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Q&A: The Dishwasher vs. Washing Dishes By Hand

By Leah Ingram |
Which one is better? The answer might surprise you.

Last year, I addressed a reader question on my blog about whether it was more eco-friendly to use paper plates rather than run the dishwasher-the answer was to go with the dishwasher, which surprised many people. In response to that, another reader wrote with a related question. I'm sure it's a quandary all of us green and frugal folks have considered at one time or another:

Is it more green to use a dishwasher or to wash by hand? I don't own a dishwasher, and I wash "Asian" style with a small bowl of hot soapy water to dip the washcloth in, scrub the item, then a quick hot rinse from the tap, then onto the drying rack. My husband has always argued that a dishwasher would be more efficient with the water, but I don't see how it could be. What do you think?

The next time that you wash dishes by hand, here's an experiment I'd like you to try. Stop up the sink over which you hot rinse the dishes, and then at the end of the wash cycle, measure how much water is in there. I'll bet it's more than you thought you were using, because when it runs down the drain, you don't see it. How many gallons did you end up with?

I'm suggesting this experiment because, unbelievably, newer, efficient dishwashers use as little as five gallons of water for the entire dishwasher load. On the other hand, says the American Water Works Association, when you wash dishes by hand, the average person uses 20 gallons of water. Now maybe this figure comes from those that leave the tap on as they're washing and aren't conservative with water the way you are. But I'll bet that it would be a challenge for you to hand wash an entire day's worth of dishes using five gallons only-for the dipping, washing and rinsing.

Considering that you don't own a dishwasher, you don't have one as your back-up option, and I would suggest you continue to wash your dishes in the water-saving manner you've been using. But in the future, you may have to question whether getting a dishwasher does make sense as a water- and time-saver.

What's your preferred method of dish washing? Share your preference below!

Leah Ingram is the author of Suddenly Frugal: How to Live Happier and Healthier for Less (Adams Media, 2010) and founder of the popular blog Suddenly Frugal.

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  • cassandra k. 8 years ago
    washing dishes by hand
  • james and Ella Mae j. 9 years ago
    we use the dishwasher to disinfect the dishes and we love our dishwasher.
  • VALERIE H. 9 years ago
    I like having the option. My dish washer cuts down on the time it takes me to wash all those dishes. I still wash dishes by hand but when I am tired, in a hurry, have lots of company over etc... I enjoy knowing those dishes are being done while I am entertaining.
  • Genie C. 9 years ago
    When I was a kid, we just washed them by hand, but when I became a mother, I realized that things would be healthier for the children, with a dishwasher, and I asked my husband for one. It definitely helps keep them more sanitary, and is less time consuming. My family has had very little sickness!
    I had a friend who wanted one, too, but her husband would not do it. I explained to her how much more sanitary and healthy it was for the family, and how it could keep medical bills down, and she gave him that advice as to how much better it would be, for their health, and he agreed to do it. It just makes sense! It worked!
    I would never go back, and I do believe that it is good for us all, and it even saves water and money in more ways!
  • sweaterhead x. 9 years ago
    Unless you have an ancient dishwasher, you do NOT NOT NOT need to rinse beforehand - that would be wasteful in time and water. You should scrape any large excess food off of plates and that's it.
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