Four bucket dishwashing system

Nancy McLauchlan (Words few and savory, seasoned with Grace) included this tidbit in her review of western Friends meetings. (Broad-brimmed hat tip: QuakerQuaker via Twitter)

Redwood Forest Meeting (Santa Rosa, CA) has adapted a “Four Bucket” system of dishwashing to hygienically wash the dishes and not waste water.

This is church administration at its most basic: getting a basic function accomplished well with available resources and established values. Or perhaps I’m a bit biased since putting a large kettle on to boil was a usual task in my first pastorate, “to scald the forks” after church suppers. There was no hot water heater in the fellowship hall.

I have seen the four bucket dishwashing system in practice exactly once: more than a decade ago in a hostel in San Francisco. So I Googled for details. There aren’t many to be had.

The four buckets, according to Colorado River and Trail Expeditions — which uses the protocol in its outings — are

cool soap, hot soap, hot rinse, clorox rinse. The items are scrubbed in the first two buckets, rinsed in the third, and sanitized in the last bucket.

See their site, look for “cleanup”, for more details and a photo.

How big should the basin be for a given sized group? How much soap or bleach? I don’t have answers for these questions. Do you?

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. My stars, Scott, I have used that four-bucket system many a time on countless river trips, down the Colorado in the Grand Canyon, the Yampa and Green Rivers, and it had not occurred to me how handy it would be in a poorly-equipped church kitchen. I am taking it to my kitchen crew right away in hopes of forestalling any food-borne illnesses as a result of our underequipped kitchen. Thanks for publishing it.

  2. I have to admit to having used a three bucket method (and having taught it to adults to teach to kids) back when I used to lead month long canoe trips. We used a capful of bleach in the third basin. I assume the extra wash basin is due to blackened pots (I didnt read the article – I know, I know…), we would scrub those pots down before putting them in the bucket. (you know you’ve got too much bleach when your… oops, this might too much info, but when you go potty and see green – or blue)

  3. I can’t offer much help in the quantity department, Scott, as our river trips were never more than 8 people. Sorry about that. And it’s been years—like 1980!

  4. We use four gallons of water with 3 Tablespoons (or 1.5 oz soap, we measure in a 1/4 cup measurer 3/4 full), or 3 Tablespoons regular dish soap for forty people. Actually we use two lines for 80 guest.
    As for the bleach a cupful believe it or not is generally perfect.
    That comes to 1 teaspoon per gallon.
    For cleaning food surfaces use 1 Tablespoon per gallon.
    The bleach is according to the CDC, that we have been using for twenty years. Make sure that the bleach gets to evaporate off, or rinse, before use.
    Soon I will experiment with strong Hydrogen Peroxide instead of bleach. You have to check the strength often with test strips since HP dissipates quickly.

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