Dear Dot: Dishwasher or Handwash — Which Method Saves Water?



Dear Dot,
This has always been a burning question for me. What’s the most efficient water use for cleaning dishes — handwashing in sink or running through dishwasher?
–Maria, Arlington, Vermont

Dear Maria,
It is my utter delight to be able to tell you — indeed all my readers — to stuff your rubber gloves back in a drawer, treat yourself to a fancy manicure (if that’s your thing), and let your dishwasher do the dirty work. Yes, even your inexpensive dishwasher without all the fancy options. 

Let’s start with the numbers. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, 27 gallons of water goes down the drain per load by hand versus as little as three gallons with an ENERGY STAR-rated dishwasher. ENERGY STAR itself boasts that a standard-sized ENERGY STAR certified dishwasher costs about $35 per year to run and can save about 3,800 gallons of water over its lifetime

Pretty compelling sales pitch for the machine, huh Maria?

There are some hacks for ensuring that your dishwasher remains the champ, even with super dirty dishes. The main reason that dishes occasionally emerge from a dishwasher still unclean isn’t the dishwasher so much as the dishwasher loader. In other words, the machines are typically doing their jobs perfectly well; it’s the humans who sometimes are not. 

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Get a load of this:
Mr. Dot is a master of loading dishwashers. Indeed, our Dot progeny, frequently tasked with clearing the table as part of their family duties, are often subject to a resigned sigh from Father Dot who’s audibly disappointed at his offspring’s inability to properly load the dishwasher. He will then rearrange the dishes appropriately. Such is the burden of a stickler.
But Mr. Dot’s actions are key to ensuring clean dishes. Like him, make sure that plates aren’t flush against each other, that bowls and glasses are rims down, and that cutlery allows enough space for water to get between.

And forget rinsing! If you must remove food (and mostly you do not, save for stringy or hard bits of food that can get caught in your filter), please use a scraper/spatula instead of water. But, let me reiterate, you do not need to pre-rinse. In fact, pre-rinsing dishes can make your detergent less effective at cleaning. This is because modern detergents contain enzymes, which biodegrade quickly in water and work by clinging to food particles. Without food particles to cling to, they work less effectively. (Just FYI: most gels don’t contain enzymes but pretty much all powders and tabs do.)

Dot’s Detergent Down-Low:
What about the dishwashing suds? The New York Times’ Wirecutter reports that many of the big brands with their fancy pods actually deliver too much detergent: “The prepackaged heavy doses of high-end formulas, such as Cascade Platinum or Finish Quantum, can be overkill,” Wirecutter reports

So what should you look for? Powders and tabs are typically easier on the environment and, experts say, more effective at cleaning. If you have hard water, look for citric acid in your dishwashing detergent or, if necessary, add it to your dishwasher. It acts as a water softener. Steer clear of fragrance or colorants. 

Bluedot founder Vicki Riskin and Room for Change columnist Mollie Doyle swear by Dropps, which you can subscribe to so they arrive like magic when you need them. Other Bluedot-beloved eco-detergents include Nellie’s Dishwasher Powder (I love Nellie’s retro metal tin) and Seventh Generation Dishwasher Detergent. 

Join me, Maria, in raising our soft, unchapped, dishwashing-free hands in a collective cheer for dishwashers, truly liberating us from domestic servitude.



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Dear Dot is here to answer all your sustainable living questions from her perch on the porch. Got a question for Dot? Send her a note for a chance to be featured in an upcoming post.
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