Dishwasher vs hand washing – which is more eco and pocket-friendly?

If you want to reduce your water bill and live more sustainably, join the dishwasher vs hand washing debate. We've looked at energy outputs and running costs to help.

A modern white kitchen with dishwasher appliance
(Image credit: Future)

There's a little debate around whether dishwashers actually help in saving water, not to mention, our water bill...  And whether we're better off washing dishes by hand. Indeed, dishwasher vs hand-washing is the predicament many of us have nowadays, whether you're thinking of purchasing the best dishwasher for your home or simply curious to know how to lower your water bill and live more sustainably.

Because while oats can be a great way to start the day, and tasty tomato-based sauces a family favorite – cleaning pots, pans and bowls after the foods have glued or baked themselves on can be tricky enough... and that's before we put our planet-first hat on.

Are dishwashers better for the environment?

If you want to save energy at home, looking at your large appliances is a good place to start. We've reached out to the experts to get their take on what uses more energy, water and time so that you can make an informed decision on whether it's better for you to invest in an appliance or some cute sink accessories instead...

'It’s highly debatable whether washing dishes by hand or using a dishwasher uses more energy and therefore costs more. Either way, just like the washing machine, it’s best to only run a dishwasher when it’s full. ' says Rachel Ferreria, brand manager, Colour Catcher (opens in new tab).

A woman with female child loading a dishwasher with red and white ceramic mug cup

(Image credit: Getty images)

How much energy does a dishwasher use?

'This all comes down to how modern and energy-efficient your machine is.' says Celia Topping, from OVO Energy (opens in new tab).

'The Energy Saving Trust (opens in new tab) worked out that the average running cost of a dishwasher is between £37 [$48] and £48 [$63] a year. And the most energy-efficient, A-rated models cost around £7 [$9] a year less to run than the lowest-rated machines. Slimline dishwashers cost slightly less – at £23 [$30] to £37 [$48] a year.'

A young man loading a dishwasher in a kitchen

(Image credit: Getty Images)

How much water does a dishwasher use?

This depends on the machine and how you use it. For instance, if you co-habit with your partner or have a small family, you might think hand washing comes up on top. However, investing in one of the best slimline dishwashers (with an A++ rating), can be better for water efficiency and your energy bills. Some have different temperature settings, others have a delay start so you can take advantage of cheaper evening energy rates and one of our picks can complete a full load in under half an hour!

'If you have a super-energy-efficient machine, it will use less water than an old one. And if you cut out the pre-rinse stage in the cycle, you’ll save even more water,' explains Topping. 

'According to the Energy Saving Trust, hand washing dishes makes up 4% of the average household’s water use – whereas using a dishwasher uses 3% less, accounting for just 1% of our water bills.'

'Older appliances, manufactured before 2000 used around 25 liters of water per cycle, while a more modern one would use 10 liters per cycle on an eco setting. It’s a big difference, caused by the newer machines reusing the water, rather than constantly piping in fresh water.'

'And what about when we compare it to hand washing? A running tap flows at around 2 gallons (9 liters) per minute. So if you wash everything under a running tap, it’s estimated you could use up to 9 times as much water as a dishwasher uses. Better hand washing habits can significantly reduce this amount.'

Another option to take into consideration is to use combination of dishwashing and hand washing. But before you think this is counterproductive, hear what one expert has to say:

'An eco mode or setting is a quick way to slash your energy and water use- often by 20-40%!' says Matt Manning, group carbon and environment manager at Curry's plc (opens in new tab).

'Normally, a dishwasher will heat your water up to a high temperature to tackle grease and dirt- using up quite a bit of energy. But you don’t always need such an intense wash.'

'Most of the time our plates are only a bit dirty. Or we can soak and rinse them before adding them to the dishwasher. The eco setting lowers your wash and rinse temperatures while still tackling most grungy dishes. And it cuts down the amount of water used too.'

Does a dishwasher use your home's hot water supply?

'Dishwasher water has to be hot, so dishes are cleaned properly.' explains Topping.

'But in terms of energy-use, the question is whether the water is hot when it goes in, or if the water is made hot by the machine. If you buy a modern dishwasher, it won’t use any of your home’s hot water supply. It’ll take in cold water, then heat it internally to around 54 - 62°C [129-144°F].'

'Because they don't use your home’s hot water, modern dishwashers are far more efficient. For this reason, dishwashers are also better at getting plates really clean and sanitized – because who could actually bear to put their hands into water that hot?'

Dishwasher vs hand-washing, which is more hygienic?

When looking at whether things are environmentally-friendly, even eco-friendly cleaning products, we need to assess how good they are for our general health and well-being. Residual food particles can grow all sorts of mold and bacteria on the surface, so it's best to make sure you get rid of all debris, making sure the water is hot enough to kill harmful germs that can cause tummy trouble and more.

'Dishwashers, when used properly, are more eco-friendly and also more hygienic than typical pot washing by hand,' says Sophie Beckett-Smith, large appliances expert at AO.com (opens in new tab).

'For dishwashers to be environmentally friendly, it should only run when full and although the cycle may take longer than hand washing, it will use far less water than if you were to wash pots to the same standard.'

'Using a dishwasher also helps to ensure, the water is the right temperature and clean enough to wash dishes thoroughly, which is something more difficult to achieve when hand washing. Further to this, in order to keep the water clean enough to wash effectively, several sink loads of water would be needed.'

Dishwasher vs hand-washing, which is cheaper? 

In the UK, 'First, you’ve got to factor in the initial cost of the dishwasher, which can range from around £170 to well over £1,000, which might not be an option for everyone.' says Topping.

'When it comes to water and energy use, it depends on your habits. Generally, if you only use your dishwasher once it’s fully loaded, it should save you money.'

'Most dishwashers have an eco-setting, which will help you save energy and money, with minimal effort. A lot of people don’t realize their appliances have this function so it’s always worth checking the front of your machine. By switching a dishwater onto an eco-setting, it can save the water use by 20-40% for each clean.'

And, Marc Robson, smart energy expert at British Gas agrees. He says: 'Use the eco setting on your dishwasher. The eco setting heats water more slowly, using less energy. You get the same results; it just takes a little longer.'

'You can also save by turning the dishwasher completely off when not in use – if a light is on then a small amount of energy is being used. When it comes to replacing these items, most new energy efficient models have settings which turn the unit off completely outside of washing cycles.'

Dishwashing vs. handwashing: which is quicker?

'Hand washing dishes typically uses a lot more water than a dishwasher.' says Mary Hunt, owner of Everyday Cheapskate blog (opens in new tab).

'Unless you could get that sink full of dirty dishes hand washed with soap and rinsed with the water running from the tap in fewer than 2 minutes, it’s likely you’re using a lot more water than a current automatic dishwasher model requires. And in most cases, a lot more if you pre-rinse, wash, and then rinse again.'

'That’s because according to the U.S. Energy Department, a federal standard kicked in for dishwashers requiring a 20-percent reduction in the amount of water it uses. If yours is a highly efficient Energy Star-certified dishwasher (opens in new tab), it uses less than 4.25 gallons of water per cycle.'

'Not long ago, we remodeled our kitchen. I was without a dishwasher for what seemed like forever, but in reality, it was about a month. That doesn’t mean I stopped cooking or we stopped eating a home. I just had to find other ways to get the job done.'

'Health, safety, and economics aside, it took so much time — far more time than required to get the same job done with a fully operational dishwasher. To keep up, it seemed like I was hand washing all the time; the drying rack was forever full; even so, there were always dirty dishes in the make-shift sink and clean dishes always waiting to be moved from the drying rack to the cupboard.'

'Not only does my dishwasher save energy and water, it just makes my life so much easier. The evidence is clear—a dishwasher is far more efficient than hand washing dishes. It’s safer, faster, and cheaper than even the most frugal method of hand washing.'

Dishwasher vs hand-washing: which is greener?

'Because a dishwasher uses less water and less energy to heat the water, this means the carbon footprint of a dishwasher is actually smaller than if you wash by hand.' says Topping.

'Recent studies state 5,620 kgs of greenhouse gases (GHGs) are produced over a 10 year period from hand-washing 32 sets of dishes per week. This comes from the energy used to heat up the water.'

'A dishwasher on the other hand, emits 2,090 kgs of GHGs over the same period. The figures speak for themselves. Hand-washing creates over double the amount of GHGs as dishwashers, and creates about the same carbon emissions as 3 flights from London to Tokyo!'

You might also want to look at what detergents you're using when hand washing or dishwashing, and how far they go to clean cutlery and crockery en masse. For example, eco-friendly dishwasher tablets will be kinder to the planet and will contain no harsh chemicals or nasty additives. Perfect for if you have a young family or just want to be more conscious with planet-friendly purchases.

But, if you haven't got a dishwasher, then make sure you're scanning the aisles for the best washing-up liquids that don't just clean, but do good for the planet too. These brands often boast recyclable packaging, are made from cruelty-free, vegan ingredients (that aren't tested on animals) and are gentle on skin (they may come with an Allergy UK (opens in new tab) recommendation).

Does washing dishes by hand kill germs?

'So, can you get away with washing dishes by hand rather than using a dishwasher?' asks Gaia Lorenzi, group brand manager, Finish (opens in new tab).

'Well, considering that the sponge plays host to a significant number of germs in the kitchen – including sinister ones like salmonella and E. coli – using a sponge might not be the best idea. Sponges are exposed to all sorts of food types, and, when you combine this with the porous and moist nature of the sponge, it’s the perfect environment for germs to grow. Yes, this is the item that you wash the dishes that you eat off. You’ll need to regularly replace your sponge to prevent spreading these germs.'

'Your tea towels are just as guilty for harboring nasty germs, so once your dishes are clean, you may be drying them with germ-infested towels. Again, dishcloths are exposed to a lot of water and can remain damp, which is a breeding ground for bacteria.'

Dishwasher vs hand-washing: which is better for drying?

When looking at whether elbow grease or an appliance cleans best, it's all about technique and the tools you have on hand. Therefore, it all depends on a number of different variables:

  • Water type: Where you live can determine how well your dishes are cleaned as you may have hard or soft water. The harder your water, the more likely that calcium and other mineral deposits will be left on your glassware and other eating equipment. This can be remedied by adding dishwasher salt to your machine. A heavy limescale build-up can cause make your dishwasher smell bad, so adding this item to your shopping list may stop bigger problems in the long-run.
  • Rinse aid: The best dishwasher rinse aids on the market promise to leave glasses sparkling and can also help to remove watermarks, limescale or salt spots.
  • Drying technique: Are you team drip dry or team tea towel? Or, do you rely on your dishwasher's drying program? All three of these methods may produce different results, but the most eco-friendly one is the one that produces the best outcome (so that you don't end up rewashing your dishes.

Dishwashing vs. hand washing: the verdict

While durable goods like a dishwasher are an expensive up-front cost (not so much if  your rental comes complete with one!), this machine will make easy work for your energy bills... oh and your back as you won't be standing over the sink.

Whether you've got the best integrated dishwasher kept under wraps or a freestanding unit displayed in its full glory, here's a recap of what you'll need to do to make the cleaning process as eco-friendly as possible: 

  • Invest in a energy-efficient machine: If you are buying your own dishwasher from brand-new (or even pre-owned), it's worth doing your due diligence on the specification and what energy-saving features it might have. This'll include lower temperature programs, delay starts, low water usage and a large enough capacity to suit your family's needs. Plus, if everyone knew how to install a dishwasher themselves, you can also reduce road mileage (and save yourself some money) from calling a professional out.
  • Load the machine up: playing Tetris with your Tupperware and tableware isn't just for showing off or looking good. Filling up your machine will mean more will get cleaned during one cycle. Just make sure that you're not obstructing the spray arms.
  • Eco-friendly dishwashing tablets: By choosing eco-friendly dishwasher pods, like Enzyme-Powered Puracy pods which you can find on Amazon (opens in new tab), that are biodegradable and made from plant-based ingredients, you can play your part. Be sure to look at the packaging too as many tablets come individually wrapped in plastic – yuck!

However, hand washing trumps a broken dishwasher any day. So if your dishwasher's not draining, or your dishwasher's not filling with water, turning to your trusty sponge and scourer is going to be a fail-safe option.

Topping's handy hand washing how-to

If you can't afford a dishwasher, or don't have the space for one in a small kitchen, don't fret. Manually cleaning your dishes can be made more eco-friendly with just a few adjustments to your usual routine.

  1. If you're lucky enough to have one, a split sink is the key to efficient hand washing. Fill up one sink with hot water and (an eco-friendly) washing up liquid, and the other just with hot water.
  2. Pre-soaking your dishes in the sink of hot soapy water loosens any stubborn dried-on bits. This saves your energy, as well as water, when it comes to scrubbing them clean! 
  3. Once the sink is full, there’s no need for a running tap. Just keep the dishes in the water to soak.
  4. After they’ve soaked for a few minutes, get scrubbing! 
  5. Use the other sink (if you have one) of clean hot water  for rinsing off the soap. Again, no need to rinse under a running tap. 
  6. Either dry the dishes with a tea towel for a smear-free finish, or let them air dry.

Christina joined the Real Homes team as a digital writer in June 2021. Prior to this she worked on Good Home magazine and events. She lived closed to Epping Forest and is spoiled for choice with lush green spaces, but loves her own English garden that adjoins her ground-floor maisonette, complete with a floral melange of roses, lavender, jasmine and an apple tree.


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