Updated on 12.10.13

Saving Pennies or Dollars? Dishwasher or Hand Washing

Trent Hamm

saving pennies or dollarsSaving Pennies or Dollars is a new semi-regular series on The Simple Dollar, inspired by a great discussion on The Simple Dollar’s Facebook page concerning frugal tactics that might not really save that much money. I’m going to take some of the scenarios described by the readers there and try to break down the numbers to see if the savings is really worth the time invested.

Marie writes in: Did you ever do a cost analysis on dishwashers vs. hand washing dishes??? My dishwasher is not functioning properly [I may overstuff the thing] wondered if the old fashioned way is better economically.

This is a really tricky one to quantify, because the real cost in washing dishes comes from the cost of hot water. This is easily the largest cost component of doing a batch of dishes, as one often uses $0.40 or $0.50 of heated water in doing a batch, whether in the dishwasher or in the sink.

There’s also the problem of variability in that some dishwashers use more hot water than others and some people use more hot water than others. It’s very hard to precisely quantify these things for such a comparison.

If you want to minimize hot water use while handwashing dishes, the way to do it is to fill one basin with hot water and soap, then use cold water to rinse your dishes after they’re scrubbed. This generally uses less hot water than the average dishwasher, but even then, it’s hard to quantify exactly how much.

So, to distinguish between the two, we have to largely ignore water.

What costs are we left with, then? For starters, dishwashers run on electricity. This report estimates that a dishwasher unit uses somewhere around 1.5 kWh on average to run a load of dishes, excluding the costs of the incoming water. That’s a cost of about $0.17 or so in the average American home.

There’s also the startup cost of owning a dishwasher. This, of course, relies on the assumption that a kitchen sink is a “default” piece of equipment in a home and a dishwasher is not, which matches my experience growing up (and my first places where I lived after moving out) quite well.

This site estimates the lifespan of a mid-range dishwasher as being approximately 10 years and having a cost of $500. That adds up to $50 per year. This report estimates that an average dishwasher runs 215 loads per year, so you’d have a cost of about $0.46 per load for the cost of the dishwasher.

Since you’re using cleaning supplies in both the sink and the dishwasher, we’ll assume that those are essentially equal, too.

Thus, your total extra cost per dishwasher load of dishes versus doing them by hand is about $0.63. It’s a little bit higher than this if you do dishes by hand by filling up a basin with hot water and using only cold water to rinse the soap from the dishes.

Based on my own experiences doing both, I invest about ten minutes more doing a sink full of dishes by hand than by putting them in the dishwasher. Note that I’m not saying I can wash a sink full of dishes in ten minutes, but that my total time invested in doing a sink full of dishes starting from a big pile of dirty dishes after a meal to clean dishes in the cupboard takes about ten minutes more than it does putting them all in the dishwasher, running it, and unloading it.

Is that enough to make handwashing worthwhile? You’re saving about $3.80 per hour of handwashing dishes versus using a typical dishwasher. That, to me, isn’t enough of a savings, so I’ll usually run the dishwasher and enjoy the extra time with my family or extra time sleeping, which is worth $3.80 per hour for me.

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  1. Tracy says:

    I think these calculations are a bit off in that my dishwasher, at least, holds about 4-5 sink loads of dishes

  2. josh says:

    This is one of those comparisons that has far too many variables to be legitimate.

  3. Vicky says:

    How about… the fact that dishwashers suck?

    Especially since phosphorus has been removed from detergent (yes, I know, environmentally… good), I find I have to wash things 3-4 times to get them clean from the dishwasher,

    when I can hand wash fairly quick and have them clean the first time around. Yes, I fill a sink with hot water and one with with arm, and wash, rinse, and set them on a drying rack.

    I actually miss the cabinet space the dishwasher is eating up… it converted into a drying rack, really…

  4. Meagan says:

    I’m single and find it worthwhile timewise to do some of both because it takes longer for me to fill a dishwasher.

    Usually i put plates, silverware, and containers in the dishwasher because i have enough plates/silverware to last a few days. I only have a few pans and sharp knives so those are usually washed by hand (which prolongs the life of these items anyway). On occasion if I have some utensil that i will need before I fill the dishwasher I will wash it by hand.

    Like Vicky I ocacasionally have to rewash things that have gone through the dishwasher. It seems to depend on what type of food and how long it has dried on (since it takes me a while to fill up) and also whether or not I have weighed down plastic containers that flip and then fill with dirty dishwater.

    As previously said there are too many variables in dishwashing

  5. Debbie M says:

    @Vicky, but I heard that dishwashers don’t suck anymore! I haven’t had a dishwasher in 15 years, and before then, it was all old-cheapo or broken dishwashers. So are you in a rental? Or are you using a perfectly reasonable dishwasher and still having trouble?

    (Yes, I am fantasizing about one day having a dishwasher that actually works, even though it will mean renovating to kitchen to have a place to plug it in.)

  6. ehunt says:

    You don’t include the cost of dishwashing soap — which has gotten disturbingly expensive. I ran out! and had to buy some at full price, no coupon, 20 tablets cost over $4 — I probably could have gotten a cut rate store brand but I know those tablets make my dishwasher run the best…so I paid it. Ick. OTOH, paying $.20 per tablet kind of cheesed me off….everytime I am using one, I am kicking myself for buying it full price!

  7. Kristina says:

    My great-aunt finally stopped doing dishes by hand because my mom told her that their family got sick less when they got a dishwasher. There is something to be said for REALLY hot water.

    Just food for thought.

  8. Pete says:

    This largely depends on how full you load the machine and whether you pay for water by consumed amount or a flat fee. A modern dishwasher uses about 3 gallons (2 hot, 1 cold) of water for a full load (100 parts). If you can do the same amount of pots and dishes by hand, with the same amount of water, you come out ahead, since you don’t have the invest of the machine. The studies I’ve found on the net suggest that this is possible but that most people use 2 to 7 times more water when washing by hand.

  9. Tom says:

    I agree with Pete, I remember reading about people tend to use more water washing by hand than the modern dishwasher. It is way too variable to compare.
    We just bought a new dishwasher and it cleans better than my 8 yr old one that we replaced, which makes me happy. You never know how well they’ll work. We use cascade powder, not sure if it has reduced phosphates, and do not have hard water. It runs for a long time, over two hours, but uses something like $21 a year in eletricity, per the EnergyGuide tag.

  10. Baley says:

    @ Pete and Tom: do your comparisons account for rinsing the dishes prior to putting them in the dishwasher? My dishwasher would clean recently dirtied dishes just fine with just the majority of the solids knocked off, but since it’s just my husband and me, we don’t run the dishwasher but once every few days so our dishes have to be rinsed mostly clean before they go in there. Otherwise we end up with a stinky dishwasher and baked-on food. With pre-rinsing the dishes, does the dishwasher still come out ahead?

  11. LIz says:

    If you rinse dishes when washing by hand in hot water, they don’t have to be dried by hand. They’ll need about 15 minutes or so to air dry, but the small amount of hot water I use (I rinse over the washing pan, so I start with a very small amount of water and end up with a relatively full pan) is worth it to me — I hate drying, but don’t mind washing at all.
    And there is neither a dishwasher (except my husband) nor space for one in my home. Actually, I don’t have room for a microwave, either, and that’s another thing I don’t miss.

  12. joan says:

    Moved into a new place with a dishwasher, yea…then reality took over. Used the dishwasher the first month, electric bill high, second month washed by hand, electric bill down by one third. Now use dishwasher as a drying rack. I do run a load of rinse water with vinegar thru the dishwasher about every two weeks. I don’t know how to figure the math, but I do know what the extra electric cost.

  13. lurker carl says:

    I just replaced our 1972 vintage KitchenAid dishwasher with a new Bosch. We don’t notice any change in the electric bill that washing dishes can be attributed to, I don’t think either dishwasher really uses very much energy. Love, love, love it compared to the old one – water usage is comparible to hand washing. The differences with the new dishwasher are dramatic; it is whisper quiet, consumes about 1/3 as much hot water, automatically heats and keeps the water at optimal washing temperature, runs about twice as long as the old machine, holds about 20% few dishes, easier to load and operate, dishes come out absolutely clean and I can’t find how to cancel the automatic drying cycle.

  14. Gretchen says:

    handwashing is like making my own detergent.

    I don’t care if it saves a million dollars, I’m not doing it.

    I run the cycle then air dry.

  15. I have heard many times that one uses a lot less water with a dishwasher and we bought a more energy efficient less water dishwasher and it works wonderfully. I also have to say it takes only 10 minutes more to handwash then load and unload a dishwasher? Wowsers, how? It takes me 15 minutes to unload and load the next load of dishes and handwashing the same amount would take a lot longer than any 25 minutes. And no, I don’t prewash or prerinse anything going into the dishwasher. There are a few things I hand wash, but not much. My non-stick pans come out great, casserole baked on dishes usually take twice in the dishwasher. Non non-stick pans, are having a harder time of late and have a tendency to be handwashed. We do a load of dishes or two a day and I would not handwash dishes every single day if I didn’t have a dishwasher. For me a dishwasher is a must.

  16. Vicky says:


    I own the house, the dishwasher was new when we moved in. As in, we bought it and put it in.

    It frankly, sucks. I thought it would save me time, but really, I have to wash things more than once so it feels so wasteful.

    I’m redoing the kitchen in the future – and it is honestly the first thing to go.

  17. Golfing Girl says:

    We handwash everything, as it seems that we need the same items over and over again. Every time I think I’ll just use the dishwasher, I end up pulling items out and handwashing them anyway because it takes us too long to fill the dishwasher for a full load. The only exception is when we have company.

  18. Laura says:

    If you hand wash glasses in hot water and immediately rinse them in cold, they’ll break. My dad tried this once and cut his hand pretty badly.

  19. Allison says:

    Must chime in… Trent — you might change your mind when your kids are ALL old enough to help. :)
    I have five kids and we have had it all different kinds of ways. Each kid a different night of the week on the handwashing, two kids so they work as a team… we’ve gone machine-less and machine only. I have to say, the best scenario, what works the best for us, is this: EVERYONE stays in the kitchen until it’s spic and span after dinner. As mom, I totally love this time because my kids visit, I hear about their days, we get a little wet, and everyone is smiling. (Okay, not always, they still gripe, but nothing is perfect.) We put the plates, glasses and silverware in the dishwasher and find we get sick less. We handwash pots and pans and knives and big bowls unless the machine is ALMOST full enough to run, then we throw the bowls in, too. Otherwise they just take up too much room.

    In short (cuz that certainly wasn’t) — that $3.80 might be worth the craziness of kids in the kitchen. And teaching them skills and sharing to boot.

  20. Pete says:

    @baley: I dont rinse dishes and they do get clean. Sauces., dried or fresh are ok.
    You habe to remove solids.

  21. Debbie M says:

    @Vicky, bummer!! Good luck with your kitchen re-do.

  22. Tim says:

    I prefer to handwashing the dishes everyday. I typically do it as part of a routine after I’ve exercised.

    If I do use the dishwasher, I usually do a pre-rinse and spot check.

  23. AnnJo says:

    Unless you run your dishwasher more than once a day, it’s hard to imagine you could handwash two or three meals’ worth of dishes less expensively, and unless you’re careful (sterilizing sponges regularly, etc.) the dishes won’t be as clean.

    A major reason for dishwashers not working as they should is clogged filters or overflow valves. When I replaced my 25 year old dishwasher a few years ago, I was horribly disappointed in my new one, until I did some online research. That led me to check the overflow valve, which was nearly completely clogged. Once that was cleared, the dishwasher worked fine. In fact, had I known to clear the valve, the old dishwasher probably would have had a few more years in it.

    To save on dishwasher usage:

    1. Read the instruction manual!! Learn how to properly load the dishes for your particular model. It makes a huge difference on getting everything clean. Find out if it is important to start with hot water – you might need to run the hot water in the sink until it comes to temperature. (Use jugs to collect the water while it heats up, and then use it to water plants, pour into pots that need to soak, or for other uses, so the water isn’t wasted.)

    2. Don’t use commercial rinse products – they’re very expensive. I put plain white vinegar in the rinse dispenser and it leaves dishes sparkling.

    3. Buy inexpensive dishwashing gel (Costco sells a two-pack of Kirkland brand at a very reasonable price. Use half the recommended amount to start, and only up the amount if it’s needed. Usually it won’t be.

    4. Use the air-dry option to save on energy. Some models have a timing option so you can set the dishwasher to run later. If your utility charges a lower rate during some hours of the day, set the dishwasher to run then.

    5. Maintain the dishwasher as instructed by the manual. Check the filter (if it has one that you can access) and the overflow valve at least once a year. Keep the gaskets clean and check in the bottom to clear out any debris or small items that might collect there.

    6. For safety, if you live in an earthquake-prone area, make sure the dishwasher is bolted to the floor, cabinet or counter so it doesn’t slide out and cause damage or injury in a quake.

  24. Shannon says:

    I agree with AnnJo and would like to add that a dishwasher can heat the water beyond what a human can stand, thereby killing most germs that can’t be eliminated by hand washing. Also, after I wash one or two dishes in the sink, all I see in my mind is the sponge wiping miniscule germs and food bits from other dishes on to that dish that no amount of scrubbing or hot water will take care of outside of a dishwasher. I use my sponge sparingly and include it in every dishwasher cycle.
    It also creeps me out at work, where one can never be sure if the lips of cups have been throughly washed. I get cold sores and when one is active, I limit my use of mugs/cups and hold on to them until the dishwasher is about to be run. Then I put them in and start the load. Same at home. You can’t trust the hand wash hot water to kill everything.

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