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

Things In General II

Wow. The kitchen is a complete wreck. My new dishwasher arrived yesterday, and I’m gonna need to really contemplate how to arrange my very small kitchen to fit it. Where the dishwasher itself goes is no question, it has to live right by the sink. But where to put the big storage shelf and trash that lived there before, I have not figured out.

Haven’t used the thing yet. My Man did the dishes by hand last night while I was putting the Babe to sleep, long story. Now I have to wait to make some dishes, which will be hard with such a messy kitchen!

I see one fatal flaw though. I knew it would need a prime spot next to the sink, and I was willing to give that up. But the hose that has to attach to the faucet is only (literally) two feet long! And since it exits the wrong side of the machine, which is itself two feet wide, this means that the dishwasher has to sit immediately in front of the sink, and even turned to face out, whenever it’s running!!!! That is going to be a pain in the ass. I mean, it’s on good casters, and we can run it at night, but nevertheless. C’mon people. Give up a few more bucks for a 6 fucking foot hose. Jesus.

If I were a real handy person, I’d put in a longer hose myself. But it would be pretty complicated. I guess I’m not real.

I got a bunch of exciting things (sort of) for my birthday. The dishwasher from my MIL, all the rest I bought myself. My Man and I don’t usually exchange presents for b-days. I don’t usually splurge thusly on myself either, but there were a few things I had wanted for awhile and now seemed a good time.

Looking forward to six months of heat I have been trying to scheme ways to cook without heating the kitchen up any extra. It just seems wrong to have to run the AC to counteract the stove, and anyway the kitchen is the one room without an AC unit. I bought a crock pot last fall at the sally, only to find that the really old models have a non-removable pot?!?! Meaning you can’t take it out to wash it, you have to lug the whole thing over to the sink, and then try to keep the electric parts dry. Stupidest thing I ever heard.

Believe it or not, I actually continued to use that MF quite a number of times. I’d spent $10 on it! I’m cheap! I knew I needed to get another crock pot, which seem great for cooking in the heat, but this time I wanted to spring for a really good one. I had dreams that there ought to be a crock pot with a more adjustable heat. After a little looking online I found out that there is such a thing as a “multi-cooker” which is slow cooker, pressure cooker, and rice cooker in one. Beautiful! I’ll take it! I did a little research, and bought a $100 unit made by Fagor.

I’ve never cooked with a pressure cooker before, though I’ve used them tons for canning. This little electric model is pretty damn slick. When I first used it (as soon as I got it, yesterday morning) I was disappointed to see it wasn’t making any kind of hissing or steam geiser. I thought it must not be working. I had read a review of someone who’s unit just didn’t work, and they had trouble getting the company to care. But no, after 25 minutes my chick peas were perfectly tender and delicious! I guess when an electric sensor is regulating the heat, you don’t need to have the geiser, which when I think about it is waste heat anyway.

But, I don’t want to tell you too much about my new toy, because I’m working on an If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Kitchen post. For all you Ozzies. And other hot climaters.

Other happy birthday to me things include the book Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason by Alfie Kohn, and a Meyer lemon tree! The book was recommended by a friend, and looks really good. The tree is only four feet tall but the nursery assured me that since it is grafted, it’s a mature tree (?) and will set fruit this year. I hope so. I don’t know why I didn’t just go out and buy myself a lemon tree the moment we got off the plane. They are $30, and did I mention I’m cheap? and there’s lots of free lemons to be had here. But still and yet. I have always wanted a lemon tree, and when else in my otherwise Alaskan life am I going to get to have one??? I was so happy bringing my new baby home. I tucked her into a nice big pot with the sunniest location in the entire yard, gave her some composted chicken manure to munch on, and a thick layer of leaves. I hope she likes it here. I hope she gives me lemons.

The down side of a lemon tree is that now that damn Peter, Paul and Mary song is stuck on repeat forever after in my brain.

In family news, My Man has started looking for a job. It’s going to be a bit tricky, since he isn’t necessarily looking for a pre-existing job, but more to create and fulfil his own. We’ll see.

The spill is just a continually depressing subject. He went to a preliminary investigation/hearing type of thing yesterday, re: why the explosion happened in the first place. And I was reminded about what I don’t like about his work. He has to get caught up in the details of what went wrong, when the real issue (to my mind) is that things are going to go wrong, and we shouldn’t have been drilling there in the first place.

Of course, I saw some people at a Sierra Club rally with a sign that said, ‘No Drill, No Spill’ and it’s all well and good to be against offshore drilling, against ANWAR, against wars in the middle east for oil, against nuclear power, but you have to be against getting in your car to go along with it.

It’s not like I am going on any car fast to protest, though I’ve heard of some other kick-ass folks doing so. But the issue needs to be addressed, and no one ever wants to stand up and hold a sign that says ‘Use Less.’

Not in America, land of the free (enterprise).

Besides, where’s the ring to ‘Use Less?’ No one could sell bumper stickers with that slogan.

(Though I was thinking of putting a sign in the back window of our car that says, “Mad about the spill? Pledge to keep your car in the driveway one day/week” But since our car stays in the driveway most days of the week, not many people would see it….)

(Not that we’re any kind of heros. We’ll be flying back to Cordova for a few weeks in July, using up way more than the extra days worth of fuel.)

And the kids? I think we’re on the uphill of our cycle. Things are looking up, some days are pretty good. But some still quite rough. Last night, from 7 to 9:30 we were putting babies to sleep. The Babe took a full hour, and the Toddler an hour and a half. I was valiantly trying to stay up so I could speak more than 3 words in a row to my beloved. But I didn’t make it. Sleep has a powerful undertow. Well, apparently not for our babies, but for me!

And friends, that’s that. Gotta go clean the kitchen!