Updated on 01.23.12

Only Wash Full Loads of Dishes or Clothes (22/365)

Trent Hamm

This seems like common sense at first glance. If you run your dishwasher, your washing machine, or your dryer with only half a load of clothes or dishes, you’re losing out in terms of efficiency.

Even if you run the machine with small load settings, the machine is still using most of the water and most of the energy of a full load.

Let’s look at some actual numbers. A typical household can save 3,400 gallons of water a year by running full laundry loads instead of half loads, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Given a national average of $1.50 per 1,000 gallons of water, that’s an annual savings of $5.15 from just the water in the washing machine over the course of a year.

What about energy costs? Numbers vary, but the sources I’ve seen seem to estimate that a small load of clothes (say, half a load) will use somewhere between 60% and 75% of the energy of a large load of clothes.

In other words, a single large load saves you about 25% to 50% of the energy of two small loads. In terms of dollars and cents, depending on your washing machine, the annual savings can easily add up to $10 or more.

Similar principles apply with dishwashers. A single full load uses more water and more energy than a half load, but a full load uses far less energy and water than two half loads.

Only Wash Full Loads of Dishes or Clothes (22/365)

So, why would you ever not run a full load?

Perhaps you have a specific garment that you wish to wear. If that’s the case, hand-washing a single item is quicker and far more efficient than running a load of laundry. Just simply wash the item in a sink with a bit of detergent. Soak it in water with a bit of detergent, then wring it out and repeat a few times. Rinse it, then hang the garment up to air dry it and you’re done.

What if you’re single and don’t have that many clothes? This was a challenge I had when I was single. For a time in college, I had just over a load’s worth of clothes. I would literally wear my last set of clean clothes on a Saturday while doing my laundry. The solution is pretty simple: develop a clear laundry routine where you wear your last set of clean clothes while doing your laundry.

Sometimes, you have a small set of garments that have specific washing instructions. Again, if it’s a single item (or two or three items), wash by hand. If you’ve got a small load of these items, add items to the load that can easily wash with those specific instructions (like t-shirts, which clean well in almost anything).

Similar principles apply with dishes. If they’re special items, wash them by hand. Otherwise, fill up your dishwasher (as much as you can) before running it. It’s that simple.

Running a full load saves you time and money. It’s just a matter of choosing to do it.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Images courtesy of Brittany Lynne Photography, the proprietor of which is my “photography intern” for this project.

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  1. Jules says:

    Trent, I think you’re losing sight of the main benefit of running full loads: it’s a lot less work. Nobody’s losing sleep over $25 in the course of 1 year. But a small load and a large load (dishes and laundry) take me a similar amount of time to take out and put away, but I get more done with a large load (it does take a little longer to do a large load, but not twice as long). Time, in this case, is far more valuable to me than a couple bucks.

  2. lurker carl says:

    The purpose of the machines are to save time, labor and provide convenience. Living on the verge of no clean clothes or dishes is not an option for me. Most machines have settings that allow for partial loads.

    Ugh, clean the funk growing around the dishwasher’s door. Not so sure if I’d want to eat anything coming out of that kitchen!

  3. JS says:

    If I don’t have a full load of laundry, I just toss in pillowcases or some lightly soiled cloth napkins. I also organize my clothes by function, so I can quickly see if I’m running low on certain types of clean clothes and plan my laundry accordingly. I did many late-nght loads of laundry before I started separating my work clothes from my casual ones :)

  4. Michelle says:

    Oh my. Please tell me that is not your dishwasher. Please tell me that is something you found online, because that is foul. If it is yours, take some of that time you’ve saved by running full loads and clean it. I’m gagging a little just looking at it…

  5. Mister E says:

    That..is a really dirty dishwasher.

  6. Patty says:

    I usually get accused (by the husband) of overfilling the dishwasher and washing machine. Though now with baby, the cloth diapers get their own run. This load looks practically empty but has special care needs.

  7. Jill says:

    One other good thing about doing this is that a number of appliances actually work better if they’re full. (But not overloaded)

  8. Kyle Brooks says:

    The dishwasher picture Trent found online.

  9. Vanessa says:

    @Kyle, I believe all the photos in this series are taken by the intern. The dirty spots could’ve easily been stamped out with software. I’ve also noticed that most of the photos have needed a bit of color correcting. They always look a bit underexposed, if that’s the correct term.

  10. AnnJo says:

    I’m pretty sure that lighter loads in a dryer are slightly MORE efficient since better air circulation allows clothes to dry more evenly. It doesn’t make sense that a fully loaded dryer is more efficient. The job is to remove whatever water is in the clothes. More clothes, more water, more energy to remove it.

  11. Dot says:

    You mentioned earlier today that your kid had an intestinal illness…Your dishwasher may be the source of the problem.

  12. T'Pol says:

    Frugality is a good thing but it should never reach the point of sacrificing health issues. I always underpants and socks separately. I may not have a full load when I wash underwear but peace of mind is more important. Some may argue that the detergent and warm water is supposed to kill the germs and it may very well be true but still I cannot bear the thought of washing towels with underpants. (I have seen people doing it though…)

    They recommend cleaning the diswashers (cleaning the filter, wiping the sides(!)etc.) thoroughly at least every month. That does not require the use of expensive “diswasher cleaning” detergents.

  13. deRuiter says:

    #10 AnnJo is correct, a less full dryer dries faster and more effieicently because the air circulates around the clothing.
    “… that’s an annual savings of $5.15 from just the water…” Oh goody, and from all this scrimping, going without clean clothes on hand, and saving I can buy a gallon and a fraction of gas after a year or after 20 years, a fancy kitchen pot. Prefer to wash the occasional smaller load of whites or darks so that I’m not standing over the washer in my underwear waiting for clean clothes because there are none in the house. This is all sounding so Oliver Twist lately, that people should live in poverty when they have sufficient money to live comfortably, worrying about the saving of $5. per year as if it mattered. Somehow the Tightwad Gazette made saving sound fun, and you were introduced to the ideas which you were welcome to adopt or treat as a funny. Here it’s all so preachy, so sad sounding. The reason for being thrifty, saving, reusing, recycling, is to live BETTER for less, not to exist as if you were poverty stricken. If you don’t have enough clothing that you need to wash clothes in order to have something to wear, get yourself to some yard sales, upscale consignment shops or whatever and buy a few more clothes. Air drying your clothes will make your clothing last longer as the fabric isn’t beaten up by the dryer, saves electricity (or electric and gas) and it’s cheaper. Also preserves the life of the dryer for when you do need it.

  14. Vivianne says:

    #13 AMEN! Loved the Amy Dacyzyn comment. I try to run full loads for environmental reasons, but right now my washing machine is running a half load of sweaters and delicates, on the hand wash cycle. Too big a quantity to hand wash expeditiously, and my heavy cotton sweaters get moldy unless I blot them with towels, and then the towels are linty/nasty and I have to wash them. And if I throw in stuff with the sweaters, the added stuff gets linty and not quite clean enough.
    Yes, it’s good to run whole loads of things, but no, it’s not good to kill yourself worrying if for some reason you can’t run a whole load.

  15. Amanda says:

    Can that national average be right? I just got our water bill and we get charged $5.99 per 1,000 gallons (live in PA).

  16. josh says:

    @#9 Vanessa – look at the same picture on 10 different computer monitors, and you will get 10 different images. “Washed-out” on one monitor will be “vibrant” on another.

  17. Raya says:

    Why is washing socks and underwear separately such a big issue? I mean how dirty ARE your socks?

    Obsessing with cleaning and having everything sterile is not good for you – it makes you more susceptible to infections and germs as you’re “spoiling” your immune system. It has a job and that job is to fight germs. Don’t teach it to be lazy.

  18. Deborah says:

    There seem to be two standard pieces of advice regarding dishwashers: don’t pre-rinse and run full loads. I’m a one-person household. Although I eat most meals at home, I don’t begin to dirty enough dishes in one day to fill the dishwasher. If I wait until it’s full, it only gets run once or twice a week. If pans and dishes aren’t pre-rinsed hardened food residue may not come off in the cycle. So which is better: rinsing dishes and running the dishwasher when full, or not rinsing and running partial dishwasher loads?

  19. Johanna says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s not seeing the point of washing underwear separately. If you’re worried about germs from your underwear getting transfered to your other clothes in the wash, wouldn’t they do more damage on your other underwear (or on somebody else’s underwear, if you’re washing them all together) than on, say, your shirts? After all, your shirt doesn’t spend the whole day in contact with any bodily orifices.

  20. Vanessa says:


    I am aware of the variances between monitors displaying colors differently, but that’s not the case here. There is quite a difference between the professional photos Trent uses for other posts and ones used for this series.

  21. Gretchen says:

    deRuiter hit the nail on the head.

  22. valleycat1 says:

    If you follow the photo’s link, it takes you to Trent’s flickr photo stream & then to a credit for Brittany. I think #8 is incorrect that Trent found it online – he’s the one that posted it online.

  23. jim says:

    @Amanda #15, Yes $1.5 for 1000 gallons is about right for national average. It varies widely. Some places are a lot more expensive. They may or may not charge for sewer services separately. Some places may have a lower water bill and a separate sewer charge and some places may combine them into a larger per gallon charge (figuring your consumed water is about equal to your sewer usage).

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