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Monday, January 5, 2009

A Modern John Henry Takes on the Dishwasher

The overwhelmingly positive response to my “Frugal Saint or Frugal Fanatic” post has prompted me to forgo modesty and reveal one of my other secret, but perhaps excessive, virtues: I wash dishes using fewer natural resources than anyone else in the world.

I’ve heard the argument from the pro-dishwasher camp: it uses less water than traditional hand washing, and is therefore more economical than washing by hand. I believe this argument is dangerously flawed because it ignores the whole picture to focus on a single component. Water itself is inexpensive and not very energy intensive. But the electricity one uses to power the dishwasher is, relatively speaking, substantial. So I may use 20 gallons washing dishes by hand, when the dishwasher can do it with 10, but the dishwasher will use .5 kilowatts of electricity, while I use none at all. So who comes out ahead?

In addition, how many people run the dishwasher when it’s not entirely full? We actually do have a dishwasher, and even run it occasionally, but only when it is absolutely full. In fact, I have a system for arranging dishes—based on cutting-edge string theory--that is so sophisticated that only I am allowed to do the loading. For a variety of sins, both venial (leaving more than ½ inch between plates) to mortal (placing cups upright), Ms. Dr. FS has been banned for life from loading dishes. Of course our children think that the proper place for dishes is on the nearest surface, so they are no threat.

In short, those who argue that they are saving water by using the dishwasher are sometimes correct, but they ignore the whole picture. Notice that I said “sometimes” correct; that’s because I can wash dishes with less water than even the most efficient mechanical dishwasher. I learned this skill when,, for five summers, I lived out in the woods on my family’s undeveloped land on the Oregon coast. During the first two we didn’t have a well, and since there wasn’t a road that went all the way to our ten acres, I had to hand-carry water in five gallon containers for all my needs. Five gallons of water weighs about 40 pounds, and that gets heavy very quickly. Even when we put in a hand-pumped well, getting water was fairly energy intensive.

So we developed a dishwashing system that employed four plastic buckets. The first was for the initial washing, and on down the line until the last for final rinsing. When the rinse bucket got even a little dirty it would be moved up a position, the first bucket would be emptied into the bushes, refilled with clean water, and returned to begin its life anew as the final rinse stage. The dishes might not have been sterile, but they were sure clean, and no one ever got sick or complained. And now that we actually have a generator, an electric pump, and a tank (made from a hot water heater scavenged from the town dump), we still stick to the old ways.

My techniques were refined during a stay at my parents’ house in southern California during one of the water shortages, during which we actually lowered their water consumption by half, in spite of having to wash our infant son’s cloth diapers. (No, not by hand; we’re not that fanatic.)

So now I use all of these accumulated skills when I do dishes at home, carefully monitoring the water volume, always shutting the water off when not in use, using successive rinses, etc. Does it save a huge amount of energy, or money? Probably not. But I’ll bet the discipline carries over to other activities, whether consciously or not. And anyway, it’s kinda fun!

1 comment:

Sonica said...
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