How the Dishwasher Changed Our Lives

A little over a year ago, we got a new dishwasher and became (for the first time in my life) a household that uses a dishwasher routinely.  Read my previous article for lots of information on how dishwashers actually use less water and energy than washing dishes by hand, and read the comments for important details on water-heating and pre-rinsing.  Now I’ll give some updates on what we’ve learned in our year with a dishwasher.

I went from spending about 4 hours a week hand-washing dishes to spending about 1 hour a week–I still have to hand-wash these items:

  • lightweight plastic containers and dishes.  Various people have assured me that you can, too, put these in the dishwasher, and it’s true that it doesn’t melt them . . . but I don’t like the way they look or feel when they come out, a little rough and sometimes with whitish streaks.  The only plastic we put in contact with food is polypropylene (#5) which is believed to be safe, but it may be less safe if it starts to break down, and exposing plastics to heat is a good way to break them down.  The dishwasher gets much hotter than my water in the sink.  Also, the whitish streaks may be dishwasher soap that didn’t rinse off, and although we are using soap that’s supposed to be quite safe for us and the environment, we still don’t want to eat it!  Also, I often use these containers to bring yogurt in my lunch for work, and it gets up into the groove around the lid, and the dishwasher doesn’t get it out but bakes it on so that it’s very hard to remove.
  • lids for our glass jars and juice bottles.  I was putting these in the dishwasher at first but found that they often got flipped out of place by the water jets and landed concave-side-up so that they were full of dirty water when the washing ended.  Also, the ones that had been through the dishwasher seemed to seal less well.  It’s particularly important to me to maintain the seals of the juice bottles because I use them in my lunch bag (so if they aren’t sealed, I lose some of my juice and have to wash the bag) and because those Mott’s and Tropicana bottles, which I picked up for free during my big recycling project, aren’t made anymore.
  • pots and baking pans that are so big they prevent the sprayer on the underside of the top rack from rotating.  It took me a while to figure out that this was the reason that, if I washed a large item, everything in the bottom rack got less clean!  I also end up washing large-ish items by hand sometimes just because there isn’t room for them in the dishwasher now and I don’t want them sitting around dirty until the next load.  Given the choice between hand-washing our big soup pot and hand-washing the 8 plates and 3 jars that can fit in the same place, I’d rather wash the pot!
  • anything that needs a lot of soaking or scrubbing and has not completed 90% of that process before I’m ready to run the dishwasher.  Although we don’t need to rinse dishes in general, really gunky stuff like burned tomato sauce needs to come off or be significantly loosened before it goes into the dishwasher, or the dishwasher will leave some of it behind and I’ll have to scrub anyway.
  • mugs that are stained by coffee or tea, if I don’t want them to stay stained.  These stains are easy to remove with a little baking soda on a damp cloth, but the dishwasher takes off only about 25% of the stain.
  • bamboo chopsticks, which I often use to stir honey or sorghum syrup into hot drinks, don’t reliably stay in the utensil basket.  We don’t want them to get caught in the machinery.
  • plastic bags.

We load dishes into the dishwasher after using them, so loading doesn’t take any more time than we previously spent rinsing dishes and stacking them in the sink until I was ready to wash.  I do spend about 10 minutes before I start the dishwasher gathering any stray dishes from around the house and rearranging to cram in as much as possible!  Daniel often puts away the clean dishes–as he usually puts away the clean hand-washed dishes–and there hasn’t been much change in how long that takes.

We really don’t have to pre-rinse much.  We get most of the food off our dishes simply by eating it!  Oatmeal, frozen blueberries microwaved in the bowl, melted cheese, and other food residue that would be stuck to a dish after brief rinsing may or may not come off completely in the dishwasher, so we place these dishes under the faucet where they’ll get rinsed and soaked by the water that runs off when we wash our hands, and then after a few hours of that they go into the dishwasher.

We don’t run the dishwasher until it is full.  For our family of 3, this takes 3 or 4 days.  It has been tricky for me to anticipate when it will be time to run it so that I can hand-wash dishes at the same time (so that the water wasted to bring hot water to the kitchen does double duty), and recently I’ve been wondering whether that is worth the effort because I read somewhere that dishwashers release harmful fumes so you shouldn’t be in the room with one while it’s running! But if I’m out of sync with the machine, then we have clean jars waiting for their lids or clean lids waiting for their jars, and we have to figure out where to store them!  At first, I was hand-washing only while the dishwasher was running, but that led to dirty dishes piling up so that the task began to seem as onerous as before (even though I really am spending less time on it!), so now I try to hand-wash every other day.

One big impact the dishwasher has had on our lifestyle is that filling it requires us to use almost all of our everyday dishes!  We often run out of some commonly-used item (plates, cereal bowls, spoons, butter knives) when it’s not quite full.  The good news is that this has increased innovation, as we become willing to use those bowls from the back of the cabinet that aren’t our favorites.  The bad news is that sometimes we have to hand-wash a couple of items on short notice just so we can sit down to a meal!  Do we need to buy a few more dishes?  They might not fit in our cabinets when everything’s clean!  We can’t decide until we do that big cabinet reorganization that we’ve been meaning to do, now that we’ve lived in our house almost 10 years and acquired some new appliances.

We have not tried any dishwasher detergent other than Biokleen powder because it works really well, it is plant-based and earth-friendly, and it went on sale just as we were using up the first can!  After a full year, we’ve used only one-and-a-half cans.  I fill the dispenser about half full, and that’s enough to do the job!

We put white vinegar in the rinse-aid dispenser and do not use the heated dry cycle.  Many of the dishes are dry when we open the dishwasher.  Others will dry after a few hours if we open the door, take out the utensil basket (which is on the inside of the door), and pull out the bottom rack.  At first I was pulling out the top rack, too, but I found that doing so dumped puddles from the tops of the top-rack dishes onto the bottom-rack dishes.  The top rack dries almost as well left inside the open dishwasher.  Items that are still wet go into our dish drainer until they’re dry.

Our electric bill has gone up a little bit, but since we had a rate increase last year and I’ve been using a humidifier a lot, it’s unclear how much of that is caused by the dishwasher.

Overall, we feel that the dishwasher saves time and is easy to use.  We haven’t quite adjusted our dish-handling rhythms to a system that feels comfortable and natural, but we’ll get there!  Any questions?

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

7 Responses to How the Dishwasher Changed Our Lives

  1. eryn says:

    Our dishwasher is indispensable. I can’t imagine being without it. We just recently had our die on us and had a week to replace it. My husband, who handles after-dinner cleanup, was dying. Aside from all the time spent handwashing dishes, my husband is a little paranoid about germs so he doesn’t think things really get clean without a dishwasher (apparently, it is a miracle anyone survived before they were invented). We have a 4-hour delay setting on ours, so we usually set it to run 4 hours after we go to bed to help cut down on electricity costs.

    • 'Becca says:

      I forgot to mention the delay setting! Ours has the option of delaying 2, 4, or 6 hours. When I am not hand-washing dishes at the same time, I usually set it up to run in the middle of the night, and then I don’t run the water to get it hot (because it would just cool off again)–I am not sure which way saves more money, although obviously when it starts itself at 2am it IS using extra electricity to heat the water….

  2. I so appreciate your information-packed posts. This is pretty much how we use our dishwasher, too–but I hadn’t connected the dots on the plastic containers.

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