Hand Washing Dishes Versus Dishwasher: Which Saves More Water?


I had a painfully awkward week. In one week, five different people told me “the fact” that dishwashers use less water than washing dishes by hand.

I wanted to say that I think I use less water than a dishwasher, but in all five cases I was immediately hushed and reminded that this is “a fact” therefore not open to any discussion.

After the fifth time, something fun popped into my head.

I remember somebody, somewhere, saying “never argue with somebody that buys ink by the 55-gallon drum.” And, as it turns out, I buy ink by the 55 gallon drum. Anybody need some empty drums? Well, okay, there really isn’t any ink – but I’m not sure how to phrase the equivalent in internet bits.

So I made this video. I just had to. I needed to express my position. I needed to prove my point! Proof dammit!

So I set up my camera and proceeded to wash a load of dishes by hand. And when the dishes were clean, I used the dishwasher as a sort of drying rack. And PRESTO! I crushed a lame, so-called “fact”.



The common misconception, that washing dishes with a dishwasher (versus by hand) saves on water usage, is an excellent example, in my mind, of how some of the greenest people succomb to the greenwashing of Madison Avenue.

The doing-it-by-hand technique that beats the most eco dishwasher under any circumstances is pretty simple: use a dishpan and run just a tiny amount of water (quarter cup) to wash the first thing. Then use a tiny amount of water to rinse that one thing, with the rinse water running into the dishpan. As you are on to the fifth thing, you have a bit more soapy water in the bottom of the pan. So you can start washing bigger things.

By the time you are done washing and rinsing everything, there should be about two quarts of water used.

Eco dishwashers set to eco mode use about nine gallons of water and usually don’t get the dishes clean unless you clean them first. Granted, it is possible for a person to wash dishes by hand where they leave the water running and waste lots and lots of water. I am certainly not advocating that.

Hand washing vs. dishwasher: Which wins on water conservation?

There are some new dishwashers that will use only three gallons of water, but these are very expensive and there are still some who say they don’t do a good job of cleaning.

I do agree with those who say washing by hand, or not, can also be just a matter of personal choice. Beyond the water usage issue, I prefer washing dishes by hand for many other reasons:


  1. I like to wash dishes by hand because when I am done, the dishes are all done. I am not burdening my future self to finish loading. Or to unload. Nor am I leaving a “to do” for somebody else.
  2. Each piece meets my cleanliness standards.
  3. It’s the way my grandad did it – and I’m always keen on doing things the way my grandad did.


Paul Wheaton is is the tyrannical ruler of two on-line communities. One is about permaculture and one is about software engineering. There is even one for Missoula. Paul has written several permaculture articles starting with one on lawn care that he presented at the MUD Project 17 years ago, including articles on raising chickenscast iron and diatomaceous earth. Paul also regularly uploads permaculture videos and permaculture podcasts. In his spare time, Paul has plans for world domination and is currently shopping for a hollowed out volcano in the Missoula area, with good submarine access.

See all of Paul’s contributions to Make it Missoula here.