How Much Water Does Cleaning Your Dishes Really Take?

March 22, 2017

"Always make sure the dishwasher is full before running it," is one of those mom-isms that subconsciously runs through my head each time I'm in the kitchen. It goes hand-in-hand with Don't stand directly in front of the microwave and A watched pot never boils. But how much water do you really save by doing it?

Photo by Mark Weinberg

With increasingly water-efficient dishwashers, how much water does dishwashing really take? What about compared to hand-washing? Is one more water-efficient than the other? Here's what we found:


The average energy-efficient dishwasher uses 4 to 6 gallons per cycle, while the average dishwasher uses 6 gallons of water per cycle. This number is a fraction of what it used to be; even fifteen years ago, dishwashers used around 13 gallons per cycle. While dishwashers vary in how many dishes they can fit and how efficiently they're loaded, Energy Star defines a full-sized dishwasher as one that "has a capacity greater than or equal to eight place settings and six serving pieces" or, in layman terms, the aftermath of a serious dinner party.

Washing By Hand:

By some estimates, kitchen sinks spew about 2 to 5 gallons of water per minute. If you're letting your sink run the entire time you're washing dishes, you've already used the same amount of water as a dishwasher after 2 minutes. And as one European study estimated, this number could be higher. After watching over one-hundred participants hand-wash dishes, they discovered that people employed a variety of methods, but used, on average, about 13 gallons of water to wash the same number of dishes that could fit into a large dishwasher.

Our takeaway:

For hand-washing to be more efficient, you'd have to be able to wash everything in under two minutes with the water running the whole time, or fill your sink with about 4 gallons of water and wash your dishes in that. (This is how our founder Amanda Hesser insists is the best way to wash dishes.) NB: Many kitchen sinks have capacities of up to 4 or 5 times that. So just fill up as much as you need.

A Cheat Sheet:

Estimate how much time it would take you to wash all of your dishes:

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If it's 2 minutes or less for the entire batch: Hand wash.

If it's over 2 minutes: Use the dishwasher.

The best option: If you have enough plates and cutlery to do so, put your dishes in the dishwasher each night, then run it when it's completely full. Alternatively, fill your sink with a few gallons of soapy water and use that to wash all of your dishes.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article originally ran in April of last year. We've decided to republish it in observance of World Water Day.

What are some of your favorite water-saving dishwashing strategies? Tell us in the comments below!

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HomePros September 2, 2023
Also some environmentally conscious individuals collect the rinse water from washing dishes to use for watering plants or other purposes.
Claudia T. August 16, 2018
As much as I love having a dishwasher and think it's more water-efficient than hand washing, I do consider that when a dishwasher breaks down, at least some of it-if not most of it- is going to wind up in a landfill. So it's a balance on terms of eco-friendly
Smaug April 28, 2016
Hand washing is very inefficient if you do it inefficiently. Doesn't take more than a couple of inches of soapy water in the sink, and leaving the water running-apparently at full volume in these tests- is just nuts. It's not difficult to save your rinse water for other uses.