Dishwasher vs washing by hand – which is better?

Is convenience cheaper?

When faced with a pile of dirty dishes, most of us would opt for convenience and choose a dishwasher over washing up by hand. However, with high energy costs and 60% of households in England and Wales on a ‘pay-for-what-you-use’ water meter (according to the Consumer Council for Water), we’re all getting wise to cutting back where we can.

We’ve investigated using a dishwasher vs washing up by hand and discovered what’s the cheapest and most eco-friendly option for you.

Woman doing dishes at the kitchen sinkCredit: Shutterstock/Roman Samborskyi

So, how many of us have the option to choose between using a dishwasher and washing up by hand? According to Trend-Monitor, a research organisation that focuses on the home improvement industry, 49% of UK households have a dishwasher. That figure reduces to 29% for single-person households and increases to 56% for households with children, leaving 51% of households washing up by hand.

Those without a dishwasher cited space as a limiting factor or that they wouldn’t use one.

Which uses the most water?

Dishwashers use far less

The amount of water you use depends on how you wash up and which programme you select on your dishwasher. If you fill the whole sink with soapy suds and keep the tap running while you wash, you’ll use far more water than if your were to half-fill a washing-up bowl and turn off the tap. Similarly, if you run the dishwasher when it’s only half full, your dishes will use more water than if you wait until it’s full.

Research by Bonn University in Germany compared washing dishes by hand and in the dishwasher. It discovered that the most energy-efficient dishwashers with 12 place settings consumed 15 litres of water. The human testers (113 people from around Europe) used 103 litres of water on average for the same dishes. However, there was a lot of variation, with the  most common amount being 40-50 litres and the most economical using 20-30 litres – still more than the dishwashers.

Similarly, Which? research shows that a nine-litre washing-up bowl has the capacity to wash two place settings at most. So the equivalent of washing 12 place settings would be 9 x 6 = a minimum of 54 litres of water. Which? says that even less efficient dishwashers are a clear water saving.

Water consumption – dishwasher vs washing by hand

Here we break down the figures, assuming that we wash up or use the dishwasher five times each week, and each wash would cover 12 place settings.

A place setting is the equivalent of a large dinner plate, a small snack plate, a saucer, a bowl, a coffee cup, a drinking glass, a knife, two teaspoons, a dinner fork and a small salad fork.

Washing by hand 

  • Uses 54 litres* x 5 (weekly) = 270 litres of water
  • This equates to 270 litres x 52 (weeks) = 14,040 litres per year (14.04 cubic metres)
  • Water meter bills are charged in cubic metres, at an average of £1.6142 per cubic metres**
  • Total water cost of washing by hand = 14.04 cubic metres x £1.6142 = £22.66 per year.

Dishwasher

  • Uses 15 litres* x 5 (weekly) = 75 litres of water.
  • This equates to 75 litres x 52 (weeks) = 3,900 litres per year (3.9 cubic metres)
  • Total water cost of dishwashing = 3.9 cubic metres x £1.6142** = £6.30


* Weekly water usage figures taken from research by Which? and the University of Bonn

** Water costs based on Severn Trent scheme of charges for 2022/2023 at £1.6142 per m3

Kitchenware items sit in soapy water in a square shaped red washing up bowl.Credit: Shutterstock/Morten Watkins

How to maximise your dishwasher’s cleaning power

It’s important to regularly clean the spray arms of the machine. Small particles of food, such as rice, seeds, and sweetcorn, can block the tiny holes that allow water to be distributed during a cycle, leading to poor washing results.

Which uses more energy?

Washing by hand uses far more

The cost of running your dishwasher will depend largely on the energy efficiency of your appliance. The higher the energy efficiency rating, the cheaper it will be to run and the less water it will consume.

All energy rating labels are based on the performance of an appliance’s ‘eco’ setting, so expect to consume more energy if you choose a different programme. Hide says: “By swapping your normal 60-70°C cycle to the eco setting, you save 30% in electricity and water each time you hit the eco button.”

The energy labels on appliances changed in 2021 from A+++ to G to a simpler A to G rating. The change has made it easier to compare products. If you’re in the market for a new dishwasher and want to know more about the energy rating label, AMDEA has a guide.

To calculate how much energy your dishwasher uses per cycle:

  1. Check on your dishwasher’s energy rating label to find the kWh (kiloWatt hours) of your appliance.
  2. Multiply the kWh by the cost of your electricity per kWh. You will find this figure on your last energy bill.

Under the current Energy Price Guarantee, most of us are paying 34p per kWh for electricity.

Example:

If your dishwasher uses 1.2 kWh per cycle, with your electricity cost at 34 pence per kWh (based on the Energy Price Guarantee), you can expect to pay 1.2kWh x 34p = £0.41 per cycle.

Women sets up a eco program on the panel of dishwasher, to save water and electricity.Credit: Shutterstock/InFocus.ee

Energy consumption – washing by hand vs dishwashing

Washing by hand 

  • The average washing up session will use a minimum of 54 litres, according to Which?.
  • Using Omnicalculator, the energy needed to heat 1 litre of water* is equal to 0.06kWh.
  • This is a minimum energy usage of 3.24kWh (54 litres x 0.06kWh). That equates to at least £1.10 per washing-up session (3.34kWh x £0.34).
  • That could be anywhere north of £286 a year, based on five washing up sessions a week.
  • Which? estimates that one bowl of water costs around £0.15 to heat a nine-litre washing up bowl, using a 3kW immersion heater.
  • Based on this calculation, washing up would cost £234 a year, based on 12 place settings being washed five days a week, 52 weeks a year.

Dishwasher

  • John Lewis’ best-selling integrated dishwasher, the E-rated Beko DIN15X20, uses 0.937kWh of energy per eco cycle.
  • That is a cost of 0.937kWh x £0.34 = £0.32 per cycle
  • If the dishwasher is run five times a week, 52 weeks a year, its annual cost to run is: 5 x 52 x £0.32 = £82.83 per year
  • If you were to buy an A-rated appliance, such as the Miele G7460, it works out cheaper.
  • It would cost 0.29kWh x £0.34 = £0.10 per cycle
  • If the dishwasher is run five times a week, 52 weeks a year, its annual cost to run is: 5 x 52 x £0.10 = £26 per year

    *Assuming we heat water from 10 degrees C to 60 degrees C

How much does a dishwasher cost to buy?

The cost of the appliance is a factor

Although using a dishwasher may appear cheaper than washing up by hand, there is one element that washing by hand doesn’t need; an appliance. And this is where the comparison becomes trickier because of the price of dishwashers varies enormously. The energy and water they consume also vary depending on the machine’s energy rating, with a higher rating being more efficient, and generally more expensive!

While you can certainly buy a dishwasher for around £200 at the cheaper end of the scale you can pay far more with top-end dishwashers retailing for over £1,000. Exceptional spoke to John Lewis, AO and Currys, who all reported Bosch and Beko to be their bestselling dishwasher brands.

The Beko DIN15X20 at £299 is the best-selling integrated dishwasher at John Lewis, while the Bosch Series SMS2ITW08G  at £379 is the top freestanding buy at John Lewis and AO. Curry’s customers favour the integrated wi-fi enabled Bosch Series 2 SMV2ITX18G at £449, and the freestanding Bosch Series 2 SMS2HVW66G, at £479.

If you’re feeling more extravagant and you could try the fully integrated, A-rated Miele G 7460, but expect to pay over £1,800.

Cost of equipment – dishwasher vs washing by hand

Taking the average cost of the four best-selling appliances mentioned above, we’ve divided the figure by 11 (the expected lifecycle of a dishwasher is 11 years, according to AMDEA). This gives us the annual cost of the dishwasher purchase.

We can then see that you’d need to make a saving of at least £36.50 a year on your energy and water costs to make using a dishwasher cheaper than washing up by hand.

What are the differences in detergent costs?

Washing-up liquid vs dishwasher tablets

According to Statista, a market data specialist, Fairy Liquid was the number one brand of washing-up liquids and detergents in Great Britain in 2021, with 21.2 million people using the brand. Tesco and Persil followed in second and third place with 4.1 million and 3.2 million users, respectively.

Therefore, for our price comparison at Exceptional, we’re taking the brand leaders.

Cost of detergent – dishwasher vs washing by hand

Dishwasher detergent

  • Fairy Original All in One dishwasher tablets = £8.00* for 38
  • 1 wash = £0.21
  • This is an annual cost of £0.21 x 5 x 52 = £54.60

Hand-wash detergent

  • Fairy Original Washing up liquid = £2.00* for 654ml
  • Fairy recommends using 20ml for every 50 litres of water
  • 1 wash = £0.06
  • This is an annual cost of £0.06 x 5 x 52 = £15.60

Tesco prices, March 17, 2023

Which is quicker?

Your time versus a dishwasher’s convenience

A dishwasher cycle will take longer than washing the dishes by hand. Finish says a normal dishwasher cycle lasts two or more hours.

However, the benefit of using a dishwasher is that it gives you more time to do what you enjoy. Although, if all your crockery is in the wash, it can be a long, frustrating wait while the cycle completes, and you’re waiting for a breakfast bowl!

Open dishwasher with clean dishes in the white kitchenCredit: Shutterstock/Leszek Glasner

Which is more hygienic?

A dishwasher wins, hands down

Your dishes will be more hygienic if you use a dishwasher. This is because dishwashers can heat water to higher temperatures than your hands can bear and, therefore, can clean and sanitise much better than washing by hand.

Unlike washing by hand, a dishwasher’s temperature is fixed. According to Finish, the average temperature range of a main wash cycle is about 51-60°C. This temperature ensures the detergent is dissolves and is and activated, allowing any leftover food and grease to be removed. The temperature goes up a notch during the rinse to around 80°C to make sure the dishes are safe to eat from.

When washing up by hand, we also need to consider washing-up aids and how these impact the hygiene rankings, as washing-up sponges, cloths, and brushes are a breeding ground for harmful bacteria and germs. In comparison, a dishwasher eliminates the need for these washing-up aids and relies solely on detergent and hot water.

And then there’s the drying process to consider too. The drying process in a dishwasher is much more hygienic than using a tea towel for drying dishes by hand, which like washing-up aids, is a habitat for germs.

Tip

When washing up by hand, banish the tea towel and leave the pots and pans to air dry. This option saves you time and reduces the risk of germs spreading onto freshly cleaned dishes.

Different clean plates in dish drying rack, dish sponges and dishwashing detergent on the table on kitchen counter.Credit: Shutterstock/goffkein.pro

Which gets the best results?

It depends on the dirt levels

Washing your dishes in a dishwasher gets the best results as the hot water and drying process are more hygienic than washing by hand (see above). However, if your dirty dishes have been hanging around for a few days and food particles have become dried on, your dishwasher may find it a tough challenge to remove the stuck-on grime.

For those items that need more elbow grease, washing by hand could be your best bet.

Which is better for the environment?

It’s all about the water usage

Apart from saving money on your utility bill, it’s good to know that you can reduce your carbon footprint by finding ways to cut your energy consumption. So, what is better for the environment, using a dishwasher or washing up by hand?

When comparing water use, the dishwasher comes out as the clear winner. Using less water also means less energy is needed to heat the smaller quantity of water.

How to cut your carbon footprint

Here are a few handy tips to reduce your carbon footprint, whether you’re using a dishwasher or washing up by hand.

Tips when using a dishwasher

  1. A dishwasher takes less time to heat water than running a tap.
  2. Avoid the pre-rinse cycle.
  3. Set your dishwasher on the eco cycle.
  4. Run your machine with full loads.

Tips when washing up by hand

  1. Scrape food debris off dishes and into a food compost bin to avoid rinsing.
  2. Pre-soak dried-on food in warm water, instead of rinsing.
  3. If a rinse is required, avoid cleaning under running water. Swish the dishes around in a small amount of water.
  4. Capture and save any cold water while you wait for the hot water to run through.
  5. Use a washing-up bowl rather than a sink.
  6. Only use the amount of detergent you need for the job.
  7. Avoid running the tap.

Which is better for drying?

Both have their pros and cons

Dishwashers use two techniques to dry dishes, either heat or condensation drying. If your dishwasher uses condensation drying, your dishes will be rinsed in hot water at the end of the cleaning cycle.

Condensation forms on the cooler surface of the stainless-steel interiors, pulling water off the dishes and sending it down the drain. Heat drying is more energy-consuming than condensation drying, as it forces hot air through your dishwasher to remove moisture.

The downside of dishwasher drying is that it can leave water marks, particularly on glassware and plastics – something you won’t get if you dry them by hand with a clean tea towel.

That said, drying dishes in a dishwasher is more hygienic than using a tea towel, which could spread germs. The safest option when washing up by hand is to leave your dishes to air dry.

Laundering tea towels also comes with a cost, which again makes dishwashers seem all the more efficient by comparison.

Tip

If your dishwasher dries your dishes using the heat-drying process, avoid placing plastics on the lower shelf, as the heating element is based on the bottom of the application and will melt plastics.

The final verdict

The costs and other benefits, weighed up…

Overall, dishwashers come out on top costs wise vs washing by hand, but it’s not totally cut and dried (excuse the pun). The figures below are based on many assumptions – including how much water you use when washing up, what dishwasher you buy and how long it lasts.

Final calculations

Annual cost of washing by hand:

Cost of appliance: £0
Average cost of energy: £234 (our lowest possible figure)
Average cost of water: £22.66
Average cost of detergent: £15.60
Total cost: £272.26

Annual cost to run an E-rated dishwasher:

Cost of appliance: £27.18 (based on Beko’s £299 best-selling model)
Average cost of energy: £82.83
Average cost of water: £6.30
Average cost of detergent: £54.60
Total cost: £170.91

We know to load and unload a dishwasher is far quicker than standing in front of a sink and ploughing through a pile of washing and drying up. So, a dishwasher wins every time if you’re after convenience and have space in your kitchen.

It’s also a winner in terms of the amount of water and energy needed to complete a load.

However, dishwashers fall short in terms of the cost of detergent compared to washing up by hand. While water and energy savings are easy to compare, it’s difficult to factor in the cost of an appliance as prices vary widely. If you opt for a very expensive appliance or yours breaks down or needs repairs after a few years, the savings could shrink.

At least with washing by hand, you can rely on yourself to keep doing the job without needing too many repairs – or a replacement!

We also haven’t factored in the carbon and energy used to build the appliance, or that taken to dispose of it safely and recycle parts.

But the numbers don’t lie – on the face of it and despite extra expenses, all but the most expensive dishwashers are cheaper to use than washing by hand.

Camilla Sharman

Written by Camilla Sharman she/her

Updated:

With her 30 years of experience, Camilla Sharman has covered a wide range of sectors within the business and consumer industries both as a feature, content, and freelance writer.  As a business journalist, Camilla has researched articles for many different sectors from the jewellery industry to finance and tech, charities, and the arts. Whatever she’s covered, she enjoys delving deep and learning the ins and out of different topics, then conveying her research within engaging content that informs the reader.