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Does Using a Dishwasher Actually Decrease Water Use?

Careful Loading

And How Much Electricity Does It Use?!

I have been asking myself these questions for far too long. Have you? We’re constantly being told that dishwashers save water – it is often among the top ten ways to go green on various internet lists. But is it true?

Finally, I did some research. Here’s what I found…

Baby and Bathwater

The Waterwise Study

In 2006, Waterwise studied the amount of water used in hand washing versus machine washing. According to their website, “Waterwise is a UK NGO focused on decreasing water consumption in the UK by 2010 and building the evidence base for large scale water efficiency. We are the leading authority on water efficiency in the UK.”

I could not find the study online, but according to several places it was quoted, the study found the average dishwasher uses between 12 and 16 litres (3-4.25 gallons) of water, while washing dishes by hand uses as much as 63 litres (16.5 gallons).

But the study failed to address the energy efficiency between the two methods…


The University of Bonn Study

The University of Bonn also conducted a study of 113 people from 7 European countries (PDF), comparing their water usage with a dishwasher and without.

Interestingly, they categorized the different hand washers as “super dishwashers” (people who preclean, soap clean, and rinse), “dishwashing economizers” (people who squirt detergent on the sponge and try to use as little water as possible), and “care-free dishwashers” (people who used as much water and detergent as they wanted to without thinking about it). But noted that economizers didn’t always end up using less than the other two groups.

Each person washed 12 place settings. On average, hand washing used 27 gallons (103 liters) of water, and 2.5 kWh of water-heating energy. The human time it took to wash, rinse, dry, and put away was approximately 80 minutes.

The dishwasher used approximately 4 gallons (15 liters) of water, consumed 1-2 kWh of total energy, and required 15 minutes of human time (loading and unloading the dishwasher). All in all, the dishwashers got the dishes cleaner, in less human time, using less water and energy.

The study recommended these tips for maximum efficiency:

  • Remove large food scraps from the dishes with a spoon or fork.
  • If hand washing, wash right away before the food sticks. If washing by machine, the machines can clean dishes that have been stored without cleaning or rinsing for several days, so no need to pre-rinse.
  • Do not pre-rinse the dishes under running tap water, whether washing them by hand or in a machine.
  • Manual dishwashing is best in two sinks: one with hot water and detergent, the other with cold water for rinse. (The study noted that those who were “economizers” tended to use a LOT more detergent, which counteracted their low water usage.)
  • Use the amount of detergent recommended by the manufacturer.
  • If you can afford a machine, use one – preferably a new one that is the most energy-efficient.

Scratchy Tongue Cycle

The Environmental Protection Agency

The information provided by the EPA is in line with the previous study’s findings. It is unclear where the EPA received their information, but I do hope they’ve done their own research! Here’s what they say:

Washing dishes by hand uses much more water than using a dishwasher. Using an ENERGY STAR qualified dishwasher instead of hand washing will save you annually 5,000 gallons of water, $40 in utility costs, and 230 hours of your time.

Note also that the average Energy Star dishwasher uses 4 gallons of water, where the average non-Energy Star dishwasher uses 6 gallons.

The EPA recommends these tips to maximize your dishwasher’s energy efficiency:

  • Run your dishwasher with a full load. Most of the energy used by a dishwasher goes to heat water. Since you can’t decrease the amount of water used per cycle, fill your dishwasher to get the most from the energy used to run it.
  • Avoid using the heat-dry, rinse-hold and pre-rinse features. Instead use your dishwasher’s air-dry option.
  • Scrape don’t rinse: just scrape food off the dishes and load. ENERGY STAR qualified dishwashers and today’s detergents are designed to do the cleaning so you don’t have to pre-rinse. If your dirty dishes are going to sit overnight, use your dishwasher’s rinse feature. **Pre-rinsing dishes before loading the dishwasher can use up to 20 gallons of water, where the pre-rinse cycle on a machine uses just 1-2 gallons.**
  • Using a dishwasher that is made in the past few years (or at least after 1994), and one that uses a booster heater (ie, it heats the water on demand vs using your water heater), you can save even more water and energy.


My Analysis:

Water Efficiency

This is great, and certainly caters to my want to be told that it’s more energy efficient to be lazy. I’m convinced that using a dishwasher is more water efficient than hand washing, unless you are hand washing and then trapping your water for use in watering plants or flushing the toilet (which a few people I know do). Of course, best of all would be to trap the water from the dishwasher and use the grey water on plants or to flush the toilet.

But… I’m not convinced about energy yet.

Energy Efficiency

Problem #1: Have you ever bought an Energy Star compliant appliance and looked at one of those yellow cards that tells you its efficiency? If you haven’t yet done so, turn over the card to see the European standards for the same appliance. European standards are much higher. Many of our Energy Star appliances wouldn’t pass their energy inspections.

In other words, the two studies were done in Europe, where appliances are smaller and more efficient than in the U.S. This article tackles this problem more in depth. Make sure to buy the most energy efficient appliance you can afford.

Problem #2: These studies haven’t taken into account the energy and water used to manufacture a dishwasher. And once they are no longer wanted, how much energy is used to get rid of them?

Turns out I’m not the only one asking these questions. According to Smart Planet, up to 80% of the dishwasher can be recycled, if done properly. But the question about manufacturing energy still remains.

No studies have been done about this, at least no studies I could find on the internet. So until there is a study, we’ll have to do our best with the information we have:

*Rules Of Thumb For Machine Washing*

1. Run the dishwasher only when it’s full (but not over-full),

2. Scrape dishes clean but don’t pre-rinse under the tap,

3. Always air dry,

4. Follow the manufacturer’s advice for getting the most efficiency out of the machine.

*Rules Of Thumb For Hand Washing*

1. Wash right away, before the food sticks,

2. Scrape dishes clean but don’t pre-rinse under the tap,

3. Fill 2 sinks with water: one for soapy warm, one for cold rinse,

4. Capture the water and use as grey water for watering plants or toilet flushing.

The Real Dishwasher

What Do You Think?

Are you convinced? How do you wash your dishes? Has this changed your mind at all? Have you read any other studies that can help us all decide what to do?

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134 comments to Does Using a Dishwasher Actually Decrease Water Use?

  • Claire

    We have had a dishwasher in each of our homes over the past 10 years and only used it twice in all that time. Apart from the energy usage difference (electricity for the dishwasher vs gas for the instant hot water), we find they are just too noisy in an open-plan house and I note from my parents’ household that they degrade the surface of glasses & dishes over time (which handwashing doesn’t).

    For handwashing I only half fill our sink, using 3.5 litres of water – my husband does it with less. We only post-rinse the cups and glasses, as part of half-filling the sink at the beginning of the wash. We do do a bit of pre-rinsing, but I doubt it would even double the total. All up, say 7 litres per day. All the research I have found says that even efficient dishwashers use 9 litres per wash.

    BTW, I doubt most people in small households would wait until a dishwasher was full before running. For us it would take 2 days to fill and then we’d have to handwash the dishes that are needed every day….which would mean we were handwashing AND dishwashing. When I visit my parents, with 4-6 adults in the house, it takes 3 meals to fill the dishwasher, and they still handwash some stuff that doesn’t fare well in the dishwasher.

    Which is an interesting point… people who use their dishwashers REALLY not handwash or rinse ANYTHING? Even benches (which we wipe as part of the handwashing process)?

    Anyway, I guess maybe it depends on what size household you have as to what is more efficient!

    And there is no way we spend 80 mins a day washing dishes. Definitely no more than 30 mins if one person is doing it, for a 3-person household.

    • Jo

      I agree with Claire.

      Not only do dishwasher’s damage some surfaces they don’t always clean very well. Many times I have placed items in the dishwasher at work only to find them not much cleaner when finished.

      As for water use, I have never heard of a dishwasher using 9 litres per wash. The minimum I could find is 13 litres per wash. I’m not sure where the 63 litres for hand washing comes from. I can only assume the tap must be running constantly. I have seen YouTube video’s on how to wash dishes (yes they exist!) which show well intentioned people washing dishes under a running tap!

      I half fill the sink when I hand wash and rinse as I go. The sink is never full so I assume I am using around 8 litres to wash, rinse and wipe down benches etc. Of course it would depend on the size of your household. But for two people, I can’t justify a dishwasher

    • Bruce

      So you say you use 7 litres per day, but then you mention that to fill up the dishwasher would take you at least 2 days, and the most efficient dishwasher you’ve seen consumes 9 litres. That’s 4.5 litres per day used by the dishwasher. A lot of people seem to argue with the numbers using intuition, but the numbers show otherwise.

      As for how it can damage some plates, I agree. If you also wouldn’t be able to wait long enough for the dishwasher to be full, then it make sense you hand wash. Finally, there is the manufacturing wastage that aren’t taken into account that probably offshoot those numbers. Lastly, I think it’d be sweet if taps could show you water consumption with a small indicator.

  • Mark

    63 liters of water to wash the dishes by hand! They must use a sink the size of a bath, my sink dosnt hold 10 liters. I only have a family of three but can wash the dishes quite comfortably and no rinse just drip dry. So for our family handwashing wins hands down, I think we have just all become a little lazy in life with all our gagets and over induldgence with everything, including water.

    • Gino

      I think Mark that you are mistaken with your sink size…10 litres is not 10 gallons and anyway most people when washing by hand don’t rinse in the other side of the full double sink..You have to rinse independently with running water,otherwise you’re rinsing with soapy water.. So hand wash includes rinsing off the soap also… By the way for Bruce…We are a family of 4 and use the dishwasher about 5 or 6 times a week and use the 30 minute cycle with 1/2 of a tablet of finish every time…Works for us

  • MadleyK

    Double sink double drainer, plastic bowl in each sink. Depending on quantity of dishes and assuming you have an efficient quick electric kettle, boil half to whole kettle of water for first bowl add cold water as needed and detergent. Start with cleanest items first and dirtiest last, scraping off excess food into compost pot. Pile washed items into second bowl. When all dishes done, drizzle cold water over items to rinse off suds. Minimal water used. 27 gallons of water for 12 places? I could do it for two gallons. As for bugs, the more our kids get when they are young the more immunised they become and less resistant to antibiotics later in life.

  • Anne

    I lived off the grid without running water for eight years and found that we used less than three gallons a day for dish washing. It’s easy to save water when you have to pump it yourself.

  • Julie S

    I was interested in saving on the cost of heating oil, which is used to heat my hot water. it costs me more $$ for hot water for a year, than it does to heat my home for the year and I live in Massachusetts= New England, United States. I cook alot, so I create alot of dishes everyday. I am beginning to think that the dishwasher is the way to go for me…and maybe paper plates. It can be ran every other day or a light wash every day. Seems to me that its not easy to find the amount of water a dishwasher uses when you are trying to get an exact amount from a manufacturer. Shouldn’t this be part of the energy savings info or part of the info websites likes Lowe’s display on their dishwashers? I currently pre-rinse all dishes with hot water, then some go in dishwasher but pots and pans and stuff like that do not- they are washed by hand and my son does themn and runs the water. I just hate the smell of the dishwashing detergent. UGGH.

  • Bennet

    We pick handwashing.

    Less noise.
    Less time, especially with practice.
    More conducive to quiet conversation.

    It can save a lot of water – just imagine you have to carry the water (I’m with you, Anne) and consider it an act of solidarity with all the people on this planet for whom food and water are cherished commodities and this debate is ludicrous.

  • Bennet

    We pick hand washing.

    Less noise.
    Less time, especially with practice.
    More conducive to quiet conversation.

    It can save a lot of water – just imagine you have to carry the water (I’m with you, Anne) and consider it an act of solidarity with all the people on this planet for whom food and water are cherished commodities and this debate is ludicrous.

  • Nick

    I am 24, single, and have lived in a variety of housing situations. In large houses or cooperatives a dishwasher is the best option. In small houses or apartments, it can’t possibly be. Unless you want a bunch of grimy congealing dishes sitting in your washer you are going to be rinsing them anyway. At that point, you’re about 90% done washing a dish, why not just finish it? Not to mention the ridiculous idea of putting your pots and pans into a dishwasher…

    God, the horrors I’ve endured as the roommate of some people…

  • Lis

    We are having this discussion right now in our house – with only two of us, even with cooking most nights, we don’t fill the dishwasher (which is 18 years old, but runs fine). This means that we hand wash pots we may need to use again the next morning or night, and we have to run the rinse and hold (2 gallons plus energy, according to the manual), or rinse the dishes, or they don’t come clean.

    I find the 27 gallons of water in that study hard to believe, except when I consider that it would take us almost a week to use that many dishes. I am experimenting with putting everything in it that I may need to run water on, including rinsing jars for recycling, (as fill ins) – but that is a lot of energy. In CT, we pay amond the highest electricity rates in the country, and just had another tax added on…….

  • We found that doing dishes by hand raised out water bill over $25/every 2 months (using the double sink method) where using our dishwasher raised our electric bill by $5.00/month and the water bill by a dollar or so. We do however have a dishwasher that is 2 years old, it heats its own water and we run it once a day with a family of 5. We still wash our pots & pans by hand because i only use cast iron and the water bill increase is barely noticeable.
    We do not pre-rinse on a regular basis but i do scrape (my dishwasher has a built in disposal but it’s not meant for chunky stuff). our dishwasher is also fairly quiet, meaning you don’t have to turn up the tv to hear over it or speak loudly over it. However when we used to live in apartments we ended up hand washing just about everything because they are fitted with some of the worst dishwashers I have ever seen, and noisy to boot.

    Personally i love my dishwasher. It is a huge time saver for me. We have a small homestead and 3 young children to look after. Between cleaning, washing clothes (daily chore with a baby in diapers),cooking & feeding, teaching (homeschooling 2 out of 3), gardening & caring for animals the last thing I have time for is to wash dishes, even if it’s only 20-30 minutes, those are minutes that could be spent elsewhere. Could i live with out it? Sure I can, but why would I if it costs us more money that we don’t have?

  • dalkulla

    OK, I took the challenge – I scraped scraps into my little compost bucket, put about 16 oz. warm water in a pan that fits the sink, a few DROPS detergent – washing little things first, then glass – rinsing under a trickle directly into the same pan so to add to the volume for bigger items, by the time I’m done w/ 4 people’s dishes, I have 1/2 to 1 gallon of water in the pan, all in the time it would take most to load a dedicated machine – AND wiped down the counter & stove with the same water, AND mopped the floor as needed… Even if I did find it ‘necessary’ to use a dishwasher, I’d never put my good knives, pots, cast iron, glass (it etches them with the chemicals and abrasives)or crystal, or china or silver… what does that leave… plastics – (don’t have any) and maybe stainless flatware? Then there’s the cost and space for the appliance, some pretty harsh chemicals, and what happens to said appliance once it has reached its end? How many of you have had to actually pay somebody to come repair said appliance? How long do you feel ok with dirty stuff waiting in the dishwasher to be washed? How many extra dishes are in your cabinet because you are waiting for a full load before you have clean stuff? I am 55 years old, have never owned a dishwasher, never will! There’s something seriously wrong with the notion a dishwasher is superior to hand washing (don’t even get me started on clothes dryers, trash compactors, blow dryers…)
    Anybody want to try to figure out how much water it takes for a good clean bath? I’m up to that challenge too… so far, I can wash my hair and body – and get CLEAN – with 1/2 gallon. Without trying too hard. Our conditioning to the use of such exorbitant amounts of (potable) water is an outrage and a disgrace.Maybe most people are comfortable with their excess, but I’d bet most of you could easily manage on – say – double what I use, and still make an incredible dent in our dependence on limited resources!

    • Jessica

      I am a HORRENDOUS marathon shower-taker. I won’t even tell you how long some of my showers have been in the past. It’s embarrassing and shameful. I love the feel of the warm water washing over me – but the truth is the truth: water is NOT unlimited, especially where I live now. So I’ve been trying to minimize my water usage when I bathe. I just turn the water off now between rinses – I use enough to get wet, then turn it off and lather up; back on to rinse, and off again when I’m done. Sometimes, I don’t even both with the shower – I just sponge-bathe (using baking soda instead of soap makes this REALLY easy). My husband HATES when I do this, though – he thinks I’m not really clean. His showers aren’t long, but he does run the water for a minute or more before getting in to let the water heat up (he apparently hasn’t caught on to the fact that the summer heat give us hot water immediately). I’m impressed and envious that you live so sustainably – I’m trying, but it’s really hard when I live with two others who treat our resources as though they’re absolutely limitless.

    • Torstan

      I have to dispute your results, they are a stretch.

      To give some perspective here a 1/2 full standard sink, one basin really basic sink is 7 Gallons of water right there. Yes SEVEN. Its very easy to get to 16 gallons in a day even with a trickle. At full tilt my low pressure faucet goes at 2cups every 5seconds or about 1 Gallon in 40seconds [3oz per sec], a very conservative turn on of the faucet is about 1/3 of that. [1oz/sec]

      So you say 16oz of water – 2 cups soapy water – to wash 4 peoples dinner set?
      Trickle rinse? How Trickle? 1 Gallon is 16cups of liquid=128oz 0.5oz per second is a trickle, an almost un-useable trickle. So, if you had 1/2 gallon in your pan after rinse – that took you about two minutes to rinse 4 peoples plates/glasses/cutlery and other stuff.

      Thats record time, was anything stuck to your dishes? Did all the soap rinse off?
      Did you wash all the preparation dishes too?

      Maybe you could get it down to 3 gallons, but 1/2 gallon, those can’t possibly be cleaned of residual soap. I’m sure if dinner was Lasagne they would definitely not be grease free.

      As for marketing spin for dishwashers, maybe theres some of that, but the studies use conservative numbers. Your average joe does not trickle rinse.

  • Jim Molesworth

    I concur with Dalkulla…

    Sorry but anyone who falls for the claim that dishwashers use less water than hand washing really is gullible. It is marketing spin from the manufacturers. They intentionally compare to someone running the tap constantly, rather than using normal sinks.

    We have a double sink and put about 5-6cm of water in each sink for a 4-person washup… one sink with detergent and the other clean water to rinse…about 3 gallons all up. We scrape the plates well first and work from the cleanest items and glasses to the pots and pans. And we wash really well… two of our children are “organ transplant recipients” and so we need to be really careful with cleanliness.

    We have also been using the same crockery set and glasses for 10 years…no etching at all. All our friends with dishwashers change their crockery every two years because it looks dreadful.

  • Rob

    This is an ongoing argument in our home. I believe that a dishwasher uses more water than I would if I were to wash the dishes. The kids don’t want to do their share like we did as kids, therefore side for the technology. I personally prefer handwashing over the alternative. I don’t use electricity, excessive water, or the 90 minutes to complete a cycle. I believe in saving resources and would love for someone to disprove the energy savings from using the dishwasher!

  • Susan R

    I agree that handwashing is vastly more efficient than depicted in the studies. I grew up spending summers in a log cabin in the Pennsylvania woods – we carried water upfrom the spring in “granite” buckets (enameled metal), and it took only 2-3 talons to wash up breakfast from 5-6 people. It is an art form to use water carefully rather than wastefully, as if it were unlimited.

  • [...] you may find interesting: “Does Using a Dishwasher Actually Decrease Water Use?” This entry was posted in Teaching and tagged News. Bookmark the permalink. ← Carpet [...]

  • Jessica

    I’ve been more of an advocate for hand-washing, primarily because I’m an economizer – I use as little water as I can get away with, and I try to minimize the amount of detergent I use. I rinse the dishes under the tap at low flow, then turn the tap off, suds up my scrubbie and scrub away. Periodically, I’ll have to turn the tap back on to wet down another item, but it’s only for a brief moment, and always at low flow. When everything’s scrubbed sufficiently, I turn the tap back on (low flow, of course) and rinse, then place the dishes, etc., in the dish rack to air dry. I’ve never attempted to see just how much water I use, but as miserly as I am with the water, I can’t imagine that I use more than the dishwasher does. Plus I don’t use hot water – where I live (in a desert), the merciless summer sun heats our water pipes such that sometimes it comes out hotter than the hot water from the heater. (It’s great for showers, too. Don’t have to turn on the hot water at all.) As to the amount of detergent used, I’m miserly with that, too. I want my dishes clean, to be sure, but a drop or two every so many dish or glass or fork is all I really need. Compared to the amount typically used when running the dishwasher, I’d say I still win.

    My husband, on the other hand, prefers the dishwasher because he doesn’t like to do the dishes by hand – it’s time-consuming, and he’d rather be doing other things. (Can’t blame him on that point.) The problem is, we have super-hard water, and every time he runs the dishwasher, the dishes come out only marginally clean, plus coated in a hard water film. The dishwasher just can’t compete with elbow grease.

    I’d prefer, though, that he not do the dishes by hand – he runs the water at full-bore continuously, and uses an indiscriminate about of dish soap. Same for our roommate. I’m not a fan of doing the dishes, to be sure. But it would seem that I’m the only one in our home who has any mind to conserve water. (Or soap.) It’s VERY frustrating. (Don’t get me started on how they do laundry…)

  • [...] to dish wash?  That is the real question I would like to answer with this exercise.  Here is one opinion floating around the “Internets” along with some tips below on hand washing and using [...]

  • [...] University of Bonn study showed that, on average, 27 litres of water are used while handwashing dishes (by different [...]

  • Melanie

    I’m a culinary arts student, and after taking a sanitation class I use the same commercial kitchen standards for dish washing at home.
    FYI for you crazy people with your “cold trickle rinse”:
    The wash temp should be 110F
    The rinse temp should be 170F

    I’m all for conserving water, but my sink takes about 5 mins to heat up to the proper wash temp, 3 minutes to fill, and an extra 2 minutes for further heating for the rinse before another few minutes to fill. I don’t fill all the way in either scenario, and recycle the rinse water. I guess you could say I can heat the water on the stovetop, but I usually wait until I actually have a few things to wash (and at that point most of my pots are waiting to be cleaned.

    Or I can use my dishwasher, which maintains a proper temperature and only uses about 4 gallons. We’re taught to trust the dish machines at school (ours (the one at school) averages at 180F and uses about 1/4 a gallon of water per load with each load containing about 10 dishes per load (it takes about 45 seconds per load).

  • Tim


    Does anyone know if it’s possible to get a European model here in the states? If they are so much more efficient why not use a European model? If US standards aren’t as high I’m fine with using a better standard. Would they just be crazy expensive after factoring in whatever taxes and shipping costs apply? Maybe there is some voltage conversion that needs to happen as well?

  • Pierre

    Also, keep in mind that

    “…A comparison was made between dinner plates washed by hand and dried by tea towel, and plates washed in a dishwasher. The results indicate that during hand washing and drying the total number of bacteria found on the plates increased seven-fold.”

    Blackmore, M. A., Howard, K., Prisk, E. M., & Staddon, M. (1983). A Comparison of the Efficiency of Manual and Automatic Dishwashing for the Removal of Bacteria from Domestic Crockery. Journal of Consumer Studies & Home Economics, 7(1), 25-29. doi:10.1111/j.1470-6431.1983.tb00085.x

  • Millie

    I love my dishwasher. We load it during the day as we go along. Scrape but don’t pre rinse. I only need to run it every second day. It uses 17 litres of water to do two days worth of dishes. It washes far hotter than I could tolerate even with gloves on. None of my glasses or plates are etched and we’ve had the same dishes and dishwasher for at least 8 years. Every month I clean the filter and every month or so I run a cleaning cycle with a commercial cleaner.
    But, environmentally speaking, one niggling question has been bothering me. The powder or tablets used to clean dishes are caustic, unlike dishwashing liquids used during handwashing. I assume the dishwasher wastewater ends up in the stormwater like everything else, and if so, just how nasty are these caustic chemicals to our environment and rivers? I really would like to know.

  • suriaflow

    Most people uses a lot of water in handwashing because they leave the water flowing all the time. I just use a bit of water to rinse, and reuse it in other dishes, glasses of pots. Then i separate the plates, the cups, etc and scrub them as groups with natural soap. Then i rinse them with low flow water, and reuse it on stuff that is waiting to be cleaned. This way all the water used is maximized.

  • Allison Dey

    Very hesitant to believe that anyone could possibly use 16 gallons of water or more to wash dishes by hand. I put a bucket under the sink to see how much water I use to wash dishes by hand. I rinsed the dishes to make them easier to wash, turned the water off, washed the dishes and stacked them for rinsing, turned the water back on and rinsed and stacked to dry. I did this experiment several times. At most for regular meals for 2 adults and 2 teens? 3 gallons. I felt I was running the water very liberally and freely. I didn’t keep turning it on and off constantly. 3 gallons for a day’s worth of dishes for 4. Oh, yeah, I do all the family’s dishes once a day. 3 gallons. We had a dishwasher that came with the place. It was rated at 9-16 gallons of water per use and it was only a year old. DISHWASHERS WASTE WATER. DISHWASHERS WASTE ENERGY. DISHWASHERS USE TOXIC DETERGENTS. It’s a fact.

  • JSB

    I’ve been researching this issue for quite a while and it’s really tricky. What I’ve discovered is that there’s no cookie cutter answer. Each individual has to figure out the best solution given his or her own particular situation. Here’s how I got mine:

    1. Cleanliness of dishes: Dishes washed in a dishwasher do have lower bacterial counts. However, it’s not due to anything the dishwasher does. The detergent you use in the dishwasher has bleach in it. If you were to use bleach in your hand washing water, the dishes would be equally as bacteria free. I don’t want to put my hands in bleach water, I don’t want bleach to end up in storm drains, and I really don’t want to eat off it. And if the data says hand washed dishes have 7x’s the bacterial counts, then I’ll go with that. But the next question has to be- 7x the bacteria is more, but is it dangerous? If so, how much. The answer is not much. Your phone has more bacteria than your hand washed plate.
    Dishwashers also cause etching, which creates hundreds of hideouts for bacteria.

    2. Water Usage: I don’t feel as if I get a straight answer from anyone here. According to the most commonly cited studies, the electric dishwasher uses less water. Both were performed in Europe with European dishwashers. I’ll be darned if I can find how much water my dishwasher uses, but I don’t think it’s four gallons. American dishwashers are larger than their European counterparts. I do know I don’t use 16 gallons to hand wash 12 place settings like the studies say. It’s about four to six- and that’s an over estimate. And the dishwasher studies did not take into account pre-rinsing or rewashing, which most people (including me) do.

    3. Energy usage: The dishwasher runs on electricity. I don’t. To wash 12 place settings (what a dishwasher holds) I would use about 6 gallons of hot water. I rinse in cold water. In a forty gallon tank, it takes .1395 Kwh to heat 1 gallon of water in 50 degree weather. So heating 6 gallons is about .8 kwh. (This is a hard question, because you don’t heat as you use it, you heat a forty gallon tank where it sits until you use it.) The dishwasher uses 1.36 Kwh per load- nearly double the electricity. Of course, even this is not simple. I get my electricity from wind, but hot water heater is gas. So in my particular case, energy usage is lower for hand washing, but carbon footprint is higher.

    4. The technology paradox: When you have to hand wash dishes, you don’t use as many of them.

    5. Time: As another poster noted, once you’ve rinsed the dish before you put it in the dishwasher, you’re 90% done with the washing process. The time it takes to completely wash all the dishes are only a few minutes more, so time is a non issue for me.

    6. Materials cost: Dishwasher, $600. Dish rack: $5. Palmolive: $.04 per load. Cascade: $.21 per load.

    The only thing going for the dishwasher is energy usage and time, and I just don’t think those outweigh less water consumption, fewer dishes, more environmentally friendly products, and cheaper material costs.
    The final decision- Hand washing is better! However, I retain the right to change my mind at any time with the introduction of new information.

    • JSB, thanks for taking the time to share your findings! I agree, each person has to find their own solution that works best for them. Right now we’re using the dishwasher, in part because time is an important component to our equation – we don’t rinse dishes before putting them in the washer (saves water and gets just as clean) . However, in the future I will likely go back to hand washing.

  • Dabu

    Most of us if not all on this website are more energy/water efficient than most, right? But I would guess that most in any of the studies aren’t.

    Also, if you are only using yourself or friends/family to compare to a formal study, than your “statistics” are only anecdotal and not scientific if you know what I mean. The studies conducted probably used 500+ or more and within that population there were would have been those who were just as careful with water usage as anyone here, those who just run the tap at full mindlessly, and those in between.

    So while I’m a conservationist for the most part myself (see I’m actually reading about good stuff on this website), I believe that a modern dishwasher uses less energy than handwashing for 95% of the population (including building it and disposing of it).

    If those 95% could be trained to used 1-2 gallons of water for a family of 4 to clean their dishes, than great. But it’s not going to happen, right? So for that 95%, promoting using a dishwasher is probably the best situation for us 5% that can. Does that make sense?

    And most of you would be surprised how much water you actually use in your sink if you haven’t actually measured every drop. I would guess that whatever small amount you think you use, you should “at least” double your estimate.

  • [...] Another tip is to use your dishwasher. It uses less water and less energy than washing by hand. However, if you’re just a couple or don’t have a dishwasher then hand washing is best. If you’re washing by hand it’s advised to fill one sink with warm soapy water and the other with cold water for rinsing. I found a good article on the subject if you’re interested. Click Here. [...]

  • DM

    i do all my dishwashing in cold water and use probably about the same as you state for the dishwasher.
    The rinse water that remains from one wash is used to put dishes in for the next (use it to wet dityu dishes and brush off any debris). The dishes soak or can be rotated in the water just before washing, and anything comes off very easily. As we don’t eat meat, done the right way cold water is fine for washing with, and gets everything squeaky clean – but it takes a little practice. A few odd things need a little thought eg butter comes off instantly with a scrap of paper/tissue. It all takes very little time and is very effective when practised and takes very little energy or water. d

  • Kelly

    The new energy and water conserving dishwashers are much more efficient than I am at hand washing, and they are quiet. The old dishwasher was very loud and used 12 gallons of water. We took it to a local appliance recycling center. Although we are a 2 person household, we cook a lot from scratch so we use the dishwasher daily.

  • [...] Sources: Epler, M. (2008, September 5). Does using a dishwasher actually decrease water use? Retrieved from: [...]

  • ELowe

    I personally can’t stand smelling dish soap on the dish I’m about to use. if my drinking water glass had dawn residue on it because somebody didn’t rinse it well it made me sick when i was a kid. So now, even though I’m pretty sure I could tolerate it, the smell drives me batty. So if handwashing, I rinse hot with copious amounts of water. I know at the restaurant that I work at, one of the only issues with the dishwasher is if the rinse doesn’t work quite right (because the dishwashing staff is lazy and never changes the water) the soap makes people sick. The natural dishsoap just doesn’t work, smells lovely, I still don’t want to drink it. So, the solution for me, put the dishes in the washer. Save me time, water, and electricity.

  • Greg

    We have a solar hot water heater (thermosiphon) and run the dishwasher in the afternoon or right after we get home from work so it draws the hottest water into the backup heater. Due to the size of our kitchen, we got a small dishwasher (18 vs. 24 inches) and we’ve never had the problem of having to wait too long to run the dishwasher. That’s made me think that most dishwashers are just too darn big. On days when the sun heats the water really well, our dishwasher probably doesn’t have much to do to heat the water. I do wish our dishwasher cleaned a bit better. It doesn’t have a macerator so we have to clean a screen once in a while. Since our hot water usually doesn’t cost anything, it’s hard to tell how much we pay for a load, however: that would depend only on how much energy the washer itself actually uses.

  • Ted

    This is an old post but I can’t help but correct some misconceptions:

    Bare cast iron should NEVER be washed by hand or in a dishwasher. After cooking it should be wiped off with a paper towel with cooking oil on it and hung back up.

    Stainless steel pans in general are the best pans to use in a dishwasher. The best have thicker bottoms or copper bottoms. Stainless is used in most commercial areas for this reason. They
    can also survive accidentally cooking the food too hot and burning it onto the pan.

    Most other pans are NOT good either for cooking or in a dishwasher. “non-stick” teflon coated pans always end up with the coating flaking off after age, and cannot survive overheating. Wood-handled pans are a haven for bacterial. Glass pans will shatter if accidentally put on a hot stove with nothing in them. They can also shatter if taken off a hot stove and put in a sink of water.

    Washing dishes in the evening after dinner or when you leave for work is usually how you deal with noisy dishwashers. Better ones are insulated and very quiet.

    Glass only etches in a dishwasher when you use too much soap. Generally a half to a 1/3d of the dishwashers cup is all the soap that is needed. We have 15 year old glasses and dishes that have NOT etched and always been washed in the dishwasher.

  • Don Parker

    I’m retired and live alone. I now wash my dishes by hand, daily, just like my parents did. I use a mere two gallons of water that I heat on the stove, and that heating takes just minutes. I wash the dishes in one dishpan, let them drain of their soap, then rinse them in another dishpan of hot water. I then dry them by hand with cotton dishtowels.

  • [...] the surprising practicality of this sink really impresses me. Added to which are the studies that a dishwasher uses less water than hand washing, and this little model apparently uses half the amount of water of a regular [...]

  • Claudia

    I am wondering how much water does a dishwasher use per minute, approximately :) does anyone know?! :)

  • Mike

    Why has no one mentioned that a dishwasher subjects the dirty dishes to a longer time in hotter water to kill germs. A lot of our meals are chicken and pork based. I feel much better letting the machine kill the germs than a few seconds under luke warm water and a cold rinse.

  • liam

    Thankx for the imformation, it is useful

  • [...] di lavare i piatti a mano utilizziamo la stessa quantità di acqua calda (in realtà le lavastoviglie sono un po’ più efficientinel risparmiare acqua). Il costo opportunita’ di lavare i piatti a mano dipende da quanto [...]

  • meee

    WOuldnt it be easy to measure the amount of water used just bycollecting it in a bucket when you wash? Im gonna try it and maybe ill find this site again to post results but im pretty sure everyone can find a way to do that themselves

  • I have always lived in the country and never had a dishwasher. I just recently rented a home in the city and it has a dishwasher. I’ve never been concerned with water usage because I’ve always had a well, but now I have to pay for water in the city and I am concerned what is the best way to wash. I have an Energy Star dishwasher and their website has me convinced it’s the best way to go, but after reading the different opinions, I’m back where I started. I absolutely refuse to use cold water, I want the water as hot as I can get it for washing and rinsing. I also hate the idea of having a rinse sink, the rinse sink always gets suds and I don’t feel they are getting rinse properly. I know that cold water will reduce the suds, but I don’t like the cold water because I don’t feel it is as sanitary and it takes the dishes longer to dry. Yes I could towel dry them but how many towels will I need to use, then we are just looking at more water and energy for laundry. My husband has agreed to allowing me to use the dishwasher once a month, I’m thinking at least once a week because I don’t normally do dishes on the weekend. We are a family of 4 and our dogs do all the pre-washing, lol, another reason I like to use scoulding hot water to wash. Perhaps if I can find a way to make the rinse sink work for me, handwashing may be more effecient. If anything, the dishwasher will make a great dish drainer when I do handwash, more counter space with out a dish rack, lol.

  • michael

    I live in Peru. Here is my thought about hand washing: don’t leave the tap running while you scrub a dish and you’ll save a lot. wet it, close the tap, clean the dish then rinse it. since al the dishes are clean, use gravity to rinse for you: put the biggest dishes at the bottom. rinse a fork, for example, let the water run down to a bowl below and start rinsing that, then give the final quick rinse on that bowl (i hope you get the idea).

    my thought on the article: i’m sorry but this report is absolutely false. dishwashers use so much more water than estimated here, and the comparison didn’t take into account that people need to thoroughly rinse a dish in the sink before putting it in the dishwasher for it to be actually clean at the end of a cycle. many times, i watch friends do this and it would only take a little more effort (and water) to wash the dish completely and skip the dishwasher. instead, many people run it through the washer after rinsing the dish off well. my family used a dishwasher for years and we all know you need to get that dish pretty clean before you can even put it in the dishwasher for it to be clean at the end. many people run the dishwasher another time, wasting more water.

    i’m sorry but i have to question whether dishwasher corporations aren’t behind this post.

    • Hi Michael, I’m afraid it doesn’t look like you read my post. I did address rinsing of dishes – multiple times, in fact. “Scrape dishes clean but don’t pre-rinse under the tap” – this is #2 on my “Rules of Thumb”.

      Your last line is just silly. I’m not sure what your motivation is for writing it, but you might want to check out the rest of my blog. :)

      With all my best to you and your family,

  • swimbo

    Growing up with a cistern meant that every raindrop was conserved. I now have piped in water, but still have the same habits. Dishes are scraped, rinsed in old dishwater, washed in a tub in the previous load’s rinse water re-heated, using BranchBasics (a product that uses enzymes rather than caustics or foaming detergents, very antibacterial/antifungal), and rinsed over another tub. Total water usage is consistantly less than 8 liters… And the used dishwater is then used to water the garden or flush the loo. It takes less time overall than loading and unloading the dishwasher did when a roomy had one!

  • mk

    Ok I am single. I pile everthing up in a sink of really hot water with a bit of detergent. let it sit. it comes out clean with virtually no scrubbing :-). I use 2 sinks per day, about 15L max. Surely this is better than a dishwasher? ESPECIALLY HAS ANYONE TAKEN INTO ACCOUNT THE CARBON FOOTPRINT OF MANUFACTURING THE DISHWASHER IN CHINA AND SHIPPING IT TO YOUR HOUSE??? = MASSIVE (I’m an industrial designer!)

  • keith

    In terms of energy to heat the water it is not as easy to calculate. The temperature of the water when you hand wash is much lower so there should be an additional factor applied to this.

  • Jim

    Very nice article and informative discussion. In my opinion it really depends. It depends on how dirty the dishes are and how efficient the washing is. This applies to both hand washing and dish washing. If you keep the water running while you are scrubbing the dishes then water consumption is much higher.

  • Gerry Lavell

    I wash my dishes under a trickle of cold water at about 0.2oz/sec. I only use detergent on dishes as individually necessary and try to make sure the run-off goes to another item needing detergent. If anything needs soaking I will wash enough items, before the actual washing-up, to provide soaking water. The dishes are possibly slightly less clean but I individually inspect when wiping. I’ve done it this way for years and my water use is 23% of the average and my gas usage is about 0.5.

  • [...] versus hand washing — if you think that the health care situation is contentious, check out Does Using a Dishwasher Actually Decrease Water Use by One Green Generation, and make sure to read the comments. This would be lively action on C-Span, [...]

  • Hala

    I live in Jordan
    since I was young, the method of washing dishes is as follows:
    1- scrap all food particles off dishes, and pre-rinse glasses
    2- fill the sink with hot water and drop all dishes in it
    3- fill a bucket with clorex and detergent and dip the sponge
    4- scrub everything with the sponge and put in in the other empty sink
    5- wash under running water and place them to air-dry
    6- pans and cooking pots is a nother story, you have to keep scrubbing them with a very hard sponge til they get clean
    6- two or three hours later when everything is dry, everything is put in place

    this process in my house is done like 5-6 times per day. I am an engineer, and I have a full time job, and my energy drains out after washing the dishes a couple of times. plus, we always have guests.

    after I brought a dish washer, I don’t have to stand by the sink to wash everything,, and we only wash the dishes 1-2 times a day, we wait until it’s fully loaded and we turn it on.. my hands are getting dry no more.. and now, after a hard day at work, I through everything in the dishwasher and spend some time with my family :)

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