I’m not convinced a dishwasher saves people much, if any, time. The household dishwasher’s chief function seems to be temporary dirty dish storage more than anything (which I have to admit is not nothing). But leaving dirty dish storage aside, and also disregarding potential water and energy savings – which can go either way depending on efficiency of certain dishwasher models and water costs – I’d like to run an experiment comparing the total time spent doing dishes from an average meal for a family of four: dishwasher vs. hand-washing. This experiment will not be done in the course of this blog post – we’ll need to wait for Part II – but I speculate three major factors would affect the outcome:

  1. Meticulousness of pre-dishwasher rinsing
  2. Post-hand-washing routine: Drying and putting away vs. leaving in rack to air dry
  3. Pots and pans: hand-wash or dishwasher?

Meticulousness of pre-dishwasher rinsing

Dishwashers become less time-saving the more rigorously one rinses the dishes beforehand. My father was a judicious dish rinser; his dishes were spotless when he placed them in the dishwasher. My mom, on the other hand, would put half-eaten plates of food straight into the appliance. “It all ends up in the garbage disposal, you don’t even need to rinse them!” she would proudly proclaim. I don’t know how they handled all this when they were married, since they split when I was about six. My guess is they did it Mom’s way, since she likely both cooked the meals and did the dishes (or had my older sisters do them). I only got to know Mom’s and Dad’s dishwashing habits later, and separately.

If you rinse dishes to spotlessness before placing them in the dishwasher, I find it hard to believe the dishwasher is saving you any time at all. The only part you are skipping is the soap, which isn’t too time consuming. Scrubbing every dish before dishwasher placement is a maddening prospect, and it’s why Dad would never let anyone help with dishes when he’d have us over for dinner. Fine with us, but it seems pure lunacy to handle every single dish, spend several seconds rinsing every last speck of food off it, then bending down to place it in the dishwasher. The thing is 96% clean at this point; you can almost just put it away!

(This seems like a good time for an aside on dishwasher placement. Dishwashers in the home are generally at ground level, which is entirely the wrong place for them. If you don’t use a dishwasher, the dish’s journey – from cupboard to table to sink to counter and back to cupboard – takes place entirely at easy-to-reach levels. But with a dishwasher, the materials must be moved almost to FLOOR LEVEL before being eventually returned to the cupboard at head level. This is a lot of wear and tear on the back, and a totally unnecessary step.)

If you barely rinse dishes at all before putting them in the dishwasher, you do help make the case for using the appliance. Also, the mechanical dishwasher is a bit of an equalizer: if every family member puts his or her own dishes in, there is less work for one person to do. It’s a bit weird for each diner to hand-wash his or her own dishes; in fact, it’s a practice I’ve never really heard of – and I’ve heard about a lot of weird shit.

But let’s split the difference and presume the average family using a dishwasher rinses the plates, glasses and flatware a modest amount: enough to get most solids off, but we’ll leave them plenty dirty for the dishwasher.

The next factor we need to consider is:

Post-hand-washing routine: Drying and putting away vs. leaving in rack to air dry.

This is huge, and the factor that can assuredly give dishwashing the clear edge versus hand-washing. The reason is clear: If you use a dishwasher, you don’t ever really manually dry the dishes. By the time you put them away several hours later – or most likely the next day – the dishes are bone dry. You’re still bending down to floor level to put the dishes in the dishwasher, and returning to floor level the next day to retrieve them, but cutting out the towel-drying process is huge.

I’ve done years of hand-washing, and I’ve never towel-dried dishes (except maybe pots and pans, simply to get them out of the way). The old adage “you wash, I’ll dry” is a bit ridiculous. Being the dryer is like playing Scrabble with a child: After your turn, go grab a book, because you’re going to have some time to kill until you’re next called upon to do something.

My first regular dishwashing responsibility was when I was eight years old and living in Los Angeles with my mother and new stepfather and stepbrother. My initial task in this new union was simply to keep my stepbrother Mark company while he hand-washed and rinsed the dishes, leaving them to drip dry in a rack. He was fourteen and I was eight, and I was unaccustomed to doing chores of any kind. But before long, Mark would wash while I rinsed and put dishes in the drying rack. And not long after that we began alternating the washer and rinser job. This is a more equitable distribution of labor than a washer/rinser and a drier, as each task – washing and rinsing – takes more or less the same amount of time. But making one person wash and rinse, while the other dries and puts away? The first person gets the shit end of that stick.

(Another aside: The purpose of drying dishes and putting them away immediately is mainly to avoid leaving dishes in limbo. It is the efficient person’s dream to simply use a thing and put it away forthwith. There is no pile of dishes in a drying rack to stare at until the next morning, and no dishwasher full of dirty dishes. It’s not a bad way to handle dishes if a) there is no mechanical dishwasher, b) there isn’t much counter space to leave dishes out to dry, and c) there are always two people around to do the job.)

The final factor to consider in the dishwasher vs. hand-washing discussion is

Pots and pans: hand-wash or dishwasher?

This is another thing I’ve done both ways. I should add that I don’t much know what should or shouldn’t be put in the dishwasher. I tend to want to put everything in unless Amy tells me not to, or unless I see on the bottom of the item that it’s “Not Dishwasher Safe.” These things: the special knives, the small Teflon pans, and the fancy commuter mugs are a pain in my ass.

If you live alone or with just one other person, you can probably throw the pots and pans in the dishwasher, but keep in mind these tend to be the dirtiest items, with the most baked in (by definition) dirty food material. If I lived alone and I ran the dishwasher every night like clockwork, I might be tempted to put the pots and pans in. But mix in another, and another, and another diner in your household, and Pal, you need to give up on the idea of throwing the skillet and the saucepan in with the plates and bowls. There just isn’t going to be room. And if you don’t run the machine immediately, that stuff is going to get caked on. There is no worse feeling than going through the trouble of running the dishwasher, then at the end having to hand-wash a bunch of it anyway. It’s a chore that really makes you question the choices you’ve made in your life.

But we all seem to drink the dishwashing Kool-Aid. They tell us this machine saves us time and energy and we believe them, but I’m not sure it’s true. I once had a rental house that didn’t have a dishwasher. The owner provided me with a portable dishwasher. A portable fucking dishwasher that you had to store in some other part of the kitchen, roll over to the sink when you were ready to use it, attach one hose to the sink’s faucet and another outlet to the drain, then go through the usual hassle of the pre-rinse and bending down to floor level, then put the clean dishes away later, then finally disconnect and store the stupid beast until the next time. I used it a half dozen times before I realized it was the world’s biggest hassle, and I never used it again. (But not before it broke early on and my cousin and I spent no small amount of time repairing it. Idiots!)

Dad once told me he had a colleague, a respected attorney, who lived alone and simply kept all his dishes in the dishwasher full-time. He would take out and use what he needed each night, replace it when dirty, then run the dishwasher every night regardless. He washed mostly clean dishes every single night! This is a particular form of laziness. Gentlemen, you are never going to find a woman if you live this way. This is a stone’s throw from the guys who pee in jars because they’re too lazy to walk to the bathroom. (Ladies, it happens more often than you think. But here at Police Horse, this is not a practice we’ve ever undertaken, except in dire emergencies, like in the back of our minivan due to a lot of coffee and locked restrooms at our nephew’s Little League game.)

So, in summary, if you have not too many people to worry about, and you have ample counter space for a drying rack (placing dishes on which can be its own Byzantine game of Jenga and Pick-Up Sticks), and if you would normally give a dish a decent pre-rinse, I say forego the mechanical dishwasher altogether. Put on a podcast, NPR, or some good hip hop from the 80’s or 90’s, Zen out and wash those dishes by hand!


















Gary Taubes

Author of The Case Against Sugar, Why We Get Fat and Good Calories, Bad Calories

The Aspiring Chimera

updates on Brad Buchanan's lymphoma and stem cell transplant

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Burger Scoot

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