handwashing vs dishwasher

Washing Dishes By Hand vs. Dishwasher—Which is More Effective?

It’s an interesting question and one that comes up every time I write about how to use and maintain a dishwasher: Which is more cost effective: Handwashing dishes or using the dishwasher?

handwashing vs dishwasher

For many readers, handwashing dishes just feels better and something that’s hard to let go of, especially for those who don’t use enough dishes to fill the dishwasher more than a couple of times a week.

But is low-tech handwashing just as effective as a high-tech dishwasher? All things considered, the answer might surprise you.

Health and Safety

Water temp

To kill the germs and bacteria on dirty dishes, water must reach a scalding 140° F, according to Kelly Reynolds, Ph.D., an associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Arizona. But here’s the problem: If you set your home water heater to that temperature, you’ll put family members at risk of scalding when using hot water in tubs, showers, and sinks.

Hand washing

Most home water heaters are set to 120°F to avoid scalding, which means getting the water hot enough from the tap for hand washing dishes is all but impossible. And even if you could, 140° F is much hotter than your hands could stand for the minimum required 2-minutes those dishes would need to be exposed to that high temperature.

Automatic dishwasher

Since the early 1990s, most dishwashers in the U.S. have built-in heaters to boost water temperature to 140–145° F, the temperature recommended by manufacturers for optimum dishwashing performance, and by food safety experts for killing bacteria.

The advantage of a dishwasher with a booster heater is that you are assured 140–145°F in the dishwasher, but at the same time you can turn down your water heater thermostat to 120°F, which will significantly reduce your household water heating costs.

No dishwasher?

Not everyone has an automatic dishwasher. Or should you worry about Grandma’s Wedgwood, which is too delicate for the dishwasher—or your grandma who doesn’t own a dishwasher? No worries! Hand-washing can do an acceptable job of cleaning, but if you want your dishes sanitized, according to the Oregon State University Extension Service, you should add one step to the process:

After scrubbing with soap and water, soak everything for 5 to 10 minutes in 1 gallon of hot water and 1 tablespoon of chlorine bleach (this ratio works for a sinkful of dishes). Don’t re-rinse. Instead, pull the dishes out of the sanitizing rinse water and them to air dry in a rack or on a drying mat.

The bleach will kill any microorganisms that hand-washing alone cannot eradicate—an especially good idea if anyone in the house is sick. As everything dries, the bleach will evaporate, leaving your dishes clean and sanitized.

Economics

Water

Hand washing dishes typically uses a lot more water than a dishwasher. Unless you could get that sink full of dirty dishes hand washed with soap and rinsed with the water running from the tap in fewer than 2 minutes, it’s likely you’re using a lot more water than a current automatic dishwasher model requires. And in most cases, a lot more if you pre-rinse, wash, and then rinse again.

That’s because according to the U.S. Energy Department, a federal standard kicked in for dishwashers requiring a 20-percent reduction in the amount of water it uses. If yours is a highly efficient Energy Star-certified dishwasher, it uses less than 4.25 gallons of water per cycle.

Time

Not long ago, we remodeled our kitchen. I was without a dishwasher for what seemed like forever, but in reality, it was about a month. That doesn’t mean I stopped cooking or we stopped eating a home. I just had to find other ways to get the job done.

Health, safety, and economics aside, it took so much time—far more time than required to get the same job done with a fully operational dishwasher. To keep up, it seemed like I was hand washing all the time; the drying rack was forever full; even so, there were always dirty dishes in the make-shift sink and clean dishes always waiting to be moved from the drying rack to the cupboard.

Not only does my dishwasher save energy and water, it just makes my life so much easier.

Conclusion

The evidence is clear—a dishwasher is far more efficient than hand washing dishes. It’s safer, faster, and cheaper than even the most frugal method of hand washing.


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  1. Becky says:

    I agree with everything you said, especially the time it takes me to put the dishes in the dishwasher versus washing them by hand. But you didn’t mention the electricity used by the dishwasher. My 2-year-old GE takes 2 1/2 hours to run when I have the water heat boost on, and without running the drying cycle. I worry every time I run it, wondering how much it’s costing me. It replaced an old one that only ran for 45 minutes, so that was a jolt. It’s much, much quieter, and the hotter water makes a big difference, but I can’t imagine what it’s doing for 2.5 hours!

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  2. Linda D Radosevich says:

    With only three in our household (now two), I did my own survey. I didn’t use the dishwasher for a month, hand washed everything, and kept track of our water bill. Sure enough, the water bill jumped about $10! But to warm me up on a chilly day, put me in front of a sink of dirty dishes!

    Reply
  3. Suzanne Patterson says:

    I put everything I can in the dishwasher. But there are some things that aren’t dishwasher safe, like my melamine pieces that are favorites of my kids and anything that has metal trim. I also hand wash my knives to avoid dulling the edges. And I never put my vintage china, crystal, or silver in the dishwasher. It takes more time than I want to spend in the kitchen to hand wash those items, but the alternative is to stop using them. So I just do it.

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  4. Kim R says:

    100% agree. I have a Bosch dishwasher and it cleans dishes like a champ. I can put a baked on gunky, cheesy casserole dish in there after lightly scraping off any large pieces of food. The dishwasher totally cleans the dish to a shining finish, whereas if I had cleaned it by hand, I would have totally gunked up a scrubbing sponge, dirtied other implements scraping off the gunk, and it would still be hard to get all the stuff off every area, especially the corners. The same goes for greasy dishes-the dishwasher makes them squeaky clean again, whereas hand washing always seems to leave behind greasy areas that need to be re-washed. Dishwasher detergents are also designed to ‘eat’ the food stains and work better when you don’t clean your dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. All you’re supposed to do it scrape any larger pieces of food off the dishes, and then let your dishwasher and the detergent do their jobs. Just don’t forget to regularly clean your dishwasher filter, and run a regular cleaning cycle using a dishwasher cleaner such as Glisten, Affresh, etc.

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  5. Kathy LaValley says:

    If chlorine bleach is used for a sanitizing final rinse, shouldn’t the water be cool water to avoid breaking down the effectiveness of the chlorine? That’s what we are taught for the training to take girls camping or troop house camping in Girl Scouts.

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  6. Richard Rorex says:

    There is one advantage to living alone. I only have to run the dishwasher every ten days or so. Having over fifty years of accumulating dishes, I just put the dirty ones in the dishwasher and when it is full, run it. I have a little magnetic on it sign that says “Clean or Dirty”, that way I know whether or not I have to unload the dishwasher and put away the clean dishes.

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  7. Vivian Trammell says:

    I have been a fan for years. Every time I read I learn something new. It is SO practical. Thank you for all the money you have saved me. Today you made me appreciate anew my dishwasher.

    Reply
  8. Marilyn says:

    The one thing I disagree with is the time involved. I can wash, dry and put away in about 15 minutes. By the time the dishwasher is done and you put the dishes away you have used a considerable more time. Besides, I enjoy doing dishes.

    Reply
  9. Kay Jones says:

    While I agree with this, I also have found that with retirement and being widowed I have changed many of my routines. To encourage myself to do better than cheese and cracker for dinner I cook in batches, freeze and have a hot meal for dinner. This means lots of dishes when I do the cooking, but only a few on a daily basis. I have trouble only doing dishes when the dishwasher is full, so have to reach a compromise.

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