October
2 - 2007

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.

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