Dishwashers: Are They Worth It?

dish Jenga

I was rabidly anti-dishwasher for a long time. When we moved into our new house in Alaska, some 8 years ago, I unhooked the dishwasher so we wouldn’t use it (well, actually I unhooked it because it was on the same water line as the ice maker for the fridge, and I wanted to move the fridge out to the garage… Hey, I was coming from a tipi in the woods with no running water or electricity, cut me some slack.) My anti-dishwasher morality went like so: If people don’t have to clean up after themselves, then they are allowed to be distanced from the true consequences of their lives and actions. If I cooked too much and had too many dishes, it was my own fault for having luxurious expectations for my diet, which would be better off simplified anyway. It’s unrealistic in the scope of humanity to expect complicated, feast worthy meals, and baked goodies almost every day.

As you know if you follow this blog, I’ve blessedly grown up and out of this self-righteousness a bit. I still believe all that stuff to be true, but I’ve learned that there’s a lot more to a radical life than just black and white ideals. Like translating them into a practical lifestyle that you can sustain over the long haul, whilst still feeling a part of your community.

The reality of my “radical life” is that I cook almost everything from scratch, and despite my best efforts at a Zen-like refusal, still expect to eat the lush and varied diet of a modern first-world human. This means I make a lot of dishes.

As we got our Alaska house ready to rent before the big move two years ago, we hooked the dishwasher back up. And since it was hooked up, we started using it. I was 6 months pregnant, with a very two year old, busy packing a zillion boxes.

I was a bit smitten.

You just put the dishes in. And…. it…. washes them. For you.

I admit I was a little disappointed when our New Orleans rental house didn’t have a dishwasher. But I buckled back into washing a family’s output most days, with My Man making up the extra.

Until last May.

My MIL is one of those treasured people who remembers what having two small kids is like. This is not necessarily always the case, I’ve found. Many people seem to have blocked it all out. They give me quizical looks when I lament the challenges of my life, as it stands. They seem surprised, and the surprise betrays a judgement. But my MIL, bless her heart, remembers these crazy days and has full empathic sympathy.

So for my birthday last year she bought me a free-standing dishwasher. It’s not plumbed in, instead it has a long hose that attaches to your sink faucet (don’t feel bad, I didn’t know either). This is a great thing if, like us, you are in a rental. And it was only $200. Of course, it’s just a standard, bottom of the line dishwasher, nothing fancy, and not particularly efficient I’d guess.

the beast

Both My Man and I quickly developed a real love/hate relationship with the dishwasher. On the one hand, I sure liked having it wash the dishes for me, a task that had become mind-numbingly difficult in that first, insane year after the second baby. I liked that the counters stayed cleaner too, instead of always piled with dirty dishes on one side and the clean dish Jenga on the other. But I was disappointed at how long it took to load. Like all those modern conveniences I have this feeling like it should remove all burden of work from my shoulders, and I’ll just float free. But of course, no. There’s the rinsing, the bending way the fuck down there to carefully arrange every dish for maximum efficiency. The rearranging when you just want to fit that last one dish in.

But mostly what ticked me off was that my dishes weren’t clean. I mean, maybe 50% of them were truly clean, 40% were reasonable, but not up to my handwashing standards, and the last 10% were ridiculous and needed to be washed again, with a scrubbie and a strong elbow because that filmy white shit was really stuck on. I was often too proud for this, it made me feel like I had been beaten into submission by a mere machine, and I would stubbornly put these filthy looking dishes back into our cupboards because, fuck you mother fucker, I was going to have the last word.

exhibit A
exhibit B
exhibit C

I thought it was our dishwasher at first. Then I started asking around. From what I understand dishwashers used to work, and still do, in some states. Specifically, in the states that haven’t outlawed the high-phosphate detergent. My MIL explained that she would smuggle the illegal kind back from Montana whenever she went, and then cut the Washington approved stuff with it, because otherwise her dishes were as bad as mine. Other people I talked to seemed to have just accepted the double-edged sword of having not very clean dishes, and having to rewash the worst ones.

It seemed to me like dishwashers were just a big dupe, the wool pulled over everyone’s eyes while we kept right on asking for more. But, my life was pretty crazy, as I may have mentioned. I’d take any help I could get, even if it was bad help. So I kept on using.

But, when we got back from Christmas at the MIL’s illegal detergent household, and I opened our cabinet for a glass, I was repulsed. The glasses were almost all covered with The Film. (Since it goes on the dishwasher, but never comes off without hand scrubbing which I seemed to proud to do, it had just multiplied over time. Plus I think that once The Film is on there, it attracts more Film to it, building up with every wash.) I had had it.

I went cold turkey. Fuck that mother fucker once and for all. I worked through the cabinets one sink-full at a time, feeling a new-found joy at the sight of sparkling clean glasses and jars.

All throughout this entire process My Man and I had speculated how much time the dishwasher actually saves. I suspected it was not as much as I wanted it to be, or as much as most people think. Finally a few weeks after making the switch, I was overcome by curiosity. It was time to break out the barely concealed Type A personality and do an experiment.

The Great Dishwasher Experiments

When I was feeling in a good place, and had a Saturday ahead of me for the latter part of my experiment, I started by loading our dirties into the dishwasher. I timed myself loading, in four separate batches, which is about how I would usually do it. It took a little more than a day to fill. Then, recruiting My Man to keep kiddos at bay and allow me an uninterrupted time block, I unloaded that same batch of dirties and hand washed them in the sink.

I know. I know. But aren’t you glad I did? And guess what, due the tarnish of the shocking conclusion by a few inaccuracies, I did it again. And then again.

The first (flawed) experiment yielded this score:

  • dishwasher- 13 minutes
  • handwash- 17 minutes

I was blown away. I had been expecting to be surprised, but this simply couldn’t be right. That it had taken me 13 minutes to load the dishwasher wasn’t too surprising, but a mere 18 minutes to hand wash that enormous pile of dishes?!?!?!

After attacking my scientific method, I had to dispense with such pedestrian techniques as simply watching the clock. I discovered my obnoxiously useful iThing has a stopwatch, and I employed it during my next two experiments.

The other compromise to my results came in the rinsing department. I am a negligent rinser when loading a dishwasher. Another power trip thing. If I’m gonna pick up the dish, hold it under flowing water, and wield a sponge or brush, I might as well just wash that son of a bitch. But, you do have to at least knock the chunks off, and I realized that I had unfairly counted that time with the dishwasher segment, and then put the pre-rinsed dishes straight into the sink for handwashing.

So, round two and three followed, with more accurate results.

  1. dishwasher 7.5/handwash 13.5
  2. dishwasher 6.5/handwash 12

While the first flawed experiment suggested a ratio of 1:1.3 (1 minute of dishwasher loading to a mere 1.3 minutes of handwashing), the second offered a more comforting 1:1.8, and the third almost 1:2.

Phew, dishwashers are at least worth something!

I still find these results shocking though. Not the ratio as much as the actual minutes involved. I mean, even the first 18 minutes to handwash blew my mind, let alone the following 13.5 and then 12?!?!? Before washing that first batch, I told My Man I expected it to take about 40 minutes. That was my, I liked to think, educated guess. I have washed an awful lot of dishes in my life. When I finished and looked at the clock, I couldn’t believe it, I kept rechecking the piece of paper I’d written the start time on, and re-calculating the math.

When I did the handwashing, I consciously didn’t race. I proceeded at my usual pace, though I will admit that is pretty quick. I used to dawdle over dishes, when I was younger, and time was a deep pocket from which I endlessly dipped more than I needed. Nowadays, I do hustle a bit.

What this whole experiment has pointed out to me is, not that dishwashers are useless exactly, but that handwashing dishes only takes an additional 6 minutes a day! That I can wash an enormous load of dishes in 12-17 minutes! Who knew?

Like most women, and even a (very) few men I’ve know, when I wash dishes I also tend to clean the kitchen. They are kind of wrapped up in my mind. I had never taken the time to extricate dishwashing from the whole clear the table/put the leftovers away/scrape the plates/wash the dishes/wipe the counters and stove shebang.

Not to mention that when you have kids, 15 minutes of dishwashing can easily become two hours of trying to get back to the now tepid sink full of dishes in between retrieving snacks, mediating fights, wiping tears, wiping asses, wiping spilled milk and generally cleaning up after the implicit 15 minutes worth of unsupervised play.

None of which that goddamned dishwashing machine helps with one iota.

So. The conclusion. Is saving 6 minutes a day worth a cupboard full of filmy dishes? I’m sure it will depend on the day. In general, for now, I am sticking with handwashing. But I don’t regret having had the dishwasher during that not so long departed Year of Insanity.

For one thing, at the end of a long day (and they are all long) loading the dishwasher sure sounds a hell of a lot more tacklable than washing the dishes. Dishwashers offer the ellusive possibility of easy clean, even if they don’t deliver. If I could just find the right machine, or the right detergent, this time it will be different….

I like what Eric Knutsen and Kelly Coyne say in their book Urban Homestead. After discussing whether the hype about dishwashers being more efficient than handwashing is true, they own up to the fact that either way, they love their dishwasher, “it has saved our marriage more than once, and you’d have to pry it out of our cold, dead fingers.”
Those guys kick ass. I love their candor.
Though I have to add, did any of you read Kelly’s recent post about cleaning a coffee cup stain with baking soda? I hate to say it, but that filthy build up would have never happened in the first place if the cup had been regularly washed in a sink with two hands and a scrubbie.
where all my best thoughts go

17 thoughts on “Dishwashers: Are They Worth It?

  1. Well CJ: Here’s the scoop–I recently discovered (through trial and error) that if you add a mere 1/4 cup of vinegar into the dishwasher, along with one of those cascade detergent/rinse gel packs the whole dang thang works as good as washing dishes by hand. I know, hard to believe, but it’s true. And the really good part is–because the dishwasher does such a fine job rinsing–there is no vinegary smell. Nice! Or as my teenage son loves to say “SWEET!”

    1. I’m inspired enough by yalls dishwasher love to try a few more tricks, like this. And someday, when we move back to our Alaska house, we might just get a fancy pants good one.

  2. Nice post! – I had to *giggle* while reading this post because I had just loaded and started my dishwasher before sitting down to read my blog/email updates. The dishwasher is a lifesaver for the hubs and I, we used to fight over who had made the most dirty dishes, who washed them last and about the proper way to wash the dishes. It didn’t help that we were always out of spoons because I just absolutely hated to wash the silverware and would often just leave it all in the sink. I’ve happily lived without a microwave, but I don’t think I would happily live without a dishwasher.

  3. Oh, you crack me up! Our dishwasher is seven kinds of AWESOME! It is a Bosch, with excellent water & energy ratings, super quiet, super efficient, and did I mention awesome?

  4. It’s the dishwasher. I had one of those hook up to
    the sink ones (I was in a rental too) and it was
    terrible. I didn’t get another one for years until
    we bought a house and eventually put in a new
    kitchen. My husband and I are both at home
    during the day and cook everything from scratch
    3 times a day – you’d have to prise it out of
    our cold dead fingers as well!

  5. wow! Thanks for taking the time to do the experiment. I’ve got to say I have often wondered myself about that! There is something Zen about handwashing…when you don’t have 3 kids under 5 harrasssing you- love your description of your two!

    Our problem is we hate doing it in the evening, so we come down to a horrible kitchen in the morning. We have the energy to face it then, but i t means we start the morning on the back foot. And using a dishwasher always means you are arse-ways, the Jenga is happening on the counter tops cos the dishwasher is going during the day…and the only time we really get to unpack it without being helped unload the sharp knives by a one-year-old is in the morning when theya re having breakfast.

    Re the white film… Do you guys have rinse aid and dishwasher salt in the US. Even if you use super incredible dishwasher powder or tablets, if you don’t use rinse aid and salt you get what you are describing. In our machine you just load them about once every 2-3 weeks and a little is used each time.

    Great post…I understand the feelings behind it totally!

    1. Omg, I never used to be capable of washing up at night, even though I adore a clean kitchen first thing in the morning like nothing else. Here cockroaches kind of push the issue, but even still we only manage it about half the time.
      I think there is such a thing as rinse aid, but I haven’t tried it. I really should. Never heard of salts.

  6. I thought that one of the main reasons to have kids is that THEY do the dishes. Our 10 year old is well into his years of service and the 6 year old is is starting on drying plastic items. Wont be too long and i will have the 4 year old onto it! Now that makes me sound like a slave driver but we have made it the job that everyone mucks in with and after the firts 2 years of nagging it has gone quite smoothly! If the 10 year old is drying it gives hims some side by side time with whichever adult is washing which he enjoys.

    1. Good thinking. With the oldest at 3.5 we haven’t gotten much further than setting the table, which she sometimes does, sometimes refuses to do, and sometimes has a big fit when WE do it.
      She has absolutely no interest whatever in washing. And with her personality type, nagging creates backward movement. Time will tell, I suppose. I noticed there is a window where all they want to do is whatever you’re doing, then at least mine grew out of that and she mostly does her own thing now. Do they go through another window like that later on where it’s somewhat natural to introduce chores?
      This subject is one of about two dozen stockpiled in my brain, waiting to be posted.

  7. Wow… that is some serious film and junk you have. If my dishwashers cleaned like that I would be with you 100%. Honestly, that’s when I’d call the damn machine broken and try to give it to someone who didn’t care. I’ve had much better luck with dishwashers, and a rinse aid and vinegar have been key to that success, I think. I guess my worst dishwashers had about a 90% clean result– not too bad. We even had one of those portable ones that you hook up to the sink. But I’m in phosphate land, and I have a problem with phosphates, legal or illegal, they are not very nice.

    Also, if I did my dishes as quickly as you can, I wouldn’t be so dishwasher-tempted. But I guess I’m a slow one. And unless I want depressing/increasingly glue-forming stockpiles of dishes (which I do end up having about 75% of the time) I need to be doing dishes about 4 times a day, and on heavy baking/cooking/yogurt-making days it could get to be more. I’m just sick of that and am looking for a dishwasher… but there’s the other problem. There is a huge variety of washers out there, and they are not all the same. I feel like it’s a really pricey gamble at a time when we don’t have the cash so we’re still waiting to bite the bullet. Probably the closer I get to the second baby being born the less I will care about “thinking it over.”

    Soooo… does the new place have a DW?

    1. Those photos are the worst of it, but still, seems like I get one or two that bad with every load. How and when do you add the vinegar?
      You really should time yourself. You might be surprised. Like I said, I expected it to take me a full 40 minutes or more. I was blown away. In addition to the distractions, dishwashing is meditative in that black hole kind of way, where time becomes warped.
      Not to disuade you from the dishwasher, sounds pretty promising that my experience is unusual, from all these comments. But machine or no, I just find it kind of reassuring to know that I hand wash three times as fast as I thought.
      No, the new place doesn’t have a dishwasher. We’ll probably take along our crappy one. Maybe after I find the right “products” it won’t be crappy anymore!

  8. I’m going to agree with those who’ve said the problem is likely *your* dishwasher, possibly also your water. I also have a “portable” dishwasher and live in a phosphate-free state, but I have never (ever!) had film on my dishes, even without extras like vinegar and rinse aid. I paid about $400 for mine, ten years ago, and it still cleans just fine – I don’t even need to rinse the dishes first! I just scrape off the big chunks. The other bit of economy, from my perspective, is that even though I do also cook almost everything from scratch, I can usually get away with running the dishwasher only every other day, which is probably more water/energy efficient than it would be to wash the same dishes by hand daily.

    Hope you find a nice Happy Medium!

    1. That’s a good point about water, I think we have hard water here, which might not help matters…
      Your dishwasher sounds amazing. I am so jealous.

  9. I love the analytical approach. This is something I’ve always wondered and thrilled that you have collected the data for me. Thanks! -Poughkeepsie, NY

  10. I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time. I stumbled upon your blog during work, and I’m adding it to my favorites right now. Hands down, my favorite line “… because, fuck you mother fucker, I was going to have the last word.”


  11. Thanks for the experiment, but with your little tots, you missed a few other benefits of the dishwasher…

    My kids are 11, 9, and 5, and it’s part of their routine to rinse their own glass, silverware, and dishes after every meal, and place those dishes in the dishwasher themselves. OK, the 5 year old doesn’t always get through all that yet, but he soon will…

    With that distributed effort, there’s no comparison with hand-washing. Even more so as one of new chores in the house is “attending to the dishwasher”, which is where one child climbs up onto the countertop, and one or two others hand him the dishes to put away. That, the 5 year old can do just fine.

    So… my typical involvement in the dish washing these days is to rinse and load up my dishes, plus any mixing bowls or an occasional pot from cooking, and the soap powder.

    Oh, and I press the button after sending the boys to bed.

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