiking, etc..) At the rate I’m going, I expect that it may take as long as until 2020 to find out, though. 🙂

Any and all Katadyn Pocket Filter users are invited to leave your estimate — I hope at least somewhat evidence based — here, or send me an email malak at the site malak dot ca

Backwoods Washing Machine

I used to be rather involved in Scouting and camping, so it was no surprise when my brother recently sent me a link to “41 Camping Hacks That Are Borderline Genius“. (Here is my archive of the page in case it disappears ) The idea was to present a list of camping tips that, while often easy once you’ve looked at them, seem to elude many of us. The tips ranged from the small to large, from the really backwoods to mostly the car camping with a family crowd variety, from the simple to the involved. I read the list and found some tips interesting, some I’d done before, some I’d never thought of, and enough of which I thought were downright gratuitous in their inclusion in the list (in my mind — although this itself isn’t listed — along the lines of “if you’re going for more than an hour you’ll want some food”.)

This post is about one of the tips that I found useful.

The “hillbilly washing machine” was a gem for me: Someone else would no doubt list it as mundane, impractical, or on some level conceptually obvious. According to the proponent, this backwoods washing machine could be made for about $6. (Here is my archive of the page.) This person was a blogging mom telling about her participation in the Second Annual Flats and Handwashing Challenge (again here’s my archive), trying to involve other parents in a challenge to use reusable cotton diapers for a week instead of expensive store-bought disposable diapers. One of the challenge’s rules suggests that buying / making / securing a sufficient quantity of reusable diapers in order to last the week without having to wash them seemed to defeat the purpose of the challenge, and as such the challenge suggests the washing machine as one of the ways to make participation (both short and long term) practical.

By the way, here is their survey results page (and of course my archive) which I find interesting just from a simple numbers perspective, but also in how it seems to at least moderately promote the hillbilly washing machine as practical.

The concept is really simple: Take a five gallon bucket with a hole in the lid and use an old fashioned toilet plunger to simulate the function of a washing machine agitator. Add water, soap and clothes to be washed, and voilà , you have a functional washing machine.

backwoods washing machine
I found the idea intriguing: Having a three-season cottage that lacks the space and appropriate place for a washing machine (read it lacks a heated space during the winter to avoid freezing), this seemed to fit the bill, regardless of the time of year. Over the years I’d gotten mildly tired of always making sure that I’d be bringing clothes up from the city for the weekend, let alone enough. As such I had stocked my wardrobe and drawers there with old shirts, pants and the like that were perfectly serviceable but of course not exactly appropriate for showing up to work, let alone the likes of a wedding. I’d even gone so far as to buy a dedicated set of socks and underwear in sufficient quantity for the usual longest stint of two weeks that I would spend up there. I of course had backup plans that I could hand wash some small items in the sink or bathtub, drive to one of the towns about 45 minutes away and use a laundromat, or in an extreme emergency ask one of the neighbours if I may draw on their goodwill and use their washing machine, a plan I hope I never have to use. (This goodwill capital is reserved for “it’s the middle of the winter, I don’t have running water, and I desperately need a shower because such-and-such occurred; a sponge bath just won’t do.”)

So for the next couple of weeks, I kept my eye out for a five gallon bucket on the side of the road on garbage days, having a 16 litre square bucket in reserve just in case I was unsuccessful. Fortunately, my “nice” square bucket did not have to be sacrificed. The “new” bucket was in a previous life apparently used to hold kitty litter, based on the kitty litter dust on the bottom and its proximity to a cat box being thrown out. Its original function was to hold commercial hamburger pickles for a restaurant — and the brine smell permanently permeates the plastic, but, even for one who does not care for pickles, only to a pleasantly low level.

As a side note: I don’t know about how the geometry would have worked out, but based on my experience, the size absolutely does matter — a full 20 to 23 litre bucket is absolutely necessary.

The first part of the job was a general cleaning of the bucket — removing a commercial label, a general washing, and the like.

The next part was to cut out four of the eight sections along the side of the lid that holds the lid to the bucket — I obviously would want the lid to hold to the bucket during usage, but as many people familiar with buckets intended to be water-tight and resealable after opening know, these lids can be a pain to secure properly onto the bucket, and then remove from the bucket. Removing four of the eight sections changed this dynamic from a bucket that was frustrating to open and close to a bucket that is easily opened and closed, while of course maintaining reasonable water tightness during operation.

trim the lid
trim the lid
Then there was the hole to cut in the centre of the lid, large enough to freely allow the plunger to come up and down. It’s about two inches in diameter and was easily cut with a pocket knife.

hole in the lid
Then for the most expensive part of the machine: The plunger. Firstly, just finding an old-fashioned plunger that is full sized does not seem to be the easiest thing to do; they seem to be going the way of the dodo bird. Even the now-almost-old-fashioned plunger with a flexible extension that is meant to fit more snugly into the bottom of a toilet and increase performance and effective pressure seems to have competition with new-fangled, ergonomic and style conscious designs. However, I found one of the plungers with the flexible extensions for a whopping $1.97 plus applicable sales taxes. Following some advice I’d seen on some of the pages describing how to make this project, I trimmed off the extension while maintaining the structural integrity of the bottom part where it would have flexed, and I cut out three triangular holes in the cupped part so as to allow for less water resistance when using the plunger.

modified plunger
And voilà ! Backwoods washing machine for a paltry sum of about $2.27 or thereabouts, plus of course a (very) little bit of effort.

At this point, I tested it a couple of times; see below.

Hence, having used it a couple of times, the notion of getting a wringer of some sort seemed useful, and this was my “target item” a couple of weeks later when I went to a flea market. I found a mop bucket with a couple of wooden dowels integrated into it which act as a wringer when you put the mop between them and use foot to create pressure between the dowels, which squeezes out the water. $10 later, and I’d thought I’d really gotten a good deal; I later decided wasn’t worth more than “It was nice to have an objective for the flea market, but in retrospect it wasn’t worth the money at any price.” I tried to use the wringer, but decided that it wasn’t of much use. It not only added extra work to the process, but it wasn’t particularly effective for wringing out clothing, at least given that I was still able to easily wring out more water with hand pressure afterwards. (sigh …)

Now that I’ve used the washing machine a few times, I’ve decided a few things about how to use it and get acceptable results:

1) it’s only good for about one or two days’ worth of clothing for one person, or equivalent; hence you’ll want to divide up equal piles for more days’ worth of clothing, or if you’re washing for more than one person, or also want to wash up all the linen, towels and rags from yesterday evening’s dinner party and associated cleanup. Interestingly, the original blogger suggested that she’d used it for only a day’s worth of diapers at a time.

This was explicit in the original blog entry regarding the cotton baby diapers: In my experiences, it became obvious that the point (and the capacity) of the unit was tailored and ideally (and only) suited to washing one or two days’ worth of diapers at a time to avoid having to store increasingly smelly items for wash day at the end of the week. The point of the challenge was, beyond using cloth diapers (especially for those who can’t afford disposable diapers), to hand wash the diapers while avoiding the use of automatic washing machines (again in a context of affordability.) It also seemed to come across that perhaps it was intended more as a pre-wash system for such items so that you don’t have to wash them at their dirtiest with your delicates and your picky teenager’s latest styles in jeans, although in re-reading the original posts, it became clear that this obviously was a creation of my imagination, however true it might be.

2a) It seems ideally suited to small items such as socks, underwear, small hand towels, and wash cloths. The occasional polo shirt works too but they seem to be nearing the limit of what the unit can handle — hence the mention above about the importance of the sizing of the bucket being in the 20 to 23 litre area.

2b) It really isn’t suited for bulky items. For instance, during my recent two weeks of holidays, I was glad that I’d had enough pants to not “need” to wash them; for fear that jeans were just to heavy and bulky and would require far too much effort, I never even tried to wash a pair, let alone several.

2c) It seems that washing large items and/or large quantities and/or both would require a larger bucket, and would require something more appropriate for agitation that a simple hand plunger. Some other such items seen on the internet suggest reducing the size of a 55 gallon drum and adapting an old bicycle to agitate the load.

3) For the whole operation, I’ve found that for me, what works best is as follows:
a) put in clothes as above
b) add about a tablespoon or two of wash powder
c) fill with water
d) use plunger action, using two hands — with one you’ll tire out really quickly — for up to about five minutes
e) take out and wring the items individually — as mentioned above, hand wringing seems to be the most effective short of having a proper (old style) wringer or a restaurant-grade vegetable spinner (which I wouldn’t seriously consider buying since I know its cost would defeat the project’s “on a budget” and “let’s keep this simple” themes)
f) hang the laundry on a clothesline or other similar support reasonably securely — outside! Otherwise, you’ll have to go through a rinse cycle or two by repeating a) to e)
g) thoroughly rinse all the items with a garden hose, and allow to drip dry. Hand wringing of items at their bottoms will of course significantly reduce drying time. Obviously, if you rinse as in f), (say, if you do everything inside) then don’t do this!

Overall, despite its limitations, I like the idea. I’d like to think that it’s one of those “why didn’t I do this years ago” ideas. I might not have “wasted” money buying as many new socks just for the cottage.

The “but” part is that it is a useful item that definitely has its limits. Operating it does require a certain amount of manual labour, and is really only useful for a portion of items that need to be washed. I was a bit disappointed that after my two weeks of vacation and despite having kept up with just about all the shirts, socks and underwear I’d worn as well as a few hand towels and wash cloths I’d used, I still had about three loads of laundry to do once the bedsheets, pants, large towels and a few other items were taken into account.

Yes, it was fun. Yes, I recommend it.

Happy washing!

UPDATE September, 2014:

I have used the washing machine since during this year’s holidays at the cottage and a couple of other times. Having formed some opinions last year about its limits, this year I decided not to depend on it for washing or reducing the washload at the end of my holidays, and, surprise, surprise, I found it to be a wonderful and useful tool.

I used it for the predictable small items such as my socks, some underwear, hand towels and wash cloths, for which it is ideally suited.

But I found something else for which it is suited, to my surprise to boot: Much of the bed sheets for a double bed and the pillow cases. Last year I assumed that such items would be too bulky for the washing machine. This year, mid-vacation they needed to be done. They were easy to wash one sheet at a time plus another time for the pillow cases, and to my surprise they were easy to wash, to the point that I have since washed them again in it, “saving me” from having to bring them home to wash and dry in a standard electric washing machine back home in the city.

So two more points for the washing machine and it having continued to demonstrate its usefulness as well as having redeemed itself a bit: Next time going up to the cottage, I won’t have to remake my bed upon arrival, possibly, for all I know, late in the evening and after the proverbial long tiring day at work.

Katadyn Pocket Water Filter

During the summer of 2012, I bought a Katadyn Pocket water filter. It took a bit of research, but in short order the decision to buy this model over just about any other was clear: Most water filters seemed to have a capacity of a few hundred gallons or maybe up to 1,500 gallons; the Katadyn Pocket filter has a capacity of up to 13,000 gallons, or 50,000 litres. Given the price difference — anywhere from $75 to $250 for most of the rest, and $300 to $350 for the Katadyn Pocket, there was little to decide.

The unit has a 0.2 micron ceramic filter with silver impregnated in it in order to act as a bacteriostatic agent, although you have to be careful about that (see below).

The only thing that bugs me a very little bit about it is that it’s a filter only (albeit very good), not a purifier. Unfortunately, the purifiers don’t have the capacity that this filter has. This works out to the fact that the unit can effectively remove all bacteria and cysts — and of course cloudiness — in water, but theoretically it can’t remove viruses due to their being far smaller than the pore size (unless they electrostatically attach themselves to a particle which can be filtered out by the unit). It also means that it doesn’t remove any other contaminants smaller than 0.2 microns, including the usual nasties one might think of such as dissolved heavy metals, pesticides and other such nasty contaminants, and the more benign but nonetheless undesirable tastes, odours and colours that aren’t due to cloudiness.

There are two ways of dealing with these issues:

1) Choose a clear water source — that you might be tempted to drink without treating it at all (your natural “yuck” factor will help you out with this) — and this will reduce the likelihood that these are problems to begin with. By itself, most people — including myself, a trained water techie — can’t just look at clear water and tell whether it’s contaminated with the poop of 30 deer 100 feet upstream, or the dumpings from some illegal leather tanning shop 200 feet upstream. But, generally, you can tell the difference between clear, running water in the middle of the woods far away from just about anything and that doesn’t have any smells to it, and stagnant, cloudy and smelly water in the ditch surrounding a garage.

2) Bring around a small bottle filled with bleach and an eye dropper (*). I find that depending on the water source and the strength of the bleach (typically 4% to 6% sodium hypochlorite), 1 to 3 drops per imperial gallon (4.5 litres) has worked well on the filtered water. Melted snow from my cottage could do with 1/2 drop per imperial gallon, given that the bleach taste still often comes through quite distinctly on such (presumably) relatively pure water. As a reference, the USEPA (here’s my archive) recommends to use two drops per quart when using bleach to disinfect untreated water, or about 8 drops per US gallon (3.78 litres), or about 9 drops per imperial gallon (4.5 litres).

(*) This won’t deal with a bunch of dissolved metals, and can’t completely deal with tough contaminants, so choose your water source carefully!

Now, putting aside that I’m a water techie, why would I, who stopped being involved in Scouting and most forms of camping and hiking in 1999, need such a device?

The family cottage doesn’t have running water in the winter, and I usually spend a week over Christmas and typically a weekend a month at the cottage over winter, when the water is off. I’ve been starting to get tired of carrying up big jugs filled with water. I’ve been getting tired of running out of water or at least having to be careful about how I use water. And, particularly, I’ve been getting tired of depending on a few neighbours for their goodwill. The operative notion here is “depending”; a lack of goodwill is not the issue, although the variability of whether or not two of the immediate neighbours would be around all the time is a concern alongside the inconvenience of having to go out to get clean drinking water in the middle of washing dishes.

One of the first things I had to figure out the hard way is the importance of keeping the unit clean (go figure, a water techie needing to be reminded of the importance of keeping drinking water treatment equipment clean): Over almost two weeks in the summer, I’d used it three times, and ended up with a good case of diarrhea which took a couple of weeks to clear up. So note to myself, and those considering buying any camping water filter: Keep the unit and the outlet hose in particular clean — it can get contaminated easily — and when you’re going to leave it sitting around for more than a day or two or pack it away for a while, run a bleach solution through it first and dry it out.

So, does the filter work? And do I get the runs any more?

Of course, and of course not.

This year over Christmas, I found it quite useful, although I did bring up a good supply of water anyway to begin with, given that I was coming up for a week and the long-awaited testing grounds had finally arrived. I needed some kind of starting point, in case I found out that “making” water was a lot more work than I’d bargained for, especially given all the freezer cooking (and therefore dish washing) I do over that period.

I also confirmed what I had begun observing for years while melting snow for things that didn’t require drinking-quality water: You’d be surprised how much dirt and debris comes through when melting “pristine” snow in the middle of cottage country, far away from the city. It’s but a little more appetizing for drinking, cooking or rinsing the dishes than dishwater — so of course I don’t bother filtering the melted snow for my “put the dirty dishes in hot soapy dishwater” part, but of course I use filtered water for rinsing the dishes.

Regarding the amount of bleach to use, I have found that the filtered water from melting snow needs about a drop per imperial gallon, while the filtered lake water can handle about two drops per imperial gallon, before a distinct bleach taste comes through. This is a little testing based on working with the filtered water and after having first consulted some tables on how many drops of bleach per litre to use for treating water (here’s my archive) (instead of just calculating it myself). As a reference, the USEPA (here’s my archive) recommends to use two drops per quart when using bleach to disinfect untreated water, or about 8 drops per US gallon (3.78 litres), or about 9 drops per imperial gallon (4.5 litres).

Regarding the “one litre per minute” claim, it mostly works out to that, sort of, I guess — which means, not really. In practice, though, I suspect that that’s based on filling up one litre or one quart water bottles commonly used, especially in camping and hiking circles. For larger amounts of water, it takes longer. The best test I’ve had — since filtering water while being distracted by the TV at the cottage isn’t much of a test — was when I recently filtered about 23 litres of melted snow undistracted for a future batch of beer, and it took me about 40 to 45 minutes. This admittedly but importantly included a stop about halfway through to open up the filter and clean the ceramic filter, which had become sufficiently dirty from the dirt in the “clean” snow that I’d melted, making filtering the water difficult. A comparison between the 100 metre race and the 3,000 metre race in the Olympics would be apt: You sprint in the former race, but you pace yourself at a somewhat slower running speed in the latter in order not to get too tired right away and be able to make it to the end of the race.

Anyway, I like the filter, and it should get several years’ worth of use before I have to start thinking about buying a replacement filter cartridge.

Update 08 June 2016: Katadyn water filter capacity — update