The Three Pan Method Of Washing Dishes

December 16, 2011

Food Preparation, Skills

How to wash dishes during a survival scenarios

The power is out and there’s no indication that it’ll be back on anytime soon. The storm that blew through your slice of creation has left a wide swath of destruction in it’s path. The local utility crews are working as fast as they can, but it looks like you’ll be roughing it for several days, perhaps a week.

Fortunately you are prepared for just such an occasion as this. You have some food put away, and not just the perishables that everyone ran out to get during the 11th hour before the storm hit. No, you have a pantry full of canned good, boxes of rice and flour, and even some water. You are prepared. Feels good, doesn’t it?

After you finish your first hot meal after the storm, you realize that you have dishes to do. Pots and pans that were used to prepare your meal are dirty. Forks and knives, plates and glasses, all must be washed and sanitized. But the dishwasher is out. And the electric hot water heater is of no use to you now.

How can you clean your dishes?

No problem; use the trusty three pan method of washing dishes and they’ll be every bit as clean as if they’d gone through your automatic dishwasher.

Preparing the Three Pans

The three dishpan method of washing dishes has been around for many years. It’s still a mainstay in the Boy Scouts who frequently use this method during overnight camping trips.

As you may expect, the three dishpan method uses three dishpans. We have 18-quart plastic dishpans for this purpose. They are 18″L x 15″W x 7″H. Most anything large enough to hold water and submerge plates and pans in will work. In a pinch, we’ve used 5-gallon buckets.

The First Pan: Wash

The first dishpan is for washing the dishes. Heat some hot water over the same heat source that you used for cooking your food. Heat quite a bit since you’ll need to fill the first tub approximately 1/2 full with hot water. You’ll also need some hot water for the second tub as well; more on that later.

The water in the first tub should be pretty warm, not lukewarm, but not scalding either. There’s not need to scald your hands, but cleaning is easier and better with warm to hot water.

Add a little dish soap to the water. You don’t need a lot of dish soap; just a small squirt will do. There is no need to have it look like a bubble bath. We only need enough soap to help the water bind with any grease left on the dishes.

The Second Pan: Rinse

The second pan is our rinsing station. It should be filled approximately 1/2 full of hot water. It doesn’t have to be scalding hot, but it should be very more than just warm. Do not add soap to this pan. It’s only purpose is to remove soapy water from the dishes.

The Third Pan: Sanitize

Fill the final pan 1/2 way full of water. The temperature of the water in this pan is not terribly important. If it’s summertime, I’ll use ambient temperature water. In the wintertime when my hand are cold, I typically use water that is about the same temperature as the first pan.

To the water in the third pan, add approximately 1 capful of chlorine bleach.  This will sanitize the dishes and help prevent you from getting sick the next time you eat off of them.

Washing Dishes

Dirty pots must be sanitizedImmediately after you’ve prepared your meal start heating water for the three dishpan method of cleaning. Allow the water to heat while you enjoy eating your meal.

After eating, scrape all food particles off of your plates, bowls, pots and pans. They should “look” clean before you start washing them. Dispose of the excess food properly (away from your campsite when camping, etc).

Dip a dish in the first pan, using your hand to scrub it clean. Make sure to cover all surfaces of dish. Repeat as necessary to get the entire dish clean. Once the dish is clean, rinse it in the second pan to remove the soapy residue.

After rinsing, submerge the dish in the third pan. Allow it to soak for approximately 2 minutes. This will allow the chlorine bleach to sanitize the dish and kill any microscopic organisms that may make you sick.

Drying Dishes

After the dishes have been washed, the must be dried. It’s best to allow the dishes to air dry. Drying with a towel allows the possibility of recontaminating the dishes with potentially harmful bacteria. Air drying eliminates that possibility.

To air dry, you can set the dishes on a sanitized surface and allow the moister to evaporate. Better yet, you can place them in a mesh bag and allow them to hang dry from a clothes line. The latter allows the gravity and evaporation to work together to dry the dishes.

Cleaning the Dishpans

After all of your cooking utensils are clean, it’s time to clean the dish washing stations. Clean them in the same order that you used to wash your dishes. Pour the soapy water out of the first pan. Take care to dispose if it properly. At home, you can pour it down the drain. When camping, make sure you pour it out away from your campsite and at least 100 feet from a stream or other water source.

Next pour the rinse water from the second pan into the first to remove the soapy water from the first pan. Finally, use the sanitized water from the third pan to sanitize the first two pans.

Have do you clean dishes when the power is out?

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10 Comments on “The Three Pan Method Of Washing Dishes”

  1. millenniumfly Says:

    That’s a very thorough explanation of something we may all need to know post-disaster. Thanks.


  2. Chriss Says:

    I have used this method when the power is out or camping. Found it useful for cleaning clothes in a pinch too – just skip the bleach!


  3. Albvs Says:

    Recently did three months volunteering down in Peru after an earthquake. The tap water down there was just horrible. We certainly did the three-pan version of dish washing that you describe and yet I’d say that more than 50% of the 100 volunteers were sick most of the time.

    I spent a fair amount of time trying to describe water safety to the volunteers who would each take their turn at food preparation and yet it’s difficult to get full compliance from every single person involved. The result is that someone would invariably use unsafe water to prepare food. Halfway into my three months I went on protest and stopped eating the food made by the volunteers and my stomach troubles cleared up.

    One of the things I did learn is how to starve off a stomach virus once you have it. 1) Filter your own water, 2) put it into a container that you’ve sterilized using a teaspoon of mouthwash and a cup of water and then emptied of course, 3) for the first three days eat only white rice seasoned with salt, 4) for the next two days you can add potatoes. I can personally vouch for this method since I came up with it out of personal need.

    I can also vouch for one of the camping water filtration systems by REI (with the 0.2 micro filter). I filtered and drank the worst water you can think of using this reasonably-cheap device.


    • Joe Says:

      Absolutely, Albvs. It only takes a minor breakdown to introduce contaminated water back into the system. And, as you know, waterborne illnesses can be rough if not deadly.



  4. Karrie Says:

    I also have discovered that the deeper the dish pan, the easier. I only have two dish pans and was washing and triple rinsing with sterile water. Before next camping trip I am going to get one more wash pan and add bleach instead of triple rinsing. I would have never thought about bleach in the final rinse. That is terrific and gets me back to having fun quicker.


  5. what is tapioca in bubble tea made of Says:

    Hi, the whole thing is going nicely here and ofcourse every one is sharing
    information, that’s actually fine, keep up writing.



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