My New Dishwasher vs. The Environment

There are many things we can do to conserve resources that take some extra work.  Many of them pay off by giving us better quality “real” stuff to use, health benefits, cost savings, or surprising new versions of convenience.

Then there’s washing the dishes.

It turns out that today’s automatic dishwashers use less water and energy than washing dishes by hand! For once, the environmentally friendly way is not the difficult way! Of course, it’s best to use your dishwasher wisely and choose a natural detergent and rinse aid, but those parts are easy thanks to the intrepid research of Katie at Kitchen Stewardship.

Now, washing dishes by hand is a chore that I never minded all that much, and my dad feels the same, so I never have lived in a home where the dishwasher (if we had one) was used routinely.  I came up with lots of ways to diminish dishwashing drudgery, and it was fine except for the time it took!  I’ve been spending about 4 hours a week washing dishes, almost every week, for 17 years.

Last summer, we happened to visit my out-laws (isn’t that what you call your partner’s parents if you are happily unmarried?) at a time when we were feeling very stressed, so we spent an evening talking with them about just what was wrong.  After a while, my mother-out-law pointed out that I was repeatedly mentioning the dishes as a source of stress–how I was staying up past midnight just to wash the freaking dishes, how I felt unable to cut myself any slack on this chore because coming downstairs in the morning to a kitchen filled with dirty dishes is so dispiriting for me, etc.  She offered to buy us a dishwasher for Christmas!

It took us five months to get our act together (what with all our other sources of stress…), do some research on which model of dishwasher we might want, and go to Sears to check them out in person and make a final decision.  On Monday, we finally got our new dishwasher, and then we had to generate enough dirty dishes to fill it, but last night we put it to the test!

I have been deposed from my role as the family dishwasher.  This machine does about as good a job as I can–that is, it left a few specks on 3 items that my sensitive fingertips would have detected, but the overall squeaky cleanness of the dishes seems slightly superior–and although it took about half an hour longer to wash them than I would, the amount of human time and effort required was much, much less! Also, the dishes were mostly dry already, without rinse aid or a heated dry cycle!

The one thing that surprised me about the dishwasher’s instructions is that you’re supposed to run the water in the nearest sink until it gets hot, before you start the dishwasher, to improve its energy efficiency because it won’t have to heat the water as much to reach the high temperature it uses.  That could get a little bit wasteful . . . but all I have to do is time it such that I’m running the water anyway to make some hot soapy water (a smaller amount than I used to use) to wash the few plastic items and jar lids that can’t go in the dishwasher.  I also can collect the water while waiting for it to get hot and use it to water my plants.

I think having a dishwasher is going to work for me!  This is the Valentine’s Day tips edition of Works-for-Me Wednesday, but in my opinion a dishwasher makes a lovely Valentine’s Day present.  Thanks, Elsa!!

Oh, and I guess I do have a Valentine’s Day tip: On that day, focus on love and expressing love in ways that don’t cost money.  On February 15, start watching for clearance sales on chocolate-covered cherries and such, and then buy a gift for your lover.

About 'Becca
author of The Earthling's Handbook, about the environment, parenting, cooking, and more!

24 Responses to My New Dishwasher vs. The Environment

  1. Regarding running the water until it gets hot, think of it this way: the cold water sitting in your hot water pipes *already* represents wasted energy. The water in the pipe was hot; now it’s cold. Heating it a second time with electricity (which is more expensive than your gas water heater) will be throwing good money after bad.

    The best solution I know to this problem is a gadget called a Chili Pepper, which pumps the cold water from the hot water pipe into the cold water pipe rather than down the drain: It’s not cheap, so you would need either strong evidence that you’re wasting money without it or strong principles to justify buying one.

    Mazeltov on the new dishwasher! Our two-person household doesn’t usually generate enough dishes in a day to fill the dishwasher, but we sure love it when we have company!

  2. EnviroBecca says:

    Good point, Ben!  I tend to forget that when I shut off the hot water tap, the entire pipe from the tap to the hot water heater is full of hot water that will immediately begin to cool off.  In our house, the bathroom is not above the kitchen, and the water heater is below the bathroom, so the pipe from water heater to kitchen is at least 25 feet long and holds a significant amount of water.

    I received an e-mail asking if rinsing the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher uses enough water to cancel out the dishwasher’s efficiency.  The extensive pre-rinsing I’ve seen some people do might have this effect, but to give our new dishwasher a proper test, we didn’t rinse anything.  It did a great job anyway!  A bread pan that I would’ve had to scrub lengthily by hand and a glass bowl with salmon grease dried onto it both came out sparkling clean!

  3. Jessica says:

    This gives me a lot to think about. I’ve so far avoided dishwashers for exactly the reasons you mentioned–water and energy use–so maybe it’s time to rethink that when we move out of our apartment. I’m not sure if the time and hassle factors would be changed, though–it seems more time-consuming to put away a dishwasher-full of dishes than the few plates and glasses we used at our last meal. And then you run into the issues of, Are the dishes clean or dirty? Did you remember to put the soap in? How much do I need to scrape/rinse off ahead of time? This definitely gives me more to think about, though🙂 Thanks!

  4. EnviroBecca says:

    Well, it’s only been a week, but so far I’m spending about 1/4 as much time on dishes as I used to.

    Our old system was to wash dishes every other day, pile them in a daringly tall heap in the drainer, let them air-dry, and then put them away next day.  So putting away all at once a dishwasher-full of dishes is basically the same thing, although it does require more bending over.  I don’t see how putting away dishes more often would save time–not only is it the same number of dishes, but it’s less efficient because you pick up two plates and put them in that cabinet, then pick up four spoons and put them in that drawer, twice, instead of putting away four plates and eight spoons with the same basic motions.  But I can understand feeling more motivated to put away dishes when there are fewer of them so it seems like a more minor chore.

    We’re actually rinsing dishes less than we did when we were stacking them in an open sink for 48 hours.  Then, we had to prevent odor (which is now contained in the dishwasher–though that may not work well enough in summer!), and gooey dishes that had been stacked had to be scrubbed hard on both sides.  Not only does the dishwasher do the scrubbing for me, but its prongs hold the dishes apart so they don’t transfer goo to each other.

    For the “clean or dirty?” issue, our dishwasher has a “clean” light which stays on from the time it’s finished until you press the “off” button, even if you open it.  We don’t want to leave it on any longer than necessary (if nothing else, it’s drawing a little power for that light), so when we turn it off, we open the door and pull out the racks to help the dishes dry completely.  Then it’s so thoroughly in the way that we cannot forget to put away the dishes or get confused about their status!

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  17. Here is a short video from someone aiming to disprove that dishwashers use less water and energy than hand washing: He makes a good point that even the best-intentioned of us will accept a convenient “fact” without verifying whether it is true. He has a similar video about compact fluorescent lights in which he demonstrates that people are rarely in a bathroom for more than 30 seconds at a time (the break-even point for CFLs to last longer than incandescent bulbs).

    BUT — saving water or electricity is rarely the whole picture. Yes, if you’re in a situation where water is limited, you can wash dishes more efficiently than a dishwasher, provided efficiency is measured in ounces and Watts and not in calories or minutes.

    • 'Becca says:

      You’re very accurate in saying he is “aiming to disprove” it. All he has proven is that HIS method of dishwashing uses less WATER. He hasn’t proven that it uses less energy; he didn’t even mention the energy used to heat the water, and the first thing that makes me skeptical about his dishwashing method is that he didn’t run the water to get it hot before he started (or if he did, he didn’t show that part and didn’t account for that water in his total), and when I have tried washing dishes starting from cold and running the rinse water into the wash sink, I was not able to get the water in the sink more than lukewarm at any point in the process.

      I think it’s pretty sketchy to run this video at high speed so that we can’t see how long it took him to wash the dishes, and to skip showing the finished dishes so we can’t see if they’re really clean. Based on my experience over many years of hand dishwashing, you spend a lot more time per dish if you don’t soak them before rubbing them. I laughed out loud when he said that with his method, you never have to re-wash dishes–when I had housemates who washed dishes without soaking, about 20% of the “clean” dishes they left in the drainer needed to be rewashed because they were still greasy or had food specks stuck to them. This guy may be more diligent than they were, but it’s not an easy method.

      I hardly accepted the “fact” of dishwasher efficiency without verification: I was extremely skeptical and read about 10 articles on the subject, including the 2 linked. (Did you read them?)

      I don’t know that I want to see how he “demonstrates” how long it takes “people” to use the bathroom! If he’s assuming, as he did in this video, that all people do things the way he does, that’s pretty lousy science. Personally, I often put my lunch in the microwave at work for 2 minutes and then go to the restroom, which is about 30 feet away and has to be unlocked with a key, and I usually get back just about the time the microwave beeps. While part of my time is spent walking and unlocking rather than actually in the bathroom, I doubt it’s 3/4 of the total time. A man who is only urinating, is wearing only one layer of pants, and doesn’t wash his hands or look in the mirror probably can spend <30 seconds in a bathroom, but that's hardly representative of "people".

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