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.



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.


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.


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. James says:

    All costs have to be considered in.I have a 12 SQFT home. I do dishes once a week. my total electricity bill last month was $35. I have been here for a year, & am not dead yet. Disagree with my method all you want, I’ll pocket the cash.

    • Mary Hunt says:

      12 sq. ft.? Of course you should let your situation and resources be your guide. Consider EC a suggestion. Or entertainment? (However, facts are facts 🙂

  2. Arlynn says:

    My questions are, when comparing the cost of a dishwasher versus handwashing dishes:
    1. Someone already mentioned the cost of electricity when you run a dishwasher – is that factored in?
    2. Is the initial expense of buying a dishwasher counted?
    3. Are dishwasher repairs counted as well?

  3. Cary D. says:

    A huge problem with ALL of the cost comparisons I’ve searched for is that they’re always based upon many dishes (multiple place settings…for 4 people for example) with their comparisons..where I’ll agree, a dishwasher is more appropriate. However, I’m personally a one bowl, wooden cutting board, one spoon or fork (if that), and one small pot, only occasionally, kind of guy who insists a relatively quick hand wash is not only appropriate but more cost effective rather than waiting more than a week to fill the dishwasher. I can find no statistics to present my friends or relatives to support this…which is mildly frustrating. Conclusion: Thanksgiving dinner…dishwasher….Lunch time bagel sandwich or spaghetti dinner…hand wash gets the nod.

  4. Sandie says:

    The only part that bothers me from this article is assuming someone is keeping the tap running for rinsing during hand washing. To me, that is a HUGE waste of water. Instead I turn my tap on and off to rinse each item before putting it in the rack. I also concur with the person who likes to warm up on a cold day by washing dishes!

  5. Mark says:

    It is probably true that dishwashers use less water than most people do in handwashing, but I start washing as soon as I have an inch or so of water, and I rinse into the wash sink. I suspect that I use less than 4.25 gallons of water most of the time. But there are other costs — one commenter mentioned electricity; there is also the cost of manufacturing and then disposing of the appliance itself; also, there are always a few things that need handwashing, so you’re running the dishwasher AND sink water. Also, I’ll bet most people run the dishwasher every day, not just when it’s full — and it takes the same 4.25 gal for a full load or a half load, whereas handwashing only uses the amount needed. Or, if it’s a big meal, you fill the dishwasher, and then still do the rest in the sink. Also, why are people concerned about sanitizing their dishes? People have washed dishes for centuries without using 140 degree water, and lived just fine!

  6. Stella Boyak says:

    I won’t mind putting dishes in the dishwasher but I still have to wash my pots and pans by hand. Putting them in the dishwasher creates a film on them. Or is a there a new type of soap that doesn’t?

  7. Sheri says:

    I do both.
    My pots and pans and things I don’t put in the dishwasher I hand wash.
    I fill the dish pan with only hot water and dawn soap. I let them soak a little bit then Put on my gloves and wash. I rinse with hot water too. I run my dishwater once a week.

  8. Tracy Lang says:

    Thank heavens most of us don’t really need to sanitize our dishes like restaurants do. Imagine all the dishes that have been washed by hand over the decades & we’ve all survived.

  9. Katy says:

    Interesting stuff, very well presented. I’m a big fan of dishwashers, but I’ll wash things by hand when it’s a small load. The thing about “sanitizing” dishes cracks me up, though. You mean I made it through my entire life, eating off hand washed dishes that weren’t soaked in bleach, and I didn’t die?

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