Earth Notes: Low-Carbon Efficient Dishwashing

Updated 2024-07-01.
Top tips on how to be green and lazy, save money and energy, and have sparkling dishes! #frugal #dishwashing #cutCarbon
This is not a masterclass. But I can tell you what has worked for us, a family of four. We have a not-very-smart mid-range slimline domestic dishwasher. This is what we have done for more than a decade.

Summary Questions and Answers

How do I eco-dishwash?

Run when the machine is full. Usually not at the hottest setting. Usually at night when grid demand and carbon intensity are low. (Or when you have full sun to cover most or all of the load, if you have solar PV.)

Why dishwash at 2am?

When electricity demand is highest the transmission system is under strain. And there may well be dirtier or higher-carbon fuels generating the electricity to run your dishwasher. In the UK peak is typically early evening 4pm to 7pm. Don't run anything that you can do without then, including the dishwasher! Conversely, if you can run the dishwasher in the wee hours, maybe 1am to 4am, less CO2 is likely to belched out to run your wash, in future maybe even zero when wind (etc) is meeting demand.

(Cold rinses take so little energy that you should probably do them when you need them, see below.)

Is a cold pre-rinse programme useful?

Yes, especially if it takes more than a day to fill the dishwasher. A pre-rinse helps stops food drying on and getting smelly. With a small amount of detergent/powder, especially with enzymes, it can be starting to lift and digest the residue for hours. A pre-rinse does use a little bit of water, but typically little electricity.

How much detergent should I use?

Start with the manufacturer's instructions. But if you have a slimline dishwasher and your loads are not very soiled then you may be able to trim the dishwasher detergent amount a bit, and save money and a knock-on effect on the environment. In particular, Mike Fell tweeted Bonus tip ... you can use half a tablet instead of a full one in a slimline dishwasher. For us as of 2021 the Ecotricity electricity for an eco wash (~0.73kWh) is ~20p and an Ecover all-in-one dishwasher tablet is also ~20p: the half-tablet trick saves me 10p/25%! It works well here.

When did 16WW start to eco-dishwash?

Since at least November 2009, through three dishwashers!


The basics are very simple:

These steps save us a big chunk of energy consumption per day and per load. As of 2009 (with the DW24) we were using 0.86kWh instead of 1.27kWh per load by following the last two steps. I was using 'Quickwash' at 65°C in the DW24, that was too ancient to have cooler washes. Newer machines have an "ECO" 50°C cycle that does the job efficiently. In 2021 we are down to 0.73kWh for an eco wash in the Electra C1845W.

You probably can't use water much above 45°C for hand-washing. So anything hotter than that in the dishwasher is likely to give a better wash, and kill more bugs...

Before Loading Up...

dishwasher full

Before putting the plates, pans, etc, in:

Rinsing dishes under a tap is probably unnecessary and wasteful of water. The wash programme on our ancient (Zanussi DW-24 slimline) dishwasher that I normally used ('heavy soil') starts with a prewash (essentially a cold rinse with some detergent). That is followed by a full hot wash, hot rinse and thermal dry.

Instead maybe:

A cold rinse can get a lot of dirt off the dishes and uses virtually no energy. I can't even measure the consumption on my plug-in meter. So it's way less than making a cup of tea, and no more than a few percent of the full wash. If you are in an area short of water then you may skip this step. In rainy London I sometimes go wild and do a rinse in the morning to get the milk/porridge/etc off the breakfast dishes. Then again in the evening and empty the filter before the main wash!

For extra greeny points (and possibly extra savings depending on your tariff):

dishwasher slimline domestic Zanussi ZDS2010 full open after wash steaming 1 DHD

Also, I like to alternate large and small plates in the dishwasher, to avoid big ones pressing together and getting insufficient water flow to get them fully clean.

Maybe once per week, or if the machine seems to be clogging up or ineffective, or for/after a particularly greasy or dirty load:

2020: I may reduce maintenance washes to once per month in winter, eg on particularly sunny days where our PV can carry at least half the load.

If you are in the market for a new dishwasher, eg because yours is beyond repair:

There's a lot of speculation on the IntarWebs either way. But it seems likely that if you follow the steps above then you may have a lower environmental impact than washing by hand, while saving money and a dull chore...

'Eco'/Zero-Phosphate Dishwasher Detergents

The complex phosphates in older/cheap dishwasher detergents did a good job of cleaning. But they come from a diminishing resource. They are also difficult to remove at wastewater treatment plants. They cause algal growth and oxygen depletion in rivers and lakes, to the extent that some places have banned their use.

'Green' or 'eco-friendly' dishwasher detergents may be labelled as such for a number of reasons. They may work well at lower temperatures, saving energy, And for being 'zero-phosphate'.

As of 2021 we are using entirely Ecover dishwasher tablets. We get good results and as far as I know they are phosphate free. Ecover tablet instructions claim that they are most effective at 50°C.

As of 2023 we have switched to OceanSaver 'EcoTabs' since Tesco (and others) stopped stocking the Ecover product. These tablets are physically smaller (maybe 50% the volume of an Ecover tablet) and come in a self-dissolving wrapper (no plastic to hope-cycle). These claim to have salt and rinse-aid built in, and encourage use of low temperature washing cycles. As of the last half tablet of Ecover was used, in a 50°C 'ECO' wash, mainly avoiding grid power.