In Defense of "Inefficiency"

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Some time ago, I ran into a video about how to load a dishwasher, as well as advice on "How to Load and Run a Dishwasher for Efficiency and Ultimate Cleanliness". Both offer decent, but not incontestible, advice on how to use my favorite kitchen labor-saver. I'll toss in a couple of my own tips in a moment, but first things first...

Both posts have -- by reminding me of observations and past experience -- caused me to want to raise a question: "Efficiency? For whom, and by what measure?" When I visit other families, I almost invariably see an error that I myself used to make, and that the second LifeHacker post expicitly advocates:

Run only when full. First of all, your dishwasher, like many appliances in your home, is most efficient when it's full. Make sure to only run the dishwasher when you have enough dishes inside to make it worth the energy and the water that it'll use to clean them. Plus, you're not going to get your dishes cleaner by running the dishwasher empty, so don't bother... [bold in original]
So what happens when you host a gathering and you find, for example, that you have almost no clean glasses (but plenty of everything else), and a half-empty dishwasher? Most people seem to throw in the towel and hand-wash the glasses. This is fine if you need them right away, but what if you don't? You can easily waste ten or fifteen unreplaceable minutes of your time hand-washing them -- or you can waste a few cents' worth of detergent* and electricity by running the washer partially full. This may not be efficient from the point of view of the dishwasher, but whose life is it, anyway? You can buy more detergent and more electricity, but you'll never get that quarter-hour back. (That said, I do know a few people who actually enjoy washing dishes. If the activity doesn't preclude doing something else, like chatting -- or the relaxation/enjoyment overrides anything else you could be doing at the time -- go for it.) The Lifehacker article does leave open running a partially-empty washer, but it reads like it over-values water and detergent.

But while we're on the subject of efficiency -- for the owner of the machine -- let me explain a thing I do and a thing I don't do.

First, I disagree with both the common practice of having the business end of utensils up (unless it is unavoidable) and with the video advice of having some pointing up and some pointing down. Experience shows me that most modern washers can clean them quite well even when all are pointing down. The benefit of doing this (and training everyone else in your house to do so) is that you can just grab the contents of each bin with one hand, and simply sort them into the containers in your drawer. That speeds up unloading quite a bit. (Ditto for having plates of one size next to each other, contrary to the video.)

Second, although we have an infant in the house, I don't use racks for dish-washing baby bottles. Why? Loading and unloading these, at least for our brand of bottles, would take a comparable amount of time to just washing them by hand. On top of that, the bottles end up needing washing a couple of times a day versus the one time a day it is usually necessary to run the dishwasher -- which also takes a long time to finish a load. So I'd gain nothing in terms of time by using one -- and I'd have to use the washer more often or probably still end up hand-washing bottles anyway.

Efficiency is meaningless unless one asks "At what?", and "At what price?" Too often, with loading the dishwasher, people focus too much on a minor improvement for the machine at the expense of time, the ultimate non-renewable resource.

-- CAV

* As of this writing, 155 oz. of Cascade retails for $7.67. At 1.5 oz./load, this washes 103 loads, even if you fill the whole reservoir, which isn't always necessary. Minus electricity, the cost per load is about 7.5 cents. The electricity is pricier: you'll have to cough up a quarter! (But remember, you're only "wasting" part of this since, unless you write for LifeHacker, running an empty washer will never cross your mind.) By spending 15 minutes to save less than thirty-two cents, you are "earning" less than a buck-thirty per hour.


Steve D said...

'The benefit of doing this (and training everyone else in your house to do so) is that you can just grab the contents of each bin with one hand, and simply sort them into the containers in your drawer.'

It’s also more sanitary and you are less likely to stick the pointy end of the knife into your flesh! (It may be faster to sort them as they go into the dishwasher rather than when they come out but I’m not sure about that.

I also agree with your larger point; the real efficiency of any machine must be determined by the user’s overall priorities. However, even as a mere economic calculation it doesn’t make sense. The electricity and dishwasher soap I use to run the dishwasher cost much less than what I would make in 15 min.

Gus Van Horn said...


I also appreciate not getting my hands cut as I remove utensils. I usually just leave it at that on those rare occasions I ask guests to do that.

I have found that it's troublesome to sort them going in. Also, spoons tend to lay against each other, making them come out dirty. I think having mixed types of utensils in the bins buys cleaner ones and provides a quicker sorting step.