How to Wash Dishes (with Very Little Water!)




About: I like to experiment in the kitchen, challenging myself to create tasty, healthy, fast, gluten/dairy and mainly sugar free concoctions.

Growing up in a house with a dishwasher taught me nothing about how to wash dishes. By the time I was out on my own as a poor student, dishwashers were not apart of my vocabulary.

So you're asking yourself: What could be hard - you have a dirty dish, you wash it with soap and water and then dry it. Simple right? Wrong. Everyone has their own way to do it and no one ever shows you why they do it that way.

When I lived in a camper van, we had the luxury of running water but it was a limited supply of cold fresh water. With this I had to learn how to do dishes more efficiently, without hot water and with minimal water wastage.

This technique (minus the lack of hot water) is still what I use and find it saves time and effort overall. It is great to use in camping situations or areas where water is limited.

Step 1: Materials and Preparation

To wash dishes, you'll need:

  • Dirty dishes
  • A good sponge (with a scrubby side)
  • Some dish soap (biodegradable, if possible)
  • Water (warm, if possible)
  • Drying rack or drying towel

Dirty Dish Handling:

I prefer to wash dishes in batches instead of right after using them. You can use the technique either way but if you like to wait to wash dishes then I suggest the following practice to make your life easier when you get around to wash dishes. Based on your situation/preference you can do the following:

  • Water available: Quickly rinse your dish/bowl/cup after using it (to reduce the chance of food getting dried. In greasy casserole pans, soaking for a short time with a drop of soap is suggested
  • Water not available: If you've eaten a sauce/soup or something messy, then use a paper towel and wipe down your bowl getting most of it off. Licking it clean is also another option.

The goal here is to just reduce the amount of food which will get dried on and become difficult to remove - this will save you time later.

Dish preparation:

Before starting to wash dishes I group and stack similar dishes together (i.e all the same plates, then bowls, then all the cutlery together in a bowl or cup etc) because it often means they go on the drying rack more easily and you can fit more.

Step 2: Basic Technique

In a situation such as camping where I am very much trying to conserve water, I find the biggest and dirtiest dish I have in the batch and do it last. It is usually a pot. The trick though is to put it under the water source so it catches all the soapy rinse water and it can have time to soak.

The basic premise of the method is outlined below, but in the next steps of the instructable you will find some helpful info to make the technique really efficient.

Perform parts 1-4 below in small batches of similar types dishes. Start with cleaner dishes like glasses/mugs then, plates, cups and bowls, cutlery and finally your pots, pans and awkward sized dishes.

Part 1 - Water on:

Briefly wet the sponge and the few dishes you intend to start with (using as little water as is possible)

Part 2 - Water off:

Squeeze out wet sponge until damp, apply soap to sponge, and give it a few more squeezes until it becomes foamy.

Use sponge to wash your dishes (if you have a lot to do you might do this in smaller batches, leaving especially dirty dishes and pots and pans for last).

Stack soapy clean dishes off to the side on the counter.

Part 3 - Water on:

After developing a stack of clean soapy dishes. Rinse soapy dishes systematically. Each dish can be run under rinse water from one side to another (e.g. left to right), flipped over and then run under water the other way (e.g. right to left), flipped once more to catch any straggling suds. Turn off water.

Part 4 - Water off:

Place dish on drying rack, or use stack and dish towel to dry once finishing the batch. Return to part 3 for the next soapy dish.

Repeat as needed for the next batch

Pro efficiency tip:

Bring the NEXT soapy dish to the water with one hand while moving the newly rinsed dish to the drying rack with your other hand in one simultaneous motion. You can then leave the water running as you rinse.

Step 3: Navigate the Common Problems

Over the years I've seen lots of people do dishes, or I've done dishes at other peoples houses and noticed there are a few problems that I've notice show up more often then others.

  • Problem 1: You have/leave soap on your dishes.
    Not rinsing dishes properly (or at all) - is not advised. I've seen this done to save water, but even though the soap suds will look like they've gone by the time it dries, when you didn't rinse it, you WILL be eating soap when you eat off that dish. This may also mean you tried to rinse using your dish water, this too is not a great practice as it's usually dirty, greasy water water.
    • How to fix this: Use a very light stream of water and systematically rinse the dish from one side to another, on both sides.
  • Problem 2: Your sponge STINKS!
    If your sponge stinks, it will make your hands stinky, and goodness knows what is in it that you're rubbing all over your dishes. It is understandable that over time you will need a new sponge, but I've seen this happen to a new sponge after a week (with a house on well water) - BUT there are ways to make it last much longer.
    • How to fix this: The best way I've seen to fix this is to put it in a boiling pot of water for 3-5 water. (Be careful it is usually HOT when you remove it). The bacteria will be killed and you can continue to use it.
    • How to prevent it: The reason the sponge sinks is because it was left, usually in the sink, to get soaking wet, every few hours when the water gets turned on. Moisture and water = bacteria growth which means it will smell over time. To avoid this make sure you squeeze out the water sponge between uses and let it dry - this will reduce the chance for bacteria to grow!
  • Problem 3: You almost cut your finger!
    The "fill the sink with water" technique and then wash dishes is almost inevitably hard for handling cutlery. Often someone else will drop off some dishes and possibly put a sharp knife in the water, and without knowing you might plunge your hand into the sink looking for the next thing to wash and could seriously hurt yourself.
    • How to fix this: The best practice is to wash knives right after you use them - it not only keeps them sharper (since they don't sit dirty or in water for long periods) but you then know you are always safe from knives.
    • How to prevent this: Use the washing technique shown in the previous step and wash with minimal water. By not filling the sink you can help ensure you can see what grabbing and avoid reaching at sharp things unsuspectingly.

Step 4: Tips and Tricks

Some key tips and tricks to make this system really quick and easy.

To conserve water: Turn down your tap! You can moderate your water usage just by paying attention to how strongly the water is flowing out. The slower it is the more water you will conserve, and this washing technique works great with low flow rinse water.

Conserve soap: Don't add water to your sponge - add water to your dishes instead. Every time you put water on your soapy sponge you just wash away the soap. Put a little dab of soap on the sponge and, if not already wet, a little bit of water, and away you go. You might need to put a little more soap on half way through but you save so much soap overall and reduce how much goes into the water system.

Order matters: wash cleanest to dirtiest. Here is a suggested order: Drinking glasses, (since your sponge will be relatively clean and not yet greasy), Mugs/cups, Sharp knives, Dishware (plates and bowls), cutlery, cooking utensils, pots/pans and casserole dishes. This is a good suggestion, but you might develop your own order - the trick is to go from clean to dirty and catch all the soapy rinse water in some of your most dirty dishes so they have time to soak while you wash everything else.

Water temperature: can be important, but not for everything. Warm water is more pleasant to use and helps things move faster but most dishes will actually wash fine with room temperature or even cold water if that is all that is available. However, if your dishes are particularly oily or greasy it may be hard to wash them well without warm water. When the type of fat/grease is animal based in particular, cold water will usually not work. To try to reduce your work you can wipe down excess fat, oil, grease with a paper towel first (as much as possible) before putting any water on it. Next add a little soap directly to that dish and then let water be added as you go.

These are just some things I've found handy - feel free to share your tips too!



    • Trash to Treasure

      Trash to Treasure
    • Organization Contest

      Organization Contest
    • Weaving Challenge

      Weaving Challenge

    16 Discussions

    Could I suggest using a washable cloth, rather than paper towels, for the initial wipe of the dirty dishes. I'm not sure how well it would work but it might be more environmentally sound than using a single use item.

    4 replies

    Reply 3 years ago

    J-Cloth :) Easy to rinse out and dries quickly. Paper towels can always be composted, though, or burned if they're greasy...

    I'm definitely a fan of dish cloths. They can be made of anything, though I find that a medium weight terry towel is best for dish washing. It can be used both to wipe food from dishes before washing, and then for the washing. I plug the sink to hold the water while I rinse, and so after the dishes are rinse, the dish towel can be washed. It doesn't have to be rinsed every time, just have the food particles dislodged. Once a day, it can be sanitized in the microwave or with boiling water.

    Sponges are OK, but a terry towel really holds water well, and makes a short job of cleaning. To me, they seem to remove grease more easily than a sponge.


    3 years ago on Introduction

    Stinky sponge could be cured be preparing the foam (using few drops of detergent with water) and then microwawe the sponge for a 20 seconds (let the sponge cool down after microwawing it!). This will make yummy hot bacterial/detergent soup which could be cleaned under running water.


    3 years ago on Introduction

    Damp cloths and sponges in a microwave oven for at least 2 minutes will also kill just about anything, and so reduce the stink, and be more hygienic.


    3 years ago on Introduction

    this is good. I had not thought about how much water I use. I burn a lot of pans, I just walk away and forget. or some foods stick. I find that If I boil water and dish wash soap , then turn off the heat and leave it overnight, it washes up fine the next morning. So, thanks for making me aware of how much water I might be wasting while hand washing dishes! I till think about that in the future!


    3 years ago on Introduction

    Most efficient way to save water is using an electrical dish washer. Really. They have come to be so efficient, both regarding electrical energy and water use, that no human can beat this.

    Imagine you'd need to wash all plates, cutlery and glasses after a 12 seat dinner. How many gallons of water do you think you'll use? A modern dishwasher would get away with two gallons for everything - you'd need more for just rinsing the plates. And it does an exquisite job - have used one (moved out from that location, will need to get a new one), never had any problems.

    You'd still need to wash certain things manually - wooden boards, knives, non-stick pans etc. - since electrical dishwashers use a highly corrosive soap and very hot water, which damages blades, non-stick coatings and wood. But you'd wash a lot less manually.


    3 years ago on Introduction

    I have a system, which I don't feel like going into exhaustive detail here. I usually start with the big stuff, pots, pans, mixing bowls, etc., irrespective of how dirty they are. They are klunky and in the way, I want them out of the way. I will wash pots and hang them to drip dry on my pot rack (see instructable).

    Next is silverware, because it is such a time consuming pain. I don't worry about knives. The trick is to be gentle when you reach in to grab something. I have only cut myself a couple of times and never severely.

    Once silverware is done, it's all downhill from there.

    Regarding water and soaking, there are few things that really need to soak. Most stuff, you can just get wet, i.e. filmed with water, and leave them sit and the surface water is enough to do the job. Some starchy stuff, like pasta may need a bit of a soak. Certain breakfast cereals, if left to sit, can set up like concrete and require soaking. Cheese can be tricky, soak it too much and you end up smearing it all over whatever you are trying to wash. I also like to use a brush to remove larger messes, before getting to the scrubbing portion of the program.

    Perhaps my biggest tip is get a spray bottle and fill it with a mix of about one part dish soap to five parts of water. Then you can spray it on your sponge (I don't use sponges, myself, because of the bacteria thing) and get to scrubbing. The spray bottle thing is useful if you live with roommates, makes it more convenient for individuals to wash their own stuff.

    1 reply

    Reply 3 years ago on Introduction

    Whenever I have something that needs soaking (which is close to never - but only close, since I sometimes start doing multiple things at once, ending up in fried herbs tea, for example), I spread something like this [] over the spot that would need soaking, let it stay for half an hour or so, and then it comes off easily. Soaking seldomly has the same effect.

    If it's dried cereals, usually wetting the bowls before starting to wash other dishes, then washing them last is enough soaking.


    3 years ago on Introduction

    To prevent the sponge from stinking or from developing bacteria, just leave it with the dish washing soap in it - i.e. don't rinse it after having spread soap on the dishes, rinse it before. Most dish washer soaps these days are anti-bacterial, so leaving the sponge soaked with it will prevent bacteria growth.


    3 years ago on Introduction

    I use Bronner's soap because it takes very little water to rinse it and it rinses cleanly. Dirt definitely sticks to detergent but detergent sticks to everything. So it's either use a great deal of water to rinse it off or leave the chemicals on dishes and in clothes. Sometimes I have to use "Dawn", but before I rinse, I wash off the Dawn off with the Bronner's, ROFL!

    And I use Kirk's, which also rinses easily, in the shower and for shampoo and vinegar as conditioner. Makes for a super fast shower. And between showers, I wash with coconut oil which easily rinses out of fabric and doesn't clog the drains.

    1 reply

    I don't do these things to save water - I do them because I really, REALLY dislike the feel of what passes for "soap" these days, on my skin. The water savings was a happy by-product of that.


    3 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks - I've done as you described since camping days.

    2 tips: A 10" square (or so) of nylon netting makes a perfect scrubber as it won't scratch anything and particles can be shaken out afterwards. When it gets limp or overloaded, it can be discarded.

    One can sterilize a sponge by microwaving it for about 1 minute. Load with a bit of soap and water, and make a lather first. Squeeze out afterwards (once cool enough) and dry it. Exposing a sponge to the sunlight also removed funky odors.