Dishwasher vs Handwashing. Which is Better Environmentally?

Recently I was in the market for a new dishwasher. For a few minutes, I toyed with the idea of going back to handwashing everything rather than buying a new dishwasher. I thought maybe this would be a greener solution and better for the environment. But when I did a little research it made my decision a lot easier.

Washing dishes in a dishwasher uses less water and less energy than washing by hand. Newer dishwasher models can use as little as 2 gallons of water to wash an 8 piece place setting of dishes. According to using an energy-efficient dishwasher could save you up to $111 a year on your energy bills!

Energy and water savings are high on my list of priorities and so is saving my own energy! Here’s what I learned in my research and one thing that many people don’t even consider when thinking about whether or not buying an appliance like a dishwasher is a green choice.

Dishwashers are more eco-friendly. Here’s why…

When I started looking for a dishwasher I didn’t start at my local big box store, like I usually do. In my quest to live a greener life I went right to the experts to see what I needed to look for in a dishwasher to be sure it was as environmentally friendly as possible. I went to the site. If you are in the market for a major appliance, definitely visit their website. The information they share will save you time and money.

I love a good infographic to get a point across so here’s the one that the Energy Star site shares about the benefits of using a dishwasher versus handwashing dishes.

Costs of dishwasher use vs. hand washing dishes

It’s important to note that this is assuming your dishwasher will last 12 years. So when you are choosing a dishwasher, be sure to check out how long the manufacturer expects it to last.

When you are at the store doing your actual appliance shopping look for that Energy Star label to be sure the dishwasher you are looking at is Energy Star certified. To be certified dishwashers need to be 12% more energy-efficient than a standard dishwasher.

There are two main things to consider when you’re looking for efficiency in a dishwasher, water usage, and energy usage.

Let’s talk water usage first.

Older model dishwashers, like from the 1990s, used as much as 10 gallons of water per load. Newer dishwashers use as little as 2 gallons per load. But 3 gallons is a more usual amount of water for an efficient new dishwasher.

Only 3 gallons to wash an 8 place settings of dishes? How can that be? It’s all about the technology.

Newer models of dishwashers have things like soil sensors that allow them to only use as much water as needed to get the actual dishes that are in your dishwasher clean. Dishes not so dirty? The dishwasher won’t use as much water or run as long.

Newer dishwashers have more efficient jets that can power your dishes clean without using as much water or energy.

Even the water filtration systems have been improved so that any food left on dishes is filtered out of the water during the washing process. The final rinse is a clean water one. But before that, the dishwasher can use the same filtered water over and over again. Big savings!

The other advance that’s been made that makes using a dishwasher more water and energy saving is the way the racks are set up. New designs put the dishes and jets where they need to be for the most efficient cleaning.

To Save Even More Water

New energy-efficient dishwashers save water over handwashing for sure. But if you want to save even more water, here’s how.

Don’t pre-rinse your dishes in the sink. Just scrape them into the garbage. Or put compostable stuff in the compost bin. A helpful tip to break the rinsing habit (I know this was tough for me) is to find a tool that scrapes the plate quite clean rather than just using a fork or something. That way you leave almost nothing on the plate which seems like a better idea to me.

Don’t use the pre-rinse or rinse and hold cycle. You probably don’t need it.

Only run your dishwasher when it is full. This is really a no-brainer. But I’d still feel remiss if I didn’t mention it.

The last tip comes into play when you are in the process of buying a dishwasher.

Size Matters. What size dishwasher are you going to get? If you have a spot in your kitchen that you’re taking one dishwasher out of and putting another one into you may not really have much of a choice.

BUT if you have an option to go with either a 24-inch wide dishwasher or an 18-inch wide dishwasher, think about this: smaller dishwashers not only save space in your valuable kitchen real estate they can save water as well. Some 18 inch wide dishwashers hold the same amount of dishes as the 24-inch wide ones AND they use less water to wash in that compacted space.

Energy Star says that standard size dishwashers hold more than 8 place settings plus 6 serving pieces, while compact models hold up to 8 place settings. So that will give you some idea.

So if you have a choice on the size you might want to consider a few things like:

  1. how many dishes you have,
  2. how many meals you eat at home each day,
  3. how big your family is and, if your family is small like my 2 person family of my husband and I,
  4. how tolerant you are of leaving unrinsed dishes in the dishwasher for longer periods of time.

To Save Even More Energy

If you have a heated drying cycle don’t use it. Instead, try using a rinse agent and just propping the door open after the cycle is done. Since the water used is so hot, it should evaporate quickly.

A bonus with newer dishwashers is that they actually heat water right in the machine rather than using water heated in your water heater. That is more efficient because the dishwasher only heats the exact amount of water it needs and the water doesn’t lose any heat while traveling through pipes.

Cradle to Grave Considerations (Or Life Cycle Assessment – LCA)

The one thing that many people don’t think about when they are considering the “eco-friendliness” of dishwashers is the energy and resources used to manufacture and transport the dishwasher in the first place. And what about where the dishwasher will end up one day – in the landfill most likely.

It’s really hard to find accurate data on this. Energy Star doesn’t cover this type of thing. I’ve read a few estimates that show that even given the LCA cost of a dishwasher you come out ahead in comparison to handwashing.

But to be sure you’re making the most of the materials and energy that goes into producing and eventually disposing of a dishwasher here are two things to consider.

Choose a dishwasher with a stainless steel interior which could be recyclable when your dishwasher has run its course and no longer works.

Look for a dishwasher that has a long life. Some manufacturers will list the longevity of the machine in the specs. For example, the Miele brand has a life expectancy of 20 years. While LG has models with life expectancies of 10-15 years and Kitchenaid/Whirlpool models have a life expectancy of just 10 years. The longer your dishwasher lasts the lower the cost of the Life Cycle Assessment.

Older Dishwasher You’re Not Ready to Replace?

It’s great to be able to have a brand new super energy-efficient and water-efficient dishwasher. But I have to say, if mine hadn’t been on its last legs I wouldn’t have decided to get a new one just to save some water and energy. I’m all about saving – but sometimes you leave a bigger carbon footprint and waste more resources by buying new things when your “old things” are still in good working order.

So if your dishwasher is a bit of a dinosaur, be sure to only run it when it’s full, and maybe only use it for the big jobs. If you only have a few items you might consider washing those by hand.

One Last Thing to Think About

How eco-friendly is your dishwasher detergent? We’ve spent all this time finding the most water and energy-efficient way to wash our dishes. What about what we are washing them with?

Choosing a dishwasher detergent with less packaging and eco-friendly ingredients is important. You might want to consider Dropps or Seventh Generation Dishwasher Detergent. They are both available through Amazon and eligible for Prime, so you might want to take a look and compare them to what you are using now.


Thanks for reading and thank you for being concerned enough about our environment to consider how your household habits are impacting our precious planet. Every “greener” choice we make puts us on a path to a healthier Earth!


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