PAWCATUCK — Forty years ago, when inventor Howard Silagy lived in a small Manhattan apartment, he wanted a portable, non-electric clothes washer that could clean heavy clothes like jeans and sweatshirts.
He tried a few products and nothing worked.
He realized what he needed didn’t exist.
With a number of inventions on the market such as the Prohands hand exerciser, the iBungee Laces shoe-lacing system and the True Focus Basketball shooting target, Silagy is a long-time inventor with about 50 or 40 patents. “I lost count,” Silagy, 69, said recently in his office and warehouse space on South Broad Street, to the rear of the police station.
But the problem of the portable washer eluded him until four years ago when he experienced his “eureka” moment.
“Years ago I did a lot of ocean sailing and you’d tie a rope onto your jeans and drag them behind the boat for 10 or 15 minutes and because of the flow of the water, they came out perfectly clean,” he said. “It just flashed on me, that’s the principle I wanted to use — the ticket is to drive the water back and forth through the clothes.”
Silagy decided to try a piston and cylinder approach to drive the water through the clothes. He start by making a prototype from pieces of PVC pipe.
“I was astounded — this cleaned clothes like you couldn’t believe. And I said, wow, we’re onto something here. This really works," he said.
He next worked with mechanical and design engineers to create a perforated basket with a handle that fits inside a large bucket with a drain spout. The user fills the bucket part way with soapy water, places clothing in the basket and pumps the basket up and down to push the water through the clothing.
For his invention, Silagy was awarded both a utility patent and a design patent from the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. He introduced the product at the International Housewares Association in Chicago last March.
The name Lavario comes from the Spanish words “lavar,” meaning to wash, and "rio” — river.
Factories in Providence, and in Wolfeboro, N.H., produce the machines, fulfilling Silagy’s goal of domestic production.
“It just makes sense that if you keep the money here and you help employ your neighbors, that’s good for everybody,” said Silagy, who has been a resident of Stonington for 15 years.
Silagy devises the inventions and his business partner, Joe Spadaro, of Stonington, handles marketing. Packaging and distribution are handled from the Pawcatuck location.
Silagy said he and Spadaro have identified three cohorts of customers.
“One is living in a place without a washer and dryer, an apartment or a mobile home. Lavario is an alternative to going to the laundromat,” Silagy said. “The second is people who want to launder fine fabrics that cannot be washed in a regular washing machine.’
The third group wants to minimize their ecological footprint, he said.
“People love that they’re not using electricity and they can use cold water and just a little bit of soap,” he said.
The project also has potential in the international market, he said.
“When you go outside of the United States, the average family doesn’t have a washer or dryer in their apartment. They’re cleaning their clothes in plastic tub,” he said.
On Monday, the company sent a full shipping container to Australia, where the RV market is thriving, he said.
He said creating the Lavario paralleled the trial-and-error process of most inventions.
“This is typical of inventors — they recognize a problem, something that isn’t working right,” he said. “I latch onto these things and like a junkyard dog I don’t let go.”