Find out which method is best for the environment, your dishes and your wallet.

Anyone who's ever watched a teenager (grudgingly) wash one fork at a time when it's their turn to do the dinner dishes has probably had the thought "I wonder if that's really the most efficient use of our resources." Actually, your first thought is probably, "How does the child manage to run the hot water continuously yet get the task done at such a glacial pace?" In any case, your suspicions that it's really not the best thing for the environment are borne out by research.

You might be surprised to learn that your dishwasher is more effective at saving you money and water than hand-washing. Research from the EPA's Energy Star Program found opting for an Energy Star-certified dishwasher instead of hand-washing can cut your utility bill by more than $100 a year.

Using your dishwasher isn't just saving you money—it's also saving water. The Energy Star Program research found using your dishwasher saves 7,000 gallons of water a year compared to washing dishes by hand. The National Resources Defense Council reports hand-washing uses up to 27 gallons per load, while dishwashers use approximately 3 gallons. And if you're using an energy-efficient appliance, you are helping cut back on greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.

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As far as we know, the researchers shed no light on how to get your family to load the dishwasher properly, start it when it's full and then put the clean dishes away without complaining about it. They will, however, boost water temperatures for more disinfecting power to get your dishes sparkling—even if they end up in "dish purgatory" for an extended period of time.

You can lower your carbon footprint even more—and save money—with these tips:

  • Scrape food off plates before loading the dishwasher, but don't pre-rinse.
  • Only run a full load and load it per the manufacturer's suggestions for maximum cleaning.
  • Turn down the temperature of your water heater to 120 degrees. (This is about halfway between the medium and low settings.) It will still provide hot water for your household without the risk of scalding—and save you money.
  • No dishwasher? Hand-wash dishes right away (you'll use less water when there's no stuck-on crud). Here are some tips for washing dishes correctly.
  • Take advantage of your dishwasher's energy-saving settings. If you own a newer model, your appliance will likely have an "eco" cycle that reduces energy and water consumption and use the no-heat air-dry cycle. If you have an older dishwasher model, you can skip the final cycle and open the door for a makeshift air-dry setting!