Machine Washing vs Hand Washing

Many people have posed the question during the Flats & Handwashing Challenge, year after year: am I saving money by hand-washing?

This is a full summary of the Open Topic Video I made for the 2019 Flats & Handwashing Challenge. You can also see a 12x speed timelapse of inside my washer side by side with me handwashing! I exclude drying because, in my circumstances, everything is line dried. I have no usable dryer. The time to hang the same number of diapers would be the same.

Not all circumstances are the same, of course. Far from it, really! Hand-washing seems valuable to the person trying to cut back costs on laundromats or trying to save on their utility bills. But am I really? So I did some math!

Disclaimer: I’m a stay at home mom with googled knowledge. I spent collectively 6 hours researching to bring this information together, and I am, by no means, perfect! I do believe, though, that this really does paint a good general picture.

Let me also preface by explaining what I’m comparing: my machine is a Kenmore 100 series 20232 toploader with agitator, whereas my hand-washing method involves the ever-popular Bucket-and-Plunger method. 

I am also assuming that 3 days worth of diapers produces a full load for my machine, and comparing that to hand-washing once a day. For younger babies, this is absolutely true. For my toddler, every 3 days produce loads that vary anywhere between half a load to a full load, depending on his drinking habits. I’m going to make the math simple and assume full load. When hand-washing, I never go longer than a day as to not overwhelm myself with multiple “loads”.

Naturally, your own machine may use substantially more or less water, as could your method of handwashing should you choose to do differently. I’d love to see YOUR comparisons, should you feel compelled to work it out. I hope this comparison also proves a handy guide to help you discover the numbers behind your circumstances! Let’s get started by comparing…


Water Consumption

My Machine: Machine specs, as you may see when shopping for a new machine, include Water Factor. This number testifies of the machine’s efficiency by displaying the amount of water, in gallons, per cubic foot of capacity that the machine uses in a cycle. The lower the number, the higher the efficiency. My machine was rated 6.5, which, when multiplied by the cubic feet of my machine (3.5), means that my machine uses approximately 22.75 gallons of water per cycle. To clean diapers, I need to run two full cycles (a normal, then a heavy duty), which comes out to approximately 45.5 gallons of water used to wash 3 full days worth of diapers. 

Hand-Washing: My method of handwashing involves approximately 4 steps: Prewash, Main Wash, Rinse, Rinse Again. When using the correct amount of detergent, I find two rinses all that’s necessary. Some people find handwashing suspiciously wasteful regarding water. One way I remedy this is by recycling the final rinse water as my prewash water. Diapers are stored right in the water (never leave them sit longer than 24 hours in water) and, since I use 3 gallons of water per “step”, this means I use approximately 9-12 gallons of water per day washing diapers.

The Difference: if I handwash diapers (12 gal), then recycle the final rinse water the next two days (9 gal), then in 3 days, handwashing would have used 30 gallons of water, 15.5 gallons less than the washer. I figured “well what about those times my toddler doesn’t use many diapers? Wouldn’t that mean my machine would be more efficient? But when I realized this evening as I hand-washed 8 diapers that I only used 6 gallons of water (recycled prewash, 2 gallons for each my main wash and two rinses), I then thought, proportionately, as long as I don’t accidentally overdo the detergent and excessively rinse, hand-washing will consume generally less water. You may notice that I’m not calculating how much that translates into a water bill… that’s because we are on well water, and I really have no idea how I’d calculate the electrical costs to pump the water required. *shrug* But seeing the amount of water used is still very useful information!


Detergent Consumption

My Machine: I think most people are quick to acknowledge that machines hog detergent compared to handwashing. It only makes sense when you think about it. Laundering works by means of 3 main components: mechanical (agitation), thermal (water temperature), and chemical (detergent). Having more of one factor may subsequently require less of another, and machines rely heavily on the laundry itself for most of it’s agitation, even with an agitator. Therefore, it’s no surprise we typically require far more detergent. I typically use Tide for it’s ability to clean efficiently and reliably. I measured out line 1 of liquid Tide, which is 1 ounce, so line 4 is 4 ounces, right? WRONG. Line 4 of tide is actually 2.5 fluid ounces. I measured these out because I typically use line 1 Tide in my first machine cycle, followed by line 4 Tide in my main wash cycle. This means I use collectively 3.5 fluid ounces of Tide every 3 days. The price of Tide Original (what I use) per ounce is 12 cents. This means my machine requires $0.42 worth of Tide to clean 3 days worth of diapers.

Hand-Washing: When my toddler was younger, I often needed about half a tablespoon of detergent to wash a day’s worth of diapers. Honestly, I can easily use a mere teaspoon now with cleaning power to spare, which is partly why I can get away more readily with using liquid Gain for handwashing. But sticking to the half a tablespoon of Tide per day (for the sake of consistency), which equates to 0.25 fl oz, means handwashing would require a mere 0.75 fluid ounce of detergent every 3 days, approximately $0.09 worth of Tide.

The Difference: Unsurprising to most, handwashing is far more conservative with detergent than machine washing, using only about 3 cents worth per day as opposed to the machine’s equivalent of 14 cents per day. In one year, I can expect to spend a little over $50 on Tide for my machine, but if I was dedicated enough to return to hand-washing every day, that amount would drop to a mere $11 in detergent.


Time Consumption

My Machine: I have timed each of the cycles on my machine, even though my basic washer doesn’t come with any fancy timers. I know a Normal Cycle on heavy soil (my “prewash”) takes 50 minutes, and a Heavy Duty Cycle on heavy soil (my “main wash” takes 55 minutes. This comes out to 1 hour and 45 minutes (1.75 hrs) of run time to wash 3 days worth of diapers. The beauty of an at-home machine, though, means I am only investing about a minute of my actual time filling the machine, adding detergent, adjusting the dials, and pushing a button, before moving on to other household duties. 

Hand-Washing: It’s quicker, but it’s not. I usually average about 15 minutes a day handwashing diapers. There are times I’m a bit faster, and there are times I’m a bit slower. It really depends on the amount of diapers, the level of soil, and if I used the proper amount of detergent. This means, every 3 days, diapers only take about 45 minutes to come clean. However, this is 45 solid minutes of my actual time. There is no going to wash dishes while I’m plunging poop from squares of fabric…

The Difference: As far as the general length of time required to get diapers clean, it’s over twice as fast for me to just handwash the diapers over the course of 3 days, and probably even quicker doing it assembly-line style for all 3 days in one haul like I’ve done in the past (not my preferred way, however). But, when push comes to shove, if I’m given the choice between spending 15 minutes a day handwashing or spending a minute every 3 days to push a button, guess which I’ll pick? Usually the button. And this is totally aside from my freak love of pushing buttons. So, so satisfying…


Energy Consumption

My Machine: A quick check of my machine’s specs gave me a kWh/year, but what on earth does that exactly mean? Based on general usage of how much? ARGH! What a confusing mess. So after some perusing, I realized it’d be quicker for me to do the math than to determine what the heck they consider “average usage”. To math this out, I discovered that I could figure out the wattage of my machine based on the Volts (120V) x Amps (15A) which meant my machine uses 1800 watts. I was then instructed that, to find the kWh (kilowatts per hour) my machine consumed, I needed to multiply the wattage by the number of hours of use, divide that by 1000, and boom, you discover how many kWh your machine uses. This is when my math from Time Consumption actually comes in handy! 1800W x 1.75 Hrs (the length of time my machine runs both full cycles) all divided by 1000 is 3.15 kWh. My current electricity rate is $0.075900 per kWh, so naturally, if you multiply the two, I’m given an energy cost of $0.2391, or $0.24 rounded for every 3 days of diaper laundry. This is $29.20 annually, for those interested!

Hand-Washing: It takes energy to handwash diapers, too! It just reflects in your grocery bill instead of your electric bill. Yes, I did math here, too. I tried to think of a wholesome, energy-providing, yet cheap food. The first thing I thought of: bananas! Here, bananas are $0.49/pound! I know that, in general, you burn about 10 calories (give or take) for every minute of cardio you do. So, on those days I power wash through diaper laundry in 15 minutes, I could be burning about 150 calories, right? How much is that in bananas? I looked up the caloric value of bananas and discovered you’d need to eat approximately 6.6 ounces of bananas to get to 150 calories! Breaking down the cost per ounce ($.49 divided by 16oz=$0.030625/oz) and multiplying it by the required number of ounces to get 150 calories, it would require $0.20 worth of bananas every day to wash diapers. That’s $73 worth of bananas annually… that’s a lot of bananas. Honestly, this was purely fun math. Yes, I know I’m weird.

The Difference: Let’s face it, I have enough fat stores to power hand-washing a year’s worth of diapers and still have reserve. The only thing more ridiculous than calculating the price of bananas required to meet the caloric needs of manual labor would be to compare bananas to the electricity bill… so I did! And for the record, I’d have to spend an extra $43.80 in bananas to cover the energy costs required to wash diapers compared to my machine’s electrical consumption costs. But I could stand to lose 100 pounds, so at least I can discount the need for bananas for the next several years, right? In reality, I’m just saving almost $30 a year just by opting to do it by hand.


Hot Water Energy Consumption

My Machine: Here’s the real sucker of energy costs. I wash my diapers hot. They just aren’t as “clean” when I wash them warm. This is over two years of perfecting my wash routine on this machine talking. I do my prewash warm, which my machine simply combines hot and cold water to create “warm”, but then my main wash is done with hot water. My machine only uses hot water for the wash, though, not the subsequent rinse. My machine rinses only with cold water. So, for lack of a better way of figuring it out, I figured the “washing stage” of my machine was about half the water consumed, about 11.375 gallons of water. Warm water would be made, I figure, by combining half hot and half cold. So my “PreWash” cycle would use approximately 5.69 (rounded) gallons of hot water, and my “Main Wash” would use 11.375 gallons of hot water, for a collective 17.065 gallons of hot water used. This really is speculation based on how both the internet and my manual detail the workings of my machine, but I’d like to say “close enough” to get a general picture. Using the Energy.gov website to determine what the energy cost would be with my model and specs, it revealed that my washer consumes about $32 per year in hot water.

Total Energy Costs (hot water and running the machine) at our current rate for washing diapers every 3 days comes to about $61.20 annually, or $5.10 per month.

Hand-Washing: As you may recall, I use about 3 gallons of water for each washing step. I prewash in cold (and it’s cold if it’s recycled water, too, of course), main wash in hot, then rinse twice in cold water. Each day, I use about 3 gallons of hot water to wash diapers. This equates to 9 gallons every 3 days, compared to my machine’s consumption of 17 gallons. Annually, the hot water to handwash diapers would cost us about $18.

Total Energy Costs (okay, I’ll nix the bananas and admit I was planning on eating whether I hand-washed diapers or not) Hand-Washing really just boils (heh) down to the water heater cost of about $18 annually, or $1.50 per month, at the cost of your time.

The Difference: It really lies in doing the labor manually versus paying the bit extra in the electric bill to use the washer. Machine washing uses almost twice the hot water as handwashing, elevating my bill by $1.17 a month. Opting to use elbow grease over pushing a button would save us about $3.60 a month in overall energy costs.


Overall…

In one year, washing diapers in my machine would consume over 5,535 gallons of water, consume maybe 2 hours of my time (pushing buttons, loading the machine, etc) and cost us about $112 in energy and detergent. Per month, this translates to 461 gallons of water, 10 minutes of time, and $9.33 in energy/detergent costs.

In one yearwashing diapers by hand would consume around 3,650 (ranges from 3,288-4,380) gallons of water, consume approximately 91 hours and 15 minutes of my time, and cost us only $29 in energy and detergent costs. Per month, this is about 304 gallons of water, 7.5 hours of time, and just $2.42 in energy/detergent costs.

So, in my circumstances, am I willing to work an extra 89 hours to save $83 a year? Not unless that almost $7 a month would make or break our finances, which it currently doesn’t. Thank God.

But I have hand-washed diapers (and regular laundry) before out of necessity. We have been in a situation where even just a dollar could make or break us. And for many people, these numbers have a far greater divide that make the effort more or less worth it.

I’m sure your head is spinning (well, mine is anyways). It has taken me almost 4 hours just to get this information into this post, double checking math as I go. Again, I’m not perfect, so feel free to comment if you believe you see an error! I hope this inspires some of you to “math it out” and share your results with everyone else! God Bless!

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