I Run My Dishwasher Half-Full — And You Really Should, Too

published Jul 23, 2023
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A woman puts a plate in the dishwasher rack
Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn

Is there anything more irritating than a backlog of dirty dishes? I just want to watch Netflix when dinner is over, but my dishwasher doesn’t have room for all the dinner plates, so there they are, waiting their turn on the counter, just begging pests to invade. I can’t risk it, so I hand-wash them, but that takes a while because, of course, the drying rack is full. 

To avoid this problem, I now do something that would have made my younger self gasp in horror: I run my dishwasher half-full of dishes. 

Hear me out. When my husband makes his way to the kitchen for his late-night snack, he turns on the dishwasher. Sometimes it’s full, but if we ate leftovers it may be only half-full. He turns it on no matter what. Then, every morning I wake to clean dishes in the dishwasher, which I unload while I make my morning pour over. It’s so ritualized now that I don’t even know I’m doing it. Throughout the day we add dishes at mealtimes, and the cycle repeats at midnight snack time. 

In our old system, my husband would check to see if there was still room for the next day’s breakfast dishes, and if so, he wouldn’t turn it on. Then, after breakfast, I would — in theory — remember to start the dishwasher and unload it two hours later. But I would forget, because the thing about habits is they aren’t really habitual if you only do them sometimes.

With the new system we were no longer drowning in dirty dishes, but I felt guilty about running the dishwasher half-full. That is, until I learned from a recent Cascade study that with as few as eight dishes in the machine, an energy-efficient dishwasher actually uses less water than washing those same eight dishes by hand. Here’s the math: It takes an average of 15 seconds to wash a dish, so you can wash eight dishes in two minutes. Running the faucet for those two minutes uses four gallons of water. Guess how much a dishwasher uses in an entire cycle? Yep, just under four gallons. 

After learning this, I nodded along when I saw Cascade’s commercial with celeb couple Sarah Michelle Gellar and Freddie Prinze, Jr., encouraging viewers to “do it every night” — run the dishwasher, that is. (Wink.)

Of course, if you have an older, less energy-efficient dishwasher, it likely uses a lot more water, and therefore you probably shouldn’t run it half-full if you’re hoping to save water, as nice as it is to always wake up to clean dishes. 

Would it be ideal for me to run a full load every time? Of course. Is that a realistic possibility? Absolutely not — for me, at least. In the scope of good, better, and best, I’m content with better. We reduced our water usage, I never have to wonder if the dishes are clean or dirty, and, best of all, I always have time for Netflix. 

No dishwasher? You can still save water; here’s how

Okay, are you gasping or nodding? Let us know in the comments!

This post originally appeared on The Kitchn. See it there: Why You Should (Almost) Always Run Your Dishwasher Half-Full — Yes, Really