Eco-quandary: Wash dishes by hand or with dishwasher?

This post explores a difficult topic for my lazy side aspects that appreciate modern conveniences. In my old house, when we bought a secondhand portable dishwasher, I was the woman lounging on the sofa, sighing in bliss, “I am knitting and watching TV while that wonderful machine is washing the dishes!” My current home came with a dishwasher, and that was that.

Our dishwashing world went dark the other day when, in the laundry room, I noticed yucky brown water dripping through the floor/ceiling onto my (seldom used) dryer. I waited, watched it happen again, and realized yes, the dishwasher is leaking. So, for several days, we’ve been washing dishes by hand and debating our options. Our problem might just be a leaky hose, but we’d probably be wise to replace the ancient beast (and pass it on to someone else in need).Many green bloggers wash dishes by hand to save energy. But how do you evaluate the energy used by a dishwasher versus washing by hand?
Dish washing has several elements:

  1. Heating water. I find it hard to believe hand-washing is more frugal in this area, unless you feel comfortable washing dishes in cold water. The dishwasher starts pulling water as soon as the cycle starts, whereas I have to run water for a couple of minutes to get the water warm to wash dishes. We can catch that water and re-use it — but frankly, I’m running out of ways to use saved water (other than by flushing the toilet, which we’re trying to avoid, to save water). Another option is to install a hot water pump that brings the hot water up faster.
    But for $180 (the cost of the pump), I can almost buy a new dishwasher. The California Energy Commission’s Web site mentions this:
  2. As much as 80 percent of the energy your dishwasher uses goes to heat water. Remember-by saving water, you’re also saving the energy used to pump it, treat it, heat it in your home, and clean it up afterwards in your city’s waste water facility. Up to 50 percent of a typical city’s energy bill goes to supplying water and cleaning it after use!

  3. Dishwashers use electricity. Hand washing does not. In this area, hand washing wins, hands down. This site says a dishwasher uses 512 kilowatts of electricity per year, producing 840 lbs. of carbon dioxide. Hand washing produces nothing (well, other than when the person washing the dishes exhales …). An actual Energy Star dishwasher is rated to use 346 kilowatts per year. Based on our household’s energy use this year, the Energy Star dishwasher’s electricity use would total 4 percent of our household electricity use. We use 63 percent of the average American household’s electricity use.
  4. Water use. Just as dishwashers vary in water use, so does hand dishwashing. The key element is not to leave the water running while you wash. Some advocate two full basins to wash, but if I filled both basins about 4″ deep, I think I would use 5 gallons of water, plus the water lost as I wait for the hot water. More typically, I put some hot, soapy water in a bowl or pot (1/4 gallon or less) and fill the other side of the sink 2″ deep with very hot water for rinsing (and a bit of sanitizing). If we wash dishes twice a day, this method would use 2.5 gallons (plus water lost while waiting for hot water, which could be 1-2 gallons) — more than our existing dishwasher and much more than the 2.4 gallons Energy Star estimates (see “Time” for link). This page mentions that you can spray soap from dishes while they are in the drain rack, eliminating rinse time and presumably saving water. Or go super-water-miser and just wash and then wipe dishes dry — I observed this practice in Germany 20 years ago. Might want to be sure your soap is bio-friendly if you go this route.
  5. Soap. Some sites say hand washing uses more soap. I don’t think this is true – I’d estimate the amounts I use are about similar to what I put in the dishwasher cup. If I followed dishwasher instructions, the automatic dishwasher would use much more (I usually put only a skimpy amount in one cup, rather than filling two cups).
  6. Cleanliness. The dishwasher can sanitize, if it’s hot enough. But we have been marveling at how much cleaner our glasses look using our Ecover dishwashing liquid and washing by hand than they did when we washed them in the dishwasher, either with homemade dishwasher soap or with Seventh Generation (and even our old Electrasol tabs).
  7. Time. This pro-dishwasher publication from the U.S. Government’s EnergyStar program suggests, “Washing dishes by hand takes about five times longer than loading and unloading the same amount of dishes into an ENERGY STAR qualified dishwasher.
    Switching from hand washing to using an ENERGY STAR qualified dishwasher will save almost 230 hours per year, or enough time to walk every trail in Yosemite National Park.” I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be walking the trails. However, the site also claims that hand-washing dishes uses 5,800 gallons of water per year, or more than 15 gallons per day, so I doubt its veracity.
  8. Space. We have a little kitchen, and we love to cook, so we have all kinds of gadgets and food. The dish drying rack on the counter day and night, as it has been since the dishwasher sputtered out, takes up nearly 1/3 of our available counter space. On the other hand, if we ejected the dishwasher, we could install two large cabinets in its place — which would increase our cabinet space by about 25 percent. We are still debating which type of space is more valuable.
  9. Mindfulness. Mr. Cheap points out that Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Han has a whole essay on mindfulness and washing dishes, which includes this:
  10. “While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes . . . If while washing the dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance . . . we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes . . . If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either.”

    On a related note, how many memories do you have of washing the dishes with family after a big holiday dinner, laughing and chuckling about the meal or what so-and-so said? I have a mental image of my grandmother in her apron at the sink, the backs of my grandfather and stepgrandfather as the men cleaned up after a holiday meal. Is it the same with a dishwasher? When my daughter was itty-bitty, I washed dishes with her in her carrier, and later with her helping (splashing water all over the floor). But I still don’t really trust her slippery fingers to load and unload the dishwasher on our hard tile. However … I don’t have time to see friends or sleep, so if a machine can wash my dishes, I love that.

  11. Resale. It’s way down the list, but if we get rid of our dishwasher and go to sell our house in a few years, odds are good that we’ll need to install a dishwasher to get a good price — and, as Mr. Cheap put it, won’t we feel like idiots then to have been hand washing all along?

All in all, I think the biggest disadvantage to the dishwasher is electricity (and the cost of buying a new dishwasher). Heating water with a gas water heater at our house is a greater villain, because our electricity comes from wind power, and hand washing dishes probably uses slightly more water and possibly more hot water. The jury is still out.

For a great overview of all things dishwasher, check out Tree Hugger’s wrap-up.

11 thoughts on “Eco-quandary: Wash dishes by hand or with dishwasher?

  1. Melissa says:

    I am loving our new dishwasher, purchased after the previous one no longer cleaned the dishes. I think ours saves us water, because other than when we have people over, the dishwasher goes for days without running, and the sink/counter remains empty of dirty dishes. If I had to clean up after us after each meal (keeping in mind there are just the two of us), I’d waste a lot more water on 2 people-worth of dishes to have enough water in the sink to wash with and rinse with.

    Good luck deciding!

    • michele says:

      You are overlooking the BEST dishdrainer of all, you old dishwasher ! It even has a drip tray at the bottom and you close it up when you are done. I like mine so much I think I may not replace the dw.

  2. Claire Walter says:

    Related to the topic is how one heats water, whether for dishwashing, laudry or showering/bathing. When our water heater died a few years ago, we bought a gas-fired, on-demand water heater. It takes up very little space, is responsive and does not keep cooking along to heat 30 or 50 or whatever gallons of water when no one is using water — or even when no one is at home.

  3. MandyMom says:

    My dishwasher doesn’t work, so we use it as a drying station after I handwash the dishes.

    I can see how handwashing would add up the gallons if you keep the water running and don’t fill up the sink or a bin and soak the dishes in soapy water.

  4. Julian says:

    The most efficient dishwashers use about 10 litres of water per load (down from an average of 60 litres in 1965). I just did a SMALL load of dishes and used 6 litres. A dishwasher washes probably 6 times as many dishes in one load.

    Energy use is about 300 kWh per year (some 2008 models go as low as 230 kWh). This includes the energy used to heat the water (your water heater) and is 95% less than dishwashers built in the early 70s. So the amount of energy and the amount of water go hand-in-hand.

    Also, if you look at the entire life-cycle of a dishwasher (from production to use to disposal of the product), about 95% of the energy is used during the use of the product, not in manufacturing.

    Hmm… the only issue then is the cash to buy one of these efficient models. Or maybe I should just get a solar water heater and then the electricity use wouldn’t be an issue!

    My sources are: and Natural Resources Canada 2007 EnerGuide Appliance Directory.

  5. Schelli says:

    Regarding sanitation…most household dishwashers and hot water hand washing do not get hot enough to kill bugs..that happens around temperatures they use in autoclaves! Hot water does loosen grime and dried on stuff though.
    If you want an eco-friendly sanitizer for the kitchen/bathroom/dishrack where ever..add plain ol’ white vinegar :) If you rinse in a shallow pan, add your vinegar to that (about 1/4-1/2 cup) rinse the dish and let it dry with the vinegar on it. The smell goes away when it dries, and it can be just as effective as bleach in killing those bugs (it takes longer to work though) It also leaves your glasses nice and sparkly after handwashing.

    For other kitchen stuff..I use a strong 50/50 solution of vinegar and water for counters, stoves etc..with some thyme oil and lavendar oil added. Lysol disenfectant gets it’s action from thymol..which comes from the thyme oil.

    • cheaplikeme says:

      Interesting. A lot of dishwashers come with a “sanitize” cycle. It takes longer (and uses more energy) because it has to heat water extra hot. I’ve never bothered to use mine.

      Oregano oil is also anti-bacterial … I’ve used it, heated gently, to ward off an ear infection.

  6. Charles says:

    My wife and I boil the water in a soup pot and use that to wash dishes. We use a bit of the boiled water and some cold water to wash, and we rinse with a bit of cold water. We both think the dishwasher doesn’t clean dishes right, so we much prefer our method, and we don’t use all that much water either.

  7. Steffanie says:

    I so enjoyed this blog! It is real-life topics like this one that keep my mind delightfully exercised, not the media’s choice of what news is.

    I was browsing looking for a solution for the yucky-looking dishes I now have from using a dishwasher, set with hot water and heated drying in an Energy Star dishwasher for over a year in Texas. I had to downsize and go to apartment living, but this is a new place with new appliances. Central Texas has a horrific drought going on with the hardest water ever! My eggplant and rhubarb dishes look like someone took a sandblaster to them and then sprayed them with white shellac that ran down the sides. I won’t even go into how bad my glassware and pot lids look…disgraceful.

    I have been using an Eco dishwasher detergent and I found that using Cascade gel did work better, but the problem remains. I have also decided a few things after much reading: (1) I work from home and eat 95% of my meals and snacks here, plus a dog and cat. I absolutely would spend too much time hand washing, and as an Internet consultant, time is money literally. (2) Having to wash my dishes by hand would take 3 loads per day but the dishwasher only runs one time. So I think I would use more water by hand. (3) I have started to use vinegar in the rinse cycle and I am going to start today by using plain baking soda as the detergent. Vinegar is a great disinfectant. I also read that you can put the vinegar in a small bowl or cup on the top rack of the dishwasher if you do not have a dispenser for rinse. I am doing both. (4) I am going to turn off the heated drying and open the unit after the wash and let them air dry.

    I am going to give this a week to see if it removes the old build-up, and if not, I will hand scrub everything and keep up this practice as long as it works.

    I do hand wash all pots and large items and I use the water to wash the plants if it is not greasy. The natural liquid soaps when diluted don’t kill them and actually help get a handle on the aphids. My plants are all outside on the balcony, though, and this water might be an odor issue indoors if the plants don’t completely dry out from time to time.

    I lived 4 years on a historic farm in NC where I never had a dishwasher. But my dishes were often piled up in the sink when my schedule got busy. I am grateful for the dishwasher. I think if used wisely and with the right Energy Star unit, it can be more environmentally friendly than hand washing and a real time saver.

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