What uses less water dishwasher or by hand?

Many people wonder if it’s more water-efficient to wash dishes by hand or use a dishwasher. There are pros and cons to both methods, and the answer depends on several factors. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll examine the evidence on water usage for handwashing vs. dishwashers so you can make an informed decision for your home.

Quick Answers

– Most modern dishwashers use 4-6 gallons of water per cycle

– Handwashing dishes can use anywhere from 8-27 gallons depending on technique

– Newer Energy Star certified dishwashers are generally more water efficient than handwashing

– Handwashing can be efficient if using methodologies like not pre-rinsing, soaking, scrubbing efficiently, and not letting the faucet run

– The number of dishes can impact relative water usage – dishwashers are more efficient for large loads

– Water usage depends on dishwasher settings – lighter cycles use less water

Dishwasher Water Usage

Most modern dishwashers use between 4-6 gallons of water per cycle. However, the actual amount can vary based on the following factors:

Dishwasher Type

Newer Energy Star certified dishwashers are the most water efficient models. They use advanced technology to provide excellent cleaning results while consuming less water and energy. Standard dishwashers may use up to 10 gallons of water per cycle.

Cycle Settings

The heavier duty the cycle, the more water used. For example, a Normal or Regular wash cycle uses the most water. Lighter cycles like Energy Saver or Quick Wash use the least amount of water.

Number of Dishes

Running a full load is the most water efficient option. The dishwasher uses roughly the same amount of water whether it’s fully loaded or just half full.

Water Pressure

Homes with low water pressure may need to use more water for the dishwasher to function properly. High efficiency dishwashers compensate better for low pressure.

Spray Arm Function

Clogged or faulty spray arms force the dishwasher to run longer to properly clean, wasting more water.

Racks Fullness

Improperly loaded racks can block spray arms, causing the machine to run longer and use more water to wash properly.

Soil Level

Heavily soiled dishes require more wash cycles, each adding to the total water usage. Scrapping food debris before loading saves water.

Dishwasher Type Gallons per Cycle
Standard 6-10
Energy Star Certified 4-6

Handwashing Water Usage

Estimates for handwashing dishes vary greatly depending on technique. Using a running faucet can use up to 27 gallons. However, efficient methods bring this down to 8-15 gallons. Factors impacting water usage include:


Pre-rinsing dishes under running water can use 3-5 gallons. This step should be skipped for water savings.

Number of Sinks

Washing in a double basin uses less water as you can fill one with wash water and the other for rinsing.

Faucet Flow Rate

Standard faucets use 2.2 gallons per minute (GPM). Low-flow models bring this down to 1.5 GPM or less.

No Faucet Running

Letting the faucet run continuously can waste up to 27 gallons. Turn off between rinses.


Soaking dishes loosens food debris, requiring less rinsing.

Efficient Scrubbing

Gently rubbing with a brush removes food using less water.

Rinsing Method

Spraying dishes individually uses less water than overflow rinsing.

Method Gallons Used
Pre-rinse with tap running 27
Skip pre-rinse, leave tap on 18
Plug sink, efficient scrub 8-12

Comparing Dishwasher vs Handwashing Water Usage

When comparing the two methods, the dishwasher generally uses less water by a significant margin. An Energy Star certified model uses just 4-6 gallons per cycle, versus 8-27 gallons for various handwashing techniques.

Handwashing water usage is highly variable though based on the methodology. Someone who pre-rinses under running water, doesn’t soak or use efficient scrubbing practices could potentially use 2-3 times as much water as the dishwasher.

However, someone who carefully optimizes their process by eliminating wasteful practices like pre-rinsing and letting the tap run can get closer to dishwasher range water usage.

The type of dishes also makes a difference. For a full load of dishes, the dishwasher efficiency is hard to beat. But for a small load like a few glasses, handwashing judiciously may save water over running a half-empty dishwasher.

Impact of Number of Dishes

Dishwashers are designed for efficiency with large loads. The water usage won’t significantly increase whether it’s fully loaded with dishes or just half full.

For handwashing, the number of dishes factors directly into water usage. Washing a full dinner party’s dishes by hand takes much more water than a few plates and cups.

The break-even point where the dishwasher becomes more efficient is around 5 place settings.

Number of Place Settings Recommended Method
1-4 Handwashing
5+ Dishwasher

Properly Using Your Dishwasher

To maximize efficiency, follow these steps:

– Scrape excess food debris off dishes into the garbage, but don’t pre-rinse

– Allow dishes to air dry or use heat drying settings instead of rinse aid

– Run full loads and avoid half-empty wash cycles

– Use light cycles like Energy Saver for moderately dirty dishes

– Clean spray arms regularly to prevent clogs

– Don’t use the dishwasher as storage between washes

Optimizing Hand Dishwashing

These techniques help minimize water usage:

– Immediately rinse any standing water from the sink and turn off the tap when not actively washing.

– Soak dishes in warm water to loosen dried food debris before scrubbing.

– Use one sink or basin for washing and the other for rinsing.

– Minimize overflow rinsing, instead spray dishes individually using a pressure nozzle.

– Gently wipe dishes clean with a sponge or brush instead of a harsh scouring method requiring more rinsing.

– Allow dishes to air dry in a rack instead of towel drying.


When comparing dishwasher vs handwashing, the dishwasher typically uses less water for full loads. But efficient handwashing techniques can get close to the efficiency of a dishwasher, making it a good option for small loads.

Choosing an Energy Star certified dishwasher and optimizing the settings gives the best efficiency. For handwashing, eliminating things like pre-rinsing and not letting the tap run continuously are critical to lowering water usage.

With the right practices, either method can be water-smart. Focus on not being wasteful with water, only use what’s needed for each process, and minimize unnecessary steps. And with any dish cleaning method, the key is using biodegradable, eco-friendly detergents that won’t harm the environment!

Leave a Comment