Introduction: Reusing a Defunct Top-Loading Washing Machine by Converting It to Pedal Power - Step-by-step
We've been using pedal power for over 15 years ever since our front loading washing machine failed electronically. The first conversion we did was quite simple and when this machine finally sprung a leak in the drum, which was irreparable, we had already found a top loader at the local tip/dump. This conversion is a little more complicated but the machine is elegant and could grace any laundry room.
Our 'new' machine had electrical failure but the mechanical parts were in good working order and it was watertight. This is to share a detailed step-by-step explanation of what I did, including what to remove and what to keep on both the machine and bicycle. Unlike my previous conversion, this one involves no welding, as I'm making wooden supports, so the conversion takes time but is quite easy and the rewards are great. These include:
- lower electric bills,
- lower water bills,
- keeping fit
- a light-weight machine you can move easily from place to place
- fun wash-days spent outside
- visitors (particularly kids) want to do the laundry
- if you use ecological washing soap: you can directly water your garden from the machine
- you can make a business out of it:
I get asked to exhibit our machine but there is at least one person I know of who has a laundry business taking the machine around the camp sites in the Summer and it's such a novelty that people want to pedal their own washing but still pay him!
This project was also edited into a film which you can find at the end of the conversion in Step 8
Basic Materials - Cost at around $5
A water tight washing machine
One bicycle and some bicycle bits (more of this in the next step)
A pallet - In order to create a neat laundry set up, that functions well, looks good and can be moved and relocated efficiently, I made this design to fit on a standard European wooden shipping pallet size 140 x 80 or 55" x 31½". These pallets are normally readily available but if you can only find the standard US size grocery pallet of 42" x 40" then join two of these together and saw off any excess to neaten.
An extra pallet to use for making the bicycle supports.
A length of threaded bar/rod and 8 nuts and 8 washers to match
Tools & Equipment
I already have a comprehensive set of tools but if you are just starting out there is no better investment. Many of my tools were bought over 30 years ago, many were handed on to me from friends and family. Below I have listed the tools and equipment I used in this project with links but remember you can get some great tools, as I did, second hand. Check out yard sales, auctions, thrift and antique shops, you never know what you may find! Good Hunting!
Pliers, Drift or Chain Splitting Tool
Additional if Possible:
WD40 or similar release
Step 1: Sourcing Materials - the Machine - What to Look For
A Broken Washing Machine Doesn't Automatically Mean Goodbye
The most frequent reasons for machine failure is of an electrical or electronic nature. Neither of these preclude using it, as long as the drum is watertight. This therefore is the first test I make - does it hold water!
Even if you don't already own a machine I can guarantee that one of your neighbours, friends or family has at least one of them in their garage. Due to the heavy nature of these beasts, most people choose not to dump them but to leave them alone hoping that one day someone just like you will come along. The good news too is that you won't need all the heavy stuff, so you will be able to remove it with impunity before loading it up.
Know Your Machine
Before we start the conversion we need to familiarise ourselves with the configuration of the drive train of our own machine. This might sound complicated but in essence, this just means 'what makes the machine go round' and we need to know this so that we set up the machine and the bicycle on the correct side. Our bicycle is going to power the machine via the chain and thus a chain wheel (sprocket) will need to be attached to the side of the washing machine drum which was originally driven by the electric motor.
In the case of a front-loading machine, the drum is driven from the rear, so the bicycle is placed behind the machine.
On a top-loader, it is less evident and so we need to determine where the washing machine's transmission is located. This is done simply by tipping it up and looking underneath.
Once we know where the drive is, we can establish which way round the machine will have to face for the drive to function. Pictured above in close up you can see the motor on the right of our machine.
Step 2: Sourcing Materials - the Bicycle
Living by the seaside means that we have a plethora of discarded materials that holidaymakers leave behind, usually around the recycling bins. Here above right you can see our latest crop of bikes, on a bumper day we can get four or five at one pickup point.
When choosing a bicycle to power your washing machine, remember that you do not need tyres or even wheels! The bare essentials would be a comfortable seat, a sturdy frame, handle bars, pedals and chain - a bell is fun particularly if you are expecting kids to help with the laundry!
In addition you will also need a second chain wheel (see above right) and an additional length of chain. This is another reason to collect a couple of bicycles before you start your conversion. Remember that additional and unused components maybe of use for other projects or repairs.
Step 3: Break Up to Make Up - Starting the Conversion - the Machine
This is the really easy, fun part for me and it's a great way to start because it is going to familiarise you with your washing machine and how it works. In this section we are going to figure out what bits we can take off, what to ignore and what components are essential to the workings of our new machine. This is also a great exercise in thinking-on-your-feet because you can sometimes find, as I did in this case, unexpected, specific items for reuse that can save both time and money on the project.
As I'd already established which side of the machine the drive was on, my first step was to remove that side panel of the machine. On our 'new' top-loader the side panel was held in place with several bolts at the machine's rear BUT I initially was unaware of a front screw at the very base of the panel which also needed to be removed. Thus I learned a valuable lesson: scrutinise the whole of the component prior to removal!
A Note About Front-Loaders
If this is the type of machine you are to be converting then it is much easier to access the motor and drive assembly simply by removing the rear panel. As front-loaders are in general more common than top-loaders, this is perhaps the most available machine you will be likely to convert. However, as the seals on front-loaders can wear out over time and because of the versatility of adding washing and water to the top-loader, for say a mixed load of washing, these make for excellent conversions so do look out for them! Furthermore, as it is becoming fashionable to have a laundry room and fitted kitchens are going out of style, the top-loaders are back trending again.
Back to the Present - Top-Loader
Once the side panel was off, the motor and drive was visible. The first thing to do was to remove the motor and drive belt, the motor is quite heavy so it may need supporting to remove the bolts - I always keep the old fasteners (nuts, bolts, washers, screws) for use in later projects. The new drive from the bicycle was going to be attached to the face of the large pulley that was connected to the drum of the machine. Something that was very evident was how freely the drum rotated now the motor was removed.
I also removed all wiring that was readily accessible either disconnecting the contacts or simply snipping the wire out with cutters.
On the side of the drum could be seen a large concrete block and I could get my hand around the other side of the drum and feel a similar one on the opposite side. These are used to help damp out vibration especially when the drum is being driven at elevated speeds i.e. spin drying. The more sedate speeds of pedal-power render these blocks useless and so I removed it from the drive side. The block was heavy and so I had to be ready to support the weight when the last bolt was removed, again keeping the bolts and washers for later use.
With the one block off one could see that the drum moves on suspension springs and/or hydraulic dampers these are another part of vibration removal to prevent the machine from waltzing around the kitchen or utility room again I wanted to remove them but before doing so I needed to support the drum directly to the chassis of the machine.
The drum does not need to have any ability to move freely in its supports. With our old machine I had fashioned two large wooden wedges (see above left) which were forced between the outer drum and the steel walls of the machine body. I thus decided that with this conversion I would fix the drum to the chassis.
Many automatic washing machines have two steel 'transport brackets' securing the drum to the rigid carcass of the machine. As the name suggests this is to prevent the suspended drum from bashing about whilst being shipped. If you are fortunate to have these you can re-attach them for pedal power.
The second side panel can now be removed and the concrete ballast dealt with similarly. However at this point I realised that the concrete block support brackets would make excellent anchoring brackets for the drum.
This provided some fun smashing up the concrete and why I need safety equipment! At this point I also cleaned out all the now superfluous wiring from the old heating system.
As you will see in Step 5, these basic brackets were modified, bent and drilled to become the drum fixing brackets. This is an example of how you can 'eat (almost) all the buffalo' in recuperation projects. One wit on my YouTube channel did suggest that we could have made a cowboy garden statue out of the concrete!
With the second side of the machine removed we can now see the pump. This can be ignored because for draining the machine the flexible hose is simply lowered below the level of the drum and the water will pass through the pump chamber with little or no interference. Removing the pump would mean reconnecting the exit hose from the drum to the flexible drain hose and these diameters are not the same. This is a case where knowing what to leave well alone is really important!
Specific Design Considerations
N.B. With both sides of the machine removed it is very clear how flexible this design of machine becomes, i.e. that the side panels contribute markedly to the structure of the machine. You should therefore not attempt to use the machine even with pedal power without these side panels in place as the machine would collapse! Another observation on the design is that the drum is supported on bearings on both sides. A front-loading machine has no bearing on the door side, ultimately meaning it is less robust! Again this is a consideration for long-term pedal power, that you should try to obtain a top-loader.
Step 4: Break Up to Make Up - the Bicycle
This model was one I had picked up just as its owner was about to throw it in the skip at our local dump. He apologised for having already removed the Shimano gearing system but I told him what I was going to use it for. He was very pleased that his well-used bicycle was going to get a second life rather than end in the jaws of a crusher! Although very much unroadworthy it actually looks really good after a shower of rain.
The first thing to note, particularly if like us you are living at the seaside, where there are permanent caravans and second homes, is that most of these bikes will have been ridden along the beach, sometimes even in the sea and in true holiday spirit, completely neglected and left to rust ,
With the exception of a lovely but unrideable one I inherited from my neighbour and which we have been using on our previous washing machine, most of the bikes we find are in the 'cheap and cheerful' category. We usually get them when the owner has returned for the next holiday and found them in a sad state and carted them off to be dumped. In the main therefore these are 'cheap' supermarket bicycles made for a price with low end saddles and accessories but actually with some superb engineering design and manufacture which goes into individual mechanical parts. This makes them the ultimate recuperation item!
When dismantling a bicycle therefore, you should consider that most of the bolts nuts and screws will probably have seized and you should arm yourself with a release oil like WD40, with which to un-seize them.
If you have them, bicycle spanners can be very useful, with luck, as we did once, you may even pick up a bicycle with a tool kit still in situ.
Step 5: Putting It All Back Together
Reusing the Brackets
Our old pedal-powered front loader had the drum held in place with wooden wedges bracing the drum against the walls of the machine. For this new machine I wanted something more robust. Therefore, the first stage was to modify the old brackets so that they could rigidly attach the drum to the front and rear walls of the machine. Previously I showed how I recuperated some very useful steel brackets from the concrete ballast weights. The original holes that were used to secure the weights to the drum could still be used for that purpose. I measured the distance from the drum mounting hole and the rear panel and bent the bracket to a right angle, such that the bent end of the bracket would rest against the wall panel of the machine.
Securing the Drum
Before I started to drill the 4 fixing holes in the front and rear panels/walls of the machine, I wanted to ensure that the drum which was now supported entirely by four springs was sitting vertically in the machine. By putting the machine on a pallet and packing under the support feet, I could determine with a spirit level that the machine was vertical and thus the drum axis was horizontal and was not twisting on the springs. This meant that once rigidly attached to the supporting walls the forces from the drum would not be anything except the drum's own weight i.e. there would be little or no twisting force which could ultimately distort the wall panels.
I secured the first bracket to the lower hole in the drum (there were
two upper and two lower holes on each side of the drum to hold the ballast weights) and measured the position for the fixing hole on the wall panel. This position was transferred to the outside face of the panel so that I could drill a pilot hole followed by the bolt clearance hole. Next, I used a marker pen through the clearance hole to mark the face of the bracket. The bracket was then removed from the drum and the hole for the anchoring bolt was drilled in it. The bracket was bolted back onto the drum and the first anchoring bolt was put in and tightened so that already the drum was unable to move. The three other brackets were similarly attached and their mounting holes drilled and secured to the wall panels. It was interesting to note that the machine was feeling rigid once more because the drum was now acting as part of the structure.
Fitting the Chainwheel Mounting Block
The chainwheel which was taken from the first bicycle washing machine
was to be attached to the face of the drum shaft pulley. I needed the chainwheel to be offset from the pulley face so that with the sidewall in place the chainwheel would be on the outside of the machine body.
I determined I needed an offset of 1" (25mm) and cut a square from a suitable piece of pallet wood. The block was to be screwed to the pulley and to attach the whole to the drum shaft I needed to drill a clearance hole for the socket that would be used when fitting the chainwheel.
When I laid the block onto the pulley I noticed a slight rocking and determined this arose from some casting marks on the pulley face. I remedied this with a flat file. The holes for the screws were drilled in the three pulley wheel spokes. For added security I put two screws in each spoke. The block was held to the pulley face with some strong spring clamps and was then screwed. I kept checking the block position because initially. it did shift a little. Once attached I decided to cut the block to a rough octagon instead of a square as this would mean a smaller hole would be needed to be cut in the side panel.
Finally, I cut the spokes that extended beyond the block perimeter as the pulley would now be superfluous. In the attached video I highlighted an error in my technique in that I should have kept the pulley in one piece so that I could attach the chainwheel as concentrically as possible by measuring its perimeter to the pulley perimeter. As you will see I did hit upon another solution to this by attaching the block to the axle and by rotating the drum drew concentric circles on the block face. These circles would aid in fitting the chainwheel as centrally as possible on the block. Once I had aligned the chainwheel to these circles I screwed it to the block. By fixing the assembly to the axle I could check how centrally I'd attached the wheel simply by spinning the drum and looking for any eccentricity.
Chainwheel Assembly to the Machine
I next cut the hole in the side panel to enable the fitting of the block. I measured the drum axle centre distance from the washing machine frame and transferred this position onto the panel. I scribed a circle centred on this position to the clearance diameter of the block and used a jigsaw with a metal cutting blade to cut the hole.
Once I'd de-burred the hole edges I refitted the panel to the machine and attached the block to the axle.
Finally, to complete this stage of the project I attached the other side panel to the machine. I was now ready to start assembling the machine and bicycle onto the pallet.
Step 6: Making the Wooden Supports
The important dimension was the height of the stand necessary to obtain the clearance between the pedal at its lowest point and the pallet. In my case this was about 12" (300mm). The vertical supports of the stands were stiffened with angled braces which extended to the stand base. Each stand had front and rear 'feet' which were screwed to the pallet and extended across at least 4 of the pallet's planks (this was to distribute the weight of the bicycle and the cyclist).
To give you some sort of idea of the sizes of material used, I list them below:
Stand uprights: 3" x 1" x 12½" (75mm x 25mm x 310mm)
Base: 3" x 1¾" x 8½" (75mm x 32mm x 210mm)
Feet: 13" x 3½" x ⅝" (325mm x 85mm x 15mm)
These are all recuperated untreated pallet wood.
The bicycle fork ends were supported on 10mm threaded bar.
For fitting the the supports onto the length of the pallet, I made both of them in the shape of a right-angled triangle.
The rear support comprised the uprights glued and screwed to the base the diagonal braces were glued and screwed to inside faces of the uprights but did not go to the top of the upright so as to permit the fitting of the fork ends onto the supporting bar.
Packing pieces of the same thickness as the uprights were glued to the inside face of the base so that the braces could be screwed to a flat face at the same level as that of the uprights. Once the glue was dry, the stand was glued and screwed to the two 'feet' and the clearance holes for the supporting threaded bar were drilled in the uprights about ½" from the top edge.
The front support was a slightly different design in that I needed the fork end nearest the washer to be on the outside face of the support. This was so that the bicycle chain wheel would align with that on the machine. To avoid having to do this asymmetrical arrangement I could have made the chain wheel on the drum shaft stick out further by increasing the thickness of the piece of wood on the shaft. I also made a housed joint for the one upright (see image). The support was also asymmetrically mounted on the feet to ensure the proximity of the bicycle to the machine. As with the rear support the holes for the threaded bar were drilled ½" from the top edge of the uprights.
Step 7: Assembly - Fitting the Machine and the Bicycle on the Pallet
I positioned the machine on the pallet with the driven i.e. the chain wheel side nearer the long central axis of the pallet. This pallet was the one that had supported the previous washing machine and measured 140cm x 80cm. I next placed the bicycle so that it was just resting on its stands on the pallet. Once the chain wheel of the bicycle was aligned with that on the washing machine I could check the gap between the pedal and the front panel of the machine for ease of pedalling.
Now that I had the relative positions of the two components and confirmed they would fit on the pallet, I was ready to fix them in place.
Fitting the Machine
For the machine I decided to attach two pallet planks to the machine's underside and screw them to the pallet. Turning the machine over I removed the 4 leveling feet from the machine. These screwed into 8mm threaded holes in the corners. I noticed that two of these feet were not square to the machine's base and could see that the corner plates had been twisted. By screwing the feet partway back into the holes it was easy to gently tap the feet back to the vertical. The mounting planks were drilled and mounted onto the machine underside. Note that I had counter bored clearance holes so that the 8mm bolt heads were recessed.
Putting the machine back in its place on the pallet I marked and drilled two holes in the plank at the rear of the machine and through the pallets' planks. I'd realised that there was no need to fix the machine with bolts in the other plank (at the front face of the machine) because the forces acting on it from the pedaling action would only try to lift the rear of it up. The two holes in the rear plank were then slotted 2" (50mm) long so that it would be possible to move the machine towards or away from the bicycle, this was so as to give me a means to adjust the chain tension and to correct any alignment error. I used ¼"(6mm) dia. carriage bolts to anchor the machine.
It was at this point I realised that being a top-loader the lid of the machine would foul on the bicycle handlebar. Because this lid was in such a shabby state, I removed it and replaced it with a piece of wood that I could slide into place. For the purposes of an exhibition we were doing with the machine, I used a piece of clear rigid plastic so as to afford spectators the pleasure of seeing the drum going around.
Fitting the Bicycle to the Supports
The two supports were in their approximate positions on the pallet and the threaded bars were in place. The bicycle was on the bars and was now secured with nuts. Note that washers and nuts were also on the inside faces of the stands so that they would allow the clamping nuts to be tightened. If these nuts were not there then tightening the outside nuts would merely squash the forks and the top of the supports together.
Making the Connection
The first step was to ensure that the washing machine was pushed as far as possible on its two fixing bolts in the slotted holes so that once the chain was attached, the machine could be moved further from the bicycle's chain wheel, to increase the chain tension and also to compensate for any minor misalignment.
Prior to screwing the bicycle supports to the pallet, I checked the alignment of the two chain wheels (on the bike and the machine). Simply by looking along the pallet using the face of the machine chain wheel as a guide I could see if the alignment was true. If this step is not undertaken then it is very likely that the chain will not stay in place when cycling. I had to extend the bike chain by a few inches to make it fit the layout.
The supports were screwed to the pallet. Because the support feet were at the ends of the pallet, the screws fixing the feet went through the top planks and into the pallet's stringer board. On the 'inboard' feet I screwed through the top planks and into a plank similar in size to the support feet.
The tension on the chain was now adjusted, by moving the machine on its slotted holes. I aim for a vertical play of ½" at the mid-point of the chain.
The washing machine was ready to wash!
Step 8: The Film
This is an omnibus version of the whole project but if you are interested in converting a front loading machine then I have a two part article and films on how to do that here:
I also have an article about sourcing and identifying untreated pallet wood;
and an article about how and why broken bicycles are a great 'reuse' material:
If you have any questions do not hesitate to ask and if you have a pedal-powered machine of your own please do give links or post photos.
First Prize in the