Most efficient (H2O-friendly) way to wash dishes?
November 14, 2015 2:42 PM   Subscribe

Can't believe I'm asking this question, but the thought never crossed my mind. While I should have been more responsible about this over the last 30 years or so, only now that I have a septic system have I started to worry about it. Shame on me, but being forced into a better habit... well, better late than never. I guess I'm looking for the best way to do dishes without wasting as much water.

I've always been a water runner... leaving the water running while brushing my teeth and washing dishes. While turning off the water when brushing my teeth is easy enough, it's not at all practical with dish-washing; I've tried.

We do have a dishwasher. So I pretty much rinse off all my dishes before putting them in the dishwasher... this by itself, uses a good amount of water - water that I leave running during this task. Then I hand-wash pots, pans, good knives... stuff that can't go in the dishwasher. Again... lots of water running.

I'm afraid I'm using A LOT of water... and I may be unnecessarily worrying about my septic tank, but I've been taking breaks between piles of dishes just so that I don't overflow the system.

There has got to be a better way. Please share. :)
posted by funfunfun to Home & Garden (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Most (newer) dishwashers don't require more than scraping off the food- no pre rinse needed.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 2:52 PM on November 14, 2015 [7 favorites]

We live in India for extended periods on a regular basis where we're on severely restricted tank water. I have now learned from my mother in law that I need a lot less water than I had thought imaginable.

We wash the dishes in a small tub of detergent water, cleanest/least greasy items first. A small tub could fit in your sink.

Then we wipe off any suds with a cloth , which may be reduced because there the tank water is incredibly hard...then we tip those suds on to the garden, wipe the small tub out with the cloth so there's no suds in it, *dribble* a tap in to the tub and rinse off any residue in the items. Not too bothered about soap on the outside.

With that rinse tub of water, put it in a bucket to use for toilet flushing, or put on the garden.
posted by taff at 2:54 PM on November 14, 2015 [10 favorites]

Hi! I'm Californian and 2nd generation Chinese American. Obviously not wasting water and washing dishes by hand is a very important issue that intersects for me. Didn't grow up using the dishwasher unless it was for really large loads.

My mom has one method and I have mine, I'll list both.

Mom: Uses water from the last rinse of vegetables, and saves it in a very large metal bowl in the sink. Any water runoff gets collected in the largest bowls used for eating. She then uses all that water already within in order to scrub and rinse it off, and then lays it on the dishrack. These dishes are already have all the food scraped off (but we don't really leave food on our plates in the first place.) We also don't really eat fried or oily dishes, so very little detergent use.

My method, which I picked up from MeFi: Get a dish sponge or dish towel, and put a small dab of detergent on it. On plates with food scraped off already, go over all the plates and scrub with sponge/towel, and stack in the sink. With a large bowl, place underneath the sink spout. While the water runs (on a very little stream), start rinsing plates, it goes into the bowl. When the bowl gets full of water runoff, I dip the rest of the plates into it, scrub it, then dry it off with a towel. Alternatively, you can just fill up the large bowl with water, and then dip the plates into it and scrub off the detergent residue.

Do not fight me and try to tell me that the dishwasher is more efficient - it is not for any of the households I live in, unless you want to pay to replace my dishwasher or buy me one and build me a place in my kitchen :)
posted by yueliang at 2:55 PM on November 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Is overflowing your septic tank a problem you've had or been told to expect? I grew up in a town where everyone was on septic tanks and I've never heard of anyone overflowing one by doing too many dishes. (Or in any other manner.)

Modern dishwashers are very water efficient -- about 4 gallons per load for Energy Star rating, and don't generally require much pre-rinsing. Other than good knives, there's no reason not to put posts and pans in the dishwasher, either.

If you're running water for more than about 2 minutes to do your dishes, it would be more efficient to put them in the dishwasher.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:55 PM on November 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

I know this doesn't address the water wastage, but as far as your septic tank goes... we once had to leave our water running full blast 24/7 for a solid week (long story) and our septic tank was fine. I worried about it nonstop but nothing bad happened. So... I think, that while wasting water is definitely something to work on doing less, don't worry about your septic system.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 2:56 PM on November 14, 2015

Best answer: At minimum, there's no need to leave the water running while rinsing, right? Pick up plate, turn on water, rinse, turn off, put in dishwasher, repeat. The water only runs for a small fraction of the total time. We keep a jug of the water that comes out while we're waiting for it to get hot and that more than suffices for any needed rinsing.

But the most important thing is to get an Consumer Reports recommended dishwasher and detergent. We put the most unimaginable things into the dishwasher, never rinse, and they come out sparkling. I'm not kidding about the rinse thing. Never. The only thing we rinse is stuff like milk that will spoil before the dishwasher runs. We only scrape big hunks of food, everything else just goes in. The only thing we wash by hand is when the food has cooked on, like a pot used for oatmeal, or a spatula used to cook eggs. Otherwise, in it goes.

We also got a Bosch dishwasher with a concealed coil, so almost everything goes in: pots, cutting boards, tupperware, etc. The whole thing uses a maximum of five gallons a load, which, if you're using an aerated faucet, that's only two minutes of letting the water run.
posted by wnissen at 3:02 PM on November 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Non running wather method for doing dishes prevalent in my family:
Scrape any food off dishes, use paper kitchen towel to wipe any significant amount of fat out of pots/pans and bin said paper.
Stack dirty disches next to sink
Fill sink with hot soapy water
Do all dishes in water in sink starting with the cleanest (glasses/cups) and finishing with the dirtiest (normally greasy pots/pans/oven trays).
Either get somebody to dry as you go or if you're bothered by soapy residue be sure you're not using too much dish soap to start out with - if the last greasy item still is covered in lots of foam that's way too much. Stack clean dishces back next to sink. Drain sink, partially refill with clean water and rinse and then leave dishes to dry.
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:09 PM on November 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow! Thanks, MeFi!

So, for the folks who don't rinse before loading the DW, do you run the DW right away?

I'm very OCD about clean dishes... even the back side of dishes (the dirty backside is almost always stacked on the front side of another dish). And I worry about my nice pots and pans and good knives.

We go a couple of days between DW cycles and I worry about the caked on/dried stuff. We do have a relatively new Bosch DW - it came with the house.
posted by funfunfun at 3:09 PM on November 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't worry about dried on stuff at all, no, and I sometimes don't run my dishwasher for days. If you've got something that's come out of the oven with crap baked right into it, by all means scrub it off. But if it would have rinsed off under a tap without scrubbing, it will rehydrate and wash off in the dishwasher.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:15 PM on November 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

My water bill dropped by $30 a month as soon as the dishwasher was installed. I scrape off big things and creamy things (into the garbage, not the disposal unit in the sink.) The dishwasher has only left maybe three or four tiny crusty bits on my dishes in the last two months, plus exactly one extremely burnt-on bit of film on a single saucepan, which probably counts as a miracle because it took an enormous amount of scrubbing for me to get that burnt bit off by hand (easily 95% was removed by the dishwasher.)

Anyway, the thing cost me $600 and will pay for itself in less than two years even before you consider all the hand cream I was going through.
posted by SMPA at 3:33 PM on November 14, 2015

Here's the method my parents taught me for hand-washing dishes (which is what you should use for your pots & pans, knives, etc). I grew up in a house with a double sink; if you have only a single sink, you can supplement with one of those big sorta rectangular sink-shaped tubs, set on the counter next to the sink.

1. Fill one side of the sink half-full with hot soapy water. (This is what you'll use your tub for if you opted for the tub.)

2. Add items (which should already be emptied/scraped) to the hot soapy water sink.

3. Take one item from the soapy water and scrub it clean with a sponge or rag. You can use the hot soapy water to rinse your sponge/rag periodically, or rinse in running water from the tap if it gets particularly filthy.

4. It's generally best to wash in order of cleanest/most delicate to dirtiest/heaviest, so that dirtier items have longer to soak and more delicate items don't sit forever in water that is getting progressively nastier. You can do all of this in shifts if you have a TON of stuff, especially if you have both especially delicate and especially heavy things to wash. (Wine glasses vs. cast iron for example)

5. After your item is clean, use the other, empty, sink to rinse it with cold water. Only turn the water on to rinse. Do not leave it running.

6. Set the item on a dish rack, tea towel, or other preferred drying setup.

7. Move on to the next item out of the soapy water sink/tub.

I believe there's an alternate method where the second sink is filled with clean cold water rather than letting it run, but it seems to me that the dishes you rinse at the end won't get very clean using that method.
posted by Sara C. at 3:50 PM on November 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, for all those extolling the virtue of the dishwasher, please tell me you're not washing pots and knives in there...

To keep this relevant to the OP, while a dishwasher can be more water efficient, it will ruin your nice kitchen equipment (especially pots and knives, as I said). And it's probably worse for the environment for you to be constantly replacing kitchen things rather than simply using a bit of water to wash them properly.
posted by Sara C. at 3:54 PM on November 14, 2015

I may be unnecessarily worrying about my septic tank, but I've been taking breaks between piles of dishes just so that I don't overflow the system.

Don't worry about your septic tank overflowing. By design it is always full to the brim of the outlet. That's the way septic tanks work. When you turn on your faucet, that water runs into the septic tank and the same amount of water runs out of the septic tank into your drain field.
posted by JackFlash at 4:08 PM on November 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

I've been washing my pots in my dishwasher for about 15 years, and some of those pots my mother washed in her dishwasher for 30 years before that. No sign of having ruined them yet.

I do try to avoid washing my good knives in the dishwasher. But pots? All the time.
posted by jacquilynne at 4:12 PM on November 14, 2015 [6 favorites]

Also, for all those extolling the virtue of the dishwasher, please tell me you're not washing pots and knives in there...

I wash all of my pots (mostly stainless steel) in a dishwasher. The stainless steel pans have lasted about 10 years with no obvious degradation. I even clean them with oven cleaner every few years, which is quite a bit stronger than dishwasher detergent.
posted by saeculorum at 4:12 PM on November 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

Yeah here's another vote for no pre-rinsing and also throwing your pots and pans in the dishwasher. I've never seen any evidence this will harm your pots and pans. We also run our dishwasher every other day and the only caked on thing that doesn't come clean are the glasses we had smoothies in -- I think the banana really dries and sticks on. So I rinse those out.
posted by JenMarie at 4:54 PM on November 14, 2015

Things you generally shouldn't put in a dishwasher include:
  • Crystal glassware (it may cloud and/or etch);
  • Gold- or silver-trimmed china or glassware (it may delaminate);
  • Nonstick cookware (even the "dishwasher safe" stuff may get scratched by abrasives in your detergent, Ask Me How I Know);
  • Cast iron cookware (detergent will strip the seasoning; the dishwasher will induce rust);
  • Aluminum utensils, like ice cream scoops, potato ricers, etc (the detergent will react with the aluminum leaving an unpleasant mess);
  • Wood items, including cutting boards, utensils, knives with wooden handles (the soaking and swelling followed by heated drying is hell on the wood);
  • Knives (potential for rust and possible chemical reactions as with aluminum; also more practically they'll get knocked around and lose their edges);
  • Silver and silver-plate utensils (they may tarnish).
If it's not on that list, it should go in the dishwasher unscraped. So that's stuff like non-crystal glassware, stainless flatware and utensils, daily dishes, stainless cookware*, plastic utensils, etc. Note that some crystal glassware is advertised as dishwasher safe, any china that doesn't have metal trim should be dishwasher safe, and some dishwasher and detergent combinations may actually be able to wash crystal and/or metal-trimmed china without damage, but you'll need to read the care instructions for your dishes, the manual for your dishwasher, and the label on the detergent to be sure. For instance your dishwasher may have a china/crystal mode that stays at a safe temperature and water pressure to avoid damage, but you will have to do research on the things you actually own.

* In the old days my mom had cookware that didn't do well in the dishwasher because the handles were just screwed on and they'd come loose. If your cookware has handles that screw on, be wary of the dishwasher or keep a screwdriver in the kitchen.

If you ever have to take health department training to work in a restaurant kitchen you'll probably learn the three basin method for dishwashing - one for soapy water, one for rinse water, and one for a mild bleach solution to sterilize. In a home environment I always skip the bleach solution unless somebody's been sick, so that leaves you with two basins (this is also why houses used to have two basin sinks). Sadly most home kitchens have just a single big basin these days, so if that's you, put soapy water in a dishpan and wash everything in cleanest-to-dirtiest order as mentioned above, then you can either: (1) rinse in batches under running water to the side of your dishpan, only running the rinse water when you're out of basin to stack things or when you've got fragile stemware you don't want to risk dropping anything on (which is what I usually do) or (2) Stack all the clean-but-soapy dishes up and then dump the basin, fill it with clean water, and then swish all the soapy dishes in the rinse water.

Also never let go of a knife so it goes under water (because then you have to reach into the water to grab the knife, and what if you grab the sharp bit instead of the handle). So wash AND DRY knives first, then stemware, then any plates or utensils that can't go in the dishwasher, then the nonstick cookware, then the stuff that needs soaking. And don't wash non-enameled cast iron with soap and water, but I'm not gonna die on that hill right now.
posted by fedward at 8:19 PM on November 14, 2015 [4 favorites]

Another issue with septic systems is grease. It's bad for the system, so don't pour grease/oil down the drain.
posted by theora55 at 8:48 AM on November 15, 2015

I believe there's an alternate method where the second sink is filled with clean cold water rather than letting it run, but it seems to me that the dishes you rinse at the end won't get very clean using that method.

That is why soap exists. It emulsifies the fat and other crap, keeping it suspended in the water, such that even mildly "dirty" rinse water is not a problem. (The vast majority of the fats and such stay in the wash water anyway) My mom, and her mom before her used the two sink method without running water and the dishes were always clean. Probably cleaner than my running water method.

The dishwasher still uses less water, but the margin is much smaller with the tub method than with constantly running water.

And for what it's worth, I've lived in several places with septic systems and no dishwasher and never had a problem even with my profligate use of dish washing water. A top load washing machine dumps more water in than even a fairly long session of dish washing. I suppose that's part of the reason some people have their clothes washers drain their grey water onto the lawn instead of the septic tank. That leaves a lot of excess phosphorus around to run off into nearby streams or lakes, though.
posted by wierdo at 7:05 PM on November 15, 2015

We go a couple of days between DW cycles and I worry about the caked on/dried stuff.

A lot of the newer dishwashers (and probably some old ones) have a special cycle you can use to keep things moist in there without doing the full wash cycle for just this reason. Probably not worth using it unless you find that the full wash cycle isn't doing its job when things have dried out, but check your dishwasher's manual for more info.
posted by asperity at 8:34 AM on November 16, 2015

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