Mother Earth Living

The Kitchen, Unplugged: Elbow Grease vs. Kitchen Appliances

Are appliances or elbow grease the most efficient means of accomplishing your kitchen tasks?
By Misty M. Lees
September/October 2004
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The kitchen is a home’s most appliance-intensive area, next to the utility room or laundry. Add all the mixers, cookers, and other little contraptions to the larger appliances—the fridge, range, and dishwasher—and the kitchen wins the outlet-plugging contest, hands down. Personally, I loathe most of the gizmos available to the average home cook, choosing instead to rely upon cast-iron skillets and beat-up saucepans. Yet I wonder if some modern-day doodads might be truly worthwhile in the effort to save electricity or water. So I decided to evaluate common kitchen gadgets for natural resource consumption.

Back to the kitchen. I own the basics—a microwave, a blender, a toaster. I never use the toaster unless I have company, but I find the blender indispensable. And then there is one splurge: the bread machine (I adore freshly baked bread). Can I justify its presence by the two loaves a week it produces?

Bread Machine vs. Oven

It seems intuitive that a small bread machine would use less energy and waste less heat than the oven to bake one loaf. The bread machine uses about 430 watts for each hour of baking; rising periods use negligible wattage, so it operates for 2.5 hours after subtracting dough-kneading time. The two kilowatt oven, on the other hand, requires that I bake for one hour at 350 degrees.

BREAD MACHINE: 430 v 1,000 kW x 2.5 hours = 1.075 kWh
OVEN: 2 kW x 1 hour = 2 kWh

Verdict: The bread maker wins by a thick slice. Preheating the oven further widens the disparity in favor of the countertop bakery. But the machine makes only one loaf at a time. If I were to skip preheating, put several loaves at a time in the oven, and turn it off five minutes before done, electricity use for the two might be similar.

Microwave vs. Oven

Microwaves compete well with ovens, too. Two baked potatoes take 7.5 minutes in my microwave but require an hour in the oven.

MICROWAVE: .7 kW x .125 hours = .0875 kWh
OVEN: 2 kW x 1 hour = 2 kWh

Verdict: The microwave excels for baked potatoes or other small items. Reheating last night’s casserole in the microwave could take less than half the kilowatt hours of an oven. Obviously, microwaves don’t brown, roast, or broil—but for cooking small portions, they’re tops.

Dishwasher vs. Sink

Still, there’s one electrical appliance that has me baffled: the dishwasher. It’s won widespread applause for its ability to cut back on water consumption. I’m completely intrigued by this claim. Can it save enough water to make the energy use worthwhile?

For seventeen years, the only dishwasher I had was the human variety, so I became something of a dishwashing expert. I would fill the sink to the level needed, transfer the soapy dishes to the drainer, then rinse batches using the sprayer attachment so I wouldn’t have to squander running water. I’ve also reused the dishwater in my garden. What could be more environmentally friendly?

My sink holds about 5 gallons. According to the owner’s manual, the dishwasher uses 5.8 for a “light” load, my usual choice. (A “heavy” load uses 9.8 gallons.) I used to hand wash dishes every night, but now I run the dishwasher just twice a week. Prerinsing isn’t necessary.

SINK: 5 gallons x 7 nights per week = 35 gallons per week (not including spray rinsing)
DISHWASHER: 5.8 gallons x 2 nights per week = 11.6 gallons per week

Verdict: The sink loses the water war by a tsunami. But what about the electricity consumed? Because I run the dishwasher only two nights out of seven, I save at least a third of the hot water I’d use in the sink—and a third of the energy needed to heat it. Another victory for the dishwasher.

One more step: I should factor in the kilowatt hours to run the appliance.

DISHWASHER: 1.2 kW x .83 hours (50 minutes) = .996 kWh

While it isn’t in the ranks of energy guzzlers like a clothes dryer, the dishwasher uses a fair amount of electricity—enough that it’s usually classified as a “major” appliance.

Kitchen appliance decisions aren’t always easy. It’s possible that a few wisely chosen electronics might be valuable if you frequently cook small quantities of a particular item. And there’s at least one more major consideration. Every new appliance requires resources—materials, energy, water, labeling, packaging, and shipping—which might negate the benefits altogether. Then, when the gadget is used up, it’s tossed into a landfill. All these wattage calculations and gallons saved disregard the essential mindfulness I should have for the world environment—a much bigger place than my house. When I look at it, I calculate it this way:

My hands, a sink, and soap

Lifespan: 70 years (I hope)
Verdict: There’s nothing like the tried and true.

See the image gallery for a chart on the energy consumption of your kitchen appliances.


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