My family had huge gatherings when I was growing up that always centered around food. They were so much fun, but the clean-up was not. At one aunt’s home, there was no dishwasher, so we scrubbed, rinsed, and dried dozens of plates and glasses by hand.
I often wash dishes by hand out of habit because it seems faster and more efficient, but I’ve learned that hand washing isn’t always the smartest or most environmental choice.
Experts Weigh In on Hand Washing vs. Dishwashers
With today’s energy-saving appliances, is it better to hand wash or use a dishwasher if you want to save money and water?
“The short answer is that using a dishwasher is much more efficient than hand washing,” says Joe Vukovich, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) national environmental advocacy group.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that running your kitchen faucet uses an average of about 2.2 gallons per minute. The minimum water efficiency standard for a regular dishwasher is 5 gallons per cycle or 3.5 gallons/cycle for an Energy Star dishwasher. (Appliances with the Energy Star seal must meet strict energy-efficiency requirements set by the EPA.)
“You’d have to do an entire load of dishes in less than 2.5 minutes of running your faucet for the water use to be comparable to the least efficient product you can buy today,” says Vukovich. “Even if you have a more efficient faucet, which is a good idea regardless, you’re going to be very hard-pressed to do better than even the least efficient dishwasher you could buy today. There’s no way I can do a full load of dishes in 3 to 4 minutes.”
There are other factors to take into consideration. The researchers write, “A life cycle cost analysis finds that machine dishwashing costs more than manual dishwashing over a 10-year lifetime even if best practices are followed. However, when a user's time spent washing is valued, machine dishwashers pay for themselves within a year of use.”
4 Tips For Saving Energy, Water, and Time Washing Dishes
1. Don’t Rinse
Instead of rinsing items before putting them in the dishwasher, just scrape off what you can and load them up. Pre-rinsing can use up to 20 gallons of water, says the EPA, and that’s before you’ve even turned on the dishwasher.
2. Run Full Loads
The dishwasher uses the same amount of water whether you’re washing a handful of plates or it’s packed. Fill it as fully as you can before running it. “But even if it’s a little underloaded it will be more efficient than hand washing,” says Vukovich.
3. Reconsider How You Dry Dishes
”If you use some kind of drying cycle that will of course increase energy consumption, though not enough to make it better to hand wash,” says Vukovich, who typically opens his dishwasher to let dishes air dry.
Some models have a mode where the dishwasher uses room temperature instead of heating air to dry dishes. “Using the room temperature air will have less of an energy impact than heating it, so I’d recommend that if possible,” he says.
4. Turn Off the Tap
If you opt to wash by hand, don’t keep the water running the whole time. Fill a basin or one sink with soapy water, then fill the second sink or a basin with clean, cool water to rinse. A 2020 study led by researchers at the University of Michigan found that washing by machine uses 1,630 gallons of water per year versus 3,420 gallons annually when washing by hand.
But when people used the two-sink method, manual dishwashing produced fewer greenhouse gas emissions than any other washing method considered in the study, including 18% lower than using a dishwasher.